It had to happen someday. Given the number of animals we have in our household, at least one shared funeral was inevitable. This one however, defied any probability equation: 4 fish, Nick the Guinea Pig, and Bella – our beloved dog of 15 years.
What a fucking week.
I knew Bella was on her way out almost a year ago. She was heading into her 15th year, survived a hospitalization from pancreatitis, and weathered the loss of Terry with all of us. She slept most of the day, took more and more time to get up. I doted on her, cuddling and kissing her, speaking into her almost entirely deaf ears about how much we loved her.
“Its OK to leave, we’ll be OK. Whenever you’re ready.”
I was painfully aware of how important it was to have another dog around before she passed. We live in a neighborhood where indoor/outdoor cats without a dog around to scent their property don’t live very long. Our neighbors lost their 14 year old dog to age related issues, then their 10 year old cat to coyotes just days later. Tigey and Lilly, as stealthy as they are, wouldn’t survive long without a dog on the property. It was time for a new dog.
I’d always wanted a German Shepherd (GSD), but this was to be Truly’s dog. She’d been asking for a puppy for years. She wanted a Husky, so that is what we were looking for. Husky would have been in my top choices, so it was easy to say yes. Slowly, with adult patience (or was it avoidance) I checked the SPCA and other sites every few days. At least that’s how it went until Truly learned that she could search Craigslist for dogs. She did that every 5 minutes, every day, for two weeks.
“Hey Dad look – a new litter!”
“Honey thats in Portland.”
“Is that far away?”
“Yes, and they’re $800, we can’t afford that.”
December 23rd she found a new litter of GSD puppies just south of town. Two sisters in their ’70’s were offering them first come first serve. True would have her new puppy, I would get a GSD, all on Christmas Eve. I think the sisters had spent their whole lives on that ranch. This was not their first GSD litter. Mom and Dad were big – Mom at 70+ lbs, Dad at 110 -120. Our little girl was the most playful one, the first who ran up to us, stumbling across my boots. We would pick her up the next day.
This was not Bella’s idea of a Christmas present. She enjoyed Dandelion Rose (as True dubbed her) for a few minutes, before growling and hunkering down. Wags then snarls, it went this way for a month. Bella’s food improved, Dandelion was used to boiled chicken breast, so Bella’s diet was upgraded. But she also got into the puppy chow a few times, which was too much for her system. She started to drift away from her food. My days and nights were filled with cleaning up vomit and trying to limit Dandelion’s impact on Bella. I was already sleep deprived, getting up to let the puppy out to pee twice nightly and then at 4am to start our day. With Bella’s failing health, sleep became a rarity. A trip to the vet revealed that a blood disorder likely lead to cancer and destroyed her liver. Her life would now be measured in days, not seasons. The feeling of being a walking train wreck when Terry was ill started to return to me. Just a hint, just a reminder of how bad things can get. Bella was ready though, it wouldn’t be long.
It was in her eyes one day, when I was coaxing her inside. “I’m tired,” they said. It’s now, I thought. Now is the time.
I learned from Terry that after a long illness it can feel like the person’s spirit has already mostly moved over to the otherside, even though they’re still here and talking to you. Some part of us knows that our time has come. Bella spent her last few nights waking me up two or three times to let her out. She’d stopped eating, no more vomiting, but still she wanted out. Those nights were in the teens or single digits, many had blizzard conditions. She wandered as far back on our acre of land as she could, hunkering down in the snow to wait for death to come. She was already mostly gone and she knew it. I made arrangements with the vet to euthanize her on Thursday, I couldn’t let her freeze to death. I don’t think I was right, I think her way may have been best. I just couldn’t live with myself if I let her die alone in the cold. I was too worn down at that point to spend the night with her outside in the snow until she died. I hold up too much each day to put my body through that.
Truly’s timing in finding Dandelion couldn’t have been better. It wasn’t too soon for Bella, Dandelion would be heavy enough that Coyotes wouldn’t bother with her after Bella passed. The cats would survive, Bella would finally have her peace, and we would all have Dandelion to latch onto. True took the Wednesday off before the vet visit. We grieved Bella together all day. “I’m going to miss Bella so much. I love her!” she sobbed. We bought a stuffed animal that looked like Bella. True put a small collar on it, we would attach Bella’s tags when she passed.
Bella waited outside by the back door all day on Thursday, as if she knew the doctor would be there soon. Storms had been moving through the area. It was dry, in the forties, but heavy grey clouds and a strong wind filled the sky. I held her. Two shots, it was over within a minute. Her weight fell into me, her head sagged. I let Dandelion out to see her. She yelped and whimpered, nudging her foster mothers head until she understood it wouldn’t move again. I held Dandelion and rocked her until she finally calmed down, stopped whimpering, and then became a playful puppy again, frolicking in the yard.
Taking up her body, I was able to spend time making sure Bella’s spirit moved over easily. She didn’t need it, but it was good to feel the spirits who welcomed her. I rocked her body and rattled as a pathway opened up to the South. She was soft, cold but still familiar. The pathway felt different than it usually does when I perform psychopomp work. Rather than hearing the crashing of waves coming from above me as usually happens, I felt a physical push from so many spirits showing up. I even felt Terry for a moment. Bella’s remaining essence moved toward the crowd of spirits just beyond the edge of this world. What a beautiful light. After a time, now rocking her just for me, I slid her into the bag the vet left, carried her to the back of the car and headed into the vets office to drop the body off for cremation.
What did I feel? Just the beginning of a yearning. Bella is in every part of our lives.
I added her dog tag to Trues new stuffed animal, now forever Bella The Stuffy. She and Tadg both said their goodbyes to Bella on Thursday morning in the car. Truly insisted that we all take one last walk together in the park before school. Bella had a burst of energy, was able to walk twenty or thirty feet and wagged all the way. That will be True’s memory of her. Tadg hugged her and spoke quietly to her before getting on the bus.
We were waiting for Bella’s ashes to come to hold a ceremony out by Terry’s sister-stone, there would be time to grieve. That was when I got the brilliant idea to clean out the fish tank, something I have not done in over a year. Everything went fine – after about 45 minutes of mess and struggle. I took all the regular precautions. All the fish looked happy when we got them back in the crystal clear water.
Next morning: “Papa the fish are dead!”
Technically not all of the fish were dead, just the small ones. That left two fish alive. But yes, Papa had probably killed the fish that before today never had names but today certainly had names and were the most important members of our family.
“Waffle is dead! Tadg, come see, the fish are dead!”
Tadg had let go of ownership of the fish long ago. They were his quarantine pet, True’s was our second Guinea Pig Nick (more on him later.) Tadg showed mild interest on his way to the fridge for a snack. True was crying without holding back.
“Now the fish are dead! I MISS OUR FISH!”
Yes I bought new fish. No they did not all survive. The tank seems to have equalized. The new snails we got are doing great. Letting go of the fish thing for now. That was on Sunday. Bella’s ashes arrived back home on Wednesday. It was Thursday, a week after her passing that I returned home from picking Tadg up at the bus stop to find Truly cuddling our male Guinea Pig Nick. She was all tears, he was panting and barely moving.
“NICK IS DYING!” Fuck. Yes it looked like Nick was clearly on his way out.
“What happened honey?”
“I don’t know, I just looked in the cage and he was laying down and breathing hard. I’ve been doing CPR on him.” She demonstrated by pushing rhythmically on Nicks little, panting chest.
“Lets take him inside and sit with him. I think the best thing for you to do is to hold him for now.”
She held Nick and I held her. Five minutes later Nick was gone. Fuck.
This was the most brutal week for Truly since Terry died. I didn’t tell Truly but I think Dandelions barking near the cage, and a few instances of a friend leaving the cage open, upped Nicks stress to the point where he stopped eating. Our older Guinea Pig Pip had taken to hoarding her food in the back of the cage, something she’d never done. Nick was always the more sensitive of the two. Truly cried for 20 minutes solid until her coping strategy turned to replacing Nick.
“We have to get Pip new friends! We need new Guinea Pigs.”
“Honey we have to make sure that Nick didn’t have a disease. Lets give it some time. We have to totally scrub out the cage, clean everything top to bottom too.”
Are we cursed? The spirits say no. My intuition tells me this was a shakedown before a big change. Maybe a bigger death? Maybe a life change? Something is coming. Not sure what it is yet. Time will certainly tell.
All of this led us to this moment; the three of us standing by a hole freshly dug in the footprint of Terry’s sister stone. I needed a weight to cover Nick’s body through the winter, so Dandelion or other critters would not dig him up. I flipped the stone over and dug into the hard, cold soil. We lay the fish and Nick down, and poured a small amount of Bella’s ashes in a circle around them. We’ll take the rest to the Ocean soon, Bella’s favorite place on Earth.
True curled up on the ground beside the hole and cried quietly over the recently departed. Tadg moved a little uncomfortably at the edge of our ritual, something he did when Terry was buried. I rattled, inviting helping spirits to join us. I called out to all the animals who have been a part of our lives. I asked them to guide our hearts in caring for the animals in our lives, to love them more deeply.
I encouraged them both to share their memories of the animal family members before us. True was too sad, Tadg just said a quiet “no thanks.” I guess Dog Fish Guinea Pig funerals lay solely within the domain of fatherhood.
“Tadg, I remember you asked for fish during quarantine. It seemed so important to you.”
“I think fish help us all to feel calm and remember how beautiful life is, even in hard times. And True we all know how important Nick has been to you. I remember we got him so Pip wouldn’t be lonely.”
A quiet nod.
“Bella has been with us for so long. She was with us before True. I remember the day we brought her home with little Tadg in the back seat. She was with us when Momma died and when we left Lavender Hill. She carried us through all of that. I can’t really believe she’s gone.”
Doesn’t this little circle of pets say everything? We come to this Earth in beauty, we pass in beauty. We are all connected, here to revere each other as sacred even as we struggle with loss. That little burial group was the most beautiful, tender thing I’d seen in years. True and I carefully placed the dirt I dug up into the hole, smoothing it over. I rattled again, thanking the spirits and asking them to stay with us as we mourned the loss of our beloved pets.
I carefully rolled Terry’s stone over our hole, making sure it was positioned so that no animal could dig down to where the bodies and ashes were. It felt right to add them to this space for Terry. Each of our connections to all of those who have passed on feel stronger. I hope the kids will visit here from time to time, not just to talk to Terry but now the animals as well.
I am still very tired. Dandelion is settling in, doesn’t need to be let out to pee at night. But True has been in a delicate place. She gets scared at night, wants to be held. Dandelion is happy to cuddle with her, now almost as long as Truly’s body. True drinks in deeply the comfort of sleeping with animals, something my ancestors did for eons. What a blessed gift they are to us.
Blessings to you and yours during this time of great change.