Lesson 67: Dogs Dance with Life and Death

An excerpt from Dogs Don't Bite When a Growl Will Do

"Death where is thy sting... life where is my ball?" This seemed to be the way that she was thinking on the very last day of life for Mo's Better Blue (a.k.a. Blue, Bluebell, Bluzer van Duzer, Monkey, and Little Pumpkin). Blue never stopped living, right up until the very end of her life.

In the late hours of an August afternoon, on the day that Blue was diagnosed with an inoperable nasal carcinoma, my wife and I were crying and grieving in anticipation of our great loss. Blue appeared in the doorway with her tail wagging vigorously and with a ball in her mouth. She totally ignored the tiny drops of blood dripping from her left nostril and rolling down on her favorite ball. Her whole being said with her usual enthusiasm, "I'm not dead yet. Let's play!" This is how she lived her entire ten years.

In the early morning on the day that she died, we went for our daily morning walk and jog. Like all of us, she had her favorite habits and rituals. One such ritual was to reach the park and then instantly fall upon her back and wiggle and waggle joyfully, as she moaned with great delight. She could not be disturbed or distracted from her habitual morning greeting to the universe. Whenever I saw her rock and roll on her back in this way, I always imagined her engaged in a great cosmic dance. In a sense she was -- through her joyful experience -- grasping what is essential in life. She was experiencing the dynamic, vibrating, moving, dancing nature of the universe.

Her nasal tumor had become so bad that she had to make a choice between breathing and eating. She chose to breathe, so she had stopped eating. Our vet told us that once she stopped eating, we would want to help her avoid the painful deterioration of her body. We would need to mercifully let her go. So, on a cool January morning, my best friend died just as she had lived.

Blue's message in death was the same message that she had communicated to all that knew her throughout her life: "Celebrate your life every moment that you have. No event in life is too small to celebrate. Live fully. Love and laugh wastefully. Take pleasure in the little things. Play and roll on your back in the park. Forgive even if you cannot forget -- grudges only make you an unhappy being. Don't bite when a growl will do." And, her final lesson that last day, "Make every day of your life a dance, even when death is your final partner."

Dogs seem to instinctually understand this lesson, but we must learn or perhaps relearn it. Several years ago, I was spending the last days with my mother as she struggled to die. She was suffering from cancer, and she spent those last few days moving in and out of consciousness, lucidity, pain, and peace. Near the end, her longtime friend, with whom she shared a passion for dancing and many evenings on the dance floor, came for a final visit. I thought that my mother might have slipped away into a coma, so when her friend asked if she could still speak to her, I said, "I'm not sure if she can hear you, but it certainly won't hurt to try." My mother's friend leaned close to her ear and said, "Let's go dancing." I was surprised when my mother -- without opening her eyes -- whispered, "Let me get my dancing shoes." Those were the last words that I ever heard her speak.

A week before she died, she informed me that she had donated her body for medical research. When they took her body, the medical school explained that eventually her remains would be cremated, and I could choose whether the ashes would then be returned to the family or buried at a memorial site in the garden of the medical school.

I must admit to a light moment when my mother's remains arrived by registered mail. They came during early December and one of my family members -- thinking it was a holiday present -- shook it to try to identify the contents and then placed it under the tree! Once the mistake was discovered, we removed my mother's ashes from under the tree; however, for the next year her ashes spent time in various locations around the house -- under the bed, in the closet, and on the mantel.

The next spring I purchased some bamboo plants. I planted the bamboo in my backyard and -- with my hands -- I mixed my mother's ashes with the soil. Often now when I sit in my backyard and the wind blows, I can see my mother, dancing in the breeze. I see stillness and movement, spirit and matter, consciousness and unconsciousness, the present moment and eternity; death all entwined with life. It is in those moments that I feel most whole.

Fortunately, we don't have to have a terminal illness to ask if we are dancing with life and death. We don't have to die in order to dance our lives. We can be passionate about life, and courageous enough to dance -- like my dog Blue -- in the face of death.

--Learn more--

--from Dogs Don't Bite When a Growl Will Do, by Matt Weinstein and Luke Barber, Copyright © November 2003, The Berkley Publishing Group, a member of The Penguin Group, Inc., used by permission.

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