I turned 69-years old last September and find myself asking more frequently, “What have I left to do in this throw-away society where relationships and friendships don’t count as much as they used to?” I am ready to check out. There is nothing left for me to do. I enjoy the sound of the river running rapids, the sound of dead, fallen leaves and frozen snow crunching beneath my heavy footsteps. There is no more to be had than that, the sounds that give me comfort. I am ready to check out, and I do not mean that in the morbid, conciliatory way of people who give up hope.
If I die today, I die in good health. I have but one concern. Who will take care of my dog?
My children are grown. They are capable of taking care of themselves and their families. They will take care of their mother, but who will take care of my dog?
Hans is old and has fewer years left than I do. Our bones ache with arthritis. He has one good hip, his left, I think. I have two artificial hips. My left one is 15-years old. It aches at odd times, though that is hardly life-threatening. My toes are gross and occasionally hurt. I bear it without complaint, like Hans, although there are times late at night when he barks. Hans can no longer climb stairs, so he sleeps alone downstairs. I used to complain when he barked in the middle of the night. I don’t anymore. I descend the dark steps and find him, most often in the living room between the couch and the bookcase. Maybe he is thirsty, I think, and I help him up and he gets a drink of water. Maybe he is lonely and only needs to know he is not alone in the house. I stroke his head. He settles himself and I return to my bedroom, upstairs. Hans has few years left.
Clarence celebrated his first birthday last July. If I die today, who will take care of Clarence?
Clarence is the friendliest, most loving dog I have owned, and I have had many loving dogs. He is as strong as he is loving and friendly. He is so strong, in fact, that Mrs. tVM cannot walk him. “You need to take him to school for obedience lessons,” more than one person has told me. I will not do that. I don’t want Clarence to be subservient to me or anyone else. He is very energetic. He has pulled me down in pursuit of a rabbit on an early morning walk at the horse farm. I never let go of the leash. I would rather be like Clarence than to have Clarence be like me.
This morning as is my habit, I listened thoughtfully to Garrison Keillor’s daily offering. He concluded with a wonderful poem by American poet and novelist Marge Piercy. I hope it brings you as much comfort as it does to me.
End of Days
by Marge Piercy
Almost always with cats, the end
comes creeping over the two of you—
she stops eating, his back legs
no longer support him, she leans
to your hand and purrs but cannot
rise—sometimes a whimper of pain
although they are stoic. They see
death clearly through hooded eyes.
Then there is the long weepy
trip to the vet, the carrier no
longer necessary, the last time
in your lap. The injection is quick.
Simply they stop breathing
in your arms. You bring them
home to bury in the flower garden,
planting a bush over a deep grave.
That is how I would like to cease,
held in a lover’s arms and quickly
fading to black like an old-fashioned
movie embrace. I hate the white
silent scream of hospitals, the whine
of pain like air-conditioning’s hum.
I want to click the off switch.
And if I can no longer choose
I want someone who loves me
there, not a doctor with forty patients
and his morality to keep me sort
of, kind of alive or sort of undead.
Why are we more rational and kinder
to our pets than to ourselves or our
parents? Death is not the worst
thing; denying it can be.
“End of Days” by Marge Piercy
from The Hunger Moon: New and Selected Poems, 1980 – 2010. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.