On a most beautiful, blue sky, first day of spring day, our son, Alden and his family said goodbye to a dear and beloved chocolate lab named Olly. Olly was almost 14 years old. Up until the week before, she seemed to be doing pretty well…talking walks in the snow when they visited us in Vermont, snuggling, wagging her tail. And then, she wasn't. She couldn't get up anymore by herself, she wasn’t hungry, her breathing became difficult at times, she was fading.
My daughter-in-law Caroline, brought a book home from the first grade classroom where she teaches entitled, Saying Goodbye to Lulu, about a family dog who dies. I walked over to their house to help with bed time and they had just finished reading it. Delilah, who is four, came over to me in tears and handed me the book and said emphatically, “I don’t want to keep this book. It is too sad!” Alden and Caroline were helping their children, gently and honestly, to understand that their dear dog that they had grown up with was about to die.
It is so hard for everyone to loose a pet who has become such a valued member of a family. All of us were in tears at one time or another during that hard week. On Wednesday, March 20th, I picked up Asher and Delilah from school. We walked up the stairs to their house and their parents told them, “Olly died today.” Olly was curled up on her bed. The four of them gathered around and patted her and cried and considered how things change so fast and that death is final.
Ashley and I went to join them for a ceremony for Olly. Alden dug a perfectly round and deep hole under their backyard apple tree. Asher and Delilah helped. They put one of Olly’s sheep skins at the bottom of the hole. Alden carried Olly from her bed to the back yard and laid her to rest. We held onto each other in the silent blue afternoon and felt very sad and also very grateful for each other and for the love, loyalty and joy of such a sweet dog for so many years.
Ashley and I were listening to an interview with Jean Vanier, a philosopher and Catholic social innovator, who founded The L’Arche movement which establishes communities for people with mental disabilities. He said that children teach us about tenderness, presence, and unity or wholeness. He said that, as adults, we can often be removed from the present, saying one thing and thinking another. Children, and I think also dogs, bring us into presence, wholeness and joy.
I was so touched and impressed with the way this family, led by their parents, honored the life and death of their dear dog in such an honest, real, and brave way. Ashley and I felt privileged to be a part of this passing.
Mary Oliver wrote this: Dogs die so soon. I have my stories of that grief, no doubt many of you do also. It is almost a failure of will, a failure of love, to let them grow old — or so it feels. We would do anything to keep them with us, and to keep them young. The one gift we cannot give.
And she also wrote this: Because of the dog’s joyfulness, our own is increased. It is no small gift. It is not the least reason why we should honor as well as love the dog of our own life, and the dog down the street, and all the dogs not yet born. What would the world be like without music or rivers or the green and tender grass? What would this world be like without dogs?