What I learned from my four-legged friends

By Karen Van Fossan

When I was a kid, I had this curious revelation that sometimes I could think thoughts about oth­ers which they were not thinking about themselves. Since that time, I’ve not only wondered, Who am I? but also, Who am I to you?

I feel honored and also overwhelmed sometimes, imagining who I must be in my canines’ lives.

Except for Jasmine. Jasmine, our Ger­man-shepherd-husky mix, doesn’t give me that old exuberance anymore. These days, now that she’s reached the distin­guished age of 17 ½, with a correspond­ing loss of hearing and muscle mass in her hips, I’m just not the person I used to be. I’ve developed annoying habits, like running a sling beneath her torso and carrying her outside.

This action can be ground for fierce reprisal. Her hips may be weak, but the speed of her snapping jaws is the stuff of video games.

Hiking with Jasmine along endless wild places, I used to imagine a cord of light, stronger than a leash, reaching from my heart to hers, and back again. Somehow, until recently, I forgot that cord. Maybe after Jasmine’s coma this winter, the event that broke our hiking life, I was too exhausted to remember..

For countless days and nights, Jasmine was no Jasmine I had ever known. She slept without waking, eyes open wide, everything falling out of her. I moved my office into the living room, to spend my days beside her. My partner and I slept, if we slept at all, next to her on the floor. The other creatures gathered around, keeping the family vigil.

In those tearful days, I let everything go, all my expectations of what life could be with Jasmine. I let go of our hiking. I let go of our climbing, leaping, swimming, even walking. I let go of Jasmine’s own particular way of greet­ing me, jumping up to her hind legs, giving me her back.

But maybe I abandoned too much be­tween us.

Like the rice cakes. For reasons I’ve never known, rice cakes are Jasmine’s favorite snack on earth. Jasmine and I are the only two people I know who’ve ever daydreamed about a rice cake, the way many American women fantasize about chocolate.

As a kid, one of my cousins was sad­dled with a mess of annoying allergies. And so, when his family came to visit, our kitchen counter was spread with every (strange and wonderful) wheat-and-then-some replacement I had ever tried. One day, knowing these items were for Antony and not me, fully aware that his supplies were not end­less, I gathered up all my audacity, and I asked my aunt:

“Could I have a…rice cake?”

Jasmine asks me this question every day.

Even in these final years, Jasmine holds my gaze, the way she always held it, like a current passing between us, holding us in between time.

For me, this look is sacred – one I cherish from my dog, and never quite expected from my starling. In the world according to Stari, the whole world is animated by charming and marvel­ous creatures who are clearly part bird (they talk, they sing, they spend time with family). But they’re also part something else (delightfully sturdy and very good for landing on).

To Stari, I must also be part tree.

I wish Jasmine would see me this way. I wish Jasmine would get up and play. I wish Jasmine would give me a kiss on the nose. Or something!

But I’m not really angry with her. It’s kind of the opposite of being angry with her. Maybe I’m angry with the she who went away, the she who doesn’t kick along the river mud anymore, or tear across the prairie when she hears me call her name, or connect me to a whole world of wild, wild things.

To be with Jasmine now, I need to meet her where she is – or not at all

So I’m learning a new-found patience – attentive enough, finally, to applaud the strength she’s gaining back, the way she lifts her paw so I can scritch her on her chest, the honest-to-goodness truth that she hardly snaps at me anymore.

Like the wild things we’ve always been, I am of her pack; she is of my family. We take care of our own. If and when she’s ready to go, I trust she’ll let me know. Until then, I’ll honor her, al­lowing her to teach me all that she can teach me – like how to make rice cakes the basis for a relationship, how to face the end of your days with a fire in the heart.

Most of all, she teaches me how to stand in the balance, right here in the middle place – in between letting go and holding on.

Something like a tree.

Comments are closed.