About 20 minutes into the pilot episode of his sitcom Louie, Louie C.K. says
And nothing good ends well. It’s like if you buy a puppy and bring it home to your family and you say, “Hey look, everyone, we’re all gonna cry soon. Look what I brought home. I brought home us crying in a few years. Countdown to sorrow with a puppy.”
My eight-year-old German shepherd Aktis isn’t dead yet, but lately I’ve been facing (yet again) the fact that he will be dead. It’s just a matter of time. A week ago, I thought it was sooner, now I’ve reason to hope it will be later. It all started two weeks ago, when he suddenly became very ill: anxious, panting, feverish, lethargic, and clearly suffering. After getting some instructions over the phone from my sister—a professor and researcher at a vet school—I performed a basic exam, taking his temperature, going over his body looking for anything unusual, checking for swelling of lymph nodes at the throat, and performing a capillary-refill test. This last test amounts to pressing firmly on the dog’s gums to whiten them and then observing how long it takes for the blood to return to the gums. If the gums don’t refill a rosy pink in less than a second, this indicates the dog may be bleeding internally. Well, he passed that test with flying colors. In fact, I could find no obvious problems except a temperature of 105.1 (normal for dogs ranges from 100.5 to 102 fahrenheit or so) and his evident misery. Which, where friends are concerned, turns out to be communicable.
At times like these dogs are, as the French sometimes call them, bêtes de chagrin, or beasts of sorrow. And even though I know better, even though I’ve suffered from losing dogs in the past, and know I will again, still I brought home the puppy and started the countdown. In better moments I know that the point in life is not to avoid sorrow, but to face it and live with it and let it go. So last week when the vet examined Aktis and said, “My gut tells me you need to prepare to let go of Aktis”, I recognized the spiritual task he was setting me.
Coincidentally, I happen to be reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s marvelous little book Transformation and Healing. There he describes the practice that helps one become mindful (and presumably accepting) of the body and its fate. This will cheer you up, dear reader:
Further the practitioner compares his own body with a corpse which he imagines he sees thrown into a charnel ground; all that is left is a collection of bones scattered here and there; in one place a hand bone, in another a shin bone, a thigh bone, a pelvis, a spinal column, a skull.
A sober reflection, no doubt, but even more sobering coming as it does midway through a series that invites the practitioner to observe the dissolution and disappearence of a dead body, and not just any body, but one’s very own. Here’s the first item in the series that one is to vividly imagine as part of the practice of letting go:
The practitioner compares his own body with a corpse which he imagines he sees thrown onto a charnel ground; it is just a skeleton with a little flesh and blood sticking to it, and the bones are held together by the ligaments, and he observes, “This body of mine is of the same nature. It will end up on the same way. There is no way it can avoid that state.”
A sad update on the sorrowful countdown: Aktis R.I.P.