Lilacs and Old Dogs: On Forgiving Death

“Brontus has to die today,” my nephew stated.  Then, at my silence, he protruded his bottom lip to indicate what my response should be.

“I see,” I said, looking around for help.  “I guess it’s his time.”

“He’s going to get a shot!” my niece intervened, “And then he’s going to fall asleep and then he will be dead.”

My sister and brother-in-law’s dog has been alive one half of the time I have, now.  His slow then rapid deterioration became evident as my Someone and I found shelter in their house for the winter.  And now, this morning, he is one day gone.  Everyone agrees it is for the best, as his little legs couldn’t manage the linoleum in the kitchen, anymore, and every pat to his frail body came as a surprise to him with his lost sight and hearing.  It was time, but time is still ticking, and the ticking makes for uncomfortable what-ifs for the ones left listening.

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My father is threatening to kill my mother’s lilac bushes again.

“Don’t you kill my lilac bushes,” she pushes back at him with a purse-lipped scowl.

Truthfully, they have it coming.  The long wall of what used to be illustrious spring blooms is dulling to a tangle of wooden, leafy shards.  I still side with my mother on this one.  Even if the only thing keeping them up is the deteriorating back panel of the fence that used to surround the now filled in swimming pool, there is a deep satisfaction of the lilacs’ declaration of Spring.  Even if that declaration is more of a strangled whisper, now, in the meager, wrangled heads of a few tiny blooms.

It probably isn’t the whole story, anyway.  Since my father slew my mother’s favorite dying Dogwood just outside our bedroom windows when I was in high school, she has been digging her heels in about everything from the pines to the rhododendrons.  This grievance may be what is keeping the lilacs alive.  We have the power to force anything out of existence, but we have no power to force the ones we love to be ready for it.

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Last Monday, my Someone and I were part of a launch party and memorial for our songwriting teacher who passed three years ago.  Cancer.  We sang some songs and gathered with people who were familiar, and recognized that this was the closing of a long chapter of grief.  Except it is never the end.  This became even clearer as we consoled one another and chose our words carefully and poured thicker glasses of rye whiskey.  And then, Reva stood on stage and sang a song that she had written with our late friend.  She sang the song as she would have sang it with him, switching between harmony and melody.  She left the missing parts missing, because our friend was now missing.  And that was how the song was heard at this juncture.

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“Can I watch Brontus die, Dad?” my nephew asked before he left.  My Someone and I walked the neighborhood, repeating the questions and answers the kids had that morning.  Their directness of it all made my Someone question whether the kids understood what was happening.  And then, their directness of it all made us realize they knew exactly what was happening.  It isn’t the death itself that is hard, but the forgiveness of death itself: forgiving the patch of grass that is growing where the Dogwood’s roots used to be, forgiving the dog dishes in the kitchen still half full, forgiving the silence where the sound used to be.

Last night, my brother-in-law relayed the questions the kids asked the vet.  As they unraveled, I envisioned them getting older and older…

What’s in the shot?

                             How long until he sleeps?

                                                                    Where is he going next?

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