How Loss Can Bend Even the Deepest-Held Beliefs
I have always been proud of the fact that my daughter wouldn't hurt a fly. At 12, she went camping with other Buddhist kids along Colorado's Cache la Poudre River, and they spent an evening clearing a tent of marauding mosquitoes without killing a single one. They chanted a mantra that purifies negative karma—om mani padme hum— while they used plastic cups to bail each vile creature, filled with their own blood, out into the night air.
Some Buddhists believe that if you end an animal's life before its karma has run its natural course, its suffering could, in the next life, be much worse. I believe in karma and rebirth, and for many years thought that I, too, wouldn't hurt a fly. And then one day I found myself at the vet's office, asking him to kill my dog.
Scout, whom I'd raised from a fat-bellied pig of a pup, used to run joyfully and fast with the neighborhood boys, who'd knock on our door to ask whether he could come out to play. He was so smart and funny that I always felt that, like Pinocchio, he as this close to being a real boy. But when he was 10 years old, he started peeing in the house. Overnight he went deaf. It turned out he had a brain tumor.
I told myself euthanasia was not an option, and for the next year or so fed Scout by hand, carried him up and down the stairs in the middle of the night and washed his paws when he pooped in the house and circled in it, which he did constantly—circling and circling, nose to tail, night and day. He wore a raw patch in the pad of his pivoting foot.
There came a night when Scout's circling turned frantic. He spun so fast, he knocked his head against a doorjamb and fell with a bony crash—only to scramble up to keep circling, his eyes wild. I called two vets, who both said that soon Scout would start convulsing, and the convulsions would never end. He'd have to be put into a coma to stop them, and he'd stay that way until he died. I couldn't bear that.
So I went to the second vet, a gentle man who understood that what I was doing went against every belief I had. He sat on the floor with me while Scout received two injections: one to calm him and the other to stop his heart. I expected to be able to say goodbye before the second injection, but Scout collapsed in my arms after the first one, a weight so heavy and still, he already seemed dead. And then, a minute later, he was dead.
I thought I would feel one thing—the sorrow of having violated my beliefs—but I felt something else entirely. I felt that Scout had been liberated from his painful, creaky, used-up body and was out in the space above me, free. I felt him once again as my joyful, graceful, leaping boy—unfettered and pristine. It was a relief, this bright, surprising vision, where I'd expected only a void.
Still, I cried all the way back from the vet's office and for two days after, like a faucet that couldn't be turned off. I could function fine, but as I went about my business, the tears rained down my face. Part of the crying was grief, of course—that sweet dog had made me happy—but it also felt like a cleansing: Whatever feelings came up, they flowed out with the tears. That had never happened to me before, such an easy current of feeling. The crying felt good.
Not wanting my attachment to Scout and his things to keep him here, I gathered up his squeaky toys and his dolls, his collar and his bed and put them all in a large black garbage bag. I cried as I swept up fur from the floor and vacuumed dirt and grass from the seams of the couch. Down on my hands and knees, salty, snotty rivulets streaming, I scrubbed little patches of dried blood with steel wool and sponged tiny black dog hairs from behind the toilet. When I was done, I put everything of Scout's in the trunk of my car and drove it to the dump.
I have always held on so tight: to the loss, to the lover, to the love. But now I saw that grasping—even of dearly held beliefs—causes us and others needless pain. Everything is constantly flowing and changing. Nothing and no one lasts. The best gift we can give ourselves and those we love is to let them be part of the nature of things: the raging river, the growing child, the dying light.