In the evening, she stood up and stared around her, eyes wide. I lay on the floor and stroked her, head to tail, trying to calm her labored breathing. She stared past me, focused on something only she could see. After a few minutes she grew unsteady and chose to lie down. I thought we might be at the end. Tearfully, I told her that I loved her and she licked me in response.
She didn't come to bed last night. This morning I waited a few extra minutes to get up. I listened for her raspy panting, prepared myself, and rose to find her breathing easily and watching me from the floor. I coaxed her outside three steps at a time - call, step, pet, repeat - and she didn't stumble, but she hurried back inside. Then I did something I never do: I made breakfast on Yom Kippur. I made turkey bacon, and biscuits, and eggs, and I sat on the floor tearing them into pieces she could swallow...but she wouldn't eat. I forced her pill down her throat and waited, hoping she'd feel better after it kicked in. Most of the morning she lay with her back to me, taking note of household activity. Even in her weakened state, Zeke considered Champagne too formidable to risk snatching bacon from between her paws. When Ila came over to visit, Champagne barked at her and got up to be petted, but soon lay back down. I sat with her and petted her while we discussed her transitional state. Her gums were pale, her ears were cold, and while she was clearly distancing herself from this plane of existence she was happy to be the center of attention.
This afternoon Nick wanted to get a haircut and invited Champagne along. I didn't think she'd be up for it, but when I put her collar on she sprang (insofar as a dying dog can spring) to her feet and headed to the car. We never got the haircut. First, Tucker wouldn't leave Champagne and go inside. Then Nick's battery was dead and wouldn't jump. Then he had to change his shirt. I was organizing things in my car when he said, "Oh crap, Maddie, hurry!" Champagne had jumped into the front seat and it appeared she'd gotten one of her feet stuck between the seat and middle console. When I opened the passenger door, she didn't raise her head.
It is a tremendous gift that I was able to recognize her moment and embrace it. I sat on the rocker panel and pulled her into my lap. I stroked her beautiful head with one hand while I felt her heart grow fainter under the other. I cried, but did not sob, did not beg her not to go, and I told her I loved her over and over. In a literal minute her intermittent breaths ceased and her heart stilled. She did not die alone. She went peacefully, in her own time, of her own accord. Would we were all so lucky.
Grief, like love, takes myriad forms. Mine affirms that Champagne is my child. In the moments of her death I found tremendous strength, a strength I would not have bet I had. When she passed, I felt the weight of being strong lifted from my shoulders. I'm glad she's gone. She needed to leave, as much as I never wanted her to. I couldn't save her or protect her from cancer and no one could offer her further help. We were both suffering. Afterward I asked for my phone with a mother's pragmatic sense of duty. Our vet was closed; we had to borrow Ila's car and take Champagne to a strange clinic. When she was carefully loaded in the back, Nick offered to hug me. I told him there would be time for that later. At the clinic I filled out paperwork while Nick and the vet tech fetched Champagne. Then, suddenly, I panicked the way I've seen animal mothers do when their babies die or are weaned. I called for Nick. I worried that they wouldn't carry her gently enough. Her collar needed to come off - would he take her collar off? I forced myself back to the paperwork. They took her into the back and I wanted to follow, I needed to be there. I called for him again but the door closed, leaving me alone in reception. On the way home I cried because we left her with strangers. It wasn't until I laid on Tucker (in the same spot that Champagne had been all morning) and fed both boys that I allowed Nick to hug me.
Just five days ago I was not ready to let go. Today I did so willingly. Though we don't usually associate death with growth, it is fertile ground for scope, catharsis, and epiphany, for the dying and the living alike. Early in the week I sang to Champagne from the shower, "You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are gray. You'll never know dear, how much I love you...." only I couldn't finish the song. I realized how unfair it would be to ask her to stay. Wednesday night I knelt beside my bed to have The Talk with her. Zeke bounced (this is not a strong enough word to describe the arrival of a young Border Collie) onto the bed, interrupting our private moment. Stroking her ears I said, "You can go if you want to. I'll be okay." Champagne lifted her head, rolled her eyes at Zeke, looked down her nose at me, and raised her eyebrows as if to say, "You expect me to leave you with him?" I couldn't help but laugh. "I know, he's an idiot. But so were you, and you turned out just fine." More than fine; the same night I lay with my arms wrapped around her and told Nick, "This is my Champagne. There are none like her...and this one is mine."
When the last note of the shofar sounded and the Gates of Prayer closed on this holiest of days, they shut my heart inside. We all have a spark of the divine inside - on this most belief systems agree. Champagne has returned to that infinite love. I can only hope that the thread of love between us will pull me closer to a state of wholeness.