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All Dogs Go to Heaven

April 1, 2016

 

A wise man once told his daughter, "If you have, you'll lose." Years later she passed the advice on to me when, heartbroken, I called to tell her one of the bum lambs she'd given me had died. It's a stark statement, and at first sounds so pessimistic, but there is something peaceful contained in that short phrase. "If you have, you'll lose," doesn't beat around the bush, or try to soften one of life's hard truths. A beloved grandfather's antique watch, a wedding ring, a friend we can't bear to live without, our own experience walking around on earth in these human suits -- none of it belong to us permanently. Saying: "If you have, you'll lose," requires that we accept loss. The reality is, we can accept it gracefully, or we can fight against, but either way, it keeps being true. 

In my experience so far, ranch life requires one to face this far more regularly than city life does. When your livelihood revolves around the life cycle of animals, as well as being more closely aligned with the natural world, loss is an almost daily experience. Sometimes we lose critters we don't have much connection to, other times the loss strikes closer to the home. Our most recent loss was an example of the latter. My favorite barn cat, Dora, had been missing for a while, and I worried that since she was spayed, and therefore of no use to them, the wicked tomcats had run her off. I'd been secretly resenting the largest one, Thor, blaming him for her disappearance. "He is the worst!" I muttered to the man of the ranch one afternoon while we were out doing chores. Thor was balanced placidly on the garden gate, his great, hulking head turned slowly to watch as we walked past, eyes narrowed to yellow slits. "He is the one that should get run off!" I said loudly, shaking a fist in his direction.

Then yesterday, the man of the ranch's skid steer wouldn't start, so he called a mechanic friend to come take a look. As the friend drove off, I saw him trudging across the yard, his head hanging down till his chin was nearly on his chest, and I feared the repairs were going to be expensive. "What happened?" I asked when he reached the door.

"Well, we know what's wrong with it," he said. "And we found Dora." Turned out the real culprit behind her desertion was not a tomcat, but a warm engine on a cold day. 

So, I can officially add Dora to the tally of creatures I've loved and lost. Before moving here, the list included a few childhood pets, and that was it. Now the list is almost too long to recount. Unlike Dora, the whereabouts of several of the departed are still unknown, and probably will remain so. Like my sweet hen, Periwinkle, the lone survivor of the great raccoon massacre of 2014, who subsequently lived in my bathroom before I moved to the ranch. She went missing last summer shortly after the Bean was born. I watched her scratching at gravel in the driveway one day, and she was gone the next. Others died in my arms: Barbie, the fluffy, big-headed lamb who thought she was a puppy; Ruby, another lamb, who also lived in our house while we re-taught her to walk; my first bum calf, Baby Betty, who grew into a beautiful robust heifer, then sickened and died within an hour's time. The worst loss of all has been my little dog, Micah. I never wrote about it -- haven't even talked about it much -- because it was, and still is, too painful. He was as precious to me as a child, and drove me just as crazy with his antics and accidents. I worried before the baby was born that I wouldn't be able to care for them both, especially because Micah, at the ripe old age of 13, was getting pretty crotchety. Plus, he had been my baby for so long, I was quite certain he wouldn't think there was room for another. When the Bean was born we ended up having to spend a week in the hospital, and during that time Micah vanished from the yard, while the friends who were caring for him stood nearby. They searched for him all day and into the night, but we've not seen a trace of him since. I still cry about it, though more often I find myself looking at the tree line, or down the gravel road, expecting to see him trotting merrily towards me, skinny tail wagging behind him. I know it won't happen, but I guess the weight of that loss is still more than I can bear.

And now poor Dora, who started out as the awkward runt of the litter, but transformed into a sleek, black shadow with gleaming, emerald eyes, is lost to us too. She was the one I would sneak into the house tucked in the deep pocket of a sweater so she could sleep on my chest, lulled into her kitten dreams by the tapping of my fingers on the keyboard while I wrote my weekly columns. As she grew into her beauty, she became more elusive, sliding through the corrals like the faintest breath of wind. Even before her disappearance it felt like I was losing her to the wild, to the tall grasses, and the tree belts.

Now, the season of renewal, is a good time to consider, "If you have, you'll lose." In the spring we don our cloak of riches, however, we would be wise to wear it lightly. So many babies are being birthed here on the ranch, the seeds in the ground are beginning to germinate, the birds are returning from their long journeys south; it is the beginning of our return to the soil, and to the soil's abundance. But, as any rancher in the midst of calving or lambing will tell you, it also means we have more to lose. 

What is the antidote for all this loss? Gratitude for what remains. Gratitude for what endures. Each of the creatures I've loved and lost has taught me something, and I carry these memories to the page. I carry them to the lambing shed, and to the field, and I carry them in my heart as I hold my sweet baby boy.

Last night we were scouting the location for our second garden plot, while the Bean watched from his stroller, interjecting his opinions from time to time. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Thor's bulking brawn creep up beside us. He lay down in the last of the day's sunlight, stretching his wide, white paws out long. I looked at him and I felt myself soften. The experience of learning to hold things more lightly is also teaching me to love more deeply. Why waste even a moment of this precious life being hateful or angry? In the meadow to the west, the  golden sun settled into it own shadows. It was time to return to the hearth, to feed the baby, to lay down and rest. And to dream, as I do so many nights, of a little dog returning home, not lost forever, just going on a little journey to the bright beyond. 

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