We finished our book together. " I willed myself to stay awake, but the rain was so soft and the room was so warm and his voice was so deep and his knee was so snug that I slept. " Scout, last page of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD
Mrs. Miniver died in my arms, held up close to my chest. She ended her life quietly, without pain and looking in to my eyes with that same, clear trust that she always gave to me. I'd told her it would be OK, that I would be there with her all the way. John and I spent the afternoon telling her Miniver Stories, letting her know about who might be there to see her through to the next place.
She wasn't interested in any of that. It was just us humans comforting ourselves. She had no fear. She was ready, quiet, calm, waiting and watching my face. As long as I was there, she was fine. I was the human she had chosen, and not the other way around. She loved that part of our time together. It was always her choosing and not humans making it happen to her.
It isn't too hard to understand that when the bond goes in two directions and both of us treat the other with respect and kindness, love and devotion without expectations, neither of us wants to walk on without the other. She was always with me, always.
Five years ago, just weeks after my sweet glossy dog, Gypsy had died, I had a dream. In the dream Gypsy came to me, jumped up on the bed, and laid down where she always had before and told me that there was someone waiting for me. All I had to do was go find her. When I woke up the pillow was warm where she had laid next to me in the dream.
That morning, I did my chores and drove in to the animal shelter in Lawrence (Kansas). It was a busy Saturday morning in May, the weather was cool and people were there looking for puppies and kittens. That wasn't necessarily what I was doing. I told the tired looking young woman that I was there, looking for my next dog. I told her we lived out on a nature preserve. " There are predators so it can't be a small dog. I need one large enough to fend off a coyote or owl."
We spent all day looking. I met nervous dogs, depressed dogs, frightened dogs, busy dogs. I looked at puppies and old dogs, big dogs and small dogs. They were all wonderful, even the ones who were a bit aggressive because they were frightened. I walked dogs, rubbed tummies, scratched behind ears but it still wasn't 'my' dog. And then we came around the last corner to walk down the aisle where the really big dogs were. She told me some of them hadn't been out for a walk in weeks because the volunteers and even the staff were frightened by them, so I might not find who I wanted today. I wanted to look anyway.
And there, in the middle of the last aisle in a room filled with the cacophony of dogs trying to get our attention, was a huge, red, Saint Bernard mix. She was laying at the back of her kennel quietly, no barking. She got up with great dignity and walked to the front of the kennel, sat down next to the door and looked me straight in the eye. No fuss, just a direct inquiry. " Are we going for a walk?"
The girl told me she hadn't been out for the seven weeks she had been there except for the Vet and then with a muzzle on. She never barked. She frightened nearly everyone there. I got down next to her and let her smell my hand. I wasn't listening to the girl at all. I was entranced! " Seven weeks is much too long. Let's go for a walk, shall we?" The young volunteer told me she was supposed to get her out, but she was afraid. She would have to go get a staff member. I didn't hear her when she left.
I opened the door, took the leash down from another kennel. Miniver didn't even have her own leash. And off we went. " Ma'am. Ma'am! You can't do that. She doesn't have her muzzle on. MA'AM!" I never heard him. Miniver and I were out the door and heading for the biggest yard. No one was using it and we were going in for some play time.
Miniver's tail was wagging and she was looking at me with that unadulterated, blazing, bright open smile. " I knew you would come!" We were in our own space by then. Even the young guy with the muzzle hanging from his hand could see that. He was wise enough in the way of dogs and the people they choose to let us be. All we had to do was pass the last test. And then it happened. Instead of running away from me Miniver leaned back against my leg and sat on my foot. All of my dogs have done that. They all choose me by sitting on my foot. Happens every single time, almost like they get coaching from someone. " If she's the one you want all you have to do is lean against her leg and sit on her foot. " And she did it. Miniver sat on my foot and never left me again. I'd found my dog, the one who was waiting for me.
We called her the Water Diva. She was very fussy about her water bowl. If she saw someone, even Apple, drink from it before she did she would stand there and wait, look at me over her shoulder, then very pointedly look at the bowl. " I need a clean bowl and fresh, clear, cold water. Thank you very much!" And that was that. She trained me and John very quickly to keep the water bowls in the house (we have several so no one ever goes without water) clean. It was the same outside too. I keep a bucket my Grandad would have called the Fire Bucket full of water. It's always outside the paddock and within easy reach of either the barn or shed. It's for emergencies but in Miniver's mind it was hers. It was always sparkling clean and full of fresh water. Her standards were very high.
She didn't bark much. When she did it was full throated, a huge boom that would echo across our little valley. She had a job, protect Nancy, protect the herd, protect John and in that order too. If she barked, we paid attention. Apple is a vocal dog, loves to talk all day long. But Miniver was sparing in her barks and growls. She was careful to preserve them and use them only when needed. No one that she barked at ever came down the drive very far and I never invited them to either. She was very discerning and I always appreciated her work ethic. She did her job very well indeed.
Favorite Miniver story, or one of many anyway: A car load of religious people came up the drive. I can always tell who they are. They come in a group dressed in suits and dresses. The men are always officious and the women look like they're eating lemons. They have bibles and pamphlets tucked under their arms and a determined look on their collective faces. I'd always tried to be polite but polite never works. It becomes an invitation. I do not like being proselytized to or patronized. Not my cup of tea.
Miniver stepped outside with me, stood in front of me with her body cross wise to mine, and gave them 'the look'. It was direct and clear. "Stop. Leave." But, fools that they were, they came ahead. She took exactly three steps away from me, took a deep breath and out of her mouth came this enormous BARK! It echoed and rolled across the valley. I've never seen four people pile back in to a car so fast. It was like one of those games we used to play as teenagers, when you all throw your doors open and run around the car and change places at the stop light. Only these people were knocking each other out of the way to get behind the doors. So much for their religious ideals of charity and putting others before yourself.
And again they drove ahead towards me. They weren't very smart. Miniver walked up to the driver's side, put her head in the open window (yes, she was that big) and let out three more huge booming barks. She was just inches from the driver's arm, which he moved along with his body, right over the lady in the seat next to him. What a wimp!
The teenager in the back came over the seat in record time and gravel flew as he turned that big, old, ugly Chevy around and left marks down the drive, heading for the road. And that was the last we saw of any religious people ever again. My response? I got down on the ground next to Miniver, threw my arms around her and told her what a wonderful guardian she was. I scratched behind her ears, rubbed down her back and sat on the ground next to my big, wonderful girl. She always had excellent taste in people!
The last weeks of her life she was tired. It was a massive effort on her part to get up. I'd bought a sling to hep lift her and had to teach myself how to leverage her up. She would walk a few steps and then sit or lay down. And if the heat was too bad, sometimes she would simply fall over. Getting all of my chores done was increasingly difficult. She would panic if I wasn't where she could see me and I was loath to leave her. It was my turn to be her caretaker. She'd even lost that booming bark. It was nothing but a loud, expressive snort of air now.
I knew she would tell me when it was time. And she did. It was one of the hardest calls I've ever had to make. I think I probably did more crying on the day I called the Vet's office to make an appointment for a farm call, than I did later. But she had made it very clear to both of us. For the first time John 'heard' her voice. She walked over to the place he had prepared for her, looked at him and said, " I'm tired John. I'm not afraid. " And she told me that morning too, by walking, just a few steps at a time, to the place where she would lay in the ground and looking at me with that clear gaze of hers. She was ready.
Time takes on a strange, fluid quality when the final days are here. Years ago I had told John that I was sorry I'd never had to take care of my Mom or my Grandmothers for a long period. There's something about that process that deepens your strength and inner resolve to live, really live. And it teaches you the value of compassion and love in simple, direct terms. Miniver weighed 180 pounds at the end of her life. She was bigger than me by almost forty pounds, weighed more than John. She was so big that she could stand next to the table with her head resting on it without reaching. She gave me the gift of caring without expecting anything in return. Except she always gave more to me than I did to her.
At the end, while I read to her from TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, and cried, she spent her time in my lap comforting me. I'd been bringing her sparkling clean water bowl and food, to her, for weeks. She could still get up but only by leveraging herself against a wall. Her back legs had sore places where she had rubbed so hard to get herself up so I wouldn't have to. I kept her clean and doctored the sore places. I don't think she could feel them. Her spine was decaying. She walked because the front of her body remembered how to. She would swing herself from one side to the other. " I got this Miss Nancy. Don't you worry. I got this. " She never complained.
We spent our last hours outside laughing about all of the funny things that had happened over the five years we had her. We remembered the raccoon she had treed and then decided to guard because that was her nature. That old raccoon laid on a branch, legs dangling to either side, just above Miniver, and dropped acorns on her head. She watched the raccoon. He watched her. And then some kind of signal passed between them and she got up, stepped back and the raccoon came down the tree. She escorted him to the edge of the woods and off he waddled. Job done.
She and Lucky, my Alpha horse, had a friendship too. They would touch noses every morning at the gate. " Morning Mrs. M. " and " Morning Big Luck. " It was like two blue collar workers passing while shifts began and ended at the same time. She would pass me off to Lucky and then settle in the shade or go check out the best parts of the compost piles.
That strange liquid feeling was there all that last day. She had her favorite for breakfast; stinky, greasy tuna fish. She got to have the whole can to herself. And the cookies were unlimited that day, although she mostly just piled them up and looked at them, licking them occasionally. Apple was with her, laying with her head draped over Miniver. The kittens slept between her front paws while I did short spats of chores and tried not to look at the clock.
When the Vet arrived he was, thankfully, was very patient. We did our last walk together to her place. I sat on the ground and she laid down, putting her head in to my lap the way she always did. When she died, she was looking right at me with that crystal clear gaze. I felt her go. I knew she was gone from her body before the Vet had checked. I sat there and held her for almost an hour. It was so hard to let her go.
I had her in my life for only five years. She aged quite rapidly although she was only six years old at the end of her life. It was too soon. Her face was grey and her body stiff and unwieldy. She was incontinent and exhausted. It was time. And I felt her go. Just like that she was out of her broken body. And, as usual, she gave me more than I could give to her. At the end she told me she loved me and would see me again. It's OK. It's all OK.
It's too quiet here today. Her massive, dignified presence is gone, leaving a hole in our home. Apple started the night in the bed between us, snugged up close. She hadn't done that for months. She always slept next to Miniver.
This morning I found Apple laying on one of Miniver's power spots, the one on the mantle in front of the fireplace. She had piled up pillows, shoes and some of the uneaten cookies and was laying draped across them, whimpering.
We kept Apple inside while the Vet was here but John let her out after Miniver's death and the Vet had left. She knew what had happened. She carefully smelled the place on Miniver's leg where the Vet had used the 'kiss of death'. And she smelled Miniver's face, her nose, her ears and even tried to move her with her paws. Apple licked my tears while I sat crying and holding Miniver and then she sat next to me on the ground, her head draped over Miniver for the last time.
There's something cathartic about the process of laying someone you love in the ground, doing all of the work yourself. John had already dug the hole, had it prepared for weeks, and then carefully covered it with boards and a tarp. She was a big girl and the hole needed to be deep enough and wide enough to fit her stature.
We carefully placed her in the ground on a bed of soft, clean hay. We all said our last good bye and then we covered her with the earth. It was hot and the sky was quiet, full of drifting thunderheads, massive and white. Miniver was going out in a blaze of glory while we took care of the last things that needed to be done. It was hard, sweaty, dirty work and we were all glad for it. It was a good time to meditate and feel that passing of time.
Somewhere, in a place we aren't allowed to know until it's our turn to go, is a big, beautiful, leggy, red-haired dog with a massive booming bark, playing with my other dogs and cats, my ancient first horse Spirit. They're out there, rolling on lovely, stinky scents and running under deep blue skies, waiting.
Miniver's circle is complete. It was perfect and I was a part of it. How lucky am I?!
I am, ever yours, Miss Nancy, bereft and complete. How lucky am I...