On our walk this morning, Dexter reverse sneezed. He saw another dog and got excited, then a while later, did another. There was no blood, and it had been almost a week without him doing it at all, but it still made me sad, shaky, scared.
The stories we tell ourselves about what’s happening are so powerful. If I had some kind of certainty that Dexter “just” had allergies, that he would do the reverse sneezing with the occasional bloody nose but that’s all it would ever be, I might view such an episode as “no big deal.” If I knew for sure he had cancer, that this was the beginning of the end, the best it would ever be, that our time together was going to be short and some of it would be really, really hard, I’d have a completely different experience of it.
But certainty, a definitive answer, a concrete diagnosis most likely won’t come (until/unless he gets worse, has other symptoms), so for now, I am trying to not let the story get in the way of the moment we are in, the one where we are still together.
And yet, I swing wildly between both extremes. Part of why I was so upset by the reverse sneeze this morning is because it had been enough days without that I started to hope, to think that maybe he really would get better, that things would work out okay. Yesterday, he ran a little on his morning walk, sniffed whatever he wanted, played and played, took a second walk, and rested comfortably in the moments he was still–breathing clearly and easily through all of it.
But either extreme, hope or fear, is no way to live. Both of them pull you out of the moment you are in, the only place where there’s life, to either promise or threaten you about something that might happen. Both of them rob you of this moment, the only thing that is real.
Living in this in-between is so uncomfortable. And yet, the opportunity to practice is there, making me stronger, getting me closer to being able to comfortably cope with whatever arises, to stay with what’s happening, to keep my heart open, to not run away or numb out or resist. When my chest tightens and the tears come, when the voice inside my head chants “I’m so tired, I can’t do this” over and over, all I can do is try to stay present, to relax, to surrender.
After our walk this morning, Dexter “asked” to go pick tomatoes. This is one of his favorite things. He tries to pick them himself, as evidenced by the collection of smashed green tomatoes scattered on the ground and his head that smells like tomato blossoms. This morning, he made sure I was coming with a bowl, and then ran out to the raised bed, put his front feet up and stood on the edge, burying his head in the bushes. Then he looked back at me and wagged his tail, nudging my hand with his nose when I got closer.
Later, when I was petting him, he put his foot on my arm, curling his toes, pressing them against me in his version of petting back. It was that same foot, the one with my favorite toe, the one with the black spot. He closed his eyes and sighed, relaxing but not letting go.
Every one of my dogs has taught me something different, but the one thing they will all eventually do is show me how to let go, practice non-attachment, allow me to once again experience the reality of impermanence. I will never be ready, it will never be okay, no matter how or when it happens. This is a lesson I will keep learning, a practice that will continue with every one I love, for as long as I’m still breathing. Every time I open my heart, it will get broken.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
~ Mary Oliver ~