Today would have been my mother’s 84th birthday.

She left us back in 1999. So many memories have gone through my mind over the past few days. None were so poignant, so relevant to this blog, as her experience with one of our dogs near the end of her life.

This story is not about Chi. (Yes, so sorry, Pugalicious.) My mother passed long before Chi arrived on the scene. At that time, we had a rat terrier/toy fox terrier named Jake. Jake was irascible, curmudgeonly, and charming. He would love you forever, especially if treats or toys were in the equation. At other times, you might have to negotiate favorable terms.

He was a character, in all the best ways that word can be used.

Jake

Jake

My mother was not really into dogs for most of her life — most especially not when we were growing up. Aunts and uncles had dogs, so we did get to know dogs… but we never owned any as we grew up. Mom would always tell us that dogs were a lot of work and responsibility, and that our family liked to come and go. A dog didn’t really fit our lifestyle. Wise lady, many would say. She knew her limits, and her family’s limits, and no dog would enter the house unless we were ready for it. Turtles, guinea pigs, watching a bunny nest outside, all of these we did. But no dogs. Not for us.

Every once in a while in passing conversation my mother would mention a dog she had when she was growing up. His name was Spunky, and he was always described by family members as “a salt and pepper mutt.” Mother and her sister were quite young at the time, and most stories revolved around playing fetch, sneaking Spunky treats, and the like.

In 1999, as she grew weaker from the increasingly ineffective and painful cancer treatments, my husband and I took a few weeks’ leave from our jobs, loaded Jake into our car, and drove cross-country to be there with Mom as her time wound to a end. At the moment we all assembled in her living room and Mom walked out to meet us, something different came into her eyes.. a softness, a distant remembrance of times beyond her present world. We swept Jake up into our arms, and introduced him to Mom.

“Spunky… he looks just like Spunky.”

This made her happy, and she cooed at Jake and scratched his forehead. We stood back and watched the two bond. It was then that I began to have a faint inkling of the power of animals to heal and to comfort those in chronic pain.

Mother had metastatic lung cancer which had spread to the brain. She was in the end stages of life. As the days passed, her tumor would make itself known in little ways: memory problems, confusion, behavior changes. At night she would wander the halls of her own home fighting the opponent none of us could see, but all could feel. Cancer, death, her own mortality, her wish to stay in her body… all of these things would be enacted on a nightly basis. She’d cry out, and get out of bed, and wander til we gently guided her back into her room and helped her to settle back in her bed.

Jake never approached her when she was in these states. He would seem to know when to come, jump up on the bed, and let himself be seen by her. As the days went along, she drew further into her childhood world. Finally, in the hours before her death, she could no longer tell that the dog before her was not Spunky. Jake, for his part, seemed to understand this was important somehow. He’d sit on the bed, answer and respond to her calls.

Mom was infused with some interior light deep within. She visually looked younger and happier. She would look at Jake and call, “Spunk, come here Spunk!” And Jake would oblige. She’d beam a smile at him, and whisper to him about things that only they knew. She would sit and speak to him for a few moments at a time. This was about all she could endure before lapsing back into sleep or fading consciousness.

As the years have passed, these moments have come to mean more and more to me. The loving presence of a dog seemed to bring more relief than an entire counter full of pain medications. We now know, in many cases, this effect is real. Science learns more about the connection between pets and health every day.

And as a remembrance of Mom this year, it seems very apropos. Mom would have loved the explosion of life that is Chi. Somewhere, I think she sees him.

Happy Birthday, Mom.

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