Last Saturday, as I was finishing up at the barn following my riding lesson, I went to put my saddle back in the tack room. As I was leaving it to return to the aisle where my horse was cross-tied, I heard Denise's voice, filled with alarm, ask "What? What happened? What's wrong?" As I came around the corner, I saw her crouching down over Niko, her Lab. He was crawling on his belly, as if he were frightened, into the shelter of her arms. "What happened?" I asked, as I hurried to them. She replied that she didn't know, but that this was what she had been trying to describe to me. It had happened before. I remembered her telling me that this had happened, asking me what I thought it might have been, and thinking that what she'd described sounded like a seizure.
As I knelt next to them, Niko went rigid and rolled onto his side. I held his body against my thighs, off of the concrete, as Denise held his head, and Niko went into a gran mal seizure. Back in the mid-80s, my first husband and I had a dog we lost to a severe, uncontrollable seizure disorder. Seizures were, I discovered then, my Achilles' tendon in what could go wrong with a dog. I found them enormously disturbing to witness and had a very hard time handling my emotions around them. This time, however, I was surprised at how calm I felt. I knew how I had felt when Darla had her seizures. I knew I would not turn away from someone else facing the same.
Throughout the seizure, Denise never let go of Niko. She held tight to him, supporting his head up off of the concrete, whispering to him throughout that it was ok, that Mommy loved him. Once or twice, when the convulsions were particularly violent, I had to remind her to keep breathing, but never did she release her hold or turn away from him.
I realized he was finally coming out of the seizure state when his hind legs seemed to relax a bit. Denise continued her murmuring to him, and as I was watching his hind legs begin to unflex, she said to him again, "it's okay, I'm here, I love you," and amazingly, before his body was completely relaxed, Niko managed to wag his tail in response. He was not yet even fully present in his eyes, probably not yet fully conscious, but he had heard her, and he knew who was holding him.
As Denise and I talked a little while later, once Niko was back to normal and she had begun to resume the work she'd been doing, I indicated that it had been moving and noteworthy that he had sought her out before the seizure came on, knowing that something was wrong, and trusting that she would keep him safe. "Don't get me started," she warned, turning her head and wiping away the tears. And so, I changed the subject. I left shortly thereafter, but as I drove away I reflected on what I had witnessed. I was struck not only by the fact that Niko had sought her out, but that she had been there for him throughout, fully and completely. She had not been able, of course, to stop the seizure, but she was wholly willing to be there with him, to hold him, be beside him, reassure him, and not once think of turning away.
Last night, I got e-mail that China died yesterday. China was my friend Mary's Golden Retriever. China was also a being of pure light. She died from cancer on her spleen, what was probably a hemangiosarcoma, which had been undetected. She lived her life fully until the final day. She spent her last day lying in the leaves in balmy Indian summer weather, attended by her boy. He didn't turn away, either, but stayed beside her till the end, walking the rest of her journey here with her.
I have had much cause lately to reflect on the nature of love, loyalty, and commitment. I have felt all of these things in my life, both for others and from others. I have also felt them withdrawn from me. I know their power in my own life. I never think that my own love and commitment to another has the same meaning or power, but I remember the connection, the relief, the look in my dog Darla's eyes as the seizures passed, when she recognized me and knew who was holding her. I know what it feels like to want to crawl into someone's arms to find safety. I do not know, deep in my soul where I should know it, that my own arms, my own love, loyalty, and commitment are capable of providing the same haven to others.
There is yet much to learn. At least I have been witness to the power of not turning away.