February 2018

The Circle of Life

Author: Becca Edwards

My grandmother Rebecca once told me, “I don’t take well to death.” At the time, she was in her early 90s. Her friends were passing on, and she and my grandfather had recently moved into a nursing home. Rebecca, who was orphaned at age 20, had lost all three of her brothers due to childhood illnesses, and she had even lost one of her own children. Her words spooked me. I assumed she understood death, maybe even accepted it. And, moreover, I needed her to understand it and maybe accept it. I was 30 years old when we had this conversation. I had started to grapple with my own sense of mortality, and, more important, I feared she would not be with me much longer. She was my “Grandmommy.” She was supposed to be wise and okay with the world and life and impart words of wisdom so I could, in turn, be wise and okay with the world and life. I didn’t know it then, but it would take two dogs, Harlan, a pit bull mix, and Goodman, a Plott hound mix, to fully understand her meaning.

People talk about love at first sight. I think what they mean is that we’re drawn to and feel an instant connection with certain people, places or, as in Harlan’s case, animals. It was 34 degrees outside Scott’s Market in Atlanta when I stepped out into the parking lot. My husband Lee and I had recently married, and as a wedding gift he gave me $1,000 to go to Atlanta and buy furniture for our new home. Because we all know even the thriftiest person cannot furnish a house for that amount, I left Scott’s empty handed and feeling defeated. Getting into my car to drive back to Hilton Head, a brown and grey blob caught my eye. It was a brown puppy and a grey kitten, curled up in a ball, shivering together. Neither had any identification, and both were extremely thin. One woman offered to take the grey kitten. I decided to take the brown puppy.

When I picked him up, Harlan didn’t move from his balled-up position. I blasted the heat in my car to warm him up, and after an hour, it was as if he thawed out and came back to life. Bolting up into a standing position, he looked at me with his copper eyes and his ears, like a perky Yoda, stood straight up. “It’s okay, little man. I’m going to take good care of you,” I said rubbing his back. He eased back down into the seat and proceeded to snore the entire way home.

For 15 years, Harlan was there for our family. He was a cute, playful, uniting force during our first year of marriage (which can be a doozy). As if he, too, felt some shared responsibility in bringing her safely into this world, he was protective over me when I was pregnant with our first daughter Ransom. Once Ransom was born, he rolled on her play mat with her, the two often sharing toys. He followed her as she learned to walk and seemed to know even before I did when I became pregnant with our second daughter, Ruth Love. Even though he began to slow down when our third daughter, Camellia, came, he steadfastly guarded his pack, was a furry shoulder to cry on when feelings or knees got hurt, and he was always game for making a Christmas card cameo.

During Harlan’s fourteenth year, his quality of life diminished almost exponentially. First, he could not go up or down the stairs. Then the medications began mounting up. He rarely left his dog bed. His perky Yoda ears laid down. His copper eyes lost their sheen. Increasingly, he lost the ability to control his bowels, and near the end, we had to hold him up so he could potty. The last month of his life, he became “Dogdini” and would somehow escape and run away on a regular basis. My vet said it was common for dogs who thought they were no longer useful to the pack to wander off. It was their way of showing mercy.

Finally, my family decided it was time to show Harlan mercy. Our friend and veterinarian Dr. Curt Hennessey came to our house while the children were at school. I held Harlan in my lap as my husband and I shared our favorite memories with him, and we wished him a peaceful passage from this world into the next. He looked so grateful as Dr. Hennessey gave him the injection, and within a few moments Harlan was gone. Dr. Hennessey carried Harlan’s body to his car to be transported for cremation, and Lee and I sat in the driveway for seemingly eternity, feeling the empty void of death enshroud us.

That feeling stayed with me for several days. I could not shake it or walk it off. Sometimes I would think I could hear Harlan walking to his water bowl or barking at the mailman. I would swear I saw him out of the corner of my eye—much like the first day I found him.

A week later, my mother texted me a picture of a brindle puppy with a caption that read, “You have to adopt this stray!” I said yes really without thinking. It was not that I intended to replace Harlan, but a similar magnetism and spontaneity to provide a home for an animal came over me. The next day, Goodman, i.e. Goodie, came home. My children had never experienced a puppy, and they had forgotten those days when Harlan would play with them on the floor. We had all forgotten how much fun it is to walk a dog on the beach and watch him explore with absolute joy and wonderment. And all our hearts began to lighten and expand. We realized we could experience love again. It was then that my grandmother’s words came back to me like the ricochet of an echo.

My grandmother Rebecca understood death, and she also understood life. She was a mother of four children; she raised pigeons from eggs and grew roses and “maters” (heirloom tomatoes) most of her life. She was trying to say that life and death, as painful as it may be, are intertwined. Part of living is dying, and part of dying is living. When it comes to our loved ones, we don’t have to like this fact, but we need to accept it. Thanks to Harlan and Goodman, I learned that animals are a furry, friendly reminder about the circle of life, and rescue animals have a way of finding us when we need to remember this most.

Becca Edwards is a wellness professional, freelance writer, and owner of b.e.WELL+b.e.CREATIVE (bewellbecreative.com).

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