Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

Little Dog Dharma: Remembering Bernie
by Rebekah Shardy

This is for those who have a dog or cat that has become burdensome: another mouth to feed, a wet nose at dawn when you're short-sheeted, a bestower of pale hairs on your black jacket just before you leave for work. I don't expect to change your mind; maybe, your heart.

We adopted Bernie from the Humane Society when our son was five - a good age, we thought, for a first pet. We picked him using the same criteria that guided Charlie Brown when choosing a Christmas tree. He was the scrawniest, most pitiful animal, so matted and dirty we knew neither his color nor shape before we bathed him at home. Revealed as a lustrous white 'Schnoodle' (part-Schnauzer, part-Poodle), he pranced through our apartment giddily; my Cleveland Browns-enamored husband bestowed his name in dedication to the liquid moves of quarterback Bernie Kosar.

In those early days, sweet memories abound: Bernie sleeping with my son, stretched contentedly beneath his little arm, fetchingly playing tug-of-war with an old sock, rolling in the snow. We dressed him in an old T-shirt at Halloween, wrapped bones at Christmas he tore open, engaged him in hide and seek games with chew toys. Lying on the floor with Justin, he licked his face until the room rang with laughter. Bernie was so eager and grateful for our attentions.

As my son spent more time with his friends, Bernie became my inseparable companion. The lone hiker in my family, I took him where no one else would go. We crossed streams, tested ice crust and gingerly picked our way through plains of cactus and yucca; we sat on high rocks, sniffing the air, until Bernie let me know it was time to get to our feet again.  Off his lead, he would never stray too far without looking back, waiting until I joined him before pressing on happily.

Coming home from business travel after midnight by taxi, I'd find him at the door waiting when the rest of the house was asleep. He was ecstatic whether I had been gone 2 hours or 2 weeks. Working alone at home as a writer and consultant, he stood between me and complete solitude.  Instead of a water cooler of gossip, I had Bernie wanting to go for a walk. Amidst endless deadlines, Bernie made me stop and smell the world.

Midlife took a toll on both of us. I staggered through job permutations and a disabling back injury; he tolerated our new cat's unprovoked bites and the sad state of being upstaged by her saucy charisma. When left alone, Bernie suffered such anxiety he dug irreparable holes in couch and carpet. He emptied the wastebasket looking for forbidden foods and learned the new title of 'Bad Dog.' During Colorado's frequent electrical storms, he swept the house all night panting and whining, keeping us awake. Pragmatic souls suggested that maybe it was time for Bernie to go. I agreed with St. Exupery, who wrote in 'The Little Prince,' "We are responsible for what we tame." I support lifelong commitment to pets the way many Catholics believe in matrimony.

We carried on with weary forbearance for Bernie's sake, occasionally cursing his obtuse ways. Quietly, Bernie's eyes glossed over with cataracts. We noticed he no longer sliced the air with shattering barks when dangerous Girl Scouts or Jehovah Witnesses attacked our house. He couldn't hear the doorbell. Bernie was growing old.

Like him, we tried to not notice. He still walked with me every day, although he panted and sometimes had to stop and rest in strange yards.  For some time, he had been too inflexible to climb on the bed; he made do with a place on the floor besides us. Like all who drink the bitter brew of Time, his expectations grew smaller. He dozed more often, sometimes whimpering in his sleep, sometimes wagging his tail.

Now 16, he wheezed frequently, sometimes too discomfited to sleep. When a sister mentioned I might need to put him down, I saw with sudden poignancy his struggle to keep pace. It was not fair to keep him so I would not suffer, although he would gladly put up with it to be at my side. I called him my 'old puppy' because there was still so much enthusiasm beneath his bushy white eyebrows.

I took him for a last walk, a day I cannot recall without tears. Uncharacteristically, he did not 'mark' a single tree or blade of grass. It was as if he knew this world was no longer his to claim. When we returned, he paused at the driveway and looked up at the house for a long time, as if remembering it for some future time. It was our last walk, after all.

Like most people, I want to believe in an afterlife. I want to believe there was someone waiting for Bernie 'on the other side,' as he always waited for me at the end of a trail. I have lost parents, two siblings and several friends to death; in all cases, a chasm opens up at my feet; there are no words with which to greet the Void. There is no getting around the heart's insufficiency before death. It is a tongue for which we do not have words, let alone, answers.

Dharma, the Buddhist term for spiritual teaching, can mean a sermon of the Buddha, a headache at 4 a.m., or a little white dog we loved in spite of ourselves. Dharma is the thing that makes you wake up to life's impermanence and beauty. Among many other things, Bernie was my teacher, in spite of my impatience. During his last, sightless days, I would sometimes feel his soft nose gently nudge my leg for no reason, as if to say, 'pay attention.' I didn't know then to what.

I think he was telling me that the only way to dissolve the world's hardness is with softness of heart (or nose). I think he was telling me that although he owned no possessions, and accomplished no great feats, it is enough to love earnestly and enjoy a walk every day in the sun. I think he was reminding me to pay less acute attention to what is wrong and to love more consciously. One day we are yelling at our dog for something stupid, and the next a stranger is shaving a place on his leg to inject a heart-stopping drug. We all have a little white dog - or nettlesome child, or aggravating parent - who will be gone one day, leaving us with shocked grief that we loved them so much with so little awareness.

Buddha loved animals. He believed theirs was a difficult birth they did not choose, suffering at the hands of others and nature without understanding why. It is one reason our mercy toward them is required. Despite these challenges, Buddhism maintains that even animals can become enlightened and can choose greatness of heart in service of others, overcoming the cycle of rebirth. At the end, I held Bernie and told him he had been a good dog, a brave and noble being, even though it is a hard thing to be a little white dog in this world.

How will I hike again without my Buddha with the ludicrous tail, who patiently taught me the only perfection we can learn is to love imperfection? How will I take my own last walk on earth without him bouncing at my side, my only company the memory of compassion or my refusal of it? I hope I can bid farewell to the sky and grass and sweet air with half of the grace and dignity that you carried, old pup.

I promise to be conscious. I vow to remember love.

May all living beings be free of suffering. May all living beings - whether great or small, visible or invisible, born or yet to be born - be happy. May all beings live in joyousness, safety and peace.
Tibetan prayer
Rebekah Shardy is a professional trainer and writer who teaches creative writing to women recovering from prison and addiction through the nonprofit "Mighty Muse Writing Project for Women" in Colorado Springs, Colorado.