As some of you know, this week was moving week on the university campus where I teach. Extensive renovations in one of our main office buildings meant that we all moved out of that office building into temporary housing for about one year's time. They stripped that office building down to its bricks to do a major renovation. This week we, and our countless boxes, moved into the completed new building.
While I was unpacking one of those boxes, I came across an envelope of photographs that had gotten lost at the back of a filing cabinet over 10 years ago. It contained one of the best photographs that I have of Sarah The Wonder Dog, my magnificent golden retriever who died just over three years ago.
In the photo, Sarah – as a two year old – is sitting on the beach, at sunset, chewing on her stick. Where else would she be? And what else would she be doing there? Of course she is on the beach chewing her stick.
The beach in that photograph is about a 15 minute drive away from the beach where she had her last big play before she died at the age of 13. It was a miraculous Christmas day here on the East Coast of Canada where - very oddly - the snow had melted, and the sun was warm, and the weather tasted of spring. As a Christmas present to both of us, Sarah and I went to her favourite beach. It was a very flat beach, that we could access from very close to the car: at the age of 13, she could no longer climb over rocks or walk up steep hills. This was a very flat beach, with very shallow water, and it was possible to walk on a flat surface for quite a long distance.
We walked for about a half hour. It felt like a long time, because at home – with her sore hips – we would walk about two blocks before it was time to head back.
On one side of the beach was the ocean with its waves and the pull of the tide. She knew that she wasn't strong enough to be in the pull of that tide, but she realized that on the other side - maybe some hundred metres away - there was an inland lake without tide, and she had even managed to get a little bit wet in that water. We were both so delighted by the treat of this!
We had finished our walk on the beach, and we were heading back to the car, when suddenly there arrived a Christmas miracle: three dogs and their humans, all six of them visiting from away, came out of a car.
There was a big, black and fluffy, very friendly and lovely, Newfoundland dog. There was a smaller dog who had been hit by a car and recovered with some difficulty. So this dog also knew what it was to have to struggle a bit in order to play on the beach. Then there was a blond, gentleman dog, a golden retriever just like her, an elegant noble gentleman dog slightly larger than herself who was wise enough to understand her perfectly. In all of her years, I had never seen her look at another dog with such love.
It was as if this Christmas day on the beach – the last big play of her life - had been predestined for many lifetimes before and dreamed of in many dog dreams. The humans who belong to these dogs knew what it was to work with a pack and how to play in a way that included everyone. They had helped the smaller dog heal from the car accident. So they knew how to include in the play someone who moved more slowly than the others.
Sarah was so happy when she encountered these dogs that she immediately lay down on her back and began to make snow angels in the sand, wiggling back and forth with such joy - paws flailing in the air - and all of us, the three dogs, the three humans and me, stood around in a circle watching her as she made a full 360 Dog Angel in the sand. She was ecstatic.
Then it came time to play with the stick on the beach. Now the younger dogs, they could run far and fast to fetch that stick, and if the stick went into the water they could swim against the current in the ocean in order to bring back that stick. Sarah understood this, and you could see that she was both engaging the play but also holding back, tentative and feeling a little bit sad that she couldn't quite run like the others. She was happy to be with them, but also knowing that she wasn't quite a part of it, until - in a moment of genius - one of the other humans did a fake throw of the stick, pretending to throw the stick far into the water. All of the other dogs ran madly after the fake throw of the stick, but the humans showed Sarah that they still had the stick, and they threw the stick right in her direction, about 18 inches away.
She was able to pick up that stick. She was the one who got the stick. The others came running madly back, and she had the stick, and the miracle of this moved through her entire body. It is perhaps the happiest moment that I witnessed in her life that - even at this very end of her days -she got the stick. The other humans, and the other dogs, somehow understood the miracle of this and celebrated with her.
The gentleman golden retriever - so much like Sarah that they were hard to tell apart except that he was larger - understood Sarah's situation. When the play moved into the ocean ,into the pull of the tide, he would swim slightly behind her and very close to her: it was very obvious that he was taking care of her. He knew she would not be safe swimming in the ocean by herself. So he stuck by her and - because he was there - she could swim out into the waves of the ocean, and then swim back again because he would be there to help her if something went wrong. Again and again, the two of them went out into the ocean and back again. In her 13 years, I may have never seen her so consciously feeling cared for and loved by another dog.
In another great moment of that miracle Christmas Day play, the gentleman golden retriever took this stick and gave it to her, in order that they could play pull the stick, in the way that dogs play the pulling game. He pulled on the stick as gently as one would feed an infant with a spoon - so unbelievably gently - in order that Sarah was able to play the pull game, but she would not be hurt by it. It was, I think, the most glorious day on the beach of her life.
The day of her very last big play Sarah the Wonder Dog taught me about sticks.
Action and reaction. Cause and effect. In our reflections on karma, we have observed that humans, by nature, must act. All creatures that move, by our nature, act, and when we act we must also receive the result of that action. So it is that we, too ,will pick up both ends of a stick.
The trick is, what we do with those sticks once we've got them? In my experience, it is an oddly short list of options.
Sometimes we hit ourselves with our sticks or hit other people with our sticks. In that action and reaction, sometimes we cause harm to ourselves or to others.
Some sticks are fun, and we pick them up, and we play fetch in the companionship of our pack. We pick up our sticks, and we toss them in delight. We run after them, and fetch, for the pleasure of picking them up again.
Sometimes we chew on our sticks. Is there a stick that you're chewing on at the moment? Something that's eating you, that you can't quite digest? So you keep chewing on it… enough to get splinters in your jaws?
If you play fetch with a dog on the beach, you may observe that – sometimes - among the hardest things is to know how to drop the stick.
How do we let go?
Sometimes we couldn't hold on anymore, even if we wanted to. Sometimes we simply decide to drop it. Sometimes we forgive, and our end of the stick naturally falls away. Because we’re ready to forgive? Because it hurts us less to forgive than it does to keep holding on?
Action and reaction. Cause and effect. We pick up both ends of the stick. Then what? Do we hit ourselves with it? Do we hurt someone else with it? Do we sit and chew on it? Do we delight in the tossing of it and the playing of fetch? Do we trip over it?
Who is to say?
But I learned from Sarah the Wonder Dog that we do need to drop the stick before we can roll in the sand.
Copyright © 2019, Adela Sandness