I think I have always used animals as a reliably cheerful distraction from whatever was ailing me. There has never been anything much wrong with me that a few hours in the company of one good dog couldn’t fix. I have turned to them also in celebration and so the joy I have shared with them has been a constant in my life. Charlie and Santi are proof that we have done it again.
Eloise is dying. I have never felt closer to a dog than I have to Eloise my spectacularly beautiful and incredibly smart Bernese Mountain Dog. “Beauty and brains”, a vet once said about her. And he was right. She is my soul dog. She has taught me many gentle lessons about quiet pleasure and calm steady watchfulness. She is an old soul and I could use another lifetime with her to get the lessons.
Her illness brought enormous sadness and pain. And so before long we found ourselves fostering some little lambs. Watching them run and jump has been entertaining for Eloise too, especially now that they are out of her kitchen. The gate that barred them in kept her out, and had to be moved completely so she could walk gingerly in. But now, in this northeastern heat wave, she lounges in the grass and watches their silly antics. We have nicknamed them her Hospice lambs. We never meant to become shepherds. I have never even had a passing fantasy about owning sheep. A cow, yes. I loved imagining milking in the mornings and then scraping the cream off the top for our coffee. As a child who missed out on a particular brand of mothering I have long had recurring dreams and fantasies about sleeping with a cow. But sheep, never.
And yet it was sheep who dropped into our lives. Sheep whose lambs my husband took us to see to welcome spring. Lambs who Hannah and Eli held and bottle fed, and whom we agreed to foster for one quick spring because we have always aimed to be yes parents and to live our own lives filled with the answer yes. And now sheep who love us and who are bonded to us think we are their family. Small sheep, but sheep just the same, who run to meet us when the car pulls up, and baaa at the window when they want a scratch. Sheep whom we watch and laugh with, coo and aww over like kids with a basket full of kittens. Sheep who are spending the day at the vet getting shots, and wormed, and neutered and in general made fit for a family smallholding. These little sheep won’t go to market. Instead they will live lives in only a flock of two unless you count us, their adopted relatives. But live they will surrounded by people and dogs, chickens and cat. The have a little lamb cottage with fresh hay and sweet grain to munch and chew. They have humans with bottle instead of mamas with milk. They get snuggles and when they nuzzle us the maaa sounds they make are a sheep’s version of a purr.
Sometimes the universe gives us exactly what we need. This little distraction has reminded us that life moves inexorably on. Eloise intends that we remember to get on with it in love and joy and gratitude for this life in these high old green hills among the people and animals we love so much. Eloise sees cancer as a reason for cheese. All of her pills come wrapped inside her favorite cheese and so as she thumps and wags her tail, smiling up at us these last times, she reminds us that even in cancer she finds reason to celebrate. It is no picnic. Her leg is atrophying and when she is annoyed at Pippi she has to bark now instead of chase. But so long as she takes pleasure in us and in the cheese, wagging her tail and getting big belly rubs we will tend her and love her and feel lucky for these days. Our closest friends have been coming round to say goodbye. The vet says we might have two months left at the outside with the rate we are ramping up the meds to keep her comfortable. Two months. By then Charlie and Santi will be jumping fences and driving us some new kind of crazy. There are lessons here. And once again Eloise is my teacher….