Ursula, my one-of-a-kind canine companion, a chow-golden retriever mix with red-gold fur, folded ears, a curly tail, lavender tongue and plump black muzzle, left her beautiful body at sunset on Friday, June 15, 2012.
In 2011, right after Thanksgiving, we got a bad diagnosis. The lump on her tongue was melanoma – a canine variety, genetically linked to the blue pigmentation. I had always been so proud of her beautiful lavender half-Chowish tongue. And now, it had become her doom. We didn’t get very good advice at first. One vet said “Nothing to be done.” Another, holistic one, recommended all sorts of supplements and herbs. Then the growth came back, worse than before, within a couple months. I went online, because I’d heard of a vaccine. I found a veterinary specialist center, and skilled, sympathetic veterinary oncologist. Yes, we could try the vaccine, but the tumor should first be removed again, and the site treated with radiation. Only 6 treatments – I thought that Ursula, the vet-phobic, could handle that much. She did. She was braver than I’d ever seen her. I knew she was trying, for us, to be healed and survive a bit longer. We all needed a little more time together. The surgery and radiation appeared successful. We took her for a weekend at Yosemite to celebrate. She pranced on the paved paths. She gloried in the scents of Spring.
She had been doing well, so it was a shock to be told that although the tongue was still healthy, the cancer had spread to her lungs. The prognosis, and the vet’s description of the final stages — the struggle to breathe, the weakness, the coughing — brought me to tears in the exam room. But weeks went by, and sh never started coughing, or gasping for breath. Every once in a while, she would gag, just a little. Her energy remained the same as ever. We went for a walk every day, and she played at fetching her collection of stuffed animals, every evening.
Things went on about the same for a few weeks after Yosemite. Then Ursula had a visit on Sunday June 10, with her puppyhood friend, Winnie the Westie. Because Winnie’s family had moved quite far away, down on the Peninsula, they hadn’t met in years, but it was delight at first sight, when we brought Ursula into my in-laws’ big, park-like back yard, where Winnie was already bouncing with excitement. They greeted each other lovingly, though not as puppies, but as the mature twelve-year-olds they had become. Ursula still had plenty of energy, and they spent over an hour, roaming and exploring every corner of the multi-level, tree-filled yard — Ursula always in the lead. Finally, she seemed tired out and settled down on the patio. We took her home so she could sleep and relax more fully, without the rest of us still being active all around her. She continued to seem tired on the following days, although she still wanted to play a little, and go for walks too, right through Thursday of that week. Only one sign appeared, that things were changing – her appetite suddenly decreased, and it was hard to find anything to tempt her, on Wednesday and Thursday.
Then that Friday, June 15, she wouldn’t eat at all. Nor would she lie down, or even sit. Hardly, would she drink. She only paced the house constantly — panting, restless, anxious, and once in a while, staggering, just a little, when her hind legs would oddly cross. The panting wasn’t pain-panting, though. I’ve seen that — too much of it — and I know the difference. This was excitement. I had no doubt the spirits of the dear departed dogs who had left us when she was still a pup, were now gathering all about her, telling her it was time, and they were here to guide and welcome her to the Other Side.
In the afternoon, she asked to go into the gated room where our other two dogs, Maeve and Jeff, had been living for some years, for protection from the random attacks that had become the one sad part of her behavior. Yes, she really asked. She had her nose stuck through the diamond opening, and when I walked by, she looked up and met my eyes, and she was asking. I said “Do you want to go in?” And I saw “Yes” — I didn’t need to hear it. So, I knew it would be okay this time, and opened the gate. She went in quietly, sniffed them both, walked all around sniffing the bed where they were lying. Then she lay down briefly between them, got up, and left without another glance back. Maeve, our black Lab mix who had adopted and raised Ursula, looked heartbroken. Jeff, the spitz, looked confused.
At dinner, I said to my husband that we should probably, this night, take her on that car ride, which we’d been talking about doing on the weekend. We got her into the car about seven, then headed across the Bay to Marin County, to Mount Tamalpais, as sacred a mountain as ever there has been. Happily, the night was mild (one of the few mild nights of 2012 here around San Francisco Bay, until this October), so I rolled down the back window all the way. Ursula loved nothing better than sniffing, and sniffing the scents of “the wild” as they poured past a slowly-moving car window, was the best.
So, she got herself close to the window, half-sitting up, to drink in the flowing odors, as the sun continued to set. The road we were on, winding slowly up the mountain, is heavily forested in most places, abounding with redwood trees. By eight, it was already almost night, there under the trees — although in this area, a week shy of Solstice, the days last till about nine in more open terrain.
The air was so mild, we left the back window open, even when it became completely dark. About this time, Ursula settled down, curled up, and dozed off, right behind me. I also fell into a trance-like sleep, occasionally swimming up into near-consciousness for a moment, only to be pulled under again. Karl just kept driving, and somehow took a wrong turn (not in character for him) which kept us on the mountain for about an extra hour.
As he drove, he saw a big stag off to the right, who turned and looked right at the car. Some way onwards, he saw a doe, a raccoon, and an egret. I came back to full consciousness when we got back onto the freeway. Ursula was quiet in the back seat. When I glanced back in the darkness, she was curled up, and seemed to be sleeping comfortably. She had always loved car rides, too.
We got home, finally, thanks to the wrong turn, a little before ten. Karl went around and opened the back passenger-side door. “I think she’s gone,” he said.
She was. Curled up, her nap had tranquilly become her eternal sleep, eyes tight shut, a little of her pretty lavender-blue tongue now extending out from between her teeth. The Ursula-body which now remained with us, showed how very peaceful had been her passing.
I laughed and cried at the same time, able to think of nothing to say, but “Oh, Ursula, you did it, you left. Good girl, you did it your way.” I had always known that she was determined to go in her own way, and that she was determined never to be euthanized. (An animal communicator had actually told me this about her, when she was still quite young.) And she chose her time with care, too — after one last visit to the Sierras, one last visit with her best friend, one visit to make peace with her canine housemates. She chose not to wait until the last, worst days. She was still nearly symptom-free, strong and enjoying just the same quality of life as she always had, with no impairment, no suffering, and no days or weeks of tormented questioning and decision-making struggles on our part. Yes indeed, she chose her moment, and it was one of the most beautiful ones of her entire life. She just stepped away, without any fuss at all. She was a dog who had always hated fuss.
Rigor was already fairly advanced at the time we got home, so we knew, we KNEW, that she had flown free of her body, there on the sacred mountain at sunset, right out the open car window, to stay behind, surrounded by redwood trees, while the wild creatures of the mountainside began gathering, to witness and honor the transition of such a remarkable soul.
So, that was the beautiful, mystical departure through the Veil, of my beloved, smart, independent-minded Ursula, my little golden curly-tailed “bear cub.” She was to me, by turns, a person in a dog suit, sometimes almost certainly a cat disguising herself as a dog, and very often, a wild animal who had chosen to come spend one lifetime seeing what this domestication thing was all about. She left us, in just same way she had come to us, and lived with us — in her own good time, and her own strong-willed way.
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