The Family Dog Dies

After growing weaker each day for a week, no longer eating or drinking, her ribs visible from weight loss, her look glassy and, I thought, a little frightened, and no wag at all in her tail, Ginger was put to sleep this morning.

The family had been crying on and off for days. On a quilt on the floor of a room at the sympathetic vets, we watched her fall literally asleep from a tranquilizer and then deeper from a heavy shot of anesthesia. Her breathing slowed and stopped.

Younger days

Younger days

We thanked her for her love and promised her our memory. She looked peaceful, except for an angle to her head that she never had while she was alive.

I’m shaken by how quickly a life can blink out, like a light bulb that has glowed for years, then flickers for a second and goes dark for good. We take the persistence of being alive for granted. Any living dog or human seems as if it will go on forever as it is now. What a stomach-churning shock when the life machine breaks down and quits, and life is gone like a puff of air.

Sadness is said to have its roots as a way for children to manage their separations from mother as they grow and change. That feeling of a disappearance, a hole in the air, helps us adjust to a new order of things. We slow down, pull back, find support, and finally regroup and revive. Ginger’s last gift to us.

My Million-Year-Old Back Yard

I like knowing the age of living things—not the age of the individual organism but of the lineage, of how long a plant or animal has been different from other lineages. The dates give me a glimpse of a Past that, like a god, generates and then consumes everything.

So here are the ages, youngest first, of the plants and animals in my suburban yard. Dates are approximate by millions or tens of millions of years!

The youngest creature in the yard is our dog, an animal that separated from its wolf-like ancestors about 40,000 years ago.

Next is me and my wife. Our species, Homo sapiens, separated from our Homo ancestors about 200,000 years ago. Before that, our genus, Homo, split off from the genus that chimps belong to about 7 million years ago. All our ancestors in our genus have died off and we are the only member left, a strange isolation. We are probably the only species in the yard in that situation.

The youngest plant is the grass, appearing about 40 million years ago among plants that adapted to a warming climate.

Back yardThe first squirrel fossil dates from 36 mya. Squirrels are part of a huge group of rodents with big, continually growing teeth. The chipmunks are in the same category.

An oak tree dominates the yard. Although trees in general have been around for much longer, the oak was part of the spread of flowering plants, at very roughly 70 million years.

There’s a holly tree. The several hundred species of holly emerged about 80 million years ago.

Other flowering plants and trees come next. Their ancestors began diverging from flowerless plants around 240 mya, they were blooming 160 mya, and they became widespread and then dominant among plants during the 100 million years after that.

Insects originated about 600 million years ago, but the modern insects in the yard—flies, butterflies, wasps, bees, ants— co-evolved along with the flowering plants from 146 to 66 mya.

The birds are thought to have evolved from certain dinosaurs that carried feathers for warmth, about 180 million years ago.

The pine trees and cedars around the house are among the conifers that date back 300 million years when early trees began to live away from the water. Conifers reproduce through exposed seeds (on pine cones) and pollen. Protected seeds, enclosed in nuts and fruits, came later.

Two other back-yard inhabitants go back as far as the conifers: Ferns, not so different 350 million years ago, with their tiny, single-cell spores, another predecessor of the modern seed. And spiders, spinning their silk about 300 million years ago.

I’m realizing, as I finish hunting through Wikipedia for these dates, that my intentions have become a little muddled. The “birth” of these species was more process than event, a long interweaving with their early kin. The age of a rose depends on whether you look at it as a rose or a seed-bearing plant or a land plant.

Still, I savor the majestic history here, the story of life.

The Family Dog Grows Older

I wrote about Ginger, our family’s Golden Retriever, a couple of years ago when she was 11. She is still living out her golden years with, so far, no visible or excruciating diseases. She’s become a fussier lady, finicky about kibble, loving broccoli and green beans, rejecting beets and tomatoes. She stays closer than she used to to the household humans in preferred order, the adult kids first, then my wife the food provider, then me. When my wife or I go upstairs, she stays with the one who is downstairs. When we both go up, she stands at the bottom of the stairs, takes a long, resigned look around, then unsteadily makes her way up. One eye is cloudy.

Ginger2015She has lived long enough for us to have an intense relationship with her but briefly enough for us to grasp the arc of her life. “Remember when Ginger….” The prospect of her dying is sad but not terrible, to me.  Her decline doesn’t feel like a failure to stay alive but, instead, a completion, a conclusion. Her life, when she passes, will have been a whole, a coming in and a going out, the existence of an individual, a self.

I would like to see other deaths this way, to view the wilting of plants or trees as completions, not as loss, to see the absence of elderly friends and family that way, to see my own aging that way. I would like to, but I’m not sure I can.