Lucy came to Friends For Life discarded by the world. Getting this starved, gentle soul up to a good weight was something we knew we could do. But there was more going with her than malnutrition.
Our vet felt a significant mammary mass. Diagnostics determined that Lucy had advanced breast cancer and her prognosis was just a few weeks at the outside. But she was still eating well and enjoying engagement with her new FFL family.
Although we knew her time with us was short, we also knew she still had some good time left. We asked the universe for the nearly impossible: A foster who would shower Lucy with love until her days ran out. Before we knew it, Audrey Talab was at the shelter picking up Lucy and taking her to fospice.
Until I started in this business, I’d never heard the word “fospice.”
Fospice is when a foster parent takes on an animal in the dying process. They welcome this animal into their life – to be a part of the transition for the animal. It is a profoundly difficult thing. We love animals knowing that we will likely outlive them. But these fosters are keenly aware. They are interacting with these animals in a flickering moment. They administer meds, they comfort and are ever watchful to be sure that the animal is still enjoying life.
Lucy immediately settled in Audrey’s home. She put on some weight and loved the affection. But the illness is advanced and she is slowing down.
We engaged Dr. Christie Cornelius, a specialist in palliative (end of life) care to look after Lucy. Dr. Cornelius is an expert in relieving symptoms in end-stage illness. She is acutely attuned to Lucy’s comfort and quality of life. Lucy is on special medications, enjoys especially delicious food and takes supplements tailored just for her.
Hearing the news that Lucy’s path is so short was tough. Moments like this shatter the illusion that we can emotionally prepare for the loss of these animals who share our lives. We do this work because of our unquenchable need to save these creatures.
And that started me thinking: What does it mean to save someone?
“It’s funny where we look for salvation and where we actually find it,” Anne Lamott wrote.
Is “saving” extending life? Or is it expanding love? Is it rolling up your sleeves to stand shoulder to shoulder in the fight? Or to gently pat a grey muzzle as life fades?
Cutting to the Chase: Peace
There is an ancient concept called a “breath prayer” in which a prayer is tailored in few enough words to fit in the space of one exhalation.
It is possible, in the use of this prayer (or intention) to match the thought with the habit or breathing – and so to integrate it into the very thing that we do constantly – and the thing that we do in order live.
Breath prayers are simple intentions. Short. Easy. They can be spoken in a single breath and repeated numerous times throughout the day. The words of the prayer can reflect your heart’s desire.
In a breath prayer workshop a man asked, “What if the thing I want is to have my cancer cured? That seems endlessly futile and frustrating and seems to just refocus me again and again on a negative.” The leader answered, “How would you feel if your cancer were cured?” “Peaceful. Joyful. Grateful,” replied the man. “Then cut to the chase. Your prayer is “I’d like to feel peace. I’d like to know joy. I want to be grateful.”
I thought of that when I heard Lucy’s prognosis. What if instead of raging against this dying light our choice is to just hold this pain? Sit with it. Be present.
What if Dylan Thomas was wrong?
What if going gentle into that good night is all right? In fact, what if it is best sometimes?
For our shelter and other No Kill programs, this is what the end of life decisions look like: attentive, sacred and always understanding that our “dominion” over animals must not be simply flexing our power to destroy.
It must be a soul-stirring moment on our journey as human beings and as shelter guardians, when we decide to exercise our ability to take their lives.
Every Animal Matters is a sacred text.
It is a calling. It is a rallying cry. And it is my breath prayer.
UPDATE • December 1, 2017
Sweet Lucy passed away on her own at home with Audrey, Andy and knowing for certain that she was very, very loved.
Thank you to this fospice family who so bravely gave their hearts to Lucy and made her last days her best days ever.