“Life can change in an instant, the ordinary instant.” So wrote Joan Didion, and many people who’ve come to experience the words’ meaning viscerally have done so not with the quick glance across the room of a soulmate who changes one’s life for the better, but rather through tragedy. Didion’s words simple wisdom are in reminding us to cherish, to savor, to embrace each day, for life can not only change in an instant, but this singular day will never return to us again. It’s worth our attention, our presence.
I think the older we grow, the more we understand what is of value: the important things, like family or meaningful work. Or the simple things in life, like looking deeply into a flower, or feeling the breeze on our bare skin. We stop more and take it in, realizing our days of flowers are not limitless. As we grow older still, we gain wisdom, so different from knowledge or intellect, and we distill life down to even less (or more): love, joy, well-being, peace.
Some of my favourite lines, and surely some of the wisest, are from Hafiz:
When all your desires
Have been distilled
You will caste just two votes
To love more and be happy
So why then, does it seem so hard for humans to love more and simply be happy? Why does it seem like only the old (and then only those rare elders) seem to grasp this? Why so much fear and violence? Are we given life and death experiences to push us out of complacency? Is it so hard to remember to let go of the trivia that clutters up lives and focus instead on love and what matters most, or do we need the calamitous events to connect deeply?
The small life I share with the dogs changed in one ordinary instant. I let them out loose to hunt early in the morning, as is our ritual. The grasses in the front field were tall, rising up to my chest, and swaying in the morning’s breeze. I knew animals (groundhogs, rabbits, field mice and deer) cavorted and burrowed out there, but the dogs rarely caught anything. All four are hounds so, despite my pacific nature and reverence for all life, they are programmed to hunt. And, since I am responsible for their well-being, which means mental well-being as well, I must let them fulfil their simple destinies.
Sasha, my oldest, my Ferdinand the Bull, remained inside. But out shot Sparkle. Out dashed Olive. Out hopped Isabelle on her three legs, ears pricked, valiantly following behind the other two. Then there ensued the high-pitched yips of hunting I knew so well. But all at once the yips changed, and I knew something was wrong. I raced, as fast as my bare feet could go. And then I heard it: the low notes of an animal hurt. It was an awful scream, whose pain sent a prickle up my spine. I know the voice of each of my dogs. This was Olive.
Out I ran into the tall, wet grass to where my little clump of dogs were surrounded by deer. There was Olive matted to the ground, her right eye bulging in the socket, and above it already a huge hematoma. I reached down for her in the mayhem, and when I did, she snapped her head around, lips pulled back and white canine teeth exposed, to bite. Then saw it was me, and did not. (Later I would reflect upon the control this must have taken.) Ever so gently I lifted her. I didn’t know if her spine was crushed or her bones broken. I didn’t know if she was bleeding internally. The deer fled, and I didn’t know where Sparkle or Isabelle were. My only concern was getting Olive out of there. If she was going to take her last breath, it was going to be in my arms, not mashed in a tangle of grass on the ground. I stumbled, tripped and moved through the grasses carrying Olive, not knowing whether she would die before we made it inside. I kept talking to her, whispering that I loved her over and over. “I’m here, Olive. I love you, Olive. Please, hang on, Olive.”
I got her inside and gently set her on the bed. Only then could I stand back and examine her. Her head was up and she was looking at me. The lump over her eye was growing but I saw no blood anywhere. I lifted her gums and saw a healthy gum colour—a sign indicating perhaps no internal injuries. Then, very lightly, I began tracing my hands over her, watching for flinches, feeling for breaks. She didn’t seem in terrible pain at all. But then again, dachshunds are tough, Princess Olive in particular.
I left her and was reaching for the phone to call vets, when I heard another terrible noise. Sparkle. Once again, the mad sprint to the front fields, but I didn’t go far before I saw, not in the fields of tall grass, but on my cut lawn, close to the house, the doe chasing Sparkle, head down like a bull.
“NO!!!” I screamed, flailing my arms. “No! No! No!”
The doe ran off, but so too did Sparkle—streaking after her out in the tall grass where the doe had the advantage. I was able to catch Sparkle and carry her in. Isabelle had wisely hopped inside when my yells of danger erupted. I shut the gate and called the vets.
Olive and I drove in the early morning hours. She was lying quietly on the futon in the back, and I was constantly reaching around to touch her and assess if she was still breathing.
When we reached the vets, I lifted her in her towels and entered. There were people I knew and when I explained what had happened, several people reported stories of deer attacking dogs. But I found it hard to listen to anyone; I was holding Olive and I needed to be present for her, needed for her to be seen quickly.
It was only after we’d been taken back to an exam room, that I noticed the drops of blood coming from her nose, the towel beneath her speckled red. Then I saw her side. There, on her left side, ballooning out was a large swelling of fluid. Olive was bleeding internally. Her spleen must have ruptured. I became very still. I kissed her brave face and nose lightly. “Oh Olive, you are so brave. I love you, Olive.” She didn’t cry or make a peep, but stared with grave intensity back into my eyes.
And then the doctor was examining her, looking into her swelling eye, listening to her heart and lungs and running his hands over her body as I had earlier. When he removed the stethoscope from his ears, he told me there was decreased breath sound in her lungs. I expressed my concern about internal injuries and he nodded, then said he was taking her back for X-rays.
Time spent waiting for news is always long. Finally he returned with her. I remember he started with good news. Her eye itself was not damaged. She had a hairline fracture to her skull or jaw, but it would heal on its own. Not to worry. The blood dripping from her nose was most likely coming from her eye and sinus cavities, although at that point he couldn’t be sure. Behind her iris, the eye was completely red. Then he explained that little Olive had broken her rib in two places. He pointed it out on the X-ray. The rib, or perhaps the deer’s sharp hoof, had punctured Olive’s lung. The sac of fluid I thought had been blood was actually a pocket of air from her lung leaking into the space between lung and chest wall.
“Her injuries are serious. From her behavior, lying there so quiet, I was not expecting this extent of injury. Frankly, I’m amazed at her behavior.”
“That’s the behavior of a dignified dachshund,” I said, at a loss. Dignified dachshund, the words I so often used for Olive, claiming often that she was actually a saluki with short legs. “She’s a princess, but she’s a tough little princess.” Then: “Is she in a lot pain?”
“With the injuries she has, yes. She’s in considerable pain.”
His plan was to hook her up to fluids and pain medication immediately, then monitor her breathing throughout the day.
“We may need to operate. In which case you’d have to go to a specialist. We can’t do the surgery required here.”
“What would she need done?” I asked, the fear growing.
“If her lung does not inflate. If, in fact, it collapses, she would need a chest tube. The procedure would be to open her up. They would decide once in there, but if the tear to her lung was large and not reparable, she would need to have the lobe removed.”
“Open her up,” I repeated, the words reverberating in my head.
“They would have to crack open her chest.”
“But let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. I just need you to be aware of what she is facing right now. The next hours will be crucial. If she can breathe on her own by this evening, she could come home with you for the night, and return to us in the morning for more monitoring.”
I said I understood and watched her face as the tech carried her away from me.
Once home I called my friends and family, and told them to visualize little Olive coming home to spend the night with me on the bed in the spot she always lay, up by my head. Throughout that difficult day, our little family was subdued. Sasha especially was out of sorts, depressed and perhaps confused. But the love and support for the little princess of a dachshund came flooding in.
Then came the call from the vet that Olive had remained stable and could come home to spend the night. Off I drove to pick her up, but was not prepared for how poor she looked. My brave girl was drugged up on morphine and in addition she’d been given a Fentanyl patch. Driving over I’d just learned on the radio that Fentanyl was what took Prince out of his earthly existence.
I stood in the exam room with Olive, kissing her face over and over, more than relieved that she was coming home and had not needed her chest cracked open and a tube inserted. There on the exam table she hung her head, perhaps more embarrassed by the bright orange wrappings that covered her entire middle than bothered by the pain. If her middle was orange, her leg containing the I.V. was green. But she could have been green striped and polka dotted, and I would have rejoiced. While she had a long road ahead of her, she was okay. And she was coming home!
That first night was hard. I hauled the crate up and onto my bed, up by the pillows so I could monitor Olive all night long. Even on serious pain killers, Olive moaned and groaned, and every time she did, I jumped up, switching on the light, convinced her lung was deflating.
By the next evening, my mother came to help me monitor Olive. She said she was there to help Olive, but I knew she was there to help me, her own baby while I helped my baby. It was Friday night and Olive was well enough to stay the weekend. It was hard work keeping the Orange Oil Can, as my mother dubbed her, from moving about. On guard duty, we would turn our backs for mere seconds and off she would slink, probably looking for deer.
We learned to drag the comfy old rocking chair in front of Olive’s arm chair to block her. My mother rocked in the chair and watched birds hopping from branch to feeder as the late-spring vegetation enveloped this peaceful world just beyond the big windows. The limp piece of linguine who was Olive was one hard patient to keep down. She was on Fentanyl, Gabapentin and Novox, and still she wouldn’t rest. But then crates were made for a reason, and Olive could remain safe, with no fear of injury to herself, snug in a crate.
I find I haven’t adequate words of gratitude that little Olive didn’t die. How easily she could have been crushed by the deer. I’m grateful she didn’t have internal injuries or a broken leg, or severed spine, leaving her paralyzed. I’m grateful too that she didn’t need the horrific surgery that would require anesthesia and crack open her little chest, requiring weeks of recovery for her and weeks of stress for me. But I’m also grateful for my family’s support and love. I’m grateful for my friends and the outpouring of support, offers of food and help. And I’m grateful for each pure day that comes our way, no matter what it holds.
I’m grateful for the grass beneath paws and feet. For the breeze that touches us in the morning. For the fireflies, blinking on and off at night. For the flowers who open and bloom. And for each new lesson learned, and all the love surrounding us.
Oh and the deer? Each night around dusk, she comes and lies in the back of our house, where the cut grass meets the tall grass, just watching, sometimes licking the grass or herself, not bothered at all. And I like to think she wants to be friends with the little hounds who gave her such a fright.
I don’t blame the startled doe for striking out. There is no doubt in my mind that dear, intrepid Olive was ‘investigating’ her fawn. And mamma doe did exactly what I would have done, for we all take care of what’s important to us. And we all protect our babies.
Olive's orange oil can bandage is removed and she rolls, happy, on the grass
Sparkle stares at the deer through mess fencing