This I Believe

Christa - Flagstaff, Arizona
Entered on August 20, 2007

I believe that grace is a simple thing, and that we can achieve it in our lives. I learned this from a dog.

Whitney was an eight-year old black lab with some amount of unknown other canine melded in her blood. Her smiling mouth and curled tail had accompanied us for close to 100 miles in the rugged southern Wind River Mountains of western Wyoming. While our horses wove across the rocky trails and around trees, Whitney charged over the hillsides, into lakes and lily ponds and through streams. She was everywhere: even-tempered, enthusiastic, well mannered and wise.

And then she was gone.

On the way back to camp one day, Whitney lay down under a bush in the shade, groaning. It was the first time she had ever stopped on the trail. When she got up to join us, her belly was distended and swelling fast. Her efforts at throwing up or defecating were useless. Janilee examined her, listening carefully to her stomach. There were no sounds at all; her insides had stopped working. Back at camp she settled slowly into the vestibule of Eric and Janilee’s tent, not responding to their calls, or looking up when they rubbed her.

That evening a driving rain settled over camp. Bolts of lightning and thunderclaps coincided, jolting all of us in our tents. In the middle of the storm, Whitney left the shelter of the tent and went out into the night to die. We never saw her again.

What exactly happened to Whitney we will never know. Obstructed, twisted or perforated intestine probably. But what struck me is how quickly it all happened, and how strangely right her death was. It was the first time in my life I witnessed a creature dying the way she was supposed to: with grace.

I realize my naiveté. People who grow up on farms or ranches have seen this, but I never have. In more than 20 years of wilderness travel and guiding I’ve seen dead animals and skeletons, fur and piles of feathers left over from a kill. But I’ve never seen an animal do what it was supposed to do—crawl away and die alone. I’ve never seen the millennia of evolutionary planning coming together in this one final act. I’ve grown up in a world of animals hit by cars, put down in vet offices, shot by people, or perhaps dying on a comfortable rug in the living room. Never this wild, primordial event, so full of strange beauty. Undoubtedly there was pain, perhaps fear. But Whitney knew what she needed to do, and instinct showed her the way.

Witnessing the final moments of Whitney’s life, I believe that I was seeing grace. Whitney did what she was supposed to do, alone and without complaint. Eric and Janilee lived the day with equal grace. They never asked each other what if?, blamed or tried to figure out how to change an unchangeable past. They searched, they cried and then they accepted the death of their friend. And in the morning, they called out to her in love and friendship, and we rode away.

I think I have come to understand that grace for me is as simple a thing as allowing life to happen as it will, accepting it for all its sorrows and fears, joys and loves, facing the unknown with as much consent as the known. I have sought grace for years without understanding that its presence was all around me, and that all I needed to do was surrender.

Whitney may have been “just” a dog, but for me, she and her family were teachers of the art of living with grace.