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My Friendship with Death

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Death and I are old friends. Winter is the season when we spend the most time together. This year’s Cimmerian season began early, on October 1. Copper was a gregarious and warm-hearted geriatric horse that we affectionately referred to as our “lap horse”. He was Indraloka Animal Sanctuary’s most dangerous horse because he was so affectionate that he routinely attempted to knock volunteers over in order to sit in their laps. Oh, how we loved him! As the years went on, Copper showed signs of severe arthritis. Often, he would lie down and not be able to stand up again without assistance. The volunteers became adept at the complex and dangerous job of flipping his 1,000 pound body over and getting out of the way fast so that he could get up on his good side. One morning, despite turning him over, Copper was still unable to rise. At this point, I had been nursing Copper for years, and we had grown close enough to understand one another’s thoughts.

On many occasions, he had been near Death and I had asked him, “Do you want me to let you go?”

Copper’s answer was always a resounding, “No! I want a nice, juicy pear!”

So that morning, I asked him again, “Do you want me to let you go?”

“No!” His voice screamed inside my brain. “I’m not ready yet! Get me up!”

I went down the list of volunteers and called in reinforcements. We tried everything, from building a pulley on down. Death looked on sadly while several times Copper was able to rise only to fall down again. By now, not only were my head and heart filled with Copper’s screams of fear, but also with the pain of my beloved volunteers. They were no more ready to let him go than I was. I kept trying to get him up when I should have called the vet. Finally, Copper’s big, beautiful body gave out and he went into a seizure. I told the volunteers he was on his way, and even as his cries faded, I could feel my volunteers’ pain and suffering increase. Copper’s seizures continued as these precious, loving humans sobbed their grief and pain at losing him.

I drew on the strength of my shadow side, which had been buried deep under all the pain swirling around me. Finally, I felt some clarity and heard Death, “He won’t leave yet. He is trying to hold on for them. He doesn’t want them to hurt.”

From somewhere beyond, a voice came out of me, strong and loving. “He needs us all to take a deep breath now, and think of how much we love him. When we exhale, he needs all of us to let him go.”

Everybody breathed in. Their pain drew back. Everybody exhaled, and Copper’s seizure ended. We all gathered around him, each of us touching or hugging him, saying our good-byes. His eyes closed and his breath stopped. Copper was on his way home.

That night my good (human) friend came over and sat with me as I cried and cried. I had failed Copper, and he had suffered far more than necessary because I didn’t call the vet soon enough. I had failed to protect my volunteers: why should they have to see how violent and painful Death can be? It is my responsibility to protect others from suffering, and I failed miserably. My dear, wise friend sat with me while I cried and listened calmly, her love-filled eyes never wavering from mine. The next morning, after all my tears were spent, I forgave myself. I’m just a pathetic two-legged. I’m not expected to be perfect. I did the best I could, and I learned a valuable lesson.

Death can’t be put off or ignored. When someone’s time has come, it has come. Trying to stave off Death only brings on pain and angst. In November, I used that lesson to prevent our darling Mo Chridhe from suffering. Mo Chridhe, Scottish Gaelic for “my heart”, was a baby Holstein with a severe disability causing her to be unable to straighten her front legs. We knew when we brought her to the sanctuary in June that she would never be able to survive into adulthood. Our goal was to give her the best quality of life possible, and, when the time came, to let her go peacefully and surrounded by love. And she did have a wonderful, if short, life. The other cows, Penny Power, Snuffleupagus, and Houdini, loved and coddled her as much as the volunteers and I did. Never did a day go by without Mo being nuzzled, hugged, fed treats, and told how precious she was. In November, seeing that she was growing larger and having a harder time moving around, I understood that Death was ready to take her to the spirit world, where she would no longer feel pain. I called the vet and asked for help euthanizing our precious little angel. Dr. Jen, a compassionate and gifted vet, gently administered the shot while I held Mo, telling her how much I loved her. Gus and Penny placed their noses on Mo at the same time, and I’ve no doubt they were telling her the same thing.

Death paid another visit soon after. Tristan, a dear and gentle goat whose eyes used to sparkle each morning as I greeted him, had succumbed to a progressive disease for which there is no cure. After a month of administering twice-daily fluids and nursing him around the clock, I could see he was getting no better. Once again, I held him and told him how much he was loved, while Dr. Jen lovingly administered the shot that ended his suffering.

I was hoping, given that we were almost through winter, we might have a little break from Death, but that was not to be. Our beloved elderly feline, Bongo, gently, peacefully, and lovingly left this life with great dignity at about 10:10 last Thursday morning. I don’t know if I will ever meet an older, wiser soul.

Early that morning, I made a special meal for him, and then spent hours holding him while he purred. I sang old Rod Stewart (“You’re in my heart, you’re in my soul, you’ll be my breath when I grow old, you are my Bongo, you’re my best friend, you’re in my soul…”) and gospel songs (“Rise, your faith has made you whole again…”) to him on the way to the vet’s office. He never panicked for a moment (even when I sang!) He was clear about what was happening and he was ready. He did not hesitate as he left his body, but did so as confidently as if he were heading out to the barn in time for canned food. He died purring and looking at me with such love and compassion that I felt it was him taking care of me, instead of the other way around. Death could not have been kinder.

Sadly, even as I write this, Death is whispering in my ear about yet another of my loved ones. Sky, a beautiful Great Dane who spent a lifetime on a chain before coming to the sanctuary in October, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. I don’t know how long she has, but in Copper’s name, I won’t let her suffer.

And me? I am filled with gratitude that I have the capacity to continue to fall in love with these creatures despite the pain of losing them from this realm. And because Death and I are old friends, I understand that the spirit never dies. It just grows out of these broken vessels of ours.

Embrace the darkness, my friends. It is because of its fragility and brevity that life is so sweet.

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The breath of sunlight

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“…the breath of life is in the sunlight and the hand of life is in the wind… forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.” from Clothes in Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet

Just a few days ago, I walked barefoot in India, luxuriating in the warm, powdery red earth between my toes while walking to my mother’s home. Today, I am back in blustery Northeast PA, grateful for the watery sunshine as I trudge through cold mud and stubborn ice from one barn to the next, caring for the animals of Indraloka. While I was there, a big part of me was here with my beloveds. While I am here, a part of my heart and soul remains in Mother India. I am a creature divided. I love both of these worlds so very much, and I am so grateful for this life that allows me both blessings.

I am the single mother of 150, the chief poop shoveler at Indraloka Animal Sanctuary, an Indian-Dutch-American, a traveler, a romantic, a seeker and a dreamer. I am here to tell you my story.

The most common question I am asked, when people learn about my vocation as founder of an all-species sanctuary dedicated to providing a lifetime home for animals that would otherwise have been euthanized or slaughtered is “Why?” I suppose lots of people love animals, but the question becomes why did you give up everything and move to a remote area to run an animal sanctuary on which you spend all your time and all your money?

Because.

Because they bring me joy.

Because these creatures make me feel as if I am the most-loved woman in the world.

Because each time I connect with a hurt chicken, a once-helpless lamb, a rescued veal calf, an elderly horse that was abandoned after years of service to humans, and all of the rest of them, I experience God, I learn about the true nature of beauty, and I become a better person.

Because I can’t help it. Taking home creatures in need and showering them with love is like breathing for me. It just happens, and it keeps ME alive. If I placed all the animals of Indraloka in new homes today, I’d have the place filled up again by tomorrow.

This is my joyous, maddening compulsion. This is my blessing and my calling. This is my religion. This is my bliss.

Its not all flowers and rainbows. Most of the time it is heavy, dirty labor peppered with boundless heartbreak. And still, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

So many of you have asked me about what it is like to run an animal sanctuary. I am grateful and humbled by your interest. This blog is an answer to these questions, a search for spiritual enlightment through animal rescue, a chronicle of how the animals of Indraloka do so much more to rescue us then we them, and a manifesto on the joy of an endless quest for lovingkindness. I can only hope it brings forth for you whatever it is that would be the greatest blessing to you today.