In our family, we’ve always loved baths—even Cleo, our mixed Australian shepherd. To bathe some dogs, you’ve got to wrestle them down, hold them tight, or strap them to the tub. But Cleo, who swam with such abandon in the cold of the Bay, also relished the warm waters of the bath. Once, when young and reckless, she leapt in with my husband, Patrick, ensconced with the Times for his Sunday morning soak. What is the promise of a bath?
This chilly morning, I settle into the warmth of the bath, held close by the simple, steadfast curve of the basin. The water receives me, seems to leach out toxins, tensions. My body breathes deeply, belly pooching out, buttocks, vagina, thighs relaxed, legs floating, calves kissing. The drain murmurs comfort. The water cleaves everywhere equally, accepting each crevice and blemish, allowing for the body’s idiosyncrasies. I rest here to the last, even as the water flows out.
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During Cleo’s old age I bathed her often. At the end—when she could barely eat, drink or walk—she’d sometimes wake up soaked in urine. One weekend, longtime family friends Peter and Laura came as houseguests to bid our beloved dog goodbye. The first night of their visit Cleo had thrown up; in the morning we found her lying in her nest of blankets, caked in her own vomit. She was unable to move. So Peter picked her up and cradled her like a baby. He carried her to the bathtub where, after replacing her nest and scrubbing down her favorite corner, I joined them.
I had brought a big soup pot from the kitchen, the one I’d used for fifteen years to wet and rinse Cleo in the tub. But this time the force of poured water was too strong for her fragile body. Skittering and sliding, she knocked over shampoos and rinses, soap dishes and razors. Together, Peter and I held her up, steadied her. More gingerly now, we poured the warm water. As we soaped her ruff, along her spine, her plume tail, she slipped down into the enamel basin. Feet splayed out, she rested patiently in the water and let us finish washing her. She and I looked each other in the face; one filmy eye flickered, asking for reassurance. Was this okay?
When I’d bathed Cleo in her younger years, she’d always lock her gaze to mine. She’d pant and smile, tongue hanging out, offering me a generous slosh on the mouth. At a hint that we were done, she’d give a joyful shudder, tags clanging. Splattering water everywhere, she’d leap out into my arms. The heat of her body, her heartbeat, her pleasure in being stroked—nothing could have felt more alive.
Now, in this last bath, when we’d finished rinsing her, she just lay there with her bony ribs protruding. She couldn’t stop shivering. She had no energy to dry her own fur. I hadn’t realized how little life she had left.
As we wrapped her in blankets and toweled her dry, I said to Peter, “Someday it will be me and Laura soaping you or you and Patrick soaping me . . . if we’re lucky, that is.” These words passed lightly between two old friends.
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The following night, I awoke to hear Cleo whimpering from her bed. She was thrashing around, trying to find comfort. I went to her, plumped her newly washed blankets, adjusted the pillow under her head, and stretched out her legs. But nothing seemed to alleviate her pain. There was no way I could leave her there alone.
Lying down in her nest, I wrapped my body around her. As I breathed in her still-fresh dog scent, tuning my breathing to hers, she began to relax. I stayed through the night. Embraced by my body, she stopped whimpering and gradually found the ease to sleep. I knew I had to do it now. I would call the veterinarian in the morning.
This night had felt like a meditation—I was holding a stable place for Cleo, offering a firm, kind acceptance, beginning to release her so she could die. An image had come to me. Be the bathtub.
A tub contains, is immovable despite any agitation within. The Dalai Lama has said, “The mind that moves is the mind that suffers.” Such stability is a requisite for a kind mind.
The warm water receives our dirt, receives our bodies without preferences; its love is unconditional. I recalled a similar image in the sutras: “Just as the great ocean is not bothered by things that get thrown into it, neither is the trained mind.”
As the water drains from the tub, it takes the shape of a spiral. From an ecology conference I attended earlier this year, I remembered the geometry of this whirlpool repeated throughout the universe, and through all life forms: plants, fungi, animals, insects. Nature has come up with this elegant and efficient shape—an almost frictionless vortex. When you pull the plug out of the bath, the water with all of its debris is released in the whirlpool. Isn’t this a nearly frictionless letting go? A kind mind aligns with change.
Be the bathtub. Three simple instructions: Hold steady, receive with kindness, let go. Could I be the bathtub for Cleo? For other family and friends? For myself?
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The vet couldn’t come until noon. In search of chamomile to calm Cleo, I left her drowsing in her nest. When I returned, she was in a panic, having spewed liquid shit all over herself and her blankets. Her legs flailed and she tossed her head wildly. Unable to clean herself, to get up, to stop the pain, she was desperate.
Sweetie pie, sweetie pie, I wish could make it all better.
Distraught, off balance, I frantically tried to restore order. As best I could, I washed her off with soapy washrags and towels; whatever hair I couldn’t clean I snipped with a scissors, leaving Cleo’s glorious tail shorn but fresh. I rushed around making her a new nest of blankets in the middle of the living room.
A few days earlier, when I’d gone out, I’d come home to find her missing from our bedroom. I’d discovered her on my meditation mat, head on my zafu, beneath a statuette of Kwan-yin. She’d staggered the length of the house to be there. Taking my cue from her, I surrounded her now with all of the Buddhas, Taras and Kwan-yins I could find. What could better contain her panic—or mine—at our fundamental lack of control?
I brought in a vase of flowers and turned on a CD—the guttural chanting of the Gyuto monks (adored, I’m told, by dogs, who—given the chance—join in).
To the vibrating hum of the monks’ prayers, encircled by icons of healing and kindness, I lay down and again enfolded my body around Cleo. For fifteen years our family had dried our tears in Cleo’s silky ears, pillowed our faces in her warm, soft belly. For several sweet hours now, I sent her love. Then I sat by her side. Stable, receptive, aligned with change.