Mirk and I laid down in the blessed, cool shade. The realization set in with me that he is indeed nearing the end of his sojourn with us; and because of that, I wept.
Our time together started almost ten years ago when I came to Halterburn in the Scottish Borders to buy Mirk from Bill Elliot. Mirk was four years old by then and had been one of the best dogs at nursery competition (for younger sheepdogs) that Bill had ever had. And Mirk was quite handy with the Blackface sheep on the farm as well, but foot-and-mouth disease had broken out in Britain and sheepdog competitions were out of the question, so it was much easier for Bill to part with this good dog.
My mind raced back easily to those days as I took Mirk out for a little stroll and we found something of a miraculous respite from the relentless heat of this summer. Storms had passed in the night and for now the sun was out, but it was drier air and a nice breeze and in the shade of our young maple tree one could almost imagine oneself back on the heaving hills of the Borders. Mirk was stumbling now. One stiff breeze almost knocked him off of his feet. He was panting heavily just from his slow walk. His eyes were wide open as I coaxed him to plop down with me in the shade.
That’s when my mind went back to see him in my memory racing over the hills, “lambing up” ewes with their proper lambs, and gathering ewes and newborn lambs together for the castration of ram lambs before letting them all go back out into the wide-open spaces. I wished to heaven that Mirk could get a taste of those hard working days in the cold spring rains one more time before he died. And I hoped and prayed that he had well enjoyed his years with Connie and me, doing the small-potatoes sheep work that we had for him preparing for trials, doing demonstrations and taking care of our Cheviots at Heatherhope.
Seeing Mirk so weak made me wonder whether I should phone our veterinarian and ask to have him put down. But he does not seem to be suffering. I’m suffering, seeing him being swallowed up by the indignity of feebleness, but he doesn’t seem to be bothered much. So I resolved, at least for now, to make him comfortable and let him fade away.
After a while in the dancing breeze I coaxed him up once more and into the house. One of the signs of his fading has been that he stopped eating his regular dry dog food weeks ago (and he was such a hearty eater up till recently) and now has stopped eating canned food as well. But Connie cooked up some hamburger—nice, natural stuff from a friend’s farm in Wisconsin—and Mirk went to that with gusto. A sign of some hope.
Seeing the fire go out of a dear one’s eyes is a hard thing. And it is a thing that I will be coping with more and more, not only because we have Floss who is a year older than Mirk, and five other dogs and a flock of sheep to care for, but funerals of dear friends and relatives (Bob, Marge and Clarence) have also begun to accelerate. And the sensations can be quite the same. There is the flood of memories of better days whose leaving we had not fully noticed till now, and there is that indignity of feebleness.
Dylan Thomas famously wrote, I believe about his own father’s death, “Do not go gentle into that good night./ Old age should burn and rage at close of day;/Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Those words find their way truly into our hearts because that is where we rage. We do it inwardly because we are told, since childhood, that it is indeed a “good night,” that our dear ones are entering, and we are to buck ourselves up. But what we see is the light dying. It is a light we lived by—burning in someone who brought life to us.
Each time we see another soul dimmed, it is such an insult. Is this the last note we will hear struck in this song? Is this the way the final chapter of every book will read?
I will now go down and let Mirk out of the kitchen and take him out with the other dogs. I don’t know if his shaky legs will carry him far, but I know that when his eight-month-old grandson, Spot, lays eyes on him, he will wag his tail furiously and Mirk will surely get a big lick. Mirk will stand there and not snap at his over-zealous grand-pup. He will be patient.
Spot too knows something is fading in the old man. But he chooses, like a typical child, not to be bothered overly much. He tastes and feels something very much alive, and he can’t help himself. Mirk doesn’t have to romp about. Just be. And somehow the Life Force around and through him will keep flowing.