My Practice Has Gone to the Dogs

Last Wednesday, my retired guide dog, Kiefer, started with a cough. Friday, he began showing signs of intestinal difficulties. And Sunday, he was even worse.

On Monday, our vet saw him, did blood work, and prescribed antibiotics.

As of today, Kiefer is feeling much better, but he’s still not quite his usual self. Half of me says he passed so much Sunday that there’s still nothing left. The other half says, “But it’s been almost four days!”

Many people might say, “Oh, come on! He’s just a dog!”

Growing up on a farm, I learned the sense behind this statement. No matter how much we love an animal, we are most likely going to outlive it. And, no matter how much we love an animal, our first responsibility is to care for it the best we can, putting its needs above our own, including our emotional attachment.

When Kiefer was working as my guide, we needed each other. But I can use a cane when a dog isn’t the best option. And I have a new guide dog now who has grown into a loving and trustworthy companion, completely different than Kiefer, better at many things, not as good at others, but a unique and wonderful guide in his own right.

Still, I’m not going to just write off my own feelings. Kiefer and I have been together longer than I’ve known my husband. I’ve nursed him through two surgeries after he blew out his ACL, once while I was teaching in California, the other on the day after my wedding.

Kiefer has curled up beside me when my grandmother died. He’s buried his nose in my hair and let me know he loves me when I felt like no one understood me. He’s convinced many of my students, from the smallest children to older adults, that not all dogs are scary and some are absolutely wonderful.

He’s taught my younger dog, Ecko, about how to be joyful and how to follow me around, how to enjoy being petted.

And even now as I type this, Kiefer is lying beside my chair. When I go in to practice piano later, he’ll either take up a position under the piano or in the corner behind my bench.

How many scales and arpeggios has he heard by now? How many lessons has he slept through? If I wrote down all the pieces I’ve prepared for recitals during his lifetime, it would be an impressive repertoire.

He may not consciously be able to express how close we’ve become, but our hearts are inextricably bound. Every time we think he can’t recover from something or won’t keep going, his spirit rises up in him and he wills himself onward.

One day, the time will come when spirit is not enough. His body is changing. So climbing stairs is difficult, and sometimes he has a nasty cough. His eyes are no longer sharp.

One day, no matter how it pains my heart, I may have to choose for Kiefer that, yes, this is the last moment, and yes, it is time to take the next step on life’s journey.

I can “prepare” myself for this all I want to, but really, there is never a time when I can honestly say, “OK, I’m ready.” The truth is, I will never think I am ready, and my heart and mind will scream in protest when I must let Kiefer go.

But I must, and I will.

For now, my practice has gone to the dogs. Thirteen years is a very long time to be with anyone, and you don’t live through thirteen years without gathering a whole treasure trove of emotions and memories.

I can and have practiced this past week, and I’ve gotten a lot done. But part of me isn’t in my music right now. I can try to be completely analytical and just push through everything, chastising myself for being distracted or exhausted or any number of other things.

But this serves no purpose, and I end up simply making myself feel worse. In the past, I would have done this, then wondered why I was playing so poorly.

But the music will still be waiting for me later today, or tomorrow, or even next week. I have to give myself grace during this season.

And when this is difficult, and I feel like I am not worth that kind of compassion even from myself, I have a wonderful old dog who will remind me I am, whether it’s by thumping his tail when I walk in a room, or putting his head in my lap and leaning against my knees, or touching my hands with his nose to let me know, “Hey, I’m here and I love you. Now can you please pet me?”

Explore posts in the same categories: Blindness, Dogs, music


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5 Comments on “My Practice Has Gone to the Dogs”

  1. astralwicks Says:

    I have a cat. Rather we have a cat. Her name is Fish. We kidnapped her from a fish market a year back. Cats they say are no faithful, not like dogs. We were apprehensive initially, but now life without Fish is unthinkable. She is like a daughter. She sometimes sings and talks…only we should have the time and the heart to listen. She needs a lot of love and petting, wchich I am told is unlike a regular cat. She gets angry and attacks me guerilla style if I don’t play and chase her around our small apartment. And all of this will be with me when I go.

  2. V Says:

    i’ve always had dogs… i know, what it feels …

  3. Jack Palek Says:

    Although some people can dismiss dogs and cats as just animals the more sensitive of us know that these animals have personalities and feelings. Once they live with us they become part of the family. We become attuned to them and they to us. We have a great capacity for love and caring. When our cats and dogs are having fun we smile and when they are ill we hurt with them. Dogs and cats show us unconditional love, which sometimes I know I have learned from them. I hope all is well with you and your dogs. Your are a good person to love them so much. I know they do know that.

  4. Stephanie

    Jim and I always have had dogs. Two years ago we lost our two goldens. They were people to us.. Your writing was very moving and was absolutely beautiful about Kiefer
    They become your best friend. We now have a new one as you know who will be two on Aug22, his name is Lucas, and a puppy he still is. The memories of Jake and Blair still live on.

  5. halfnotes Says:

    Thanks to all of you who left comments, and sorry for not responding individually. I just returned from a two-week trip, and Kiefer is in wonderful spirits. He stayed with Grandma (my mom) for two weeks and got spoiled rotten! Not so rotten that it shows … that would be my current guide dog, Ecko, who came home from his “vacation” fat and sassy! The two dogs were overjoyed to see one another, and, as a bonus (at least in Kiefer’s mind), Mommy came back, too!

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