Goddesses of Grace
My beloved Afghan hound, dearest friend, and soul-partner, Tara Lily, left her body on September 22, the Fall Equinox, of this year. Her story, our story, and the gifts of her life and death have been unfolding for me in these last two months, as I grieve for her, miss her, and also feel her always with me. It’s now time to share our story, and also the story of Leah Grace, who came into our lives as a sudden yet not unexpected gift from the Divine.
Tara came to me in 2008, at the age of eight, through Afghan Rescue. From the first time I saw her and we looked into each other’s eyes, there was a recognition…a feeling of home…a kinship… and a precious, deep love that transcended time and space.
From her earliest days with me, Tara astounded me with her presence, her grace, and her wisdom.
Tara was named for the goddess Tara, the Buddhist Bodhisattva of Compassion. In all of her years with me, I felt this goddess energy within her. Our love, and our mutual devotion to each other, transcended any experience I’d ever had.
Tara was the strongest being of any species that I have ever known. Although we called her “Princess Tara,” for her sometimes demanding ways and very specific preferences (“ONLY the feather pillows!” “PLEASE turn that HORRIBLE MUSIC OFF!!” [“horrible music” was pretty much anything that wasn’t Indian or Western classical music; she had a specific and very limited repertoire] “Are you kidding me…sleep in a tent?? Uh, no….”) Tara survived and thrived despite tremendous physical and emotional challenges in her life. She came to me from a background of neglect and with a smashed hip and deformed leg from an injury that was never properly treated, and in her first three years with me, she had two separate major emergency abdominal surgeries (gastropexy and splenectomy). Many animals don’t survive one of these surgeries, much less both.
I’ll never forget Tara marching into the emergency hospital when she had the splenectomy:
“I’m here for my operation!”
She was bleeding out, and we had barely made it there in time for them to save her. As she was whisked back to surgery, she looked straight at me and said,
“I’ll be fine. It’s not time for me to go. They will fix me. We have lots of work to do together yet.”
And we did.
Tara taught with me, helped hundreds of animal communication students, walked with me through major life transitions, and filled my life with grace and sweetness.
Tara was a master teacher of divine love in so many ways, including helping people to see beyond her physical form and into her spirit. She was not always subtle about this. More than once, when people would talk about her as if she weren’t there, or point to her and ask, “What happened to her leg?” she would turn up her snooty-toots nose, roll her eyes, and walk away. If people genuinely connected with her and saw her soul, she was happy to talk about her body and how she felt about her disability, and she would educate them with gentleness and grace.
“You are the love of my life forevermore,” I’d say to her.
And she’d look deeply into my eyes, or melt into my arms, and say,
“I know, I know…I’ve never loved anyone like I love you. We are the same…we are one soul.”
Just touching her, being with her, transported me to a place I’d never been, spinning throughout time, feeling our multiple lifetimes together, seeing our origin in light before separating into different forms…feeling the love and the union that characterized our relationship apart from any boundaries of time and space. Her coming into my life in a physical form integrated my being and planted me on the Earth in a way that I’d never before experienced.
Although I work with animal loss and grief every day in my practice, I knew that living without Tara in physical form would be the greatest challenge of my life.
The Beginning of Goodbye
In the summer of 2013, Tara was weakening. I’d been taking both Afghans, Tara and her brother Rajah, for physical and swimming therapy, and after one particular session, Tara begged me not to go back.
“I’m just too tired,” she said. “It’s too hard on me.”
I sensed something was very wrong. A veterinary examination and ultrasound revealed two different types of cancer. After consultation with both our conventional and holistic veterinarians, we all agreed that the best treatment option was conservative: a simple chemotherapy that doubled as a pain medication, holistic support with Chinese and Western herbs and acupuncture, and Reiki and other healing and supportive energy work.
I was heartbroken. Devastated. For weeks I felt like I couldn’t breathe. As much as I tried to stay present with this process, and to trust that this was the journey that was meant for both of us, my world had shattered. I could not imagine being able to live without Tara. Just the thought of it sucked the life force out of my bones.
During the rest of that summer, I didn’t leave the house much. My one regular outing was spending afternoons while Tara slept at my special creek sanctuary, where the water, the trees, and the resident black hawks held me and supported me. I cried most of my tears there…because Tara and I are so intimately connected, I wanted to spare her the worst of my pain. Of course she knew. And she was in her own process of letting go, of grieving, of accepting her situation and the truth of her journey.
And on one of those creek afternoons, not long after the diagnosis, I had a vision:
I saw a young, small, black Afghan hound happily bounding on the trail to the creek. She was female, and tiny, and so full of joy and life. When I asked what it meant, she said,
“I’m coming to you when Tara leaves. I’m your dog.”
For the next 14 months, whenever I felt my heart catch at the thought of Tara leaving, I would see the image of this happy black dog.
And so, I did what I coach my animal communication students NOT to do:
I drew conclusions and I interpreted what I’d seen and heard. I decided that this young Afghan hound was a puppy. I wondered if she was Tara’s next body…her next incarnation. Tara had come to me in a vision before her arrival in my life; it was not a stretch to think that this might happen again.
These thoughts comforted me.
I kept this vision to myself. I told only a few people who were close to me, one of whom was my friend in Afghan rescue who had brought me Tara.
Living on Love
The next 14 months were a journey of up and down. At first, Tara got better. The medication and holistic support helped her. She was comfortable and mostly strong. She sassed me and ordered me around a little more than usual, and life mostly returned to “normal.”
And then after a few more months, things got hard. I couldn’t leave Tara alone without a sitter; because of the tumor in her bladder, she had to pee frequently and struggled more and more with infection. She was bitten by a black widow spider and had a severe reaction. There were many times I thought we were nearing the end, but each time she would recover, pull through, and then move into more comfortable, better times.
When it was hard, it was really hard. I was sleep deprived, exhausted, overwhelmed. I did more laundry and cleaning than I ever dreamed possible. On good days, Tara could get up and down by herself. On bad days, she collapsed unless I carried her. As time went on, she needed my help more and more.
Life continued outside of Tara’s illness. I fell in love. My mother died. I worked and taught and hired and fired petsitters and tried to keep all the balls in the air. Sometimes I failed and the balls all dropped. I became irritable and impatient and slightly crazed. Yet from somewhere, I found the strength to keep doing what needed to be done. Tara was still “in it.” Each time I would check with her if she still wanted to be here, she said “Yes.” Sometimes she would get annoyed with my asking, rolling her eyes at me and giving me the “Whaddya mean? Of course I do, you dingbat!” look.
We were long past the average survival rate for both types of cancer. I knew that Tara was strong, but there was something else happening as well.
I noticed that she would deteriorate when I was away from her, sometimes coming close to death, and would bounce back when I returned.
There’s a cliche, a common “wisdom,” that I often hear, and it goes like this:
Animals hang on for their people. Animals stay because people can’t let them go.
And certainly, in my animal communication practice, there are times when I have seen this. I was concerned that this might be what was happening with Tara…although it didn’t quite feel right to me, I wanted to check. So I asked her.
Tara said, “I’m living on our love.”
And I realized the profound truth of what she was showing me.
The life force within us has many names in many traditions….chi, ki, prana, spirit, divine spark…it is the force within that all beings share, and that animates our forms, gives us physical life, and has the capacity to sustain us.
Tara’s teaching was that this Life Force, this prana, was Love.
And that when she was in the space of our love, the love that we shared together, it energized her. It strengthened her. She could borrow from my life force, my strength, my health, and live on it. This did not deplete me, because love freely shared never does. I simply gave her some of mine, and received more than I could ever need back in return.
Living on Love.
Imagine the kind of world we could create, the healing miracles we could witness, if we truly realized the truth and the power of this possibility.
Autumnal Equinox: Death and Rebirth
In September, I co-facilitated a women’s animal communication and spiritual practice retreat on the Green River in Utah. The trip had been planned for almost a year, and as the time approached, I became increasingly concerned about leaving Tara.
I was meant to go. I needed to go. I knew this and didn’t doubt it. Yet I also knew that there was a very real possibility that, in her weakened state, Tara could die at any time. I had to accept this possibility. During the time of her illness, I prayed for two things: that it would be clear to both of us when it was her time, and that, if possible, the timing would be hers, not mine.
I left Tara in the care of a trusted friend who is also a veterinary technician. When I dropped her off, she was clear, strong, and said to me before I left, “I’ll be okay.” As precarious as things were, I felt confident that she would be there when I returned.
The group I was with traveled deep into Stillwater Canyon, out of the reach of cell phones and civilization. The week was profoundly transformational for all of us. I celebrated my 50th birthday on the river. In addition to the autumn Equinox, there was a powerful New Moon, and the theme of our week was the Goddess, the Divine Feminine. We spent extended time in silence and meditation, we practiced yoga, we communicated with the animals of the river, we chanted, and we paddled.
We spent time working with the powerful energy of the goddess Durga from the Vedic tradition. Durga is the mother of the universe and believed to be the power behind the work of creation, preservation, and destruction of the world.
On our second night on the river, I was moved to share in our evening firelight circle about Tara and Rajah. Later, one of the women in our group told me that she’d had a vision of a medium-sized, amber-colored dog walking slowly around our circle as I spoke.
Early the next morning, September 22, the Fall Equinox, I woke up sobbing from a dream. In the dream, Tara was well…so strong and spunky that she’d jumped the fence of our yard and had wandered off and gotten lost. I couldn’t find her. The feeling was wrenching…shredding…inconsolable.
I knew. And I couldn’t know. I had a trip to facilitate, work to do, a canoe to paddle. And so I told myself that it was Tara and I missing each other terribly, nothing more than that.
As we emerged from the canyon on the last day of our trip, having gone deep into an experience of death, rebirth, and baptism in the muddy waters of the Green River, I checked in with the crew at home. I found Rajah and Abby right away, and saw pictures of our friend’s house through their eyes.
I couldn’t find Tara’s eyes.
When we got back into cell phone range, I got the news: Tara had died on the Autumn Equinox, September 22, after a sudden neurological event (likely a metastasis of the cancer to her brain) that had separated her from her body almost immediately. She had begun her leaving at almost precisely the time that she had been seen circling our campfire.
My heart shattered. And I also knew that this was exactly right. We both needed it to be this way. She couldn’t have separated from her body had I been there. I wanted so much to be with her in her last moments…yet I also realized it would have been almost impossible for both of us. My friend held her as she left…a colleague communicated with her throughout the process…and she was free.
Tara took advantage of the powerful portal of the Equinox, and the transformative energy of the New Moon, and she laid down her body which had been running only on the fumes of love. She flew free into the cosmos…filling me and all who knew her with profound and deep grace.
She was okay. She was more than okay. She was radiant and free.
The Black Banana
I returned home to a life that was completely altered. The rhythm of my days no longer involved Tara. Huge chunks of time magically appeared. I slept through the night for the first time in months.
And each time I took a breath I felt her with me…and also felt the excruciating pain of her absence in my physical world. The mixture of grief, relief, tenderness, and beauty was overwhelming. Each time I thought of Tara, I saw the image of the young black Afghan.
One day, less than a week after returning home, I was feeling Tara’s loss very deeply. I sat under a favorite tree friend by the creek, sobbing, praying, asking for help.
“How do I live without her?” I asked Freddie, my former feral cat Guardian Angel and Wise Guide on Everything.
“Hang in there (for heaven’s sake!),” came the somewhat impatient reply. “We’re working on it…but you’ve got to give us a little time!”
When I got back to my car, I glanced at my phone. There had been a call from Carolyn, my friend in Afghan rescue. I didn’t need to listen to the message. I knew.
That afternoon, while I was crying under the tree at the creek, Carolyn had received the first rescue call she’d had in three years. It was for a young, black, female Afghan hound who’d been abandoned in an apartment building in Las Vegas. While I was praying and asking for help, Carolyn was picking her up and taking her to the vet.
Carolyn said, ” You’re not going to believe this.” I said, “I think I am.” I didn’t need to think. Through my tears and my laughter, I said to Carolyn,
“When can I come get her?”
Two days later, I drove to Kingman, AZ, to meet Carolyn and Leah Grace.
Leah jumped into my truck like she’d always ridden in it. “Let’s go home!” she said.
It was October 4th, the celebration day of St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals (and, in my opinion, of animal communication), and exactly one week since I’d come off the river and learned of Tara’s death.
Leah is the Hawaiian Goddess of Canoe Builders. How appropriate that her name came to me after the canoe journey that changed my life.
Leah is not a puppy. She’s between two and four years old. She is, however, exceptionally TINY–really small for an Afghan hound, barely 40 pounds. So she looks a lot like a puppy. And she acts like one.
Where Tara was refined and somewhat celestial, Leah is an elegant clown and earthy. She’s a “dog dog.” She loves to chew on things and roll her face in stink. She plays with toys and bounces like a super ball. She loves to steal my socks and shoes and slippers and hide them around the house. She counter-surfs with great skill. She races and runs and loves to hike and make me laugh.
So far, Leah has not expressed any musical preferences whatsoever. 🙂
I needed Leah more than I ever knew. Clearly, Tara knew…Freddie knew…Leah’s team of helper spirits and guardians knew…she was waiting, waiting in the wings for the right timing of Tara’s leaving and her coming. It couldn’t have been more perfect, more obvious, and more necessary.
Leah brings joy, fun, light, and sweetness into our family. Every meal is an exciting event; every ride in the car or walk is greeted with joy, every snuggle and cuddle and kiss is relished as if it’s the Best Thing Ever.
Which it is.
I’m still grieving. I grieve every day in one way or another. Tara and I are in constant contact, and she is strongly with me in spirit…and yet there is the grief that simply must be attended to. Leah doesn’t take away the grief, but she gives me the strength to stay present with it and let it flow.
Leah is an amazing being of light. She’s wise and wonderful and funny and loving. She brings joy to all who meet her.
Abby Rose is happy to have a playmate and walking buddy, although she’s not too excited about sharing my lap with Leah.
Leah also helps Rajah, Tara’s brother, with his sadness and missing of the sister with whom he’d lived his entire life.
I wrote this poem for Leah after she’d been here for several weeks:
Curled into a tiny doughnut on the hard floor, just to be close to me.
Your lanky body made impossibly small, legs tucked under you in a perfect circle,
Your soft brown eyes and shiny black curls
glinting in the bright overhead lights of the kitchen.
a shock of love and joy
into the exhausted, gaping hole in my heart torn by her leaving.
Stunned, yet not surprised,
all I could do was mumble yes, yes, yes through my tears
when the call came about you.
I’ll come get you.
The day after tomorrow.
The stark, fresh, sudden blessing of you, of us,
streaming into my life
like a comet’s tail, sprinkling stardust on my heart, laughter in my eyes,
joy of joys,
you make this journey without her bearable, possible.
She gave me the courage to love you,
to welcome you,
to hold you.
She knew I needed you.
You are a gift,
Leah Grace with the very black face.
Yes to you,
Yes to love,
Yes to life,
Yes to Grace.
I know that my relationship with Tara continues to evolve and grow. I know that Leah is bringing in a fresh new beginning in my life in so many ways. I know that this is simply one day on the ever-changing river–that tomorrow the water and the wind and the clouds will be different.
I pick up my paddle and dip in, doing my best to stay in the current and allow the river to carry me. I’ve got Leah in the bow and Tara’s spirit by my side in the stern.
I’m traveling with the Goddesses of Grace.