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  • Everyone suffers sometime. Some people suffer in silence. Some complain a lot. Some devote themselves to helping others. Some transform their suffering into art. They enter your heart and leave your life in many ways.

    It is even harder to witness others suffer than to experience anguish and pain first-hand, perhaps because there is so little you can really do to change their world. An ex-girlfriend who was a social worker said that the most important part of her job was bearing witness.

    Five years earlier, I had another girlfriend, dying from cancer, who wanted me to leave her alone. We had broken up for the last time months ago, yet I intensely wanted to comfort her and bear witness, if nothing else. At that point, G. did not trust me even to do that. It took me a long time to realize how deeply my fear of committing to her had disappointed her, and basically what a jerk I had been. With heartbreaking finality, she returned all the presents, letters and cards I had sent her, but then she gave me an amazing gift.

    The last time I saw her she came to my apartment with her dog and, saying she would not be able to care for him, gave him to me. She believed Sascha and I needed each other. We chatted briefly, mostly about the dog, and then she walked out of our lives. Sascha was a Malamute mix who was already my pal, having accompanied me in my camper to the Northwest Coast two summers ago, where we reunited with G. and drove back east together across Canada. During that trip, when Sascha wanted a respite from long-haul driving, he would bark, just once. That was my signal to pull over and give him time to sniff around and do his business. He was one mellow and self-contained canine. Maybe it was his 1/8th wolf genes.

    People noticed his composure and preternatural intelligence. My friend Dan described him as a philosopher king. Sascha was handsome and proud, kept his own counsel, and seemed to intuit events before they happened. One summer I drove west again, leaving him in the care of a friend for three weeks. My friend said that throughout that time he was just fine; he did what she told him to, and did not mope around or get edgy. But several hours before I returned to town to pick him up, Sascha started to act excited and paced around. My friend was sure that he knew I was close to home.

    Since G. and I lived less then six blocks from each other, sometimes I would pass by her house when walking Sascha. The first time we did this, I was worried that he would run up the steps and ask to be let in, like he did at my place, by raising his tail and twisting his neck to point at the door. Instead, he just trotted past G.'s house as if it wasn't familiar to him. He knew his situation had changed and accepted it – much better than I was able to.

    When G. died several months later, Sascha comforted me greatly by staying close and letting me curl up next to him. He accepted the universe as it was, without any whining, and that magnificent equanimity helped me overcome my loss, bearing witness.

    Of course, eventually I lost Sascha too. We had seven good years together and four different homes. In his final days he just slowed down and one day stopped trying to get up on his arthritic legs. I planted a smoke tree in his honor, to remind me how ephemeral our existence is but that we can still stand tall and proud in our season.

    I have not owned a dog since, nor even wanted one. There could be none better, at least for me. It's comforting to think that he and G. have met again in eternity. Perhaps someday I will bear witness to them there.

    @image: G. and Sascha in front of Mt. Robson on our trip through the Canadian Rockies in 1977.

    @audio: This music – Beethoven's String Quartet Opus 9, no. 3, second movement – strongly evokes the emotions I felt mourning both for G. and Sascha.

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