In September of 2005, my husband and I went to Ottawa to visit his family. We stayed with his parents whose home was typical of their generation: knitted things everywhere, seldom used china in a dusty cabinet, blue mountain pottery and glass candy dishes, lots of family pictures of my husband and his sisters as children, a few science projects in the back of the fridge, and lots of comfortable well-loved furniture. Dad had his favorite chair with a small table beside where he put his remote control, his half cup of coffee, and his book. Once, there had been an ashtray too, but mom had since sent him into the bowels of the garage to smoke his cigarettes. The house smelled always of cooking and baking. Mom was usually in the kitchen preparing food for now or later. She tried to keep the house cleaning up, but age and dimming eyes slowed her down. However, everyone who entered her house came to see them, and not to inspect the odd cobweb in the ceiling corners. Personally, I like cobwebs—even though I hate spiders—because I think cobwebs give a room character. My in-laws’ home, while comfortable, warm, and fragrant, was a little too quiet for my husband and I after a few days though. Not enough movement. So, we borrowed their minivan and went sight-seeing, or to visit my husband’s sisters.
In one of our excursions, my husband and I happened upon a small shopping center and decided to snoop through the mall where we found a pet store. This pet store had little puppies, just weeks old, newly weaned, fluffy, and oh so cute. My husband wanted to make a purchase at the drug store across the way, so I chose to wait in the pet store so I could look at all the puppies. He told me before he left the store, “Do NOT pick those puppies up!” I therefore asked the store clerk to show me one of the puppies as soon as my husband’s back was turned.
The clerk put a little wriggling ball of fluff into my arms. So tiny and soft. She put her little paws around my neck and licked my cheek. Her tail was wagging so fast that it was just a white blur. Yes, it was love at first sight. She was mine, and I was most definitely hers. My husband came back to find me falling in love with this pretty little Shih Tzu puppy, and his countenance fell immediately. “Oh no!” he groaned. “I told you not to pick them up.” Then turned to the clerk. “Why did you let her pick one up??” The clerk shrugged and grinned. Then my husband huffed, “I guess it’s done now.” And it was. He came over and kissed me, then the puppy, then sighed. “How much?” he asked the clerk. And that is how a little energetic vibrating bundle of white and caramel fur became our “Ming Li.” Her name is Cantonese for “beautiful and bright.”
My husband and I agreed on several rules for Ming Li. She would always have nutritious food and clean water, regular check-ups at the veterinarian, lots of exercise and toys, bi-weekly “spa” treatments at the groomer, and lots of love from us. She would never be mistreated or purposely frightened. No one would be permitted to tease and/or annoy her. And she would never be forced to perform tricks and “beg” for her supper. We discussed everything on the first day she belonged to us and decided on the type of life we wanted to provide her. To this end, we bought several books on Shih Tzus along with a crate, her own dishes, warm clothes, towels, shampoos and various grooming accessories, a bed, blankets and cushions, a collar with a personalized name tag, toys, human grade food, treats and cookies, barrettes and ribbons for her hair, snow shoes, a small window level couch so she can look out the window, camping gear, car toys and day bag, and her own set of luggage for travelling. Then we introduced her to her veterinarian, updated all her shots, and fenced our back yard. Some people laughed and said how spoiled she is. But to us she is simply well cared for and loved.
Shih Tzus are strange little creatures, as we soon discovered. First, they are born spoiled. This is because the breed was a favorite of the Chinese Emperors who would put Shih Tzus in the front of their robes to keep warm. The emperor’s Shih Tzus enjoyed their own lavish apartments in the palace, personal staff, and ate from bowls of solid gold. There are many ancient paintings of Shih Tzus—which means “Lion Dog”—and they are depicted as included in all parts of the emperor’s life, including riding into battle. Most dogs are born with a skill that has been bred into them: Pointers point, Retrievers retrieve, and Shih Tzus comfort. The breed is 5,000 years old, and they are the original “lap dog.” If you don’t feel good, Shih Tzus seem to know this, and they will lay themselves down beside you. They become extremely attached, and all they want is to be everywhere you are.
Second, Shih Tzus know they are beautiful. They don’t walk, they prance with their heads and tails up. They have a way of looking at you, and batting their long lashes, as if to say, “See how pretty I am? You will now love me and give me everything I want.” Yet, while Shih Tzus are proud and vain, they are never rude or snobbish. Which brings me to my third point: Shih Tzus are fairly laid back at all times. They are like hippy flower children: “Peace, dude. What’s all the worry about?” Then they stretch out beside you and snore. Fourth, Shih Tzus snore. And it’s cute.
Ming Li was the most Shih Tzu of all Shih Tzus. She loved life, and she was the queen of unadulterated leisure. Watching Ming Li pass a Saturday could be an inspiration and a lesson to all people stressed out in their lives. Relaxation, play, food, and drink was Ming Li’s wheelhouse. She had a coat that required grooming, and was groomed often. She hated bath time, but was very happy afterward. She loved being brushed and combed. Ming Li was not a “morning person” and if you startled her out of a deep sleep, you ran the risk of being nipped. She was not terribly fond of children or other dogs…that’s because she considered herself a human adult. She tolerated the pettings and clumsy attentions of young children, but dogs were simply not welcome in her house, or on her property. That’s because we, and all that we have, belonged only to her, and she was jealously possessive of us. Still, in spite of her foibles and oddities, she was constantly good-natured and happy, and remained so for her eleven years with us.
When she was diagnosed with cancer this past summer, we were told that the disease was inoperable and incurable. We were no stranger to this kind of harsh diagnosis, and our hearts sank even further when the vet told us there was no treatment that was realistic for our Ming Li at her time of life. Every treatment known to vet science, at best, bought her a mere few months more, would make her violently ill, and would cost the same as a small car. We could not bear the long good bye when the outcome was inevitable. We chose to let her go with nature, and that we would love and care for her until the day that her relatively painless cancer became painful.
That day came yesterday. She lay between us on a couch in the “quiet room” of the vet clinic. This room is set aside for the passing of pets and for privacy of the bereaved pet parents. It was so quiet there. They gave her a sedative and a pain killer first. She went to sleep then, and snored her little snore. A few moments later, they came in and gave her another injection. She slipped away within moments, silently, and without the slightest tremble she was gone.
Buddhism teaches “impermanence.” Nothing lasts forever. Change is inevitable. As it turns out, some things are forever. There is something that is indeed permanent and unchangeable: Death. Ming Li has passed out of our lives with a permanence that is beyond salvation, and in this lifetime, we will never have her back. It’s a difficult, terrible reality that we must now come to terms with. We will definitely have another dog someday, but never our beautiful Ming Li. The monster stole her within a few short weeks and now I contemplate both her life and her death, and why we loved her so deeply.
My husband and I married later in life. For both of us, our marriage is a second marriage. My son is grown now and married. My husband and his first wife did not have children. For us, Ming Li was the child my husband and I could not otherwise have together. We were a family. Before my husband and I met, we had both been in a weird type of limbo, cut off from the worlds we had loved and wanted. When we married and settled down together, Ming Li added another dimension of stability to our lives. She made life more real. Even when my husband and I have been on the outs and fought each other, we always both loved Ming Li. Sometimes Ming Li was a bit of glue that made things a little more solid between us.
I don’t think she could possibly understand how she impacted our every day. That’s because life was so simple for her. Everything about her was pure—what she loved, what she disliked, and how she enjoyed things. She lived right “now.” That is the very truth of her—she lived in the present. She was not hung up with the past—every day was new. She forgave easily. Her love and devotion were complete. She didn’t know how to lie. Her heart was incorruptible. She had no regret, no secret shame, no crippling addiction. She was always smiling. Her spirit was perfectly at peace at all times because she was not tainted by the sin of this world. She was love and light, beautiful and bright. How could we not love her? The monster has taught us about grief, but all the best of Ming Li remains with us still. Monster, you’ve lost again.
Ming Li, “if love could have saved you, you would have lived forever.”