My son Ronan is attached to me, riding in his front carrier pack as I approach the white ranch gate. A gang of dogs gathers to greet us, and I crouch down to let them lick Ronan’s little hands and his bare baby feet. Some of the dogs are cloudy-eyed or blind; some are limping or even (like me) missing a leg; all have gray-touched fur.
We’re at the Kindred Spirits Animal Sanctuary , a hospice facility for animals with no place else to go. The dogs, horses and poultry at Kindred Spirits are old and have health problems; many have been abused or neglected. They’re not likely to be adopted, and some were languishing in shelters before finding their way to this sprawling ranch just south of Santa Fe, N.M. Here, it doesn’t matter how spry or playful an animal is or isn’t; it’s understood that time with any living creature is precious and worth celebrating. Along the pathway leading from the bird houses to the main “dog” house are memorial shrines, trees and spaces marked out with stones and decorated with old collars or favorite toys. Strings of Buddhist prayer flags flutter in the wind.
I wanted to bring Ronan here because, like most of the animals at the sanctuary, my baby is approaching the end of his life. Ronan has Tay-Sachs disease, a degenerative neurological disorder with no treatment and no cure. He may die before his third birthday. Parenting a terminally ill child means letting go of the future and, instead, simply seeing the beloved through each day until the last day. Kindred Spirits owner-operator Ulla Pederson, a native of Denmark who has provided animals with end-of-life care here for more than two decades, necessarily subscribes to a similar philosophy, so when I learned about the place, I knew we had to visit.
Dogs, of course, excel at being in the “now.” When Ronan sits with them in the sunlight, there is peace and happiness and some comfort. They remind me that living for and in the future robs us of the present, precious moment. When Ronan touches their backs or ears with a trembling, slightly spastic hand, he doesn’t know or care that they’re refugees from puppy mills or from cruel owners who kicked in their jaws, or that they were found abandoned on street corners or in garbage cans. And the dogs, whom no one wanted but who are now wanted here, don’t understand or care that Ronan will never speak or walk, that he will be blind and paralyzed and deaf before he dies.
There is little a parent can do to prepare for losing a child, but if anyone has helped me do so, it was Bandit. He was already 10 years old when I adopted him, a St. Bernard/Lab mix with rotting teeth and bad hips and hookworms and heartworms and various other ailments. He walked funny and looked funny, and we spent a lot of time at the vet’s. Though he was incontinent and wore a diaper, I took him everywhere: to class (I was a graduate student), to parties, on cross-country trips and, finally, to Cape Cod, where I lived for a year in an artists’ colony. He was messy and smelly, but his sweetness was infectious and his open face, an invitation to love. He would loiter in the studio of an artist friend, then emerge with freckles of paint on his head, wagging his gray tail as big as an otter’s. Big fat art dog who farts and makes art, we said, kneeling in front of his painted dog face, squeezing and rubbing his ears and smelling his sweet-and-sour rotten-teeth dog breath.
“Oh, he’s just getting old,” people sometimes tell Ulla when she asks them why they want to offload their dogs, who are no longer playful, photogenic puppies. Such abandonment is obviously cruel—a dog is not a couch to be left by the curb when it’s worn out—but it’s also shortsighted. Is taking care of an old or sick dog a difficult task? Of course it is, just as parenting a dying child can be hellish. But both experiences offer profound truths about love. Thanks to the generosity of Ulla and the many volunteers at Kindred Spirits, this wide swath of dusty ranch land in the middle of the windswept desert is a place where animals without a future receive care that is not meant to make them better but rather, to make them comfortable, and love that is meant just to make them loved.
There are Bandit shrines all over my house: sketches of him hanging from the walls, his plaster paw print in a glass case in the study. He died in 2006, and adopting him was one of the best choices I ever made. And although my heart breaks every day when I look at my son, I don’t regret a single moment spent with him. Ronan, slowly regressing into a vegetative state, has no future, but he is still worthy of every bit of my love. As his mom, my job is twofold: to love him (easy) and then to let him go (the hardest thing I’ll ever do).
Like Ronan, the dogs at Kindred Spirits are alive right now, and they matter, they count, they are valuable not because they’re cute or have potential, but simply because they are living creatures. Like Ronan, they are free of expectations. They are loved while they are alive—given organic food and acupuncture and massage—and after they die, they are celebrated. As the memorials in and around the house make clear, these animals’ time on Earth, however brief, matters.
All of us will watch deeply loved people or pets die. We don’t like to think about it; it seems like the worst thing that could ever happen to us and maybe it is, but it is also an inevitable part of life. At night, I imagine those beautiful dogs, loved and safe, sleeping together under a star-cluttered sky, dreaming their animal dreams. My son sleeps in his crib across the hall and his time, too, is quickly running out. I lie in my bed, sleepless and brokenhearted, and grateful.
Illustration by Vivienne Flesher