Lived Through This

My Dog Lay With Me at the Hour of My Death

She helped me survive with a new understanding of the world around us

Christen O'Brien
Human Parts


A black and white photo of the author’s shadow along with her dog’s shadow.
Photos courtesy of the author.

The day I almost died, my dog was at my side. Now in her final stage of life, I pay tribute to her by sharing what she did as I lay dying, in hopes it helps others find meaning through these, and all, difficult times.

Virginia changed my life. She woke me each morning, just past dawn, and brought me into the woods, among the trees. She taught me to rise early when the world was silent and my head was silent and my heart was open.

Every day, little by little, my dog woke me from the sleepwalk that I’d mistaken for life. At first, while she investigated the forest floor, my mind was elsewhere. Staring down at my phone. Absorbed in my own thoughts.

But each time she pulled on her leash for us to stop, I began to look up. And then around. The intricate patterns of tree bark. The paintings on a bird’s wings. The way grass moves in choreography to the wind, like a symphony of energetic little children. The more I saw, the more I could see.

Each walk, she brought me deeper into the fold of what was really happening which was not on my phone or in my “life.” It was everything surrounding it.

I knew something was really wrong when the blood clot broke from my leg and rushed toward my heart, but my only thought was to bring Virginia to safety. We lived on 10 acres in the Sierra foothills, with few neighbors to help should a woman die and her dog go missing. I looked over at the mailbox at the top of our steep driveway, just eight feet away, and knew I had to tie her there. I tried to walk but with each subsequent step my legs got heavier and heavier, until my feet were cinder blocks, cemented to the road.

Unable to move, I fell to the ground and looked up again, instantly aware that my life was slipping away, yet determined not to let Virginia lose everything too. Crawling on my hands and knees across the rough pavement, each breath painful, my heart beating wildly, I gripped her leash in my right palm and held my gaze on the mailbox. Inch by inch we came closer, but when we arrived at its wooden post I could not lift my arms to tie her to it.

Just then, something overcame me — a force from within and without — and I watched as my hands looped the leash around the post, brought the end through the loop, and with all my remaining life energy, pulled to tighten the knot.

I collapsed to the ground.

I am dying, I thought.

In that moment, without any other choice, I relinquished every sense of control I’d held onto — fiercely — for the last 32 years.

Virginia then moved to stand over me, and I knew she was there for a purpose. She was not afraid or even curious as she normally would be when she sensed something unusual. It was as if she was in coordination with the universe, with what was happening. She looked outward toward the trees and the sky, obeying a command from some other place.

Then suddenly, she stepped back to my side.

What happened next will elude me for the rest of my days.

I lay on the pavement, looking up. The clouds moved across the sky with an awareness, a knowingness, that was also mine.

The sun beamed down directly in front of us, an inner light I’d always recognized as my being.

Leaves began dancing on my driveway in a swirl of colors, and I instantly felt their warmth and playfulness as my own.

The clouds moved to cover the sun, and I felt raindrops on my face, each one surrounding me with a contemplation that was… me.

There was no separation between myself and the elements moving around me. There was an instant sameness: I was the clouds, the sun, the leaves, the rain — and they, me.

All throughout, in the corner of my vision I saw Virginia there by my side. She was not looking away as she usually would from my human fixations. Instead, she looked directly at each scene unfolding before us, like she was in on the plan.

Unflinching and attuned, strangely choreographed to the show before me. Like she was part of this ensemble.

It was then that I understood what she had been trying to show me all along on those morning walks…

When we walked under the clouds that one day by the creek, and she insisted we stop and watch the shining water flow across the rocks…

When we followed the hairpin turns of the forest to where the trail opens in expanse to the river, and we took a minute to breathe it in…

When together we bounded across scorching sand dunes toward the ocean, and ran free from shore to sea and back again, bathed in pure, unbounded joy…

When we rested on porches in the evenings, me in a patio chair and her in sphinx pose at my feet, watching the herons fly overhead, and mama deer pass through with babies in tow, and the needles of redwood trees sway in the breeze…

When we sat in lush green grass, Virginia frolicking on her back, seemingly rejoined with her true home, while I looked onward toward the sky…

When we climbed the mountainside overlooking the American River and stood on its peak, her warm body leaning against my leg, my hand against the side of her face, embracing…

We were constellations of matter, born of the same mystery and inextricably bound to one another and every living creature.

All that time on our walks, Virginia had been waking me from the illusion that we are in this world, and guiding me to the truth — that we are, in fact, of this world.

On those morning walks that I initially thought were for her well-being, she showed me that she belongs to the natural world, and so do I. In the other world of pavement and strip malls and work meetings, we were just human and dog. But here, we were constellations of matter, born of the same mystery and inextricably bound to one another and every living creature by the energy of life, and love.

In those forests and meadows and streams, Virginia brought me to what I know. Not a place, yet somewhere I’d always been. And at the hour of what looked to be my death, she escorted me there again, only this time I had a much closer view.

There by Virginia’s side, as nature moved around us in coordination and my life began slipping away, it finally made sense. The world around us is us. The sun our heart, the leaves our skin, the wind our breath, the rain our tears.

We are all seeking connection as we move through life, unsure if we are on the right path, perhaps today more than ever. In almost losing my life, there is only one thing of which I’m now sure — that a connecting force surrounds us and we are just not seeing it clearly.

Our animals are portals to a deeper connection between man and something greater. More transformative than a way of thinking, they show us a way of being. A plane of existence that straddles this place and some other; some other kind of consciousness. Virginia could log on to our man-made world as needed, but bring her to the woods or the fields or the ocean and she instantaneously fused to the natural universe like a fish returned to water.

Our natural world is now dying, and unless we begin to see this connecting force, we may well lose everything. At a moment when snow caps are melting and rainforests are disappearing, we are in the midst of a global pandemic. If we do not wake up from our collective sleepwalk and realize the magnitude of our relationship to the world around us, the loss will be far greater than we realize. We will forgo the fundamental meaning in all of our lives — the power of connection.

Trust in data and science are the keys to eradicating this virus, and they’re also the keys to eradicating our apathy. Because the data and science — from biology to ecology to astronomy — have proven without any doubt that human life is intrinsically tied to our plants, animals, and even the stars above us.

During all those morning walks, my dog taught me to look up from my phone and see that life’s greatest meaning is the sameness that underlies it.

Virginia can no longer walk. Her breath is getting shorter, and the days are getting harder. But when I lay with her at night and feel her heartbeat against my own, I am overwhelmed with wonder and overcome with humility.

You see, we are not in this world. We are of this world. Life pulsates around us, just as it pulsates within us. At once, the ordinary of our being and extraordinary of our purpose is magnified one thousand-fold.

Anaïs Nin said, “We do not see things as they are. We see them as we are.”

But as I lay on the ground dying, at Virginia’s side, I finally saw life as it is.

I had to almost die to see it.

Maybe — just maybe — you won’t have to.

Dedicated to my best friend, my dog Virginia, who no longer has the strength to walk but for whom I will walk consciously for the rest of my life.



Christen O'Brien
Human Parts

Writer & Collector of life stories. Work featured on The Today Show, NYT, CNN, MSNBC, Medium. Documentary coming out 2022. (