July 9th, 2021
Lucy Berkin - Eulogy
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In a world that has become dangerously polarized politically and even culturally, we are often best served by temporarily suspending our focus on complications which divide us in order to create the space necessary to see those things that unite us. Lucy Berkin is a great example of a uniting figure.
For example, it seems impossible nowadays for people of disparate backgrounds to rally around a single individual. Ask yourself this question, “Is there anyone you know who just about everyone supports and rallies around?”
There was a time not so long ago when it was possible to find quite a few of these individuals. Now, much less so.
This is a key reason why pets are so important: they unify people with disparate beliefs better than just about anything else.
Lucy Berkin was this unifying presence. When I first met her several years ago, she was a typical rambunctious pug who always seemed to be jumping somewhere for something. She was like the typical teenager and younger yogi who has all their bodily functions intact and mercilessly presses themselves into the deepest and lowest stance, who bends into positions that seem to defy possibilities.
Then about three years ago she suddenly lost the use of her hind legs. The fall – as it often is – was swift and merciless. In the span of a few months, she went from walking normally to walking on three legs to dragging herself around with only her front legs. And this is the way she propelled herself around until the very end. Watching her sudden decline inspired me to undertake a deep dive into the treacherous waters of hip and back problems as well as rehabilitation, and I’ve learned far more than I ever could have hoped for from studying numerous medical textbooks.
Such swift and debilitating injuries occur often to humans as well. But usually when this happens, there is a relatively long period of mourning for the pain one has to endure and also the grief of what has been lost. This is often followed by yogis taking time off from their practice in order to recover.
Lucy didn’t have the luxury of ratcheting back, and it shows the power of sometimes not having options. I watched Lucy’s evolution from fully functional to severely debilitated, and she never missed a step. She kept adapting throughout these difficulties and continued to find a workaround for each new problem that arose. One example worth mentioning is what happened as both of her hind legs started to fail her. She’d go to her water bowl and put all her weight into her front paws to lower her head to drink, and she’d counter this shift in weight by lifting up her hips so high that her hind legs would float off the ground. A pug doing a handstand, who would have thunk it?
And it was also amazing during that time to watch her shoulders become boulders of muscle as she developed a V-taper (wide shoulders and narrow hips) that any bodybuilder would envy.
The key to it all was visible in her eyes. She had the moistest and deepest eyes I’ve ever witnessed. I’ve seen a lot of old dogs, and oftentimes the light dims in them. Lucy shocked me because right up until the end, she had the bright and inquisitive eyes of a puppy. That never-ending inquisitiveness was why she always moved like a young pug: she had places to go, things to do, and people to meet, so her singular approach was finding ways to get things done and move forward.
Through it all, she kept evolving. She was like water. One day she would look like a seal, the next day a baby gorilla, the next day a pug, and the next day a humpback whale. It’s a visible measure of her multifaceted personality. And this carried over into her actions, especially after she completely lost use of her hind legs.
It seemed like almost every time I saw her she was demonstrating a new pose whether it be Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Fold Pose) to Janushirsasana (Head-to-Knee Seated Forward Bending Pose) to the one she mastered most, Shavasana (Corpse/Resting Pose). And she showed her adaptability by doing Shavasana in alignments that I couldn’t even begin to imagine.
Some of these might seem obvious for a dog that has lost the use of their hind legs. But there were plenty of others that were surprising. For example, Lucy could do Mandukasana (Frog Pose) at a level that few yogis can achieve.
And like a baby, she would go nuts for a while, and then drop into a deep Shavasana to recharge her batteries. To watch her was to watch the constant interplay of Yin and Yang. It’s a major reason why the Yoga Lab’s symbol is the Taijitu (aka Yin-Yang symbol).
Phases of Pug Shavasana
The interesting thing about yoga is that as wonderful as it is to see super-flexible yogis perform certain poses, I’ve always been drawn to those who have some sort of limitation and are able to adapt their practices. The former we admire, but the latter inspire.
When Lucy was fully functional, she was viewed as most pets are viewed: fun to be with and sometimes exasperating. She wasn’t perfect, nor did she need to be. The Berkins loved her regardless of how many times she would pee on their beautiful carpets. And like so many wonderfully imperfect beings, one moment she could be the sweetest thing and then suddenly she’d become extremely ornery and snap at people. But she never actually bit anyone, she just gave warning nips to keep people out of her space when she needed her time. Her ability to carve out her space when she needed it is something that people spend their whole lives struggling to accomplish.
As wonderful as Lucy was when all her limbs worked, when she completely lost the use of her hind legs, she gave an invaluable gift to the Berkin family: she unified them and taught them day-by-day to move from a state of disparate individuals to a team that functioned to help their wounded family member. We oftentimes believe that the only way to unify disparate elements is to find a common enemy. What Lucy Berkin demonstrated is that compassion is an equally powerful unifying force.
I was extremely lucky to have grown up with both my maternal and paternal grandparents living in the same house. It’s something that I found was missing in almost all of my friends, and it’s a part of America that we shouldn’t be so quick to eliminate. A tremendous part of a young person’s educational process is not just carving out their own path but also learning to extend their love and compassion to the elderly and the infirm, or as we like to say in yoga, “to direct their energy outward to the universe.”
I witnessed how Lucy Berkin brought together a family that could have easily rushed apart as their differences outweighed their similarities. Yoga philosophy often talks about the importance of Aparigraha (non-hoarding, nonattachment). Part of practicing Aparigraha is taking time to redirect our focus from the examination and exploration of our own lives onto others, not to inspect others but rather to simply care for them. In doing so, we release ourselves from the oftentimes harsh and restrictive state of criticism (self-criticism and the criticism of others) to move towards the liberating state of showing love and kindness to others.
Why would this be a move towards liberation? When Lucy lost the use of her hind legs, it also meant that she could no longer run outside to go to the bathroom. So, the only solution was using diapers. Babies are lucky because as gross as changing their diapers is, we unquestioningly do it. But it’s a different story for the elderly. It shouldn’t be, but it is. Maybe it’s because we are too attached to how functional a person used to be, so watching their significant loss of function is extremely difficult.
What Lucy demonstrated is that when people focus their energies on showing kindness and compassion to others, they loosen the tight grasp that their preconceptions have on them. Their minds become liberated so that an act (e.g. changing a soiled diaper) which would normally induce disgust and be filled with hesitation transforms into an act that we do without question for the simple reason that we care.
This was seen on July 3, 2021 when Lucy started exhibiting major neurological problems that made it awkward to stand on her front paws. And it came into full view on the following day July 4th when she became almost completely incapacitated.
I’ve lived my life by the belief that if you want to see a true champion, then you watch them not when they are winning but rather when they are losing. When Lucy was at her worst on July 4th and 5th, the Berkin family rallied around her, took every little measure to make sure she was comfortable, and even fed her water through a turkey baster as Lucy was unable to drink or eat hardly anything for her last few days.
And so the truly wonderful gift that Lucy gave was culminated in her final days when the Berkins without hesitation cancelled their July 4th weekend vacation plans to come together and make her final days as comfortable as possible.
Lucy passed away at South Coastal Animal Health in Weymouth, MA on the morning of July 5, 2021. As someone who has seen the tragedies that occur on the insides of human and animal hospitals far too often, huge kudos to Dr. Liz Czaplicki and her crew for the compassion and sensitivity with which they they handled an incredibly difficult situation.
What made the whole situation even more heart-wrenching was that on the way to the hospital, we held out hope that all she would need was intravenous rehydration as she had not been able to drink or eat hardly anything for the past two days. On July 4th with almost everywhere closed for the holiday, Dr. Grace Strake of South Coastal Animal Health was kind enough to interrupt her vacation to try and give some help over the phone to Lucy whose condition had significantly worsened from the previous day. Given some of Lucy’s symptoms, the hope was that she had a vestibular problem that was making it difficult for her to stand. This happens to many older dogs, and the condition usually passes after a few days. And giving Lucy the recommended medication did dramatically calm her down so that she could breathe easily.
But the only way to know definitively what was going on with her was to have her seen at the hospital, and so we drove to the hospital with one of the strongest and most wonderful human characteristics: retaining hope even in the darkest of times. When I talk about how showing love and kindness is a liberating state, what happened next further illustrates this.
The Berkins walked into South Coastal Animal Health expecting/hoping that Lucy would get the medical attention she needed and be discharged home to finish her recovery. This expectation occurred even though Lucy had to be carried into the hospital without even being able to lift her head at all.
But after Dr. Czaplicki examined her and it became clear that there was a far more serious problem at play which would include going to a neurologist and possibly having brain surgery, as well as chemotherapy and radiation therapy for Lucy who was nearly 14 years old, the Berkins immediately shifted from the position of doing whatever was necessary to keep Lucy alive to doing what was most compassionate for Lucy. There was no argument but rather the consensus opinion that when our love for others transcends all else, then we are liberated from the normal conflicts usually associated with making such a decision because the path is clear: the desire to make the end as peaceful as possible for those we love.
And all this was facilitated in various ways by the tremendous job that Dr. Strake, Dr. Czaplicki, and their staff at South Coastal Animal Health did. So often the end of one’s life is full of various indignities. None of that happened with Lucy at this wonderful facility. Everyone there was patient and kind with the singular goal of making Lucy as comfortable as possible.
Lucy lived her life as a little fireball of spirit, constantly chasing after whoever she met, fearlessly standing up to dogs far larger than she, and showing laser-like focus whenever any food was around. A few weeks after the Yoga Lab opened last August, Lucy came for a visit, ate these wonderful birthday treats from Maggie’s Doghouse in Hingham, MA, and she was calm throughout the entire class. Okay, so maybe she slept through most of the class, but you know how often people say that Shavasana is the hardest of all poses to master? Lucy was the Shavasana queen.
And so she lived her life like a fiery meteor and departed on the softest, gentlest cloud imaginable. To watch her peacefully drift off into her final sleep while being held and surrounded by those who loved her deeply is the gift that all living creatures should be afforded when their lives draw to a close.
On a personal note, she was inspirational to not only the Berkins who daily witnessed her intense drive to live the best life she could but also to me as someone who chose to open a yoga studio during the depths of the Covid-19 pandemic. In many ways, much of what I teach has been heavily influenced by her inspiration to constantly adapt to changing circumstances. I grew up unable to really appreciate any dog because of the sheer numbers of them that my family had, but Lucy made me really care about a dog for the first time since my very first dog when I was in elementary school and who only lived a few years. In the hundreds of dogs I had to care for in the intervening period, a part of me was numbed. It’s a classic psychological defensive mechanism. But it’s also one which although adaptive at the time became maladaptive later.
Lucy’s final lesson as she peacefully drifted away was that that which flows is most powerful. The undulation of her breath, the deep breaths of those in the room as we said goodbye, and the communal flow of tears as she moved towards her final breath. There is no shame in crying because you care; the danger only exists for those who mistakenly dam up themselves to avoid getting hurt. At the Yoga Lab, we constantly talk about the importance of experimenting with one’s yoga practice and not becoming rigid in thought. To experiment and step out of one’s comfort zone is to step out on that proverbial limb of life. For sure there’s always the possibility of falling off and injuring oneself, but Lucy through her life reminded me of the famous words of Arthur Lenehan, “Sometimes you have to go out on the limb, because that’s where the fruit is.” To care and to care deeply about another living being is the most treacherous and yet most rewarding of all limbs of the great tree of life.
To the Berkins, the Yoga Lab extends our condolences over the loss of Lucy’s corporeal being, our gratitude for the amazing amount she has taught us (note: read previous blog posts for more about this), and our promise that she will always be the Yoga Lab’s mascot. Rest in peace Lucy, your work here is done. And your spirit lives on as evidenced by all those who will benefit from what we were able to learn because of you. The enduring nature of your spirit is best exemplified by the famous ending of William Wordsworth’s poem “The Solitary Reaper”: