i'm not ready for another broken heart, or, nothing says mortality like your sick dog

Tala has cancer.

As it happened with Cody, we found a lump. First I was sure it was a cyst, then I was hoping it was a cyst, now I'm just hoping it's not an iceberg. 

There's a big ugly tumoury thing sticking out, but this type of sarcoma is known to have internal tentacles. We're having x-rays done today to see if the cancer has spread to any organs, then - we hope - surgery as soon as possible.

Cody's cancer turned out to be highly operable and likely not metastasized, and we were thrilled to celebrate one more Cody Day. But it did turn out to be her final year. Tala Day is in late January. Will she be with us in January 2017? 

The answer to that, of course, is we don't know. 

And the answer to that is we never know. We don't know about Tala and we never know about any of us.

I feel that we never know every day. I'm not trying to be maudlin or melodramatic; it's just a fact. I feel my own mortality, and that of everyone I love, every single day. I have the impression - based only on observation - that this is not universal. But perhaps it's universal but most people don't admit it, or do a better job of blocking it out.

It's not like I walk around thinking, "I'm going to die". I'm not a character from a Woody Allen film. I just have a strong sense, deep down, that all we have is right now. That right now is our happiness, our love, our passions, our pain, our opportunity to give our lives meaning. And any time other than right now is an illusion.

(This has some unfortunate reprecussions in my life, like real difficulty saying no to myself, and resulting credit card debt. And the constant nagging fear that I should be spending our so-called retirement savings. I look at the stupid savings plan and think, will we live long enough to use this money? I'd like to know, please, because if not, I'm making travel plans.)

In almost 30 years of sharing our lives with dogs, we've said goodbye to four beloved animals so far. At this point, I see every dog as a heartbreak waiting to happen. It's worth it - for me there's no doubt - but as I get older, as the years start whipping by faster and faster, their time with us seems so very fleeting. If you adopt, as we always have, that time is shorter still, both because they're not puppies when you take them, and because a rescued dog's life span is usually shorter. 

And going through that whole journey, from "I think we're ready to adopt another dog" to that final goodbye, you come face to face with right now is all we have.


johngoldfine said...

Old post on my blog might be relevant:

My children may be past the age for us to worry about their being orphaned. In fact, the chances are good that one of these days they may well find themselves orphans because my wife and are both class of 1945, the very first burst of baby-boomers, and our pull-by dates are eventually coming due.

But my dogs are not past the age for us to worry. They will never be past that age. If they were suddenly orphaned, they could not grieve and then carry on their lives as my children could. Their lives as they know them would be completely over.

Who would turn Boca out at 3 in the morning to check the cat food dishes? Who would leave slippers around for Timmie to lark about with on his mental health breaks? Who would understand why Chloe might be walking on her two hind legs and what the correct response is? Who would protect 70 pound Maddie from 10 pound Boca's infuriating lip-licking? Who would take Scooter and Timmie on the hours of walks their bodies and minds have come to expect? Who would know how to deal with deaf old Max's snaggle teeth and short fuse?

I'm not such a fool as to believe that their dog-souls would be forever blighted with grief for my wife and me. But routine is everything to dogs--and they would be distressed considerably to be separated from their pack, to be taken to new homes, to live under different routines, to learn new tricks. They could do it because dogs are resilient, but it would not be easy or fun for them.

I can't help any of that. I'm mortal and so is my wife. Anything can happen. What worries us is: how do the dogs get to their new owners, new routines, new homes? Who will take them? Will they be treated, if not as wonderfully as we treat them, at least decently?

I suppose we could write a will that ties up in a foundation every cent we might otherwise have some day left to our children. The foundation's sole purpose would be to install a couple of dog-loving walkers in the house so that the dogs could continue to live in this familiar spot. The couple would be paid a modest stipend in return for walking the dogs so many hours a day, leaving slippers around for Tim and socks around for Boca, providing laps for everyone when it thundered, and so on. Eventually, either the dogs would all die or the foundation money would run out.

It's the same problem people near retirement face. Do we have enough socked away and do we trust the people in charge of our pensions enough--to retire? Or would the money dry up before we do?

Of course, only really really eccentric people write wills like that. The headline reads: "Pampered Pooches Lie In Lap of Luxury; Couple's Children Fail to Foil Will." We are only eccentric enough to have six dogs, not eccentric enough to create a Perpetual Steak Fund for them.

So, what happens if we both are dead? We've talked to our kids about this, and we've told them it's important, but neither of them are dog people, and so their sympathy and understanding can only go so far. We suggest various people or groups who might take various dogs, and they nod. They assure us the dogs will be cared for, looked after, placed with people who clicker train and walk daily and read Jan Fennell and hate Cesar Millan--and not abandoned to the lottery of shelters and our worst nightmare scenarios of cruelty or stupidity.

Amy said...

Although I know things are looking better than when you wrote this (and I still have to read your next post), I did want to respond to what you said here. Nothing makes us appreciate more how precious time is than when we face losing someone (including our pets) we love. Then every minute feels golden and shiny and we treasure it. As I get older, I have learned to treasure those moments more and more, and there are, sadly, more and more of them. Like you, I am very much aware of mortality--mine and of those I love. It can be debilitating at times, and yet at other times it is liberating. You can't control it, but you can fight it by "living in the moment" as much as possible.

laura k said...

John, thank you for sharing that. I really relate to it.

Amy, very very true. I often find the knowledge of mortality clarifying and motivating. Other times it just blows me away.

Human self-knowledge is a crazy thing.