Recently we welcomed into our home an ancient dog who had to be re-homed when her family moved. Technically she is a "long term guest," and will return to her family if/when they find a house with a yard where she can be healthy and happy. She's adorable and really not any trouble (because- did I mention she's ancient?). Today she is much more her normal self and we've discovered that she talks (woo woo woo... very softly, like she's having a conversation with you). She is mostly deaf, but responds if she can see your hands and she is socializing well with the other two dogs who were already part of our family.
Watching the dogs interact today reminded me that it wasn't long ago that I debated the wisdom of keeping the puppy, Aztec. He got very sick when he was a young puppy (along with two others in his litter) and now he continues to puke all over the place and wheezes when he's stressed (either physically or mentally). The last time I took him to the vet we discovered that he was completely healthy (which I'd expected)... so we did some chest x-rays. It turns out that he most likely has a para-myocardial arch (blood vessels from the heart wrap around the esophagus and cause restriction in the esophagus). He also has a mega-esophagus as a result of the arch. The mega-esophagus means that his esophagus (the tube that carries food from the mouth to stomach) doesn't work the way it should (muscle movements that carry the food downward) and it has created a wider place where food tends to settle (instead of emptying into the stomach).
When I heard what the vet was thinking my first thought was, "I wonder if we should just put him down right now?" Closely following that first thought was, "Oh my goodness, I can't stand any more puke all over the place! My back hurts from cleaning the carpet as it is!" Then... I looked at him. He was sitting on the exam table, completely happy. Happy puppy with a strange rattling sound in his throat, but totally trusting, totally happy... and healthy (just not perfect). Of course, right then and there I committed to doing my best to seeing that he remains happy and healthy (and imperfect).
One of the traits I like least about myself since Dave died is that I'm scared that I'm not strong enough to handle severe illness or loss of anyone else that I love. Even the thought of losing someone close to me makes my body feel the same shocky way that it did when I found Dave the night that he died. I really question whether I'm strong enough to go through that (or anything even similar to it) again.
Right now I have more than one friend fighting life threatening battles. Even THINKING about it makes that anxiety rise (not slowly like bread, or leisurely like air bubbles in water... but rapidly and violently, like a bullet out of a gun) to the surface. It creates ripples that invade every corner of my brain. My first thought was that maybe I should just distance myself.. save some pain. Certainly I have already lived through enough pain in my life and no one would blame me if I just "forgot" what was happening.
Then... I look at Sierra and Aztec. They are strong. I don't have to be. They're the ones in our house who are ill or old. I love them. I help them in whatever ways I can. I feed them, clean up after them, and enjoy every bit of companionship they offer. If one of them dies, or leaves (since Sierra very well could return to her family) I will be ok. It would be much more painful to live in this moment, fearing that loss, and denying the love and companionship we can share RIGHT NOW.
I know that they're "only" dogs, but I think that the timing with both of them is perhaps meant to be a message and a lesson for me. It's ok that I don't like illness and death affecting my loved ones. Those things will happen whether I'm ok with it or not. It's ok that I question whether I'm strong enough to deal with new situation.
Dave was not the only person in his family to die young of a heart attack, in fact there have been way too many of his cousins who share the same fate. One of his cousins was visiting with me not too long ago. He expressed how much he valued his time with his wife and kids and then he said something like this: My family don't live a long time, but we have FULL lives. We have rich lives because we know that they may not be LONG lives.
Make your days count, every day. Don't run (or even walk slowly, careful not to make eye contact and draw notice) away from situations that might not (or definitely won't) end well. Avoiding pain, because it will hurt (duh) will decrease the fullness of life. It will spend part of the richness in a way that gains you nothing... and so... old dogs, and chronically ill dogs will remain in my home and I will love them... because what is today about, if not loving those who mean something to me? We will let tomorrow take care of itself when it gets here.