Last night I thought our Lab was dying. Well, he is dying. He has inoperable tumors on his head and chest. But last night he had a long, dramatic seizure. He was incontinent. His nose bled from the tumor on his forehead (and he seemed to bite his tongue).
The children were terrified and hurt. My youngest two cried and cried on my lap and their mother’s. I stroked him, believing he was actually in the final death throes. His breathing agonal, final, gasping.
Three hours later, as I tried to sleep nearby, up he popped and went to get a drink as if to say, ‘hey, what just happened?’
It occurred to me last night, as I held him still when he tried to stand on shaking legs, as I put a rug under his head on the hard tile floor, as I watched his breathing and felt his racing heart, that I had become a pretty close acquaintance of death.
As my wife and children became teary, and were shaken by the scene, I watched it all with emotion, but no surprise. I sat and wondered, with my hand on his old, yellow coat, how many times I had watched someone, or something, die. I’ve seen many humans, young and old, leave this life. I’ve seen plenty of pets and wild animals die. I’ve killed animals with a rifle, and seen the blood on the ground that I caused.
It isn’t that I’m cold, uncaring or unmoved by death. I am, or else I wouldn’t be writing this. It’s that death is one more thing now. In fact, sometimes, I’m quite bored by thinking about it. And maybe bored isn’t the word. Maybe I’m just weary of thinking about it. We do it so much in medicine, and even in fields other than medicine. When we are old, sometimes, we seek it, realizing that we could see everything on earth and see nothing really new. That’s when it’s time to move on, I guess.
My children are new to the thought of it and also to the appearance, sound and feel of it. In their worlds of endless hope and wonder, death is truly an enemy, a stalker, an interloper who only robs.
But as I have grown, I see it differently. A young warrior hates his enemy with the passion only the young can have. He wants glory in defeating him. An old warrior, and I’m getting there, first comes to respect, then to love his enemy in a way. They are connected. The old warrior sees that the goal of the war is peace, a coming together, sometimes a blending where we can all be one.
Death stopped by last night to say hello to me, and to whisper in the dog’s ear. I think he did it so that the children wouldn’t be as surprised. It was merciful, really, to prepare them that way.
‘So, you’ve come for the dog?’
‘Not yet. I’m just checking on him. He’s a good one, isn’t he?’
‘Yeah. The children are all torn up.’
‘I know. I’ll come back later and let them have a while.’
‘You know, Reaper, you’re not a bad guy.’
‘I never have been. I wish everyone knew that.’
‘So, is there dog heaven?’
‘Ed, what do you think?’
He smiled and petted the dog, then went away.
This morning, to the delight of my children, our old dog is sleeping happily on his pillow, in front of a space heater. The all petted him, having known him their entire lives. He wags his tail when he sees them. He, too, is grateful for one more day.
But I don ‘t think he’s half as sad as we are. He knows the truth. And when the Reaper’s whistle comes, he’ll go on to warm, sun-soaked fields where he can lie and play and roll in peace, waiting for all of us to join him.