Sunday, October 26, 2008

Noble Beast

I heard a story once about a woman in Britain who was going blind. She went to the agency which trains seeing-eye dogs, and requested one who had flunked. "I'm not so very blind," she explained, "and I'm not so good at taking tests myself."

I admire that woman. She simply wanted someone to muddle along with her. I admire that dog, too. I bet they made a good pair.
Lately, I've been examining my own reluctance, throughout my adult life, to own a pet.

I've watched others in my life struggle with the declining health of their beloved pets, which is one reason I'm such a coward about owning one myself. I know, for all my surface impatience with animals, I have the capacity to fall in love with one. My sister Joan has three or four animals in her life at all times, and of course, she's fully aware that her life span will extend beyond theirs. It does not stop her from investing in those pets with full emotion, though she knows the pain which will come for her at the end of their lives. She's not a coward.

Heart ache is the worst pain in the world, for me. And I know I've tried to avoid it throughout my life, by refusing to let others in. There can't be real heart ache, you see, if you never give up your heart to others. And with a pet, you have to give up your heart. You just have to.

I'm thinking about this a lot lately, as several people in my life have been struggling recently with the loss of their pets. My sister lost her Golden a few years ago, Abby, a dog which I believe was her soul mate, if there can be such a thing among different species. More recently, another of her dogs, Murphy, was suddenly taken from her by a quick decline in health. Joan soldiers on, and still has four animals in her life.

My friends Scott and Drew recently experienced the loss of their beloved dog, who had been in their lives for many years. They freely claimed her their daughter, and transferred any innate parental feelings to her. Her life was checkered with substantial health issues, including what I think was a cancer scare years ago. After much soul-searching, Scott and Drew decided she should undergo treatment (I can't recall if it was chemo or radiation or both, but I imagine it was as toxic as such treatments are for humans). Afterward, they decided they would not force their daughter to undergo another such round, no matter what. Blessedly, though the dog was not predicted to live a long life, she ultimately did, despite her health issues. I should say, she not only lived a long life, she surely lived a happy one, with two doting parents treating her as their child. Of course, you can see the end of this story. This summer, her health issues took over, and my friends lost their loved one. The pain and sorrow they are currently feeling will eventually be tempered by time, but it will not go away. And right now, they are feeling a palpable, physical pain.

Is it any wonder I have always hesitated to go down that road?

You've heard of The Year From Hell? My friend Ann is actually living it. Her recent life has been so fraught with unbelievable sorrows that if you saw it onstage in a play, you would leave at intermission muttering, 'Who wrote this?" It's been a terrible time. This week, her beloved dog Sandy, about whom I wrote a few months ago during the worst period, had to be released from her pain. Ann has said that the final culprit was liver cancer, though I think Sandy suffered from diabetes, too.

The dog now has peace, but her survivors don't.

I had a dog as a kid, a mutt named Chris, given to me for Christmas one year, but he was really a family dog. We had many cats over the years, but my only other experience as a dog owner came as a surprise. My family had moved from Georgia to L.A. , and my mother came home from shopping one day with a hairy little creature in her arms. He was a silly little dog, a mixed-breed (I guess that's the upscale term for mutt) called a "Pommie-Poo." Boy, did he live up to those expectations. I carry the distinction of having named him Ashley (I've already confessed to being a Gone With the Wind kook), and the dog remained with our family for quite a while.

Ashley annoyed me a lot, with his constant (and I mean CONSTANT) insistence on fetching things. You could not speak to the dog without his grabbing a slimy old tennis ball, or a plastic bone, or a squeaky shoe, and bringing it to you, to be thrown in his direction. This dog was a maniac about it.

Another annoying habit Ashley had was to chase the water in the pool. This may be the oddest thing I've ever seen a canine do. Whenever we turned the faucet on, to refill the water in the swimming pool, the dog would race round and round and round the pool, barking like a banshee. This would continue until the pads on his feet started to bleed from the concrete.

I was never the primary caregiver of this dog, others in the family did that. Though my sister and father played with him often, Ashley was clearly my mother's dog, so when her health declined, his behavior quieted. During the last weeks of her life, which she spent upstairs attached to the oxygen machine, the dog did not see her much. Ashley was not allowed upstairs, and obeyed the rules as much as possible. Instead, he sat at the kitchen door, impatiently waiting for my mother to come downstairs. I recall a time or two, when my mother had a particularly bad mid-day nightmare or vision, and would cry out in her sleep. Ashley bolted through the den and up the stairs before anyone could stop him, to see what was wrong.

I didn't add it all up back then, but I now realize that my mother brought that dog home to help her get through the terrible cancer treatments she was undergoing. Ashley outlived my mother by several years, but after her death, he wasn't really the same.

As I said, I've lately been watching from the sidelines as so many of my friends and family have struggled with the death of their cherished pets. Ann and Scott and Drew and Joan are all suffering mightily with their loss, but I doubt any of them regret having shared their lives with their pets. As for me, I'm not experiencing those losses. Not getting those joys, either.

All those pets were so very different, as different as the personalities with whom they lived. But from where I sit, those animals shared something in common.

They were noble beasts.