10 Things My Dog Taught Me That Made It Possible for Me to Get Married: Lesson 4

An excerpt from Dog Is My Co-Pilot, from the editors of The Bark

Lesson #4: Loving, in the face of inevitable loss, is the single most important challenge of our lives.

When Dante came home from our walk on the evening of his fourth birthday and I noticed that his front leg was quivering -- just a little -- cancer was the last thing I thought of. Which is odd, since of all the potential disasters spinning constantly in the disaster Rolodex that is my brain, cancer is the one that comes up most often. But Dante was only four, after all, and what I imagined instead was an injury? a too-much-walking-on-the-pavement injury, or at the very worst, arthritis, something congenital that lived in his joints.

On a Friday afternoon, over the phone, a vet I didn't know (it was only my second year teaching at UC Davis, and I still thought of Colorado as my only home) said, "You better get him in, that sounds like osteosarcoma." It was harder to stay in denial at that point, but I was somewhat successful at focusing all my energy that weekend on hating the unknown vet.

When I did take Dante in on Monday, the vet opened the door and from across the room said, "That's what I was afraid of." He gave me some Tahitian Noni juice and Chinese mushrooms, and sent me to the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at Davis for the biopsy and the final diagnosis. The next five days I don't remember at all.

When something bad happens in my life, when something I love is threatened, I become, instantaneously, eight years old. Ten years ago when my best friend was diagnosed with cancer, any number of times when one man or another announces he is leaving me, this summer when the Colorado wildfires came within a few miles of my ranch, I became paralyzed, zombified. It is one of the things I like least about myself.

It is not entirely my fault, I have been told by therapists. This ability to freeze in place is probably the reason I survived (literally? physically) my childhood. As an adult this ability is a bit more problematic. I often manage to remain in this frozen state so long that I all but miss the terrible thing. I was frozen through my mother's funeral, for example, frozen for the last months of my dear friend Sally's life, and again for my friend Shelton's. I've been frozen while any number of men shout and throw any number of things into their suitcases, and I was frozen for the five days after Dante's biopsy came back.

At the end of the five days I made a decision. However long Dante had to live, I was going to bring myself back to life and stay there. I was going to be emotionally present every minute, right up to the lethal injection, if that's what it came to, through every surgery, every infection, every difficult decision, every howl of pain. For the first time in my life, this willful thawing was available to me (probably because of the four years of love that I had at that point received from Dante) and I recognized it for the lifeline that it was.

Did I wish I could have gone back and made the same decision with Sally and Shelton? Of course I did. But I kept my promise with Dante, I keep it still, and I believe it to be the first of many. This summer, when we had wildfire in wilderness areas eight miles to the west of us, and eleven miles to the east, it took me only three days to snap back to the living and start packing into boxes all the things I wanted to save.

Go to lesson #5

Reprinted from Dog Is My Co-Pilot, from the editors of The Bark © 2003 Permission granted by Crown Publishers.

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