I just stress-ate a cold McDonald’s hashbrown. I wasn’t hungry and it didn’t help with the stress but then again, it didn’t taste awful either. I’m headed to the Vet hospital to visit my dog Homer who has been admitted because the chemo that so quickly shrunk his massive tumor has wiped him out and he is not eating or drinking or even moving around very well. When a ten year old Golden Retriever is too sick to retrieve it is time for lots of loving care and that is exactly what Homer is getting.
I am worried and I am sad, thinking about whether Homer is in the home stretch. But I am also feeling a sense of amazement and love because I’ve been spending a lot of time at an extraordinary place, East Bay Veterinarian Specialist and Emergency, and have witnessed love in all its rawness.
On the first day I arrived with Homer, I looked around the waiting room and saw a mix of people and pets. Dogs and cats and young people and old people and prim ladies and tattooed teenagers.
The owners of hurt pets are chatty, they connect with each other, recognizing fellow tribe members. “What’s his name?” “What’s going on with him?” Easy trading of stories and sympathy. People sitting in this waiting room are all there because they care about their animal and can recognize other people who feel the same way.
Everyone in this waiting room has a pet who is hurting in some way and everyone here has opened their heart, made themselves vulnerable to pain. Because, unless your pet is a tortoise, your pet is going to die before you. These people know this and yet they have opened their hearts anyway. These are the brave ones, the ones who are sharing their hearts knowing those hearts will be broken. These are the people who are brave enough to LOVE. I look around and I realize, this whole room is filled with love. This room is filled with people who have said, screw it, I’m putting my heart out there onto this little being who can’t even talk to me but who I feel so connected with I’m going to empty my bank account to get another month with him.
[The only other time I felt this kind of easy connection was the first time I went to a writers’ convention and was stunned to find so many other cranky creative introverts all forced out of our holes by the common bond of this agonized path called writing.]
My daughter, watching me cry about our dog who might be at the end of his life, said, “is it worth it?” And she meant that in a completely honest and curious way. She was aware that after losing our last dog, Beau, she didn’t quiet open her heart as much to Homer. She was sad, a combination of empathy for my sadness and a regret that she didn’t love this dog more. Her question was actually quite profound.
What she was really asking was, “is love worth it?”
And through my tears I said, “for me, absolutely.”
But I also told her it is a question that each person has to answer for him/herself. It is not something anyone else can answer for you.
Only you know the stretchiness of your heart, how much pain it can take.
But pet owners, these brave people, sitting around the waiting room with their three legged dogs and angry shaved down cats, they’ve answered that question.
These are my people, willing to cry as we mop up the pee of an incontinent dog, willing to get blood on the car seats as we drive to the vet, willing to empty the bank account, willing to weave that dog into our heart knowing it will unravel that heart when it when it goes.
And when the treatments have all been given and the beloved pet is gone and our trampled hearts have somehow smushed themselves back into a sort of heart shape, we do it all over again.
We sign up all over for a new dog, knowing we will watch the same play, the same ending, the same unraveling of our heart.
Because the gift of loving that deeply is worth it. That wagging tail when you walk in the door, that head on your knee on a mundane TV watching Thursday night, that jingle of dog tags in a dark middle of the night that reminds you that you are not alone.
And isn’t that what love is for? Knowing you are not alone.
It is perhaps a larger question, love. Not just love of a pet but love generally. Who among us truly opens his heart to love? Who is brave enough to open it knowing it will be stepped on and yet knowing it is really the only reason we are here. To take the chance and connect.
We are not here to tiptoe carefully to the grave. We are here to open our hearts, to love and be hurt and love again and nothing makes that more apparent than loving a pet.
I’ve been at the hospital five days in a row, both in the waiting room and then back in the treatment area and here is just a sample of what I’ve seen.
A couple with two young boys and big chocolate lab blew in the door. The boys were small enough that their baseball uniforms were baggy and their hats too big. One of the boys had a bright green cast on his arm. The dog had apparently just eaten rat poison and the tech immediately took the leash and headed back into the treatment area. The mom turned around, harried but laughing and, looking at the boy with the casted arm said, “we are an accident prone family!” That family, like so many of us, had enough love for kids and their dog. There is always enough love.
I watched an older man come in and say to the receptionist, “I’m here to pick up Missy.” The young woman behind the desk said, “of course,” very sweetly and then walked around from behind the desk/counter and handed him a small wooden box with a design or picture of some sort on top. He took it in both hands and kind of bowed his head towards it and said, “oh, it’s pretty.” And she nodded, “yes,” and then he turned and walked out slowly, with great dignity, with the ashes of his pet.
And I thought of the young family, who seemed at the beginning of it all (the lab looked just out of puppyhood) and the older man, whose pet was at the end of it all, and it was the whole circle of life, right in front of me. It made my place in that circle seemed okay, just part of what life is.
Then there is the staff member whose own dog donated blood for my dog’s blood transfusion. She tells me this as she expertly loads up another syringe to be pushed into the IV Homer is getting. Homer now has a bit of Hank in him and the tears that seem permanently at the edge of my eye start falling, again. I’m overwhelmed with the generosity of a dog owner who would give her own dog’s blood to a hurting animal. I never even knew this was a thing, blood donation from other dogs.
And the nurse/tech who came in and cheerfully cleaned Homer’s behind when he couldn’t control his poop. In such a friendly way she told me how great it is that they have waterless shampoo, as she carefully cleaned each bit of poop out of Homer’s fluffy tail (and then they wrapped his tail so it wouldn’t be a poop collector, and shaved around his behind to make it easier to keep clean. So thoughtful this group).
And the nurse/tech who brought a selection of foods to see if we could tempt Homer to eat (he didn’t), and then offered me water, coffee, Kleenex, and Purell (the Purell battled with the Kleenex for most favored status, lots of crying, but sitting on the floor with an oozing, pooping dog, also lots of germs).
Eventually Homer is kept in the x-ray room, off the big central treatment area and as I sit with him I have a chance to observe the goings on. I am so struck by the loving professionalism of the entire crew (and there seem to be so many of them! At least 15 on a shift that I could count). They are relentlessly kind and upbeat. As they expertly take off casts and clean out wounds they use calm and friendly tones. They aren’t just calming the animals, they are calming me too.
I’m still worried and sad but it feels like a place I can be worried and sad in. Other people are taking care of Homer, my job is to sit with him and let him know he is loved and not alone. To rub his head and tell him we have loved every minute of his time with us. To thank him for his companionship, the way he moved room to room with me every day when I went about my work at home. After the kids are off to school I head upstairs to write at the computer and Homer would plop himself beside me and stay there until the end of my work was signaled by the turning off of the lamps. Only when he heard the clicks would he stretch himself and get up and follow me to the next home work location. At night Homer would insert himself into even the smallest spot on the couch, nudging his way between anyone sitting there, confident he belonged right in the middle of the family.
Homer is the most social dog, you can tell he believes his place is in the middle of the pack. When we have guests and people are congregated in the kitchen, Homer splays himself out right in the middle of the floor, letting people step over or around him, not moving no matter how crowded the kitchen gets.
So I thank Homer for all his love and his quirks and tell him it is okay to rest. His breathing gets slower and more regular, he is asleep. And then I shift my legs (the floor is hard but the lovely tech/nurses have brought me a soft blanket to sit on) and Homer’s eyes pop open. His puts his paw up on my leg, like a hug, like holding hands. He leaves it there and drifts back to sleep.
In this moment life has become very simple. There is no thinking about dinner or carpool or cleaning or even writing, this moment has distilled down to me and a dog.
So I just sit, loving Homer.