I'm seldom at a loss for words, but I've been unable to come up with a good way of writing about this topic, so I'll just begin.
Yesterday, I found out that my beloved dog Kobe has metastatic cancer.
Kobe is a healthy and vigorous 11 1/2--whenever I'm walking her and someone asks how old she is, they're always shocked when I provide her age. She loves to run, and her gait can best be described as "prancey".
A few weeks ago, during her routine 6-month checkup, her vet found a mass. When someone tells you, "We found a mass," the news is rarely good. When the mass didn't go away, I scheduled an appointment with an animal hospital for further tests.
At the appointment yesterday, the hospital found a treatable tumor near the surface of the skin, but a follow-up ultrasound revealed a much larger metastatic tumor deep in her abdomen.
While I won't get a firm diagnosis until the lab results are back tomorrow, I don't harbor any illusions. Even though she seems perfectly healthy (think of Randy Pausch doing pushups to show off his fitness at his last lecture) her time is short.
It was a hard blow. We've had Kobe since she was a puppy, ever since I picked her out from the dog pound in 2001. And while everyone loves their dog, I'm known for how much I dote on "my little girl."
Death is a part of all our lives. I've lost a grandmother, an uncle, and several friends to cancer. My friend Ranjan died suddenly (and unfairly--but aren't all deaths unfair?) a few years ago. And with your help, I even raised $2,000 for cancer earlier this year to honor Jennifer Goodman Linn. But when the vet told me, "It doesn't look good," I was still shocked and stricken.
Horrifying images filled my mind--my beloved Kobe getting sick and withering away. The terrible question of euthanasia. When an entrepreneur called me (I had previously scheduled the call), I had to cancel, because I wasn't able to speak without emotion overcoming me. I'm still having trouble with tears welling up at odd times.
But I know that wallowing and worrying won't help anyone, including Kobe. And from the jumble of thoughts in my mind, I extracted the following principles, which I hope will guide me during this difficult time.
1) Death comes to everyone. Kobe is 11 1/2, which makes her geriatric for a dog. She's 1/2 German Shepherd and 1/2 Shiba Inu. German Shepherds tend to live between 9-12 years. Shiba Inus tend to live between 12-15 years. No matter what our wishes, few dogs make it to their 15th birthday, and almost none to their 20th.
2) Uncertainty is the tool we use to ignore death. The probability of death is always there, but as long as it remains a fuzzy possibility, it's possible to ignore. Once it becomes a certainty, there's no way to hide. I found myself telling myself, "Hey, miracles happen. Maybe she'll be one of the lucky ones." But I also know that there's a reason they call them miracles.
3) Once you can't use uncertainty to hide from death, the best course of action is to live well. Now that I know Kobe's time is running out, we're going to enjoy the hell out of the time we have left. Last night, for example, we gave her canned dog food as a treat. You can also bet she's going to get some great walks and trips to the dog park. She's going to know how much we love her.
I'm grateful to my friend Don, who sat on the phone with me while I waited in the exam room for results, and helped me reach this understanding. Don has more experience with this than most people; he's already survived one bout with cancer, and is currently undergoing chemotherapy after having surgery to remove a second, unrelated cancer. Yet despite these travails, he remains vigorous and upbeat at 77. He even runs a soccer league, popping nausea pills and driving straight from chemo sessions to volunteer work.
As we talked, I told him, "I shouldn't keep you on the phone. I'm not good company right now."
Don replied, "That's what friends do. You've listened to me talk about my cancer for hours; the least I can do is stay with you now." It was a great comfort.
We're all fighting a losing battle with death, and the outcome is always the same. What matters is what you do along the way.