On Loss


My little dog has stopped eating today.  He has refused chicken, salmon, cheese, and even pate.  He ate a few bites of doggie treat, maybe a teaspoonful for his diminished 8 lb frame.

For the last 5 months, he’s been battling a soft-tissue cancer, called a sarcoma.  The tumor has advanced so aggressively that meaningful treatments were either not an option or ineffective.  He’s not even 11, which is young for a little dog to be so sick.

I have been a pet owner since I moved out of the dorm in college.  Cats first, then more recently dogs ever since I acquired first a cat allergy and then a fenced back yard.  So for the last 15 years, I’ve surrounded myself with as many dogs as the county will allow without having to register my home as a kennel, a paltry three animals at a time.  Even still, when out walking my three dogs, I am the recipient of looks of amusement combined with curiosity for the crazy dog-lady.

So, I’ve owned and lost pets for many years, and have accepted that loss as part of the price of having loved my animal companions.  If you’re lucky, they live 10-15 years.  Then they’re gone.   It’s the price of “doing business”.

Dogs have varying degrees of need for proximity, depending on their personality.  Cats are at one end of the spectrum: they pretty much come hang out only when inclined.  Max is at the other end.  He moves heaven and earth to be by my side.  If he is not nearby within peripheral vision, then I know there’s trouble. As a result, this little guy has been particularly special to me.  I can say that to all of you because my other dogs haven’t yet managed to get on the blogosphere.

Max has been my constant companion, devoted friend, and nonjudgmental listener for the last 8 or so years.  Max always forgives me for being grumpy, not paying attention to him, or having morning breath.   He never holds a grudge, tolerates all the undignified things I impose upon him like brushing his teeth, having his temperature measured, carrying him in a bag, or dressing him in a lobster costume.  He never complains, not even now when this tumor is covering most of his head.  He is the Wikipedia definition of the words loyalty, patience and devotion.  He reminds me to not worry about the past or future, to just be in the here and now.  His ability to do that now is an inspiration.

I admit, I’m having trouble being present today in light of this development.

I know non-pet owners can’t understand our obsession with our like-family members. I also know that losing a pet is nowhere near on par with losing an actual human family member.  I guess I have been fortunate to have avoided that experience so far.  Being the daughter of immigrants, the family has been primarily thousands of miles away and largely unknown.  My own immediate family is for now, alive and well.  So am I lucky to not have lost grandparents and aunts and uncles that doted on and spoiled me?  Have I been blessed that I didn’t grow up in a big, noisy family with the extended cousin network, only to lose them to death? My ex has an extended family that, for the most part, has enthusiastically and generously welcomed me in to their big, noisy fold and has been a wonderful surrogate for many years.  Much of that family is still there for me; some are not since the divorce.  I consider it a blessing for the time that I was adopted and accepted into their family.

Since I have spent most of my life without, I have to admit that I have always been somewhat (ok, very) jealous of the folks with those big, noisy families, family dysfunction notwithstanding.  I am especially jealous of people with family members for whom they describe as providing a special, safe, accepting and unconditionally loving place that was reserved just for them.  Am I lucky that I never had to lose someone like that, if I’ve never had someone like that?  Is it true that “it’s better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all”?

I feel like, even today, that the very fortunate ones are those that have, or have had, those special loved ones in their life, not people like me who haven’t had that experience.    I can’t know what it feels like so I have no idea if that’s true for human loved ones.  Most people will love again, and want to love again after loss like death or divorce.  I guess to keep taking the risk over and over again shows that it is better to choose love, even if it may end too soon.

With regard to little Max, I am ever so grateful for every day that he graced my life with his unconditional doggie love and devotion.   I feel my grief is a small price to pay given how he shepherded me safely from one phase of my life to the next, and devoted his life to accompanying me on mine.