Death is a strange thing. People live their whole lives as if it does not exist, and yet it’s often one of the great motivations for living. Some of us, in time, become so conscious of it that we live harder, more obstinately, with more fury. Some need its constant presence to even be aware of its antithesis. Others become so preoccupied with it that they go into the waiting room long before it has announced its arrival. We fear it, yet most of us fear more than anything that it may take someone other than ourselves. For the greatest fear of death is always that it will pass us by. And leave us there alone. ~Excerpted from A Man Called Ove
The Labor Day weekend was nothing like a holiday should be. Saturday morning I sat stroking Mara’s head on the grassy strip between our driveway landing and the flowerbed that slopes to our front yard. Tears welled and fell, uncontrollable despite my constant attempts to redirect my downward spiraling thoughts.
I am utterly horrible at endings.
When my son was five going on six, I wiped silent tears from my cheeks while children hoola-hooped and had their faces painted at the year end preschool picnic. For as much as I love the flow and progression of life, good-byes stab me in the heart.
Our appointment with the veterinarian was scheduled for 10:10. I could hardly get my words out when I’d spoken to the receptionist at 8:00. Crybaby! I scolded myself. You go around spouting off about hope and you’ve already decided on a conclusion without a single piece of evidence to back you up.
We can busy ourselves with living or dying, Ove. We have to move on. ~Ove’s Wife Sonja
Mara’s nails scrabble for purchase on the clinic’s vinyl flooring as my husband leads her to the scale. To the surprise of the receptionist who’d taken my earlier call, Mara looked pretty good, if a bit lame in her rear end. Adrenaline. Mara’s nerves fire at hyper speed every time she’s asked to walk through the door of the log cabin exterior.
While waiting, a woman dressed in scrubs enters the waiting area and switches on the battery operated candles that flank a sign notifying guests that somebody’s pet is moving on to a better place — please be respectful. I fight my stupid tears.
We see the vet. Mara is escorted back for x-rays and I hear her nails scraping when she and the doctor leave and return. It looks like she’s torn her ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) and she has a fair amount of arthritis in her knee with significant inflammation. The vomiting? Most likely due to the anti-inflammatory medication you’ve been administering. Give her this anti-nausea pill with her meals. Add in medicines x, y, z…. Weeks to months….Surgical options.
I feel better. There is not a tumor on her spine. This is not cancer. There’s hope. Take that — stupid mind run wild!
The day passes. I hide pills in every type of food the dog loves and she still manages to spit them out eighty percent of the time. I force her jaws open and stuff the pill towards the back of her throat and then hold her mouth closed until she swallows. The pills disappear and I feel awful.
At nighttime, her strong owner — the one who’s optimistic she’ll be trail walking soon, carries her up to our bed. Mara tosses and turns. At some point she jumps down and goes into our closet. I hear her banging and digging, but somehow ignore it without getting up. I later awake to find her laying next to our bed. She’d abandoned her efforts to hide.
The next day, Mara’s groggy from pills, but seems comfortable. That night, we barricade the stairs. She’s down. I’m up.
When I descend the stairs the next morning I find she’s messed by the sliding door. What she’s spilled is not normal. I clean it up and hope for the best. I take her outside and she hobble-jogs up the side hill. What comes out is blood red and liquid. We’ve experienced this before — bloody stools and vomiting. For some reason after two days of worry, I’m able to stay calm.
Mara’s brown eyes are open the entire day. I see pain and fear. Today’s a holiday. Do we go to the emergency clinic? Is this an emergency?
We choose not to go and by the next morning, I get Mara to lap a little water from the overturned kayak on our driveway. She also samples some rice and boiled ground turkey. We’ve stopped all meds except the opioid. Without it, her pain level is too high for any of us to weather with any comfort. Now we wait for her digestion to return to normal before trying the anti-inflammatory again.
As I type this, Mara lays on the family room floor. She can’t walk very far, but her stomach is settled. I took her to the marsh parking lot for some sniffs this morning. We lasted about five minutes and then came home — an outing regardless.
She’s taught me so much about unconditional love over the last eleven years I’d do just about anything for her.
Mara thumps her tail when I say, “Happy puppies wag their tails!” I know my attitude matters here — for me and my girl. Put on a happy face— my trouble maker is still thumping her tail. She’s no more ready to leave me here alone than I am to be left behind. And so I’ll ice her leg, scratch her belly and have:
Patience and hope. Patience and hope. Patience and hope.
Over the weekend, I devoured Frederick Backman’s A Man Called Ove as if his story could put everything right. A cantankerous old man who never ceases to surprise kept my mind occupied in a different reality. I’m grateful, if not saved from the trials and sorrows of life.
Ove reminds me of many of the men I know. Solid — long on principle and short on emotion — just the way many were raised to be. Backman’s characters grabbed my heart and refuse to let go.
Invite them in — and they just might grab yours, too.