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Next Avenue: What dogs can teach us about life and death

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This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org.

What can the end of a dog’s life tell us about our own? The question might seem prosaic or even absurd, but now I am trying to extract meaning from this painful moment.

Up until now I had considered myself very fortunate.

My dog Ernie just turned 11 years old. If dog year calculations are accurate —Ernie and I are now both in our 70s — he’d finally gained a few years on me.

“The best life is now, without a yesterday or tomorrow. He lives until he can’t, without a shred of bitterness or self-pity.”

Despite our considerable physiological differences, Ernie and I have had aches and pains and the inconveniences of creeping decrepitude. Don’t get me wrong, he is still astoundingly young at heart and can be as relentlessly playful as a pup.

But the long beach walks are shorter, we step a bit more gingerly down the stairs and can’t seem to sit down or stand up without emanating some sort of sound. We learn what we can’t do after first embarrassing ourselves.

In my case, among other things, I no longer take those boot camp classes, which would render me immobile the following day. For Ernie, it’s losing his legs during a squirrel chase or stumbling during the once effortless hop onto the back seat of the car.

Ernie has handled his infirmities with more grace than I have. Morning and night he enthusiastically takes his pills — chewable or in squishy little pockets, which lure him with the irresistible aroma of bacon, chicken and slightly turned cheese. He doesn’t ever want to miss a dose of his meds.

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A diagnosis for Ernie

Once far in the distance, however, the horizon that marks the place where Ernie’s life ends is no longer hazy. Just days ago, a lump inside of him was diagnosed as a sign of particularly deadly kind of cancer, malignant. At most, six months.

Aside from the enormous expense, which I will choose to ignore, any attempt at lifesaving intervention — surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and the like — would be a very long shot, and a very painful one at that, particularly for a dog of Ernie’s age.  

Now I know that Ernie’s time on earth will almost certainly be far shorter than mine and I know that he doesn’t have a clue. His ignorance may be a blessing for him, but it presents a labyrinth of emotions for me. How can I do nothing to save him and try keep a part of my life and my heart and my soul alive for as long as I can? He can’t even tell me what he wants me to do.

Or can he? Sometimes wisdom can be gleaned from the unknowing. Ernie is liberated from fear or regret. He doesn’t worry about what to do with the rest of his life, because he’s too busy with the moment, even if it entails doing nothing. He has no bucket list; the only bucket he cares about is the one that holds his food.

The best life is now, without a yesterday or tomorrow. He lives until he can’t, without a shred of bitterness or self-pity.

After telling me the news and running down the many bad options, our vet advised I put Ernie in the car and have a good cry as I take him for a romp on the beach. My wife, usually more resolute than I, through her own tears agreed we should do what she would want for herself—no extreme measures.

When it comes to us humans, deciding whether to pursue punishing, life-extending treatment in the shadow of terminal illness is intensely personal, impossibly complicated and fraught.

If we’re lucky, we’ve built a web of connections with family and friends. We have an awareness of self, and of a life we value, with dreams that are yet to be fulfilled. There is also love, giving it, receiving it and our fear of losing it. What are we willing to endure to hold on to it all?

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Lessons from our pets

Our pets, like Ernie, also grant us the power to decide, simply put, when their life may no longer be worth the pain or suffering to go on living. For the most part, we are not legally given that power over our own lives, not yet.

“No more, she’s our last.” I’ve heard that lately from friends who have recently suffered the death of a dog or a cat and likely faced the same choices that we are now. They’re also deciding to regain freedom from daily responsibility and, of course, the heart-shattering grief that accompanies the sickness and death of a beloved pet.

I suspect, however, that there may be more to it than simply reclaiming free time. Sooner or later those of us in our 70s, 80s or 90s will be facing end-of-life decisions ourselves. One decade, maybe two. And however near or far, it’s already an occasional and uncomfortable topic of conversation for us all.

I’m reminded of a friend of mine, who, many years ago, ravaged by cancer and only days away from death, asked to be carried to the seashore, where he laid by the surf and under the sun.

“Is this a beautiful day or what?” he asked of his grief-stricken friends.

The most and best I can do for Ernie is to try to make each of his remaining days beautiful. And I wonder, when the time comes, if that’s the best we could ever do for ourselves and for those we love. Whether the days number in the dozens or hundreds.

As I face Ernie’s mortality and eventually mine, I will struggle and try to keep that close to heart.

I’ve always been haunted by the lines in Jerry Jeff Walker’s song “Mr. Bojangles”:

“He spoke with tears of 15 years how his dog and him traveled about.

Dog up and died, dog up and died.

After 20 years he still grieves.”

When Ernie goes, I too will grieve for that long, and that will be for the rest of my life.

Perhaps I’ll be around long enough to be granted another dog, their life alongside mine, an exemplar of that most difficult of things — to live the moment, live the day, one at a time. I hope so.

Steven Reiner is a former executive producer of NPR’s “All Things Considered” and a former producer for “60 Minutes.” 

This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org, © 2022 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.

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