My Terminally-Ill Dog Taught Me Everything I Need To Know
New Year’s Eve 2021 was weird.
In fact, so much so, I was relieved to be tucked into bed well before midnight, two melatonin gummies consumed to make sure the sleep stuck.
First, I’m not a big New Year’s Eve fan. I don’t revel, make resolutions, or get too engaged. I like to tuck in at home in peace. I got my wish for home, but it wasn’t peaceful.
I received a late afternoon phone call from the vet that my wily and wonderful 12-and-a-half-year-old border collie Kona had suspicious results in a routine health screen and more tests were needed soon. The vet’s tone was serious and worrisome.
Add to that worry, lots of snow and ice; a terrifying drive to my local grocery store; rude and inattentive fellow drivers and customers; holiday fireworks in my neighborhood (more like bombs that rattled the windows) being set off way too early; Covid-19 news (and more unwelcome news) on television; and a minor but stinging burn on my hand cooking the holiday meal.
Frustrating and worrisome to say the least.
Yet, before bed, I managed to remind myself that the snow and ice will eventually melt, the roads will restore to normal, people would calm down, the fireworks would stop, I was empowered to turn off the news, and my burn would heal.
And my dog would be completely fine.
Good riddance December 31, 2021. Welcome 2022!
New Year’s Day 2022 proved me right, mostly.
All that was left was my dog. The question mark lingered, but surely that would fade, too, and good news would be restored.
Until it didn’t.
Kona’s tests and exams came and went the first week of January, and I got the call right away after the test results were in.
Kona has an inoperable, limited treatment, no good outcomes, kind of cancer. The details, conversation, and quick-after-conversation-internet-research-scramble were simply and unbearable grim for my family and me.
The truth was simple: Kona was dying. It could be an aggressive and fast decline, or a slow and gradual one.
You’d never know she was even sick. Seriously. So the news and the mere thought of a short (or long) goodbye was unbearable.
Border collies are whip smart, clever, mischievous, high energy, athletic, engaged, and enthusiastic with life. Kona was no exception to this. In fact, her behavior, attitude and demeanor are the border collie-iest of border collies. She goes, goes, goes, despite her senior years, and now, despite the grim diagnosis.
So, we are doing what we can, which doesn’t seem like much when your heart is breaking.
After the call with the vet, I burst into tears: big, heaving, snotty, messy, sorrow.
This continued about every time I saw my dog in the immediate aftermath of the news, some tears, a tight throat, a runny nose. I choked back tears even encountering pictures of my dog around the house or any border collie memorabilia and knickknacks.
I even got emotionally triggered by other dogs, like dogs on television and pictures of dogs online. Dog food commercials were causing me to sob. Pictures of puppies on social media would make me choke up.
When my family members and friends asked how I was doing, my response was one word: poorly.
My thoughts for 2022 and how it kicked off ranged from scary, sad, weird, awful, total shit-show, depending on my mood for the day, hour, minute.
However, it was about a week after the news, Kona herself helped set me straight on her life, my life, 2022 (and beyond), simultaneously. I’d love to write that she came and comforted me in a time of sadness with a lick on the face or curled up at my feet and gazed up at me with her loving gentle milk-chocolate-colored eyes.
It’s okay, Mama. I love you.
No, instead, she was irritating, to be honest. Forcefully tossing her toy at me with her mouth. The toy, an overly loved dirty and sopping wet stuffed black lamb toy that had been out in the yard in the melting snow. She barked at me shrilly to toss it back.
That gentle gaze was not there at all; it was a wild-eyed energy. I complied, but my effort wasn’t good enough.
The barks got more urgent, and I couldn’t figure out why. I was tossing the toy; maybe because I wasn’t throwing it as she was accustomed to? Admittedly, I was being gentle because I thought I had to be.
And it dawned on me, with my poor dog’s clear frustration, I realized if she could speak to me in my language, she was likely saying this:
Get up and play with me, Mama! Geez! I’m still HERE for goodness’ sake. Let’s go! Do it right! I can manage this, Silly Mama! C’mon!
Right, girl. Right.
I threw the lamb the right way. Far enough for her to chase a bit. She was overjoyed. I was, too.
It was then that my heart felt a little less broken and a lot more okay. We played, and we did it up right, and it not only gave me comfort, but it gave me some needed happiness.
Don’t get me wrong: I still get misty here and there because I am sensitive, but I revel in each day with my Kona anyway. She continues to do well, despite her diagnosis. It’s a comfort. I’m also a realist: this could change on a dime, and she could decline rapidly, or it can be a gradual process and she’ll see a good chunk of the year. We don’t know.
And speaking of don’t know, some people would argue that she doesn’t know what’s going on with her and that she’s dying. No higher-level feelings or understanding.
That may be a fact, but facts aren’t feelings, and thank God for that.
I approach each day with feelings, in the gut, mind, and heart about my time left with Kona and Kona herself. What these feelings tell me that Kona is continuing to live her best life, until she is not. And together we’ll manage it. And that’s okay.
I think she does get it, facts or not.
And she’s helping me learn things along the way (and that I am adopting, too).
Here’s what I’ve observed and learned:
1. She loves her routine and activities and sticks with them.
2. She knows each day is new as dogs don’t look ahead like people do. She lives in that day.
3. She rests when she’s tired.
4. If she needs something, she asks (barks) for help.
5. She feels how she feels and that’s okay. No apologies.
6. She savors the little joys; a good bone, rolling on her back in the grass in the sun, playing with her favorite toys, and chasing the squirrels up our alder trees.
7. She likes to be curious and explore new smells, even if it’s in her own backyard.
8. She loves to be with her favorite people.
9. She knows that if something goes wrong, hurts, or doesn’t feel good, her favorite people will help her manage it and take care of her.
10. She will manage whatever comes her way because she is brave and resilient, and she knows it.
My beautiful and brave border collie. These ten steps are simple life tools, important reminders, and a powerful way to cut through the weird vibes, the unwelcome news, the uncertainty, the sadness, and the exhaustion of our times.
And so much more.
But there’s today first. Today we’ll be together, bravely doing the best that we can to make it the best day ever.