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Life Lessons From the Family DogBy DANA JENNINGS
New York Times editor Dana Jennings writes every Tuesday about coping with an advanced form of prostate cancer.
Our family dog started failing a couple of months ago. Her serious health problems began at about the same time I was coping with my own — finishing my radiation and hormone therapy for prostate cancer.
Since last summer, I’ve learned that my cancer is shockingly aggressive, and the surgery, radiation and hormone treatments have left me exhausted, incontinent and with an AWOL libido. These days I’m waiting for the first tests that will tell me the status of my health.
Even so, as I face my own profound health issues, it is my dog’s poor health that is piercing me to the heart. I’m dreading that morning when I walk downstairs and … well, those of us who love dogs understand that all dog stories end the same way.
Her full name is Bijou de Minuit (Jewel of Midnight) — my wife teaches French. She is a 12-year-old black miniature poodle, and she is, literally, on her last legs. Her hind quarters fly out from beneath her, her back creaks and cracks as she walks, she limps, she’s speckled with bright red warts the size of nickels, her snore is loud and labored (like a freight train chugging up some steep grade) and she spends most of the day drowsing on her pillow-bed next to the kitchen radiator.
Bijou’s medicine chest is impressive for a 23-pound dog: A baby dose of amoxicillin for chronic urinary tract infections; prednisone and Tramadol for pain; phenobarbital for seizures; Proin for incontinence – all of it wrapped in mini-slices of pepperoni.
She is, I realize, “just” a dog. But she has, nonetheless, taught me a few lessons about life, living and illness. Despite all her troubles, Bijou is still game. She still groans to her feet to go outside, still barks at and with the neighborhood dogs, is willing to hobble around the kitchen to carouse with a rubber ball — her shrub of a tail quivering in joy.
I know now that Bijou was an important part of my therapy as I recovered from having my prostate removed. I learned that dogs, besides being pets, can also be our teachers.
Human beings constantly struggle to live in the moment. We’re either obsessing over the past (”Gee, life would’ve been different if I’d only joined the Peace Corps.”), or obsessing over the future (”Gee, I hope my 401K holds up”). We forget that life, real life, is lived right now, in this very moment.
But living in the moment is something that dogs (and cancer patients) do by their very nature. Bijou eats when she’s hungry, drinks when she’s thirsty, sleeps when she’s tired and will still gratefully curl up in whatever swatch of sunlight steals through the windows.
She’d jump up onto my sickbed last summer, nuzzle me and ask for her ears and pointy snout to be scratched. It made both of us happy as she sighed in satisfaction. And she was the subject of one of our favorite family jokes as I recuperated: “You take the dog out. I have cancer.”
In spending so much time with Bijou, I began to realize that our dogs, in their carefree dogginess, make us more human, force us to shed our narcissistic skins. Even when you have cancer, you can’t be utterly self-involved when you have a floppy-eared mutt who needs to be fed, walked and belly-scratched. And you can’t help but ponder the mysteries of creation as you gaze into the eyes of your dog, or wonder why and how we chose dogs and they chose us.
Dogs also tell us – especially when we’re sick – of our own finitude. And, partly, that’s why we cry when they die, because we also know that all human-being stories end the same way, too.
Good dogs – and most dogs are good dogs – are canine candles that briefly blaze and shine, illuminating our lives. Bijou has been here with us for the past 12 years, reminding us that simple pleasures are the ones to be treasured: a treat, a game of fetch, a nose-to-the-ground stroll in the park.
Simple pleasures. As I lazed and dozed at home last summer after surgery, there was nothing sweeter to me in this world than to hear Bijou drinking from her water dish outside my door. It was if her gentle lap-lapping ferried me to waters of healing. I’ll miss her.