Peaceable Man Files #27: A Trip to the Vet Brings Intimations of Mortality
Rachael’s dog Happy hasn’t been feeling well lately, so she took her to the vet last week for a checkup.
Happy is a Cavachon mix. She's seventeen pounds and is thoroughly spoiled, but what doggie this cute wouldn’t be spoiled?
Lately, we’ve been noticing that whenever Happy runs or exerts herself in any way, she begins to cough. We suspected a heart problem--she will be turning eleven next month--and the vet confirmed our suspicions. It seems our little Happy has an enlarged ticker, likely due to congenital causes. It’s the enlarged heart that is causing her to cough by pushing up against the esophagus.
Sadly, the prognosis isn’t good for Happy. All we can do is give her pills to try to slow down the progression of her disease.
Happy, for her part, is blissfully unaware of her poor prognosis. As soon as she got back from the vet, she ran excitedly into the living room to grab a stuffed toy, coughing as she went.
Watching Happy’s joy at coming home from the vet, despite having just been given a terminal diagnosis, got me thinking about one of the main things that separates us humans from our beastly counterparts: our awareness of our own mortality.
Unlike our animal companions, we humans know full well that one day we will depart this world, likely going through a fair bit of suffering in the process. Apparently, that was the deal we signed up for when we were given bragging rights to be big kahuna of this Earth that we share with all creatures great and small.
I’m sure I’m not alone in saying there are days I wish we could change the terms of that agreement. Alas, however, it is our human fate. Our predicament.
It’s not easy going through life carrying the knowledge of our own mortality. Which is why most of us, if we’re wise, do our best to stay in the moment and not think about it.
Fortunately, most days we don’t have to, until something happens. Someone close to us passes away, or we ourselves get sick, get into an accident, or have a brush with death. Suddenly, the awareness of our mortality is brought back to the fore where we can’t help but look at it.
It’s these existential moments of awareness that, in my view, reveal much of who we are as individuals. They test our courage, our resiliency, and every other noble quality that makes us human. The veil is pulled away, and with it all our illusions that life will go on forever, and we are left stripped and naked as the day we came into this world.
How do we respond in these moments? What do we say and do when we’re confronted with the stark reality of our own mortality? It’s that response which will form so much of the legacy we leave behind.
I have great admiration for people who face their mortality with uncommon dignity, courage, and grace. I think of my good friend Peter, who passed away two years ago next month. I knew him as someone with a tremendous amount of energy and enthusiasm for life, especially the outdoors. He and I shared that love of the outdoors, which was how we first became friends some thirty years ago.
I remember the day Peter gave me the news that he had just been diagnosed with a rare and incurable blood cancer. We were driving up to my mountain house, which Peter had been so instrumental in helping me turn from a long-held dream into a reality.
I was so stunned after hearing the news that I couldn’t speak for a long time. I could tell he was understandably upset as well. But after an hour or so of driving, something came over him. Call it a spiritual resignation.
“Well,” he said, “at least I know what I’m going to die of.”
Peter ended up living another two and a half years. They were hard years for him, filled with pain, discomfort, and endless doctor visits and hospital stays that limited his freedom and ability to travel. I could see the pain in his face whenever we were together.
But he never complained. Not once. Even at the end, he was joking with the nurses in his hospital room because, he told me, “I don’t want to be one of those grouchy patients who makes everyone around them miserable.”
Wow. There he was, in pain, battling a terminal illness, and yet thinking about other people. That’s amazing.
I’ve been fortunate over the years to have had many other shining examples of dignity and grace in the face of mortality. I think of my father, who showed great courage in the final months of his life as he went through a series of age-related setbacks.
I think of my grandmother who, more than thirty years ago on her death bed, gave me a lesson I will never forget: “Go with the flow,” she told me as I held her hand. “Don’t fight the tide.”
I think of my Aunt Marianne who, when she found out she had nine months to live due to terminal cancer, told me she would be using the time to say goodbye to people she loved and make her peace with the world.
I think of my 89-year-old mother who last year, after a series of mini-strokes, had to move out of the home she loved into a senior living community and did so with grace and acceptance.
These are my role models. Not athletes boasting about how great they are. Not movie stars giving each other self-congratulatory pats on the back at fancy awards galas. Not loudmouth talk show hosts seeking to divide people with their words.
My heroes are everyday people who face their mortality with extraordinary nobility and, in the process, show all of us the better angels of our human nature.
Faith plays a huge role in our human ability to face our mortality with courage and grace. As I write in The Long Walk Home, faith and a belief in an afterlife are things that can never be proven scientifically, and yet, their value in providing comfort and courage in this earthly life are incalculable.
Faith, as St. Paul writes in Hebrews 11, “is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” In other words, faith is more than a hope and a prayer. It’s actual substance for our human journey here on earth.
I think, again, of my departed friend Peter. He was a man of great faith, and he lived that faith by giving freely of his time and talents through works of service for those less fortunate.
Peter often spoke of having two homes: his earthly home, where he hoped to live to maybe eighty-five or so, and his heavenly home, where he planned to live for eternity. He only made it to seventy-one in this earthly home, and that made him sad. But it gave him great comfort to know where he was going when his earthly suffering was over.
Being a dog, Happy needs none of this. She doesn’t need faith or courage to face the uncertainties ahead, because she has no awareness of those uncertainties.
We humans, on the other hand, do need these things, and need them in droves, because whether we like it or not, our test is coming.
It’s a test that quite likely will require all the faith, courage, and grace we can muster. Best be practicing now for when the time comes.