It looked like a perfect early fall afternoon, mostly sunny, cool but not cold, no breeze. I got out the electric hedge trimmer and cut back the ivy that was encroaching over the rockery onto the path. It was like giving the rockery a quick, neat haircut, and I could feel I’d made a major contribution to the tidiness and well-being of the yard in a mere half hour.
Part-way through the job, I put the hedge-trimmer down and went inside to knead bread dough and put it in a pan to rise. For the briefest instant, I remembered what it had felt like when this act had meaning, when making bread was part of a life in which my actions impacted other people. The life was changeable and unpredictable and could easily fall but it was also full of warmth and solid goodness—just like the process of making bread.
When you’re clearing up a yard or baking bread only for yourself, you have to invent meaning. You have to believe there’s something worthy and satisfying in this work. Mostly you have to invent the belief that what you are doing matters in a way that goes beyond just you. Otherwise it’s difficult to keep going.
The darkness of the day is the impending death of my 9-year-old Airedale, Keeper. She has an inoperable mast cell tumor on her right front foot and one lymph node affected. The veterinary oncologist gave me a Sophie’s choice (see the novel by William Styron) of treatments that might keep her alive for a few months with one or a few more with another—maybe--at varying high costs financially and emotionally. This is not a cancer that can be cured.
People generally ask for more life. I don’t know if dogs do because they live wholly in the present, able to accept what comes along more easily than we can and never subject to wishing they had done something differently. The question of what is morally right for the dog is more compelling to me than the question of what I want, yet it’s nearly impossible to separate out what I want. Too often when people talk about what is best for the dog, they mean what is best for themselves.
It is Yom Kippur today, a day of reckoning, of summing up the past year and resolving to do better in the next. A day, a season, a life, ending.
The thought keeps coming to me, “Just let her go.” That would be to give palliative care and let the disease run its course. The death from this kind of tumor, the vet told me, would not be painful. But I don’t know if that’s my wisdom or my fear speaking, don’t know how I’d manage the guilt afterwards. Humans are social creatures. I’d compare myself to those who spend thousands of dollars to give their dogs a few more months and feel guilty that I hadn’t done the same. I won’t know what I’ll decide until we’re back at the clinic Tuesday morning.