To risk loving, knowing that loss is inevitable, I think, is the single most important challenge of our lives.
For an American woman who is not yet 40, I have lost a lot of people in my life. Cancer took my best girlfriend, Sally, and Shelton, a man I loved more than any other; a heart attack took my mother way too young. I've been left suddenly, or not so suddenly, by more men than I would care to admit, though never before with a note. I've buried two good horses, a cat or two, and four of the greatest dogs to have ever walked the earth.
I have a dog named Dante, an Irish wolfhound, who is so wise and wonderful that I often say that he is the final reincarnation of a high Tibetan lama, and, with all due respect to the Tibetans, in my heart I believe it might be true. Once, when we were at the park together, a man jogged over to us and took Dante's face in both his hands and said, "My God, girl, your dog has a lot of soul."
A year ago Dante was diagnosed with osteosarcoma. His life expectancy, if I gave him every treatment possible, was 8 to 12 months. If I did nothing, it was only one to three. To someone who has never lost anyone to cancer, the difference between 1 to 3 months and 8 to 12 months might not seem as significant as it actually is. To someone who has never lost anyone to cancer, spending $15,000 to try to keep a dog alive for what might amount to a year, give or take a few months, might seem insane.
Sally died in 1993, Shelton just last year. Both times my friend and I agreed to move apart in the end. One decides, the other acquiesces, but it is a joint decision born of the fear of pain. A wolfhound, even one who is the reincarnation of a high Tibetan lama, doesn't know how to push his human away. The decision to stay present through his illness, or to distance myself, has been entirely mine. I have stuck to him like glue through four surgeries, the mother of all postsurgical infections, six rounds of chemo, three clean chest X rays, and more specialists than most human beings have to face in their lives.
We haven't come to the really hard part yet, of course, and for each day we don't I am grateful. Now Dante is teaching me one of those ridiculously obvious life lessons: that no matter how much you love someone, no matter how much they love you, they still might, unexpectedly, go away. He is teaching me that love can be measured in increments that have nothing to do with time. He is teaching me how to be bigger than I am.
After several surgeries to try to save them, Dante had his leg and his shoulder blade removed. His surgeon finished operating at 4:30 in the afternoon, he spent the night in the ICU with Dante, and at 3:30 in the morning he said, "You want to go for a walk?" Dante jumped up and hopped straight over to the door.
Weeks later, back at the park near the Buddhist Peace Garden, Dante and I met an elderly Chinese couple who marveled at his size. "In Beijing, at the zoo," the old man said, "there is a Siberian tiger with only one leg." He shook his head in admiration and raised his fist. "No pity," he said, "no pity." I thought instantly of all I had seen of Mao's destruction when I was in China. The resilience of the people left behind.
Step 8: Be grateful.
Tonight, as I write this, I am in that familiar zone of uncertainty. One-third optimism, one-third depression, one-third holding ground. It's gray and raining out here where I'm teaching in California. I'm 39 years old, childless, living alone in a sublet house with somebody else's furniture. There is a poster over the washing machine that says "Christ Loves Me Just The Way I Am, But Too Much To Let Me Stay That Way." And on my bathroom mirror, a sticker I can't remove that says "I Can't See You, But I Know You Are There."
I don't have the comfort of my ranch, the nestling mountains. My therapist is traveling in South America this month. Sometimes I cry for long periods. Sometimes I wonder, How did I get here? Sometimes I get on my knees and thank whoever I thank that I haven't found a way to stop feeling any of it, and I pray that, while I breathe, I never do.
Last week I went on my first date since Randy left and the man liked me so little that by 9:30 I was back in my car driving home. I got a call yesterday from the veterinary cancer specialists saying that my Dante is due for his three-month chest X-ray. I have been talking, in the car, to all my dead friends again.
Am I frightened by the precariousness of my position? By the possibility that one more bit of bad news will send me plummeting past some nebulous but encroaching point of no return? You bet I am.
But tonight Dante and I will crawl into bed together. Tomorrow, if the sun is out, I'll get on my big yellow bike and ride to school. This weekend I'll drive down the coast to see a dear man named Martin who made me laugh six times on the phone today and who belongs to the same tribe of human beings that I do, the ones who are both sad and grateful. The world around me will be as bright as Venus on the evening horizon, and I will be awake, every moment, taking it in.
Pam Houston is the author of Waltzing the Cat and other books.
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