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Playing Through the Pain
I wish there were more people like him.
When I met him, he had been abandoned. No doubt it was hard for his family to leave him and his friend. Life isn’t fair, especially during a housing crisis. Life isn’t fair, especially when abandonment happens twice at the acceptance of the friend by others. Life isn’t fair, especially waiting…watching…hoping…waiting…for a month.
Then my husband and I walked in the door.
Maybe he did this with everyone who walked in the door. He nudged his favorite thing toward us. He didn’t even know us yet. How could he trust us to give it back? But, of course, one of us picked it up and tossed it him. How could we not? He pushed it back with more enthusiasm. We responded with encouragement. The game began.
That game went on and on. For six years.
Some days we had to stop him from overdoing it. A consummate athlete, he played through his pain. I was convinced he would rather die on the field than anywhere else.
I know people like that.
Some days we would invite him to sit by us, to come closer. A rule-follower, he never forgot what and how he had learned in his formative years. He stopped asking if he could enter my room, and he finally accepted my affection. But, he rarely chose to sit next to me.
I know people like that, too.
Most days he followed my husband. A man’s true friend, he was the sidekick ready for anything. They took their water breaks together during inside working hours. He was a great one for causing distraction during outside working hours with his constant need for play.
I also know people like that.
Most days he observed the kids. A quiet protector, he liked to be able to see all three doors of our home at the same time. He played with the kids when they asked, but usually he was simply there for them.
I do know people like that.
Every day he adored her. A hopeless romantic, he paced if she ever left the house without him. He acquiesced to her wishes and backed her up in every situation. He rarely if ever did anything that deserved reproach, but he took on her guilt every time and cursed himself to temporary isolation.
I know a few people like that.
These games went on and on, too. For six years. Until three weeks ago.
Then, that hopeless-romantic athlete quietly changed the rules to protect the ones he loved the most.
He faked taking his medication and received reproach—then peanut-butter-fold-overs to hide the pills.
He didn’t watch all three doors as often and sought solace in my room.
He stopped following my husband to the home office in the basement.
He invited me to sit with him.
That’s when he placed his leg on my hand. I sang lullabies to him for almost an hour.
In those last days, he and I made a deal.
I cried only once in front of him, and he left the room. He knew he needed me. He knew he didn’t have the strength to carry my grief and his pain. So, I promised I wouldn’t cry until…after.
I let that consummate athlete play through his pain. Until three weeks ago. Until that last Tuesday. Until that first time he stopped short and cried out—just that one time.
He knew it. I knew it.
Even so, he played a little more. I put on his leash, and we headed to the car. But, he changed the rules again. He kept going.
I have to explain there was one thing he was never good at doing. Walking.
It was something about the leash. Maybe it reminded him of his abandonment. Maybe it symbolized his pain. Maybe it worried him he would have to leave this home, too.
I know at least one person who could relate to that.
Maybe it was all about his training. He was field trained, and he would follow us anywhere. All I know is that he was the worst walker.
Except for that last day.
He walked like a pro. He walked as if he could see through his clouded retinas and as if his ulna wasn’t being consumed by cancer. He walked as if he owned the neighborhood.
Then we got in the car.
The vet and his assistant were gracious and kind. They knew I had been in that room before with other dogs. They knew I had never been in that room with this dog.
The vet asked if I planned to stay.
Stay. I’ll never forget how his breathing slowed down from a heavy pant whenever we told him to stay.
I thought about it. I almost stayed. But, then I remembered our deal.
As I waited in the hall, thinking it was taking longer than it had the other times, staff stopped by with condolences. They knew this time was different, too. Maybe every time is.
The vet came out to explain he needed to get more medicine. Sedation had occurred, but he was still…there.
More passing condolences. More waiting.
Waiting. Watching. Hoping. Waiting. Did he nudge his favorite toy under that cage door for anyone else? I don’t think so. How could anyone have walked away? How could he have done that? He was waiting and hoping for us. I had already been watching him. For a month. Either way, he had waited.
The vet returned. The extra medicine wasn’t needed. He just needed more…time. His heart was just that…strong.
Strength. Playing through the pain. Maybe that was his favorite thing in the end. Maybe that’s the game we learned from him.
I went home. I kept our deal. I knew we had done right by him, and I have no regrets. We gave him a healed life by playing with him through his pain.
But, this playing through my pain is not my favorite thing. I don’t care for the rules of this game.
I do know I have to learn from and through it.
I do wish I could be more like the person he was.
I do wish there were more people like him.