The time will come soon, but not just yet

Published May 20, 2007

Six months have passed since the dog Harry was given one to three months to live. So far he has not complied. This is not to say the doctor was wrong about the cancer, but merely pessimistic about its progress. The moral is, you never know.

Harry, who is 11, came home on the day of his diagnosis in fine spirits, unlike his owners. He is a mix of yellow Lab and German shepherd with the best qualities of each breed, good-hearted and enthusiastic, ferocious at the doorbell but a tail-wagging puppy once introduced.

After that day everybody made a fuss over Harry, and he soon perceived that something fundamental had changed. He received more treats, fewer reprimands and more attention than ever, albeit often accompanied by hugs and sobs, which he tolerated.

It so happened that his diagnosis coincided with a major water-pipe disaster that required the daily presence of plumbers for a month or so. Our initial policy was to close Harry in the bedroom each morning. We told the plumbers of his condition and his imminent fate. Being good-hearted men, they fell in love with him at once.

One day I came home for lunch to find the plumbers sitting around the patio table eating their own lunches, with Harry occupying a place at the table and sharing. Soon after this, apparently, they took to buying things for Harry too. We did not halt this on the grounds of, we are going to lose him any day now, so who cares if he has a fry?

Having mentioned the situation publicly, I received urgent messages from well-meaning but sometimes insistent people that declared Harry must receive extensive chemotherapy, some new drug, or one of any number of specialty diets, often contradicting each other.

Given the extent and nature of his disease, the assessment of the doctor and the fact that the only time Harry is truly heart-wrenchingly miserable in life is when going to the vet, we opted not to force him to suffer his final months in any of these fashions. We allowed events to take their course, except for a daily medicine to help relieve fluid buildup in his chest and hence any short-term discomfort.

Here is the thing. Given enough hours, and enough days, you cannot spend them all in grief.

This is especially true when the object of your grief continues to demand his daily routine of breakfast, of walk, of post-walk treat, of his rightful share of all meals and snacks, as well as the right to anything left forgetfully on the counter, not to mention the slim but always-present chance that he might be invited onto the human-occupied bed. There he can roll around on his back grunting with satisfaction and playfully shoving the occupants out. As far as I can tell, this last activity constitutes the highest possible state of canine existence.

So this is the state of affairs. He is short of breath these days, and the former 1-mile morning walk now most days lasts barely around the block. But thereafter he still demands the customary treat.

In the evenings when I come home he runs in circles and barks. He digs up and eats that which he should not, pricks his ears and leaps up at unusual sounds, barks frantically to break up cat fights and knows when there is popcorn in the microwave. In a little while he will lose his quality of life and on that day we will do what we have to do. But it is not today.