As a child I could hardly wait for Christmas and then I waited to be 16 years old so I could drive. And I waited for the love of my life, Bill, to come along and share his life with me. But waiting took on more difficult challenges as the years passed.
When I started this blog post a few days ago I was waiting for the results of some blood tests for my companion dog/friend/fur baby Bentley. The University of Wisconsin Veterinary Hospital suggested I send his blood to the Colorado State University national lab where they study Golden Retrievers and cancer. I was aware that these results could results in a diagnosis of lymphoma in my beloved Bentley but hoped the problem was an easily treated inflammation.
As I waited, many memories of waiting when my husband Bill was so sick flashed through my mind. Waiting at Mayo Clinic to see a neurologist. Waiting to see if a new medication helped even a little bit and then ended up making things worse. Waiting to see how each day, actually each hour, would go as Bill wrestled with the increasing and devastating symptoms of Alzheimer's; symptoms that robbed him of his ability to think, to remember, to be himself. Waiting each day hoping the confusion and restlessness of sun-downing might take just one day off come 4:00pm. The wait that stands out most in my heart and mind was the last night of Bill's life. I knew he would probably die within the next 24 hours and I sat at his bedside all night holding his hand. Periodically I would crawl into his hospital bed with him for a while but fearful of falling asleep out of the sheer exhaustion of the previous days and months...years, I would move back to the chair. I wanted to be with him, really with him, when he crossed that threshold we call death...and I was...as I held his thin body in my arms and felt his final heart beat beneath my hand.
Now, just four years later (though it seems like yesterday) I wait for information about this rare and little studied form of lymphoma that has invaded my my sweet Bentley's has beautiful body. How long will he live? Will he have quality of life for a month or a year or even more? What treatments do I allow, what tests do I allow? How do I enjoy every moment with him when my already broken heart is breaking...again? Bentley has walked through so much with Bill and with me. And he has been my constant companion since Bill died. He is there to greet me when I come home. He sleeps on the bed at night...at least until he gets too warm and heads to the floor. I walk with him at least twice each day and love to hear his breathing in this silent house. His antics make me laugh and when I have wept so often through these four years since Bill's death, he is immediately on my lap licking my hands. I can't imagine life without him but those words, "I can't imagine life without him" are becoming all too familiar and too often spoken in my life in regards to too many people (and dogs) that I love.
So what do we do while we wait? Well, there are options. First: it is important to acknowledge the reality and the pain. Going into a denial mode only makes things worse. Trust me on that one. Second: holding on to hope matters even when the diagnosis is terminal. We hope for a peaceful death and we hope for the strength to deal with the loss. Third: in the case of waiting for test results, I distract myself many times a day because there is just nothing I can do until I know what is on my plate. Obsessing about the worst case scenario does not help though I slip into that too often. My typical distraction is playing with Bentley, walking him, or just sitting quietly with him as he sleeps on my lap. (Keep in mind Bentley weighs in at almost 80 pounds but still thinks he is a lap dog.) I gave up trying to concentrate enough to read but walking with Bentley; coffee with a caring friend; writing this blog; being there for others who grieve...are all helpful as I wait and deal with another huge unknown in my life...one that, like Bill, will ultimately end with Bentley's death.
Bentley is my last living tie to Bill. He was like our child. I am so grateful for his presence in my life through so much pain and yes...so many incredible joys. I will walk this path with him for however long he will live...trusting we still have maybe even two years. Since this rare cancer is also slow growing I pray he continues to feel well, be pain free and be my companion for a long while. My goal is to live in the now, maximize the time we have and grieve now for both Bill and Bentley, as I am also grateful for every moment we have had and still have. Right now my goal is to get symptoms managed so he is comfortable, minimize vet trips, and refuse any treatments that will sacrifice quality of life.
For more information on pet loss:
Saying Good-bye to a Beloved Pet by Mary Friedel-Hunt
The Death of a Pet Can Hurt as Much as the Loss of a Relative by Joe Yonan
Children and Pet Loss by Marty Tousley
The Psychology of Waiting by David Maister
How do I deal with waiting?
What does pet loss mean to me?