The ache of the missing present.
I feel like sometimes that’s what grief is. The realization of what you imagined to be never taking shape. I think that’s why some of the happiest people are the ones that only see the present for what it is and take inventory without expectation. “I don’t know why they don’t just choose to be happy. It’s what I do.” The echoes of my older brother’s words after our youngest sibling, Paul, died often ring in my ears.
I lost Fischer, my dog of 13 years, at the end of September. It is in no way the same thing as losing my little brother of 25 years, but it sure strikes so many of the same chords and soft spots that were left in the wake of my brother’s absence. Imagine an injury in the same place of an older injury that leads to the discovery of old shrapnel that needs to be extracted. Having just passed the three year anniversary of Susan’s death and fast approaching the six year anniversary of Paul’s death, I’m starting the feel the stack of grief like a badly played game of Jenga.
Slinky remains. In his own dog way, he’s present and still holds space for the routines that Fischer brought into his life. He won’t sleep on Fischer’s old bed and leaves one of the water dishes untouched. Slinky doesn’t worry about when Fischer will return and takes full advantage of what it means to be the only dog. He doesn’t grieve because he doesn’t understand the absence of the future that was. He knows now.
Now, I think about how Fischer didn’t follow my plans. How his diagnosis of lymphoma in April had me re-assess what I wanted out of life and how I could support him for the rest of his. Odds were good that with treatment Fischer would go into remission for a year and have that or more time. Fischer, in his traditionally stubborn way, did not play by the rules.
In so many ways, Fischer was a reflection of the stoic self that I present to the world. Five years prior he became paralyzed. It was almost a physical manifestation of my own self, paralyzed in the grief of losing my brother. When he suddenly stopped being able to walk I remember the way he looked up at me without uttering a sound of his discomfort or pain. “Why isn’t my body working?” seemed to be the unspoken question. Surgery, a few weeks in intensive care, and months of rehabilitation in a sling had him walking again with his three legs.
He took to his treatment for lymphoma with the same quiet acceptance. Some days he had more energy than I had seen in years, and other days I knew he was struggling even if he kept quiet. Fischer would have a way of stopping to ask to be carried ever since his back surgery and as treatments continued for lymphoma he asked more and more of me. It was after alternating over half a dozen treatments without success that he would begin to shake when we came to the clinic for our weekly visit. It was the second shaking fit that decided me. “Okay, buddy,” I comforted him as I whispered in his ear, “No more chemo.” He stopped shaking and I continued to carry him.
Fischer’s lymph nodes started to overtake him on his neck but his spirits were high. His appetite had come back for baby food and he even had a good day where he was playing with toys. “He could live like this for a while, right?” I asked the oncologist. She turned to me with the softest, gentlest eyes I had ever seen. “I don’t want to mislead you. He might have 2-4 weeks.” I took in the information, but didn’t really accept it. I think there’s still a part of me that still hasn’t accepted it.
He had so many good days, but it was a few weeks later that he had the night that he couldn’t breathe because his lymph nodes were so engorged. For hours he was wheezing, panting, coughing, and gasping for air. I kept thinking that I could go to the clinic in the morning. They could try another treatment to relieve the lymph node size, even though I had just spent $500 five days earlier on that same treatment that hadn’t really relieved him at all. It was 3am when I suddenly had the flash that there was no good time… but it was time.
I gathered myself up, collected Fischer, and left Slinky behind to find my way to a 24 hour vet nearby. I decided that if they couldn’t offer him some form of immediate relief, it had to be time. I arrived to a completely empty clinic which the tech at the front desk said was unusual. They collected Fischer and put him on oxygen and started asking me questions since they weren’t my regular vet. They said they could leave him oxygen and I could contact my oncologist in the morning. I told them what I knew, the prognosis, and started listing out the drugs that we had tried. Vincristine, vinblastine, doxorubicin, mustragen, lomustine, prednisone, L-spar, cyclophosphamide, and CBD. I think it satisfied the vet that I was not here to dump a very sick dog. I was here because I loved I very sick dog.
They left me in a quiet room with Fischer to say my goodbyes. He already had an IV set up on his front leg and they moved the oxygen tank in the room with us. Fischer kept pulling his head away from the oxygen tube and then wiggled to get out of my lap to head for the door. Even between the coughing and gasping, he was ready to make a break for it. I laughed and pulled him close and when the tech poked her head in, I told her it was time.
The vet came in and I sat on the floor with Fischer. He explained the different syringes that he had. That one was going to put him to sleep first and the other would stop his heart. When he went to touch the IV, Fischer lunged away and I could almost feel the sense of “No more chemo!” I stroked his back and I said, “It’s not chemo, buddy. It’s time to rest.” He seemed to accepted that with the utmost trust and put his head on my hand suddenly breathing quietly. One syringe and he drifted; the second syringe and he took his exit. I knew long before the vet took his stethoscope against his still body and pronounced, “He’s gone.”
It wasn’t until the vet left me alone with Fischer’s remains that I felt the body-wracking sobs cut through me. It wasn’t until I was out in my car that I began to wail loudly. My own experience with grief has told me that it will pass but it will always be a part of me.
When Paul died, I didn’t have the benefit or understanding of seeing him go. With Susan, she waited and gave me the gift of watching her pass. With Fischer, he placed the decision squarely in my hands and has given me the opportunity to decide what to do with his remains. With Slinky, I have given thought to what to do after he passes. With me, I am making plans for my own demise. No, not suicide. But I will die. I am making plans for what I want to do with my life and what makes sense if I were to die at any time.
I am stepping through the ache of the missing present.
I am mourning the absence of the future that was.
I am forgetting the presence of the future that cannot be.
I am forging the life of the living present that is built on the joys of a past remembered.
I am living and happy in the body in which I will die.