I'm sitting in my back yard on a perfectly beautiful Colorado winter day. Clad in my down jacket and warm pants, I feel the high altitude sun sigh warmly on my face. The air is still. The birds are singing. The dogs are playing with the two half-deflated soccer balls that the kids donated for the dogs' gleeful rousts.
There are few things that give me as much pleasure as watching my dogs romp and run, scale the length of the neighbor's fence barking madly at the evil canine on the opposite side, or chasing each other around trees and bushes in the doggie version of touch tag. The thrill of abandon overtakes them and every hair on their furry bodies dances with joy. It all ends in delightful collapse and panting that would make us humans hyperventilate and pass out in minutes.
For many of us, pets occupy a place in our hearts that differs from our human family. Unlike children, pets don't ask to go to the mall to buy expensive and trendy clothes. Unlike our parents, they don't call us several times a week for instructions on how to operate the television remote or attach a document to an email. And yet, we are as intimate with our pets as we are our closest relatives and friends, so they, too, are family.
And just like other family members, the pets we adore are impacted by a life changing event or illness.
Tika, my seven-year old Border Collie/Australian Sheppard mix, and I have been together since she was eight weeks old. Practically every day, I have devotedly walked her and Gradie, our elder Aussie who is now 14 years old, deaf, and stiff. We're fortunate to live near hiking trails with stunning desert rock formations and miles of off-leash territory to explore, even for our old girl.
But during my three years of recurrent cancer diagnoses, treatments often prevented me from walking my dogs. In fact, after my second diagnosis and an intense surgery, it took nine months of homebound healing (and no desert walks) before I was able to venture out again. I missed those walks terribly, but rather than complain, Tika would lay by my side ever patient and loyal, often licking away the tears I cried for the loss of life as I knew it.
A neighbor heard about my limitations and generously offered to walk the dogs. Gradie went willingly, but Tika hesitated as she was called to the car and I remained behind the front door. She would stop, look back at me, then at the car, unsure what her preference was. I would encourage her by shouting ‘Walk!' or ‘Go!' Reluctantly she would, but I couldn't bear to watch her face through the car window as she fixed her eyes on me.
As time passed, we resumed our walks even though they were less vigorous and shorter than in years previous. I loved being back in the magnificence of nature with my beloved dogs. But they were short-lived and eventually, the walks were hijacked again. This time by scar tissue (from radiation?) that severely damaged my sciatic nerve making walking extremely painful.
It's been about six months since I've been able to take my coveted walks with the girls. I miss them terribly, and I'm surprised at how guilty I feel. Although Gradie is getting too old to go walking, Tika awakes every morning with what I perceive as anticipation and expectation. As I enter my closet to retrieve the shoes I'll wear for the day, she stands by, tail wagging and eyes focused sharply on me. A smart dog like Tika knows the difference in footwear, and when I inevitably withdraw shoes without laces, her tail ceases wagging and her demeanor sinks. When I then pass by the front door and the great mysteries and adventures outside it, heading instead to my office, Tika's head drops and she retreats to another room.
The guilt I feel is not only because I'm robbing her of the exercise she desperately needs, but because these days, she no longer stays by my side while I work. She chooses to be elsewhere much of the time. This is a first in all of our years together. I think she's mad, or even giving up on me.
Maybe I'm just anthropomorphizing. But I know her. This isn't easy for either one of us.
Last night we had a lovely dinner with some of our closest friends. Tika went with us. One of my friends said, "Well look at Tika! She's gotten so big!" I looked down at her body which has become wider, although I wouldn't call it big. I defended my little soul mate by saying, "She's just a middle aged woman who isn't getting enough exercise." My friend was in a playful mood and had no idea about the buttons she was pushing. "She's chubby! Tika's gotten chubby!"
The benign banter continued but I had to hold myself back from dropping to my knees, crying, and asking Tika for forgiveness. It's not her fault that guilt has prompted me to toss her a few more goodies while I cook. I take full responsibility for those extra pounds and they simply remind me of how much I grieve for those magical walks.
In the light of today's brilliant sun, I realize that it is me, not Tika, who needs to do the forgiving. If I did not hold judgments against myself, my friend's comments wouldn't have cut so deeply. Being insulted or upset by relatively insignificant comments like hers can only happen when there are unresolved judgments dwelling within.
Gradie is still and quiet at my feet. Tika has just finished a round of chasing the soccer ball. She comes to me, waves her tail, and lays down, ready for a break. Gratefully, I scratch her ear and have yet another understanding of the role pets play in our lives. We're all familiar with the unconditional love, steady companionship, and childlike joy they inspire. But now I see that through the depth of love I have for Tika, and the love she has for me, I have the opportunity to know more about myself today than I did yesterday. I have another opportunity to forgive myself for not being all I would like to be for both myself and for her. But she's ok with it, really. As long as we keep a couple of old soccer balls around, she'll get a good romp. Meanwhile, she's helping me to accept that the present moment is filled with just as much joy as we used to capture between those canyon walls. Even if it's only in my back yard.
Leigh Fortson is the author of the recently released book Embrace, Release, Heal: An Empowering Guide to Talking About, Thinking About and Treating Cancer. She lives in Western Colorado with her husband, two children, cats and dogs. Learn more about her or the book at www.embracehealingcancer.com. Leigh Fortson
Here are some great books that illlustrate the beauty and strength of our kinship with the animal kingdom.
Paws and Effect: The Healing Power of Dogs by Sharon R. Sakson
A Dog Year: Tewlve Months, Four Dogs and Me by Jon Katz
Cleo: The Cat Who Mended a Family by Helen Brown