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Little Doses

 "Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night. "

            I never imagined, when I was growing up, the challenges that owning a pet would bring. The hill on my parents' property is dense with the skeletal remains of many dogs and cats and rodents. From Nugget, a brown poodle that came with us from Toronto to Strathroy, to Sydney, a domesticated rat I had to put down myself, there is always a cost when you love something. We tell ourselves that investing emotionally in such creatures is different than investing emotionally in people, but this is just not the case. It can be more difficult to lose a pet than some of the people in our lives. We place more time and care with Fluffy than we do with our Aunt Mabel. The death of a constant companion may not always linger as when we lose a spouse or family member, but the sting is as real as any hurt that may come from the death of a loved one. Pets are loved ones. In many cases they are just as important, if not more so, to our daily lives than the strongest blood tie. For many, they are family and friend. The demise of each animal is a constant reminder of the price we all pay for living.
            Life teaches us what we need to know. Our exposure to the animal kingdom is reflective. Their passing can instruct us about death and sickness and saying goodbye. When Sydneybegan to show signs of illness, I was prepared for her to die. Having had many small and larger rodents over the years, I already knew that a short life expectancy came with each one when I bought it. I contacted the veterinarian when she began to sport irregular lumps around her genitalia. They grew quickly and became a greater concern. It was not my wish to see her suffer. The vet made it perfectly clear that they would only grow back if removed and this common occurrence was connected to inbreeding and the ovaries. There was nothing I could do to help her besides putting her down. I was assured that she could live with this invader for awhile and I would know when it was time to put her out of any misery. She adapted and for almost 6 months hobbled about the cage, relatively unaffected by the growths. I was petting her when the largest one broke open. She began to bleed out all over her cage. With no time to take her to a doctor, I was forced to drown her in the toilet, sparing her an agonizing death. I still regret not taking her in to the vet earlier. Not so much for her, rather, for me. It was an awful, horrible thing I had to do to something I loved as much as anything else. I still manifest great guilt over what happened. I question whether I did the right thing.  
            The rat that survived the death of Sydneyremained in the cage. Emily was always a friendly and loving critter. I was shocked but not surprised when the same formations found themselves growing on yet another rat. I prayed I would not have to repeat the same process that occurred with Sydneythe year before. I convinced myself that I should leave her be and let nature take its course. Anything short of the same injury would find me watching and waiting for her to die. She lasted quite happily for 4 months. The morning of her death found her reaching for me, begging me to place her in the upper cave she treasured so dearly. I could see my little friend in this tortured soul. I am convinced that if she had the choice to make, she would have decided to stay. I was right letting her die naturally. She pretty much told me what she wanted and so I picked her up and placed her within. She slipped away rather quickly after that and I am haunted once again. Did I do the right thing by letting her simply live her life or should I have placed her out of harm's way? Is letting something die naturally kindness or torture? One is damned if you do and damned if  you don't. There is no winning when it comes to issues of life and death. Nothing is ever for certain but the finish line.  

"Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

            Watching someone die from AIDS is somewhat like the experience of cancer. Eventually, the disease eats away at the very being, physically, spiritually and psychologically. In fact, the term "wasting syndrome" pretty much defines what happens to a person at the end stage of these diseases. When my Aunt Joyce died from lung cancer, my Father didn't even recognize her laying helpless and lingering in her hospital bed. The weight lifted with her passing was little; she had been eaten alive from the inside out. Still, she did managed to rage against the dying of her light. She was cognitive almost right to the end. She suffered greatly. My maternal grandfather was bedridden for almost a year after the stroke. He was never the same again. He just laid there rotting, unaware of most of the world around him. Any sense of cognition was met with pain and discomfort and fear. You could see it in his eyes whenever he used them to reach out. Once a healthy and formidable man, he faded away slowly. He was but a shell on the day he died. This did not quicken the process. It was the end of him but my grandmother refused to listen. She called  him back with every step he took towards peace. Eventually, morphine was used to help in the transition. He passed away having melted away. I am unsure how aware he was of his suffering.
            Long before chemical cocktails and protozoa inhibitors, death from HIV infection was a nasty way to go. By the time I was 30, I had at least 25 experiences watching friends die from this devastating virus. Mercifully, science and medicine have turned a once terminal infection into a chronic and manageable diagnosis. This is reliant, of course, on the ability to pay for the drugs. A wealthy gay lawyer from San Francisco lives a long and healthy life while a child in Africa dies from the same medical situation. Long gone are the days of AZT and AIDS dementia. You rarely, if ever, hear of a new death at the hands of this monster. The AIDS quilt seems to have peaked in size and formation. Still, I can't help but hear the voices of all those who have gone before. Old friends linger in my mind, dancing with death until it takes you for good. I cannot imagine a more horrible way to exit this world.
            My late friend Robert was one of the first men in London, Ontario to die from AIDS. He was infected after his divorce and continued to parent his two teenage boys despite the heavy stigma such a diagnosis brought. He worked for a large brewery, as the Vice-President of Sales and Distribution. He was well off, successful and careless. AIDS did not discriminate, then or now. In the 1980s, HIV made one not only a social pariah but it was a surefire death sentence. Within the first year, Bob went from an attractive and fit specimen to a withered and weak morsel of who he once was. It only took a few more months and he was sentenced to a hospice bed, several stomach tubes dangling like plastic ivy from his guts. In a little over a year, he aged from 40 to looking 70. He was gray, and spotted, and you could see his veins through his translucent skin. Melanoma the size of quarters covered his torso and head. He almost looked like a concentration camp survivor on the day of liberation.
            Despite the rapid onslaught brought on by the virus, Robert lingered for much more time than he had been allotted. We all gathered when the doctor said it would be soon. My friend Maurice and I sat watching his family as they begged for more time and some mercy. On the way out of the hospital, Maurice surprised me with his cavalier statement. "They should put a pillow over his head and just put him out of his misery," flowed from his cakehole like a broken sewer pipe would. The funeral was small, private and seemed to carry great shame for his family. It was a different time, I suppose. A year later, I sat looking at Maurice's charred remains in a hospital bed not unlike Robert's. Falling asleep while smoking on a plastic-covered couch is never a good idea. For months, we all waited for him to wake up. No one talked about taking him off life support until his nose fell off. At least, unlike our friend Robert, he wasn't conscious through his destruction. He died surrounded by family and friends as they turned off the machines and he slipped away from us. It was mercy and I was grateful he did not have to suffer, not to any visible degree.

"Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night."

            In February of 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada overturned a law which made it illegal to help a person end their life. It was a unanimous ruling. Canada's highest legal authority concluded that such "People with grievous and irremediable medical conditions should have the right to ask a doctor to help them die." The 9-0 judgement amended the law allowing doctors to assist in "specific situations." While some fear the ruling will open season on assisted suicide, the finding applies only to those "competent adults with enduring, intolerable suffering who clearly consent to ending their lives." This decision was like a slap in the face to the conservative government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a sharp advocate of the right to life. The federal and all provincial parties have 12 months to draft legislation in response to the court's decision.
            The court, in fact, declared that "desperately suffering patients have a constitutional right to doctor-assisted suicide." They noted that such restrictions "had the effect of forcing some individuals to take their own lives prematurely, for fear that they would be incapable of doing so [later]." They concluded that the Canadian "Criminal Code’s absolute ban on assisted suicide goes too far." The Code may attempt to protect the "vulnerable" from abuse but it also interferes with people "making core decisions about how they live and die, and so breaches three of the most basic rights: to life, liberty and security of the person, all enshrined in Sec. 7 of the Charter, and is not justified in a free democratic society." The judges found that the previous "prohibition on physician assisted dying" conflicted "with the principles of fundamental justice.''

"Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. "

            I think that life uses softer pain to teach us fortitude for greater pain. The smaller and lesser our toil, the more we are able to deal with a later occurrence, when things might well go from bad to worse.  I firmly believe that these experiences we have throughout our lives hold a dual purpose. They not only build us stronger but they instruct us. They teach us and condition us so that we might be able to handle the most extreme events that everyone, at one time or another, is fated to know. The relationships that we have with our pets and other animals may not always overwhelm us with grief but they prepare us, in little doses, for experiences far more grave in their nature. These small interactions with doom train us, in a sense, to understand and be aware. This, of course, demands one pay attention. The little things that happen accumulate and can help us to be wise.
            I've watched an awful lot of animals die in my day. I have seen just as many mortal men and women fall to sleep forever. Some raged against their dying while others seemed to embrace a peace no one living can possibly know. I am not convinced that this constant exposure to death is only meant for me, although I would argue that only a few really pay attention. Death is my constant unwanted companion so I have spent much time pondering euthanasia and the right to die. With an aging father, it is only natural to consider what just might come. It is through my life experiences with death that I am sure of my position. The road has shown me much to think about. I am not a praying man but I ask that the same mercy I have given is one day given to my father and eventually to me. I am thankful that the ability to make these harsh decisions is no longer a criminal offence in Canada. I never understood how we can put our pets out of their misery but we cannot grant this same mercy to ourselves. Personally, I would prefer nature do the deed but at least another option exists now.

"And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light."
(Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, Dylan Thomas c. 1951)




This post first appeared on Surviving God, please read the originial post: here

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