loss

Topper & Blue

The Dance: Why the Pain of Losing a Pet Is Worth It

“Looking back on the memory of the dance we shared…”

Garth Brooks’ much-loved song “The Dance” reminds us that the best things in life sometimes lead to painful endings. The song is about a person who realizes what he would have had to miss in order to avoid pain that comes with the end of a relationship.

Today, the song was on my mind for other reasons. This morning, my s.o. Alan’s beloved Australian Shepherd/Border Collie cross, Topper, who’d worked his way into my heart to a degree I never imagined possible, crossed the rainbow bridge. He was 14, give or take.

“For a moment, all the world was right…”

Topper lived a good life. He spent many days working cattle with Alan. When the cattle work became less frequent as Alan’s attention became more focused on horses, Topper devoted himself to running around the outside of the round pen in the opposite direction of whatever horse was being worked. He’d run like the wind in his circles, determined to keep those horses in line.

In recent years, Topper ran less and trotted more, but still he circled. Just a couple of weeks ago, I saw him walking very slowly in the opposite direction of the horse Alan was working in the round pen.

Topper had a fierce sense of duty. If a young horse got out of line with Alan on his back, Topper would march himself into the arena and just stand there, staring at that horse, as if to say, “Don’t make me come out there.”

Once, Alan had a wreck on a young horse in the round pen. The steel bar was dented where Alan’s head hit it. Somehow, he managed to roll under the fence and had the wherewithal to call me to come get him. I found Alan, bloody, dirty, and dazed, with Topper sitting right beside him.

“Holding you, I had everything…”

In recent days, Reese, my white lab, and Baxter, the boxer who thinks he is mine, but is not, took turns watching over Topper as he slept the deep sleep of the aged dog. Sometimes, I’d find them sleeping beside Topper on one of the dog beds. Reese would position herself either on the bed with him, or on a bed adjacent to his. Often, we saw her with her head on Topper’s bed, or sometimes just a paw. Baxter, typically a boisterous boxer dog, who loved to lick Topper’s face rigorously to get him to play, changed his approach. He still licked, but ever so gently. Dogs are amazing.

Reese & Topper

“If I’d only known…I might have changed it all…”

By last night, we knew for sure that it was time. Topper’s heart had been failing for awhile and we’d been managing it with medication. By last night, though, he hadn’t eaten in nearly a week. His coat was rough and ugly. He seemed disoriented. The many drugs he was on were no longer giving him any quality of life.

This morning we rose early to take Topper for one last ride. I’m sure he knew what was happening because he resisted a little as we led him toward the truck. Reese tried to stop us from leaving by getting underfoot. They knew. We all knew. It sucked.

The vet agreed with us that it was time. Alan and I kept our hands on Topper’s back as Dr. Alexander shaved his front leg and gently inserted the needle. Lauren, the vet tech, cradled Topper’s head. He leaned into her. He’s always loved having his head held and stroked. I watched for his breathing to stop as Dr. A. started the injection; Topper was gone before the injection was complete.

Lauren gently laid Topper’s head on his front paws. I kissed the top of his head and closed his eyes.

Dr. Alexander took out his stethoscope and made sure Topper’s heart had fully stopped. He positioned the scope in a number of places. “He’s breathing just fine now,” he said softly, “I bet he’s running and playing with all the other dogs.” “Maybe,” I offered, “there’s a blond-headed boy with a quirky cowlick, playing with him.” “And Roper too,” Alan added, referring to the also-beloved Australian shepherd who had been Topper’s predecessor.

australian shepherd

“I’m glad I didn’t know the way it all would end, the way it all would go…”

This was a year of loss for Alan. Greater loss than any parent should have to endure. Four months ago today, his youngest son, Coleson, turned 17. He died five days later after a valiant battle with cancer.

In June, Midnight, Alan’s older-than-dirt, black Welsh pony passed while we were at the World show. He went down one night, rallied for a couple of days, and then died.

Later, Alan learned that a family friend, who didn’t even know Midnight had existed, dreamed that Coleson was in heaven feeding a dark blue pony. Alan shared that story with Dr. Alexander and Lauren; we all wondered if anyone would dream about Coleson and a dog. “Let me know if they do” Dr. Alexander said as we gave Topper a last kiss and pat.

In a few weeks, we will get Topper back. I suggested we sprinkle his ashes around the round pen. Alan thinks maybe he will take Topper to Coleson’s resting place. That seems right, I think. Dogs and their boys belong together.

“Life is better left to chance…”

Whenever an animal dies I find myself thinking about my first American Paint horse, Special Trouble. I bought Trouble in the spring of 1999. Eight months later, he died. A necropsy revealed that he’d had a 6 inch ulcer in his stomach, which ruptured.

At a show a few months later, an older gentleman, Mr. Lawrence Kupka, approached me. He’d heard about Trouble’s passing. In his gruff voice, thick with a Ukrainian accent, Mr Kupka said only this, “I haven’t lost a chicken in 20 years. But I haven’t owned any for 30.” Then, he turned and walked away.

It took a minute for the meaning of his words to register, but I’ve never forgotten them. What Mr. Kupka meant, of course, was that the only way not to experience the pain of losing a horse, or a chicken as it were, is never to own one. We can miss the pain, he was telling me, but only if we are also willing to miss the dance.

 

As hard as it is losing our pets, I cannot imagine a life without them. I will miss Topper terribly. As hard and sad as was today, though, I’m so thankful to have had this lovely dog as a “dance partner.”

Rest in peace, sweet boy.

Topper Shaw c2004–2018

Thank you for reading. I appreciate you.

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“I Can Only Imagine”

“I Just Can’t Imagine”

When bad things happen to other people, we often say “I just can’t imagine….” Usually, we say this to acknowledge that something bad has happened and to express sympathy or regret. However, the phrase “I just can’t imagine” does neither of those things. In fact, saying “I just can’t imagine” is a bit of a cop-out. Our language needs to align more closely with our intentions. So, instead of saying “I just can’t imagine,” we should say “I can only imagine.”

Whatever our intentions, words speak for themselves. “I just can’t imagine” is code for “I don’t want to imagine what you’re going through.” “I just can’t imagine” is neither kind nor comforting. It allows us to create distance between ourselves and another person’s pain or misfortune. When we claim that we “can’t imagine” what someone else is going through, we protect ourselves. Protecting ourselves does nothing to help a person who is suffering.

Worse, when we say “I just can’t imagine” this or that we are lying. We can imagine anything we want to imagine. We imagine ourselves in others’ shoes every time we read a book or watch tv or a movie. Sometimes we worry about experiences we haven’t had and do not want to have. When we worry, we imagine what it would be like to have those experiences. Anytime we think about what has happened or what is happening to someone, we imagine it.

The truth is, we “can’t not imagine” what has happened to another person when we hear about it. We can, however, choose to stop thinking about it. Choosing not to think too much about what has happened to someone does not mean that we can’t think about it. It definitely does not mean that we shouldn’t think about it.

Historically Speaking

In my courses on African American literature and culture, I teach students about the history of lynching in the United States. This is a topic around which there exists much cultural amnesia to this day. Among other things, I insist that we try to imagine how white Americans were able to rationalize the terrorism they inflicted on blacks for over sixty years.
For example, why did it make sense to a middle-class white woman to leave church on Sunday, drive to a setting where she, along with her family and members of the community, watched the torture and murder of a black person? Why did it make sense to those present to pose for photographs with what was left of the victim? How could they have enjoyed a picnic after doing what they did and seeing what they saw?
“I just can’t imagine” is not an acceptable response to those questions for many reasons. For instance, the people who performed and saw those atrocities were no different from many of us. That ought to scare us a little. What didn’t they know they didn’t know? What difference would it have made if they had known what they didn’t know? What difference can we make in the world today knowing what we know now? Are we willing to use what we know to make a difference? If so, what kind of difference and how will we go about making it? Saying “I just can’t imagine” does not take us where we need to go in our efforts both to understand others’ experiences and to act as empathic human beings.

“I Can Only Imagine”–a Better Alternative

Yesterday, I attended the funeral of a 14-year-old boy. Gauge, the son of my former horse shoer, Brad Malone, and his wife Shanna, was killed in an accidental shooting incident. He died in his father’s arms. I have imagined what Brad and Shanna have been feeling and experiencing. I’ve imagined what they must have felt in the minutes and hours and days after they heard the gunshot and found their son. I have imagined what parents do with the dreams and visions they had for their child’s life once he is gone.

I am not a parent. I do not claim to know what it feels like to be a parent and to have that bond that apparently feels like no other. I do not claim to know what it feels like to be a parent who has lost a child, suddenly, or otherwise.

That doesn’t mean that I can’t imagine such things. What it means is that I can only imagine how such loss feels for parents. If I truly care about the people who have suffered such losses, then I will imagine what they have gone through, what they are going through, and what they may go through in the future.

It doesn’t matter if how I imagine someone’s experience isn’t entirely, or even at all, correct. What matters is that, even though I can only imagine, I imagine anyway. What matters is that I don’t cop-out by saying, “I just can’t imagine.”

Here’s the Thing

So, we need to stop saying “I just can’t imagine” for two reasons. First, sometimes people say it because they don’t want to imagine what someone else is going through. If you really don’t care, then drop the act. Second, and I like to think this is the more common scenario, most people say ” I just can’t imagine” when what they really mean is “I can only imagine what you’re going through.”

To admit that we can “only imagine” another’s experience is to say two important things. First, it says “I care enough to try to understand what you’re experiencing.” Second, it says “I acknowledge the likelihood of a gap between what I imagine and your actual experience.” The latter is important because it lessens our risk of imposing our own narrative on someone else’s experience.

If we really care about people as most of us say we do, then we must be willing to imagine what they have gone through or what they are going through. That’s what we call empathy. My friend Michael Cameron defines empathy as “the quality of being able to feel what others feel.” He claims that it affords us “the greatest insight into who [others] are, allowing [us] to find ways to make the greatest impact in their life.” The mission statement of The Empathy Museum (yes, it’s a thing) speaks to the transformative power of empathy: “empathy can not only transform our personal relationships, but also help tackle global challenges such as prejudice, conflict and inequality.”

When we imagine what someone else is going through we nurture the development of empathy, which is one of the most valuable human traits. We also nurture one another as human beings and honor one another as fellow travelers on this wonky journey we call life. I can only imagine where we’d be without one another.

Thank you for reading. I appreciate you.