Parties are not the only thing going on in my life. Under the entertaining and socializing lie other realities. My sister's dear friend of many years was terminally ill, and my companion of 13 years, my dog, Tasha, is nearing the end of her days.
I know how it has been for Lora, because I was here in New Mexico for the month of October. Jean was at home, bedridden by the cancer which ate at her bones, but aware of her condition and grieved by the approaching end of everything she has loved. She lay on her death bed dreaming, sleeping, and waiting.
We gave her sips of water, fed her the daily bowl of fruit she has always loved, strawberry ice cream, whatever she wanted. We talked and sat with her, friends and neighbors came to see her, sit with her, comfort her, bringing flowers, food, and music. During October, she still insisted on being helped into her wheel chair to sit with us for dinner, picking at a plate of whatever we were having.
The hospice nurse came twice a week, someone to bathe her three times a week. The night nurses arrived at 11:00 pm to spend the night so we could sleep. Everyone loved her sweetness and her sense of humor, both of which were even stronger at this time than they had been in her active life.
There were times when she was better than others, when she thought that with effort of will she could get well, and at other times wished it would all be over. And all the while, my sister went with her, ups and downs, trying to prepare for whatever was coming that day.
I extended my stay by a week, thinking the end was in sight. At the end of the week, she was better, and I had to go home, back to England, but our niece Linda was here, so I left her in good hands.
I have agonized over the needs of my sister, facing the loss of her faithful and dependable love alone, and my Tasha, nearing the end of her life without me. I know, she's "only a dog". There is no comparison. But she has been a part of my life since she was 10 weeks old. She trusts me, knows me, and I hate to disappoint her at the end.
The reports from New Mexico grew worse and worse as Jean's condition deteriorated into the final days. I called every day, and heard the truth in my sister's voice, like a thin layer of ice on a pond ready to fragment into jagged pieces. Five months after the diagnosis of cancer, of watching Jean surf the waves heaving her toward the abyss, Lora, who tried to quiet the dark waters and ease her passage, saw that Jean was slipping over into the stillness. When I arrived in New Mexico on December the 4th, it had been over for just 24 hours.
At the same time, the cough which has plagued Tasha for eight months has grown steadily worse. Yet again, we took her to the vet, who heard her heart leaping around in her chest, and heard the hacking, exhausting cough for himself. We left her with the vet for x-rays, but when we picked her up that evening, nothing was definitive. That she has heart disease is certain, but a respiratory problem lurks in the shadowy x-ray images, too. We began medication for her heart. The following two nights she became desperately frightened and unable to stop coughing, so I sat up with her, stroking her and talking to her to calm her.
We tried other medication, and this seemed to help the cough, but not her heart. The vet outlined the options: continue medicating the heart disease and watching the results; send her to a cardio/pulmonary specialist for further investigation, but if it was cancer, there wasn't much we could do, anyway; or to put her to sleep.
I was scheduled to fly to New Mexico on Thursday, and this was Monday. We continued medication for the heart, and Tasha had calmer nights. No more exercise, no more of her beloved walks through the countryside, but lots of rest, food, and water. I could not consider putting her to sleep.
My husband is caring for her, tenderly, I know, stroking her when she's frightened, taking her to the vet often. As of this moment, she is still enjoying her food, and her bodily functions are working when she goes out to the garden.
Tasha has been the family dog for Bernard's grandchildren, helping each of them overcome their fear of dogs with her gentle sweetness. Sunday, yesterday, they went to see her, to say goodbye, just in case, and I am told she responded with pleasure to their two hours of attention.
Bernard calls me every day to report, and so far, so good.
Lora is facing the emptiness of life without Jean with courage and wisdom, but not without pain. Her recovery will be a daily, hourly, movement toward acceptance, and finally,I know, peace with the reality of Jean's death. And I am grateful to be here with her, for her, in these first days of her grief. I know, of course, that the choice to come to her was the right one. But I wonder, sometimes, why life's difficult times so often come in multiples.