When I visited my friend Jerry in Chicago last May I noticed a small shrine on the kitchen wall – an ode to his late dog. Jerry had spent 10 years living with Prancer and had a bond borne of both Jerry’s kind personality and of having spent many of those years sharing a home, just the two of them. Prancer died on November 21, 2005 and on the first anniversary Jerry sent his friends a remembrance.
Normally I do not have the patience to read a nine page memoir but something caught me and kept me. If Prancer was a person, his last year would be described as advanced Alzheimer’s, something I never associated with a dog. But as I read the descriptions they rang true.
You see I know a little about the topic. My mom had Alzheimers, we watched her decline: she spent the last five years of her life in a facility, not knowing, barely existing. It was a strange thing in her case: with hindsight the depression throughout her life seems clear, but that was thirty years ago: times were different. So there was depression and there was Alzheimers and no one ever knew when that border was crossed but we all knew there would be no return.
I read Jerry’s description – Prancer’s world shrinking, the accidents – for humans we have the fancy word: incontinence, the changed personality. And I read of Jerry’s struggle – balancing his love wanting to keep Prancer alive and his love wanting to let Prancer go. After a year the time came to let go: the vet came to the house, Prancer lay on a window seat and in Jerry’s arms was freed from further suffering.
With fascination I read, I feel the emotion, I feel for Jerry. And then I lean back and think and my fascination turns to horror. My mom spent five years in the nursing home withering away. My siblings and I live in New York and she is in Florida – a common enough scenario. While dad was alive there would be the trips to see him and visit her. But age took him first and she lived two years after he passed on. A few months after my dad’s death, twins are born into our life, one named for him. Work, older kids and now infants – life sure is busy.
We make a trip to Florida, Carrie and me and the little ones, and we make a visit. A picture of mom and the twins on the mantle – all there ever was and all there ever will be. It was the last time I saw her. She lived over a year after that photograph, but life sure is busy.
Then one day a call from the facility – she has pneumonia, she will blissfully exit what passes for a life. One of my sisters goes to manage the situation, to be there should she die. I could have joined her – we had pulled it off a few years earlier to get to our father’s bedside, to be with him at the end. Yes, life sure is busy.
So I think about Jerry and Prancer and I think about me and my mom and – this is so hard to write, maybe the hardest thing I have typed yet – the truth is inescapable: In the end Jerry showed more kindness to his dog than I did to my mother.
There are reasons for sure. We were never close. I suspect she was suffering depression into Alzheimers for most of my adult life. My father was the towering figure commandeering the landscape. There was no level of communication with her for probably the last seven years of her life. There are reasons. There are rationalizations. There are no excuses. It is one of those things that one gets to carry, carry forever.
I speak with both of my sisters today – they call with holiday greetings and to see how their newly gay brother is holding up. I share this story with them; we have all come to realize we should have acted differently. My sister who made the final pilgrimage remembers how a few minutes before mom passed away, her eyes opened with a clarity that had been missing for years and those eyes shed tears. My sister never knew what the tears were for, but could imagine, imagine many things.
Another thought also crossed my mind as I considered Jerry’s story. A dog can die in dignity and in peace. Can pass on lying on a window seat in the sun, being loved and with an injection float away. There was a movie a long time ago – They Shoot Horses, Don’t They. It took years for me to realize the meaning.
Strange how Prancer was the lucky one.