As anyone who has animals probably knows, when they are seriously hurt or ill, their instincts tell them to withdraw and be alone. I'm not sure why that is--perhaps a mechanism designed not to endanger the pack by slowing it down? For whatever reason, on the two days that Smokey was feeling the most pain, he didn't want to be with us. Both times, I found him hiding in a dark, empty bathroom. To a human owner, this behavior can sometimes feel like rejection, but it really isn't. When Smokey withdrew from us, I had to tell myself not to take it personally.
When humans do the same thing, it's much harder to accept. My oldest brother was 16 years older than me, and even though the age difference kept us from being very close, we did have a special bond. The day Mom was scheduled to have me by cesarian section, Carl called home from the high school between classes. He couldn't wait to find out whether he had a little sister at last. Seven years later, he named his daughter for me.
One afternoon in June 2000, I received an emergency phone call at work. My brother had gone into shock because of a ruptured abdominal aneurysm, and he was being transported to a hospital in Urbana. Surgeons operated on him to repair his aorta, but he had a very rough week in ICU. He was delirious, and no one could figure out why.
After he was released from the hospital, he also had a difficult recovery. The doctors restricted his activities to give him time to heal and told him to give up smoking. (If you are a male over the age of 50, smoking greatly increases your risk of abdominal aneurysm. So does high blood pressure. So does family history. This condition is rampant in my family--one aunt, four uncles, and my brother. Only one uncle has survived it, and he is still struggling with complications.)
Carl was unable to quit smoking. And as soon as the doctors gave him permission to drive, he overdid it by driving all the way to Oklahoma to see my niece because they had been estranged.
In December of that year, he got up out of his easy chair one Sunday night and felt a sharp pain in his abdomen. When he spoke to our mom the next day, he promised to go see a doctor if he didn't feel better by Friday.
Carl bled to death that Wednesday night. He was only 58. When they found him, he was near a table where he'd been organizing his money and personal papers. We think he knew he was dying and just gave up rather than go through another surgery.
For a long time, I was very angry with him. He chose to leave us and didn't even bother to tell us good-bye. After a time, I came to understand that as someone looking at his life from the outside, I have no way of knowing how difficult a struggle recovery might have appeared to him. I have no way of guessing how weary he might have felt.
So this parable is one that has a two-pronged moral. If you are facing serious illness and pain, I encourage you to keep on fighting, both for yourself and for the people you love. They'll miss you if you go.
But for those of us who have lost loved ones and feel angry at choices they made--whether to give up the fight or withdraw from relationship--maybe it's time to let go of the anger and replace it with compassion. We'll never know what went on in that other person's heart.
Oh, and if you are over the age of 50 and either smoke or have high blood pressure, please ask your doctor if your abdominal aorta can be screened. It's completely painless; I've had it done even though my risk factors are low. Having this checked can definitely save your life.
I'd like to leave you with my favorite Dylan Thomas poem "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night," but it's still under copyright. However, you can go here and either read it or hear Dylan Thomas himself recite it by clicking on "Play." You won't be sorry.