|Here for ya, babe.|
I just spent a hour with a total stranger in my living room. My dog was there, too, so I guess I was safe. After all, Rusty is half pit bull, even if he is 15 years old, which is approximately 700 in people years. With his characteristic bravery, Rusty could possibly lay down in the intruder's estimated trajectory and trip him with his fuzzy bulk should the man choose to walk directly over him and/or be visually challenged enough not to see 71 pounds of ancient, sleepy beast directly in his path. Rusty is a force of nature. But it's mostly gravity.
Since the total stranger was a hospice veterinarian and since I had him on good recommendation from the relative strangers I meet at my regular vet's office I was not unduly concerned.
What exactly is a hospice veterinarian? you ask.
A hospice veterinarian is ER vet who decides to leave the ER behind and go into the homes of people with ancient or critically ill pets and teach them how to use the wonders of modern medicine to squeak out a few more months or days to have some genuine party time before ol' Rover has to cross the Rainbow Bridge. It's the vet who works out of his car and has no problem being half-bent over, waddling along, trying to get the stethoscope in the right place to get a good heartbeat read, as the dog meanders around on the carpet, deciding whether or not to let this weird human follow him around, thinking about a nice indoor poop. This is a vet who goes by "Dr. Jason" and hugs you when he leaves. I like this in a vet.
Nonetheless, I was initially very depressed about this concept. I was not happy about considering this option and spent quite a while mulling it over before mentioning it to our regular vet, and then quite a while more before mentioning it to Jon, and more still, carrying the reference card in my pocket before calling. It sounded morose and somehow also a "first world problem", privileged sort of thing. I felt guilty for having the ability to do it, and guilty for not wanting to. Guilt is something I do well.
I am used to the pattern of doing one's best pretty much on one's own until the inevitable last trip to the vet to do the deed, then feel at once relieved and - yes - guilty again.
And what I realized this morning as the hospice vet and I talked about new things to try in order to keep Rusty comfortable and happy as he gets very very old, was that this whole exercise was divided neatly in half between my genuinely deep love for my old dog and my need to wrestle with my old frenemy, GUILT.
Guilt often makes me do the right thing, a goad and stick that keeps me relatively ethical, as much as my frailty allows. Guilt sometimes makes me feel superior, because if I feel guilty about something, that must mean that I am so much more sensitive and caring than someone who wouldn't feel guilty, right? Guilt assures me that, yes, I am still Catholic. Guilt walks around with me and says, "You suck. Congratulations." Guilt visits me in the wee hours of the morning and wants to Talk. Guilt encourages me to hide my mistakes, or if possible, fix them retroactively so that it looks like I never made them in the first place, except that I still feel guilty about it and smell faintly sweaty. Guilt makes me dishonestly honest, which is quite a feat. Guilt gives me a warm hug and then pokes me in the eye. And sometimes, on its meanest days, Guilt is a giant wall of stone with giant iron bars that isolates me in my own personal prison, while I grip the key hard in my clenched fist.
But guilt can also be a bridge. Not a rainbow bridge, though. More like a mud bridge, or a poop bridge, or a three-day-old-snowpack-dirt-mix bridge. A shitty, creaky, nasty, you're-about-to-plummet-to-untimely-death-by-crocodiles bridge.
Guilt bridges me to other guilty hearts. From my side of the bridge, I can see them, wobbling across the divide between us, trying to get from there to here. I recognize the gait. Or sometimes, they're way over there on the other side, waving me over. Sometimes we just stare at each other, knowing nobody is going to move right now, but watching each other thinking about it. Hoping about it. I have a lot of empathy for those wobbly hearts, because I think I know pretty much how they feel about those crocodiles below us.
Guilt, as much as love, kept me at my mother's side for the three days it took her to pass away from a brainstem hemorrhage. Love, of course, but guilt, too. Guilt I couldn't save her, guilt I couldn't love her more than I already did, guilt that she often drove me crazy, guilt that I wanted her to go fast so we -- no, so that I -- wouldn't suffer too much. I'm proud of being there for her. I'm ashamed for some of the reasons. Guilt is like that.
I guess what I'm saying here is that this whole hospice thing is just one small pebble on the rocky road of life. (Dang. Sounds like a song from the 1930s.) It's familiar in its pain, and I think I'm growing some very suitable and possibly useful calluses because of those pebbles. As I walk along, I realize more and more the following, which I will helpfully bullet-point for your reference:
1. I am making this whole "life" thing up as I go along. (I'll bet you are too. Don't ask, don't tell.)
2. Even as I make responsible and loving choices, I am very much aware that I might be making terrible choices for the right reasons, or great choices for terrible reasons. It is a crapshoot.
3. Guilt is sticky. Maybe this is a good thing. Maybe not. But it is sticky nonetheless.
4. None of us are going to get this right nearly as often as we get it wrong.
5. Guilt does not have to leave you all alone. Go out there with your crappy, crappy guilt and share it. Pass that crap around and see what grows out of it. You may be surprised.
6. Love does not always conquer guilt but it makes a really nice companion that will let you keep moving forward.
7. Hospice vets are awesome.
So there it is, I suppose. Perhaps doggie hospice is not a cure for guilt because maybe on this side of the Rainbow Bridge there isn't one. Yeah, I think that's true. And I think that's ok. I am going to go on walking with Guilt, and leaving room for it to walk alongside all the other stuff in my life that I like better most of the time. Love. Self-acceptance. Perspective. Humility. Binge-watching Netflix. Hot chocolate. M&Ms.
Very old dogs.