I’ve been taking my health for granted. I’m well into my thirties now and I’ve yet to have been hospitalized for any illness. On the rare occasion I do fall ill, it’s most likely a quick flu that lingers around for a day or two. Even then, it’s an event that seems to happen around once every three years or so. I do my best to take care of myself, I least I thought I did. I give myself a challenging workout every morning. I get my servings of leafy greens, clean proteins and complex carbohydrates in on most days. I slip up and indulge every now and then—I like to fall victim to sugar and fried foods. Of course, alcohol is a real killer, I do my best to stay out of that pit. I fall on occasion. We all fall short somehow.
A few weeks ago, I suddenly came down with a bad infection in my internal organs that took me out. I’ll spare you the details, there’s nothing more boring than someone going on and on about their illness. My body was in revolt. When the infection first commenced, I thought that I could take it on without the help of a physician, so I hesitated to make that call. I was in denial. After all, I don’t get sick. This must be some kind of mistake. The thought of calling the doctor felt like something akin to having to stop for gas on the highway during a long road trip. I wanted to see just how far I could go without giving in. Stopping is such a pain in the ass. After three days of my excruciating malady, I caved. My body had pretty well taken care of the problem, but I went in anyway and was treated to a diagnosis, a prescription for antibiotics, some blood work and a surprise prostate exam—a very lovely experience. I was cured.
During my time in bed with the infection, I thought of all the hell I’d put my body through over the years. All the poison I put in there, the privation of sleep, the blows it absorbed from all the physical fights, how I incessantly thrust myself to the brink of exhaustion, all the punishing workouts, the junk food I shoved into my gullet in the early morning hours during a bender. I held onto my own body in a fever dream and thought to myself; this thing, this body I am holding right now, this is the only thing keeping me from death—this fragile vessel right here. I acquired an appreciation for how delicate life is, and I was apologetic for all the abuse I’d subjected myself to over the years.
Days later, I left town to visit my home in Massachusetts. Being home was like entering a nicely air conditioned building on a sweltering summer’s day. Quite literally a breath of fresh air. I’ve been stuffed up in Los Angeles for so long, with its toxins now a regular feature in my bloodstream and my lungs adept to its smog. So many stretches of road back home were tangled up in lush greenery, ivy and grapevines enveloping the surrounding forest and the sun a welcome visitor, rather than the oppressive California tyrant I had come to know so well.
I spent time with my old man—my best friend and the most important person in my life. The traffic was minimal and life was easy. I have friends there—real ones who have stood the test of time. Friends who knew me when I wasn’t so smart, when I wasn’t so nice, but stuck it through regardless. I caught a glimpse back into life among the living. It was a reminder that my life had meaning. Somewhere out there, a common life matters.
Upon my return to Los Angeles, I was immediately crushed with the weight of the sun and every vehicle on the congested highway. Then, a close friend fell incredibly ill. I watched her struggle through it for days as I did my best to be a good friend and stay available. Death was all around, I could feel it. I helped see through recovery, here back along this desert coastline. I got back to my usual weight routine. Getting the muscles back in gear after two weeks off and a heavy illness is a challenge, it takes baby steps, but I came along eventually. I could feel my body gaining traction again, getting over the setback. I clung on for dear life and my strength returned. I sure was glad to feel that.
Dogs die in summer
I’m not sure why, but they always seem to pick summer to die. I say this with some experience. I’ve been a dog trainer for nine years now. I’ve developed relationships with my clients that go beyond work. I’ve followed many dogs throughout their lives. So it came as no shock to me when a friend called and asked if I could meet her at her veterinarian’s office. I was needed for emotional support.
The dog, Luke, a small border collie mix, was in a bad way. This was going to be his last day on earth. I’ve grown used to being the person people call in times like this, so I drove right over. I’m acquainted with death, though I’d rather not be. Animal deaths hurt a little too much for me. I like to avoid dying animals. The suffering of something so completely innocent does a number on me, but the time for avoiding the hard things in life is over. No use in turning away. Time to grow up.
I aim to be the kind of person who can be counted on in a crisis or in a time of grief, the kind of person that can be relied upon when people are in their darkest hours. So I put my hang-ups aside and comforted my sobbing friend in a small, white room at the vet’s office with bright fluorescent lights. There was a faint smell of dog shit. I sat there as Luke was led into this place, blind and stumbling around. He was unaware that these would be his final moments. He was unaware that he would die in this room. That crushed me inside. This was not a nice room to die in. I felt for that little dog. I just stood there with my heart caving in.
I set my hands gently on him as the vet gave him the shots that would end his life. I felt helpless and silly standing there with my hands on him like some sort of New Age healer. Who does this? He was fourteen and expiring of cancer that was extending itself recklessly into his lungs. I had myself convinced this was the best thing for him. It still hurt to feel him fade away. I felt overcome with a sense of guilt, as if I had personally failed him. I had failed to protect an innocent creature from the world. I couldn’t save him.
Then he was gone. I sobbed and quickly left the room and drove away. I spent so much of my life trying to chase down a dream, money, women, a career, a passion—I never really gave much thought to the fact that having a healthy, working body is a miracle, a true gift. Its value is immeasurable. Of course there is the breakdown and decay that it will inevitably have to endure if I am lucky enough to reach old age. And of course, I’ll kick myself for the abuse I put it through when I was younger and stronger, in these days when I can do anything I set my mind to, because I’m fortunate enough to have the energy and strength for it.
I thought about that as I drove home in tears, the fresh imprint of Luke dying in my hands still spinning around in my mind. It still hasn’t gone away. It took an extreme illness, a return to my roots, the illness of a friend, and the death of a beloved dog for me to come to terms with the fact that my health is priceless and should never be taken for granted again. It’s a gift that I may not deserve, but must hold dear as long as I can. The abuse on my body went on for too long. It took this journey through the underworld in order for me to fully comprehend that. Sometimes you learn the hard way.