So, dogs and people. A lot alike, according to the old saw.
I adore Ashland's dog park. It’s beautiful to watch the animals run, ears flapping, muscles doing what they were meant to do, coats gleaming in the sunshine. Some are perfect specimens. The rest do all right. Even that miraculous phenomenon that never ceases to amaze me: the three-legged dog.
We’ve all seen one – leg lost in some traumatic way – that runs, wags, even leaps for a Frisbee now and then, perfectly compensating for his loss, never looking back. The disability is obvious, but its effects are invisible. Sure, it must have been hard to relearn some things, and maybe he can’t sit up and beg any more, but he’s done what a dog does. He’s just gotten on with the business of joy.
In some of the early entries in this blog, I mentioned the epidemic of change in the lives of my friends (and, of course, my own as well). While some of these changes are positive, many of them – even the good ones - involve loss. The loss is sometimes sudden, an amputation if you will. A parent dies, a job disappears, a child gets in trouble in a spectacular way. Such loss is brutal, ruthless, but is easily defined. Something Has Happened.
But what of more insidious loss? What if the limb isn’t severed but is slowly withering? What if the leg is there, even normal in its outward appearance, but is without function? When these losses happen in the confines of a family or an individual’s essential self, the analogy to limb loss becomes a little less stable.
When an actual limb begins to fail, a person has options: physical therapy, medication, adaptive technologies or supports. In extreme cases, amputation is the answer to creating a new whole. But people and their systems aren’t that simple, are they? Think of the physical and emotional erosion of chronic illness. The slow train wreck of substance abuse. The withdrawal of intimacy in a strained marriage. These traumas – and that is what they are, even if they are not sudden – happen piecemeal, painfully.
Sometimes the loss is a realization, an “I will never…” statement. Not the whining kind that calls up a response like, “Don’t be silly! You have plenty of time/energy/money to do a, b, or c.” but the peaceful, mature knowledge that the time for a certain action is truly past, that the skills required are beyond a person’s reach, or that some dreams will simply never come true.
None of these scenarios are uncommon, and none are beyond our imagination. They number as many as the grains of sand on the floor of the ocean. The challenge comes, as always, in how we react. Is a full recovery possible? Sometimes the loss is too great, the energy required long gone. People do hit bottom, and they don’t always come back up. I’m not a character-Nazi, the kind of person who believes that a stiff upper lip and a strong work ethic can bring you back from anything. And not everyone is capable of adaptation.
But what of those who don’t want to stop walking, who dream of leaping once again for a well-tossed Frisbee? Even if you do persevere through loss, even if no one around you has any idea that recovery is in process, you still must face the absence. The leg is never going to function again. You leave an untenable situation. You strengthen the remaining limbs. Perhaps you find substitutes.
The challenge lies – at least for me – in the choice of a metaphor to understand your life from the loss forward. Do you choose the four-legged-but-one-is-impaired dog image, or do you radically remake yourself as the three-legged dog?
The answer means the difference between staying in the crate or chasing the tennis ball with your ears flapping and your coat gleaming. You may no longer be the fastest dog, you may no longer have AKC conformation, and you may even elicit pity from those who stare at what is no longer there.
But you will have found your balance.
And you will continue to run on your three strong legs, and the sun will feel good on your back when you take a big slurping drink of cool water and collapse, happy, in the soft, green grass.