Funny, of all the pets I have, the last one I figured would be cut down prematurely was Henry. Puffin, one of two cats we have, was on death’s door three times – two blockages in his intestine and a severe case of pancreatitis – yet survived them all. Skye, our other cat, had so many problems with her skin, she could’ve made the cover of Dermatology magazine. To this day our greatest challenge with her is keeping her from licking the fur off her tail.
But Henry was a rock; a carefree spirit who chased squirrels, ate anything that happened to be in front of him, tempted fate and always escaped unscathed. The idea that anything could pose a serious threat to his life seemed ridiculous. Even now, two weeks after he left us, it still seems impossible. And yet the impossible is exactly what happened.
Over the last couple of weeks I have been consumed by two emotions. The first is obvious: I miss him terribly. He was such an indelible part of our lives that it is hard to find a room in the house that isn’t considerably emptier now that he is gone. But the second emotion haunts me even more. Despite the fact that Henry had cancer, I simply never came to grips with it. I always believed he would beat it. Hence, I never truly appreciated the time he had left.
Throughout the spring and summer months of this year, I can’t tell you how many opportunities there were for me to spend more time with him. A slightly longer walk, maybe an additional ride or two in the car, or perhaps just a few more rough-housing episodes with him and one of his toys. One of his favorite games involved him teasing you with his bone. He would show it to you, then, when you lunged for it, he’d pull it back and made you chase after him. The term fetch had a far different meaning to Henry than most dogs. In his world, people came to him, not the other way around. He loved the tug of war as you tried to pry the bone out of his mouth. He would growl while his tail wagged back and forth.
It’s no secret that over the last few years I buried myself in my blog, consumed by politics. It was and is a wonderful release for me. But it took me away from my family. I would spend hours and hours typing away at the keyboard, much to my wife’s chagrin. Some of those hours could easily have been spent with Henry. I justified my “obsession” by telling myself that one day my efforts would pay off by getting a job writing for a well-known on-line publication. I’ll spend more time with Henry tomorrow, I rationalized to myself. After all, he’s only 12. He still has a few good years left in him. Even that last long walk we had with him that first weekend in November, I really believed we still had the holidays to look forward to; maybe even the winter, even though the vet only gave him about 1 to 2 months to live. Henry would show them. He survived the first surgery; he would survive this one. He was my champ. There would always be a tomorrow, I reasoned.
On November 14, Henry ran out of tomorrows. All the chips I thought I had stored up that I wanted to cash in were now worthless. No more long walks or drives to near-by parks. No more wrestling matches with his bone or slobbering kisses on the mouth. He had given me all he had and, in the end, all I had left were the memories I cheated myself out of.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I was Harry Chapin in Cats in the Cradle. I did spend a fair amount of time with Henry, but I could’ve spent more with him and, what’s more, I know it. Love isn’t a word, it’s an action. And, as my wife knows all too well, my actions have often been wanting.
What I wouldn’t give to have one or two of those days that I blew off Henry back. It is often said that the only regrets we carry with us to the grave are the missed opportunities to live life to its fullest. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol warns us there are consequences for a life squandered. And while I am certainly no Ebenezer Scrooge, that is still no excuse for my transgressions.
Did I love Henry? With all my heart. Did I show it? Sadly, not nearly enough. I know that now. Unfortunately it’s too late to make a difference. My doggie is gone and he’s never coming back. There is no time machine that can take me back and give me that chance at redemption. The cruelest irony about life is that it only moves in one direction: forward. We can learn from our mistakes, but we can never erase them.
I know in Henry’s heart, he had nothing but unconditional love for me. Dogs are funny that way. A friend of mine once said if you lock your wife and dog in the trunk of your car, only one of them will be happy to see you when you open it. It would be fitting for Henry to absolve me of my guilt and remorse. Of all the souls I’ve met on this planet, his was the least judgmental and most giving. To paraphrase Quasimodo, why was I not made like thee?
The moral of this story could not be plainer: cherish every precious moment with your loved one, whoever they may be. For tomorrow is guaranteed to no one.