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Live Long and Prosper

March 15, 2013

Agee+Death_in_FamilySo I’ve faced mortality this week. A whole boatload of it. And to be honest I’m not sure what I’ve learned. Or how I feel.  Hopefully we’ll figure something out together.

It began with putting our family dog down on Saturday. Rhoda is (was) our 15 year old yellow lab who may quite possibly have been happiness incarnate. She’s the only pet we’ve ever had and has been a greater part of our lives than most of our relatives. I can trace almost every childhood, pre-teen, teen and 20-something memory I have back to her and the things she’s taught me. Everything just feels wrong without her here, and while I’m glad she had a full and outstanding life with us, I still have cried more in the last two weeks than I did when my grandpa died in October.

She’d been in pain for a while. We knew she had bone cancer in her hip and about three months ago she stopped being able to get up on her own. But we got a system down; she’d bark and we’d come running to help her up, and once she was done exploring she find one of us and flop back down by our side like nothing was wrong.

It was hard on all of us to see our independent, fearless, adorable best friend go from leading the pack of hikers to waking us up three times a night to go outside. And while all of us would have rather she just died peacefully in her sleep like her sister (my friend and I got puppies from the same litter) we all knew she was too strong and stubborn for that. She’d never dream of tagging herself out of the game.

So when my parents decided it was time, it was hard for me to come to terms with it; I was torn between feeling terrible for selfishly wanting to keep her around and feeling guilty for looking forward to sleeping through the night. Nothing seemed to be the right choice and it was only when I stopped thinking about how it would affect me that I accepted it was the best thing for her.

Life sucks sometimes and one of my bosses asked me to come in on Friday, so I worked instead of spend that last day with her. But as hard as I sobbed for our lack of time, it actually gave me a little bit of closure because I had to face my goodbye earlier. On Saturday my parents and brother were a mess, they couldn’t function much less get her to the car or say goodbye. I had already had a private moment with her a day earlier so I was able to hold it together for the rest of them, taking the lead on the whole process and reminding them of the positive when their anger or despair got too intense.

imagesOnce we got her to the vet the scene got even worse; my mom’s friend pulled up next to us with her sick 9 year-old black lab in tow. Her husband died about 7 years ago and her children were all out of town so she was on her own to deal with her pet’s unexpected sickness.  We carried our dogs in together and when neither of them came back out it made everything harder and easier all at once.

I was grateful that our whole family had been able to be there together and that we’d had time to say our goodbyes, but it was also unbearable to see another friend going through a similar thing, with no real way of helping. I didn’t really understand what being a widow meant until I saw her there crying into my mother’s arms. She’s alone, with everything, and it’s so much harder. We weren’t keen on getting back home quickly so we stopped by her house to let out her other dog and get a few things while she filled out some more paperwork, and it was heartbreaking to see the broken garage door, the leaky sink, the table full of bills, all the things that her husband should have been there to help her with. Losing someone is so much more than the initial pain of missing them, it’s the rest of your life that you don’t get to share with them.

The next day I stopped by my childhood friend’s house on the way to Disney on Ice (which was super epic btdubs. Rapunzel and her man did flying acrobatic tricks on skates without wires. I have never been more sure performers would slip and fall to their deaths) and while she was gathering her things I picked up a self assessment journal of hers and started skimming. It was out on the front table so I was shocked when I read that the lowest point in her life were the times she’d attempted suicide. Our parents are friends so I’ve physically known her my entire life and I’ve never known that. I knew she’d had some trouble in high school with bullies and an even worse time at college with some less than supportive roommates, but I’d never considered that it had gotten that bad. She’s always been shy and socially conscious but it really checked my reality to realize that someone so close to me had considered ending their life early without my knowledge. I closed the book and she didn’t see me reading, but the words couldn’t be unread. I’ll always worry about her now.

On Sunday my brother announced he was taking a solo spring break road trip this week to hike through southern Utah. He’s always been sensitive, so we weren’t surprised when he took the loss of Rhoda really hard. And while my mother would have preferred he take a friend to avoid a 127 Hours type scenario, I know he needed the space to come to terms with his friend being gone. But I also know that it’s been almost ten years since he told me he was thinking about suicide and I still worry every time I see him cry. Rhoda was one of the things that helped him get through it then, so when he left with tears in his eyes this week, I honestly wasn’t sure I’d ever see him again. Will I ever stop worrying about him? Or my friend? Will they ever stop worrying?



For my mother, the loss of our dog has inevitably drawn parallels with her father’s death in October. I’ve watched as she’s beaten herself up for feeling relieved the moments she’s dreaded are over. I know she wants to move forward but every time she comes close, she feels guilty for trying to do so. It’s a terrible thing to move on from, but if there is one thing I know about my unique and wonderful grandpa it is that he wouldn’t want any of us to hold ourselves back on account of him.

Then there is my dad’s dad, who is currently 99 years-old and going strong. This week my dad has been on the phone constantly with his siblings, working out the details for his dad’s future. He told me my grandpa now carries a Do Not Resuscitate order in his wallet that prevents any attempt to save his life should anything happen. As impossible as it is for me to understand, I know he’s lived an astounding, beautiful, full life and must have found some sort of way to come to terms with his inevitable end. I’m going to miss him, but what more can I ask for? What more could he ask for?

Yesterday my brother called to tell us his trip was going great and that he’d made plans to skydive on the way home. On any other given week I would have been all for it, a little adventure is worth the risk, I like to think. But hearing him tell me he’d set a time and would call me the second he landed I lost my cool. I know he’s wanted to do this for a while, I know he’s turning 21 in a month, I know it will clear his head. But he is not Rhoda or my grandparents. He hasn’t lived his life yet. A loss like that isn’t something I can process.

And as if all that wasn’t enough I just found out one of my coworkers lost his wife yesterday. She’s had cancer for about a year but it was in remission until a weird flare up a week ago. He’s got 5 kids all under the age of 16 and is only about 40 himself. The whole office is in shock. How would you handle that? How do we even begin to help him?

My brother just called, his jump went well. Marvelously, in fact. But I still don’t know what is up with this week. Maybe it’s just been a series of random occurrences that my brain has decided to put together, and maybe it’s the magical universe teaching me some lessons I really needed to see for myself. I don’t know.

But I do know that it makes me more grateful for everything I have. And makes me want to go after all the things I don’t. All we can do is try to live full, happy, beautiful lives, because death sucks no matter what. At least if we live fully we’ll have some solid ground underfoot when we have to face it.

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