Last week I wrote about how doctor’s die. As I said, we see a lot more death than lay people and as a result have different attitudes towards end of life. Today, my good friend Kort Nygurd shared a story with me that offered such striking insight into death and dying that I asked his permission to share the story in full with ChangingAging readers. As he said, it is very personal but instructive.
I started out to share a thought-provoking and surreal experience with a few friends, but the list grew to people who knew and cared about Bosco, and then to people who care about elders in nursing homes. This is very personal, but also instructive.
I just had a surreal experience: Bosco was out tonight. Usually after about 15′ of his doing laps around the house I bring him in because he’s wandered down to the river twice at night and fallen in. Tonight he was sitting halfway to the river, a good ways from the house. I began to wonder, as I walked to him, if this was confusion and slipping ever downhill with fatigue…or something else.
I shown the flashlight on me so he’d know who I was, and then on the grass toward the house. I nudged him by the collar and began to walk back. He turned and headed toward the river, into the dark, not with confusion or hesitancy, but with deliberation. I followed him until he got within 30 feet of the water, and then took his collar and turned him toward the house. He followed me a few steps, stopped and then turned toward the river. This time I just followed to see what his mission was. When he got to the water he slowed and I shown the flashlight on the water and then on the bank so he could see the difference and not fall in. He jumped in and began to swim toward the middle! I was in shock; the water is very cold now and he was in about 4 feet of water. By the time I reached him he would be in 5 feet. I had visions of drowning trying to rescue him. I stood frozen with disbelief. At that point, about 20 feet off shore, he turned and swam back. I pulled him out, and he just stood there shivering. He wouldn’t come back with me, so I carried him back to the house and put him under the blow dryer.
The vet said Saturday that he is suddenly in advanced kidney failure and will soon lapse into a coma. I have him at home trying to keep him in familiar, loving surroundings as long as he’s not suffering. I believe that tonight he has spoken.
The parallels with demented nursing home residents are extraordinary and instructive. The urge to walk is basic, but in addition there is an element of looking for “the place that makes me feel better”. There may also be an element of searching for a dark, quiet place to die in peace. I have heard stories of pets who wander off and disappear, but I’ve never talked to a person who witnessed it with such clarity of purpose.
Through it all, the urge to live is hard-wired into the organism, and Bosco returned to shore three times in as many months. But it reminds me of a chapter toward the end of Jack London’s “John Barleycorn” in which the protagonist tries to kill himself by drowning, but his urge to survive takes over each time but one.
I sometimes think we don’t listen very well to what our elders are telling us because we don’t like the message. We put in PEG tubes and force-feed elders who have a diagnosis of anorexia because family members or health professionals “know” that starvation is miserable (but apparently only if you’re hungry). We take people out of their homes because they are not eating or bathing or are wandering off. I wonder what they’d do if they had a dark, quiet place to go lay down in peace. We give them what we want for ourselves in our current circumstances; how do we fathom what they want in their circumstances?
I think it is time to let him go. He has spoken, and I’m willing to listen. I’d prefer to do it with the vet, rather than more romantically and dramatically, but more gruesomely, with the river. You’re a good dog, Bosco.
I love you all, and Bosco.
PS: I’m ok.