But other envelopes, most of them, bore names so familiar that I can tell you the layout of the property, the types of flowers in the yard, the names and ages of their children and dogs. The letters will go into the mail today, white envelopes fluttering in a mass migration to people who have lived alongside our practice for over 30 years. There were some “bad clients” in the bunch: slow pays, bounced checks, angry shouting, impossible demands, dangerous animals. Some of the names were unfamiliar — out-of-state addresses, people seen once at a show, or those who had horses at a local training barn. My mind drove to these addresses: That’s where the horse went through the fence; he gave me his wife’s chocolate chip cookies after I put that prolapse back in; she fostered those horses that SPCA seized from the crazy woman who turned the foals and stallion loose onto the levee so we couldn’t take them. However, most of the names belonged to good people: people who listened, who wanted the best for their animals, who sacrificed vacations to pay their bills and treat their livestock, people who knew in their bones or who learned through experience the true meaning of labor. As I sealed them, I flipped the occasional letter over and glanced at the address before placing it on the stack.
These people held a lifetime of experience raising animals, and while their DIY nature meant that we would never become wealthy from them, they were a solid, reliable clientele. The face of our client changed from sun-lined and freckled to polished and plucked. As real-estate prices in Sacramento County soared, many landowners “cashed out on California,” selling to developers and leaving the state. The century-old ranch where I, seven and a half months pregnant myself, once jumped the fence to help a mare deliver her foal is now a gravel pit. When I started with this practice, nearly 10 years ago, many of our clients were small ranchers or other agriculture professionals.
I have neither the capital nor the credit to start up my own practice, and at age 40, with three children, a stiff hand from a recently healed fracture, and joints that ache through the winter, I find that the life of a solo practitioner holds little appeal. Friends tell me about stories on the shortage of large animal veterinarians: a newspaper article here, a public radio piece there. “What will you do?” family and close friends have asked me. This is old news. Yet, somehow, the shortage of new graduates entering large animal practice has not, in recent years, translated into more job opportunities for the rest of us. Fewer and fewer of us elect to treat livestock each year.
I am good with excuses. There were too many cute puppies out there. In fact, I didn’t even want a second dog, much less one that was malnourished, mangy, and blind. This wasn’t the dog I wanted. And we already had a very high-maintenance mutt, Marge, who was the love of my life. Gary had wanted a second dog for a long time but I had nixed it, saying the timing wasn’t right, or Marge wouldn’t do well with another dog in the house, or it was too expensive, or this or that. I am good at planning. I am good with spin.
What I’ve never been good at, however, is facing my own truth, dealing with my own emotions. I am a good burier, like — to pardon the obvious analogy — a dog with a bone. In my former life I was a PR person. I can change the outlook on anything, make something awful sound good, make something good sound awful.
Gary rushed Wonder to the vet after we found him, and when he returned he was crestfallen but hopeful. The dog was 40 percent underweight and had fleas, an infected paw, and, worst, the early stages of heartworm. Everything, he was told, however, might be curable. The vet wanted to see Wonder for a complete physical Monday: blood work, X-rays, a battery of tests to see just how deep his health issues were.
You don’t make a sound, I learned from Wonder, when no one ever comes to see how you’re doing. So I decided: Gary and I would do everything in our power to give Wonder a few wonderful years. We would install a tether line so he could go to the bathroom and install gates by the stairs so he would be safe, and we would clear paths in the house so he could navigate. He would become part of our family, just like Marge. This was a dog that had lived a nightmare of a life and still never whined or howled or cried out of pain or discomfort.
Can anyone really prepare us for the future? Does it really make a difference if someone tells a young girl that one day she’ll find blood oozing from her body, or a young boy that he’ll wake up with his PJs mucky from a wet dream, or a pregnant woman that birthing her child will be an experience of breathtaking agony, or a middle-aged person that one day she’ll notice that her pubic hair has thinned to near baldness, or that we’ll all get old and, one way or another, lose our life, even while we’re still live.
I remind myself of what I know, tell myself I’m in mourning, to let the feelings flow until they work themselves out and I come to terms with the new reality of my life. But when the brain dies and leaves the body intact, there is no end. Death is finite; life, as we know it, is over. Yes, I know, people awaken with visions of visitations, but eventually we come to accept death as an end to life. Over decades as a psychotherapist (never mind living life), I’ve dealt with people suffering loss, read the literature on mourning, thought about Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s famous treatise on the subject, and wrote a response to it that was both admiring and critical. Whatever one believes about death — it’s a passage into a kinder world, it’s entry into nothingness, or anything in between — it’s still an undeniable fact. But mourning a real death is quite different from mourning a living one.
A few days ago, I talked with a seventy-something man who spoke tearfully about his wife’s recent death and his awkward attempts at coping with his new life as a widower and single man. I left our conversation feeling sad for him — and also envious. At least, I thought, he knows what’s ahead; he knows the meaning of the word “widower.” But I’m a widow with a husband who’s alive; I’m a single woman with the responsibilities of a wife; I have a future, but I have no idea what it will be or how to get there; and if my husband lives much longer, we’ll go broke.