Johnson is the foundation development coordinator in the Office of Advancement and Community Engagement at Southwestern College and lives in Point Loma.
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There are moments where I wonder if I’d known what I was getting myself into, would I still have done it?
I distinctly recall the first time it really hit me. It was about three months after I’d brought Oliver home from the San Diego Humane Society and we were finishing up a walk around the neighborhood. I remember grinning at his jaunty prance and appreciating his scruffy face when I was suddenly struck with how irrevocable the situation was.
I was in too deep. No matter what happened, I knew he would eventually break my heart. Even if I decided to give him up in that very moment, there was no escaping the grief that losing him would bring.
I’d always been an animal person. As a teenager I was a militant vegetarian; lecturing my stepfather for eating veal, smugly ordering meatless cheeseburgers and proudly displaying the phrase “Meat Is Murder” in giant hand-cut letters on my bedroom wall. I did eventually eat meat again, but have always tried to purchase humanely raised products, patronize cruelty-free brands, and donate to animal charities.
As genuine as this caring was, however, it wasn’t actually personal.
Everyone dog parent has a different experience of this, but my own journey to “personal” started with a visit to the animal shelter. On a whim, a friend and I decided to stop by and “just look,” but an hour later I had filled out paperwork and put a hold on a scruffy, underweight, 4-year-old mutt the shelter called Marvin. It’s hard to explain, but I knew almost immediately that this was my dog. He was nervous, sweet and somehow managed to look like a charmingly unmade bed.
When I finally got to take him home a few days later, having rechristened him Oliver, we had the most absurdly awkward first night. Neither of us had a clue what to do. Oliver sat stiffly on his new poofy bed giving me side-eye while I perched anxiously on the couch drinking wine and warily glancing back. Was I supposed to entertain him? I had no clue. Cut to an hour and the rest of the bottle of wine later, we were both sitting on the kitchen floor while I begged him to just eat something. He didn’t.
I’m glad to say that over the last 11 years we’ve worked out the kinks, and the dog that initially wasn’t allowed on the furniture now has a special spot on the couch that no one else is allowed to sit in. The dog that gave me side-eye is my permanent “little spoon” every night, and the dog that I didn’t know how to entertain jumps with joy the moment I walk through the door.
Through holidays and lazy Sundays, adventures and neighborhood walks, new friends and break-ups, Oliver has taught me how full my heart can be. He’s taught me that personal is belly scratches and a bath after being sprayed by a skunk, personal is couch cuddles and hiding important pills in treats, and most recently personal has meant navigating the agony of illness.
It started about a month ago, just shy of his 15th birthday, when I became aware of a mass in Oliver’s mouth. An expensive surgery, biopsy and excruciating week of waiting followed, and then culminated in the phone call my gut told me I was going to receive. It’s cancer.
I find myself now, a fresh bottle of wine opened, trying to weigh the value of a life. Is putting him through the frightening treatments and painful needles something I want to do for him, or is it something I want to do for me? It will take me years to pay off the cost of a couple extra months, but for my best friend, what wouldn’t I do?
I’ve watched his eyes grow cloudy and his ears miss the visits of the postman. I’ve seen his stride get slower, but no less jaunty, as his face becomes more salt than pepper. But the joy when I come home has never diminished, and the way he somehow always smells a little bit of the ocean has never faded.
As I write this, Oliver is dozing peacefully at my feet in his spot on the couch. I keep telling myself that I don’t need to decide anything today, but the day that I do need to decide looms unbearably. Through this process I’ve also realized that I finally have an answer to my question. Despite the pain, and the tears, and the anguish of impending loss, I know that yes, if I’d known what I was getting myself into, I’d do it all again. For my buddy, my little love, my Oliver. What wouldn’t I do.