Lessons From A Furball

Dusty was 13 years old, and had severe heart, lung, kidney, and liver problems. She took several drugs three times each day, and only hid under the bed when the thought of yet another pill was overwhelming. Most of the time she was quiet; when she felt good, she was alert, and spent a good deal of time sitting on top of a box near the bedroom window, staring outside, feeling the breeze through the screen, as she soaked in every detail that she could. With each day that passed it was increasingly obvious that she understood, on some level, that not all was right in her little world, and that she had to take it all in while she could, before her heart gave out.

During one of her last visits with an internal medicine specialist, she stood silently on the exam table, staring out the window with a quiet dignity that was almost eerie. She ignored the conversation behind her, although she certainly knew it was about her. She was living in the moment, enjoying the world on the other side of the glass. In years past she would have become excited and agitated if she were to see a bird close by through a window, but that day she watched with quiet interest as the birds pecked at flowers and stared back at her through the pane of glass. Her breathing, which of late had been more than double what it should have been, eased and she took very calm, even breaths; lost in the moment, the things which robbed her of her health were of less importance than the joy of simply being alive.

In her youth Dusty was very territorial; she would defend what she knew to be hers with the speed and dexterity enjoyed mainly by the young. How intense her defense depended greatly on the importance of what was at stake: her food, her water, her favorite spot to sleep were at the very top of her list. Her territory, the boundaries of what she knew to be her world, always came behind immediate needs. Birds outside the windows, stray animals, even the postman were concern enough to illicit a response, but rarely enough to trigger a defensive reaction. She'd become excited, and vocal, but rarely physical. As long as she felt safe, she'd remain alert but not terribly reactive; if any of those intrusions ventured into the safety of her world--coming through the front door--she would react with immediate defensive strategies, depending on the size of the threat. Sometimes that meant the baring of claws and teeth, sometimes that meant hiding under the bed.

As she aged and became ill, however, the importance of defending certain things lessened. Her zone of personal comfort expanded considerably in size; things that would have sent her scurrying to a safe spot under the bed before merely piqued her curiosity. If one entered her world through the front door she no longer felt pressed to hide, but rather pressed to investigate; you could touch her things, and even touch her, but she wouldn't become agitated or defensive unless she felt that the living things in her life were potentially in trouble. She would protect the family dog. She would step between The Boy and the cable TV repairman. But her food and water became something to be shared, not hoarded. Any spot could be a comfortable spot to sleep, when sleep was even possible. She would even allow others to watch the world through her window with her, to see what there was to see, and to feel the breeze blowing through the screen.

It became obvious that the things that were once important enough to risk physical injury to protect no longer seemed so valuable to Dusty. As she reached the twilight of her life, she understood something that many people never learn: the things we hold dear to us are sometimes just things, and not always worth the physical effort required to keep them. One way or another, there will be more food, more water, another nice spot to curl up and sleep, or another window from which the world can be observed.
In the human world, Dusty wouldn't have fought some neandrethal for her wallet, she would have surrendered her car to the moron demanding it. She knew that the years we have here are too few to bother with worrying too much about the things that can be replaced. She seemed to sense that life is worth defending and treasuring. Dusty wanted to see it all, as much as she could, and she fought for her own life as much as any person would fight against an assailant they cannot see and do not understand.

We spend so many hours of our lives learning to fight, to defend ourselves and the people around us; we work hard at making ourselves stronger so that if the time ever comes, we have the advantage and can emerge victorious. Intentionally or not, we also train to defend the things we own: don't take my wallet, don't take my purse, don't take my car or my watch or my designer sneakers. Don't touch my stuff, or I'll have to hurt you.

Think of all the hours you've put in considering, even in fantasy mode, defensive strategy and technique. What you would do if someone tried to take something material that you own. Did you create this plan or envision various scenarios so that you could protect your stuff? Is any of that stuff worth dying over? How many people are injured or killed every year because they were confronted by someone who wanted the things that they had, and refused to just give it up, but felt pressed to fight for it? Fighting for stuff.

Is it worth it?

Dusty died after 14 months of dealing with a heart 5 times its normal size, lungs constantly filled with fluid, and kidneys scarred from the medications she had to take. It was amazing, really, that lived so long. Every day was a new chance to see the world, to look for what really matters. She showed her family in very subtle ways, that living is a gift to not be taken so lightly, and that the stuff that used to seem important really isn't anything more than nice decorations on the lawn--someone can take those, and you'd miss them for a short time, but in the end, you get over it.

What you don't get over is the ability to live with dignity, and that is what is worth fighting for.

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