A few years back, God's warranty on my health expired.
Understand that I had never been in the hospital, never missed a day of work and had just completed my first "century" -- a 100-mile bike ride. So it seemed unfair that I tore my anterior cruciate ligament playing tennis and required a knee operation.
Okay, you say, grin and bear it. I agree. But then that little twitching in my pinky on my left hand got annoying, so off I limped to the doctor. Parkinson's disease. Damn.
Time to watch my health more closely, get annual physicals and so forth. Going to my physical resulted in a chest X-ray showing an enlarged heart. No big deal -- this was not something that required immediate attention. I had up to four months to have open-heart surgery to fix a problem valve.
Now, I know that lots of people have medical problems. Pets do as well. I know; within the last year our cat and both of our dogs died. They were old.
So was my mother-in-law. Sort of. She lived with us because of her health problems brought on by diabetes. She died in our home shortly after the second of the dogs. But not before she would pass out in various rooms, falling heavily to the floor and breaking various parts of her body in each fall, and sometimes coloring the floor with her blood.
I'm not drawing a comparison between human and animal deaths, but I'm clustering the deaths here because they acted strongly on the imagination of my 7-year-old daughter, Lily, who loved both grandmother and dogs without reserve.
These things happen. Of course, it's a bit of a strange coincidence that on the day of my mother-in-law's funeral, my own mother had a stroke. Perhaps she was worried about my father, who passed out in an airport in France and cracked his head open. His pacemaker has helped some, but it seems his heart is failing. This makes it a little difficult for him to help her out, since she is no longer able to stand on her own.
I'm really not complaining. In fact, I can put these things in perspective: Accept life as the temporary condition that it is, and look for ways to enjoy the day despite these problems. I love wine, and frequently just relax with a glass and let the worries of my job and family deal with themselves for a bit. I do that privately now, because my wife doesn't want to mix alcohol with the bipolar disorder from which she suffers.
I know all of this is hard on my daughter. I need to spend more time with her. That's one of the reasons I'm quitting my job. Of course this can create some interesting dilemmas, since the price of more time is less money.
You probably think I'm making this up or looking for sympathy. I'm not. I just wanted to get this all on the table so you can grasp that my positive attitude is not solely a result of environmental factors.
There are wonderful things in my life, too. Lily offers all the emotional love I can handle. I have a son from a prior marriage who makes me proud every time I look at him: a 6-2 hunk who can write poetry and dunk a basketball, has an A average going into his last year at the University of Michigan, and possesses a warmth and humanity that are visible just by looking at him. There ain't one better.
He's going to be awfully embarrassed when he reads this.
The Rabbit Howl
The war between good and bad in my life would have left me without a sense of direction but for the emotional guidance provided from an unexpected source.
At a time before I became convinced we were living above an Indian burial ground, we brought into our lives two bunnies, Horton and Boinger, who lived in a charming rabbit hutch in our backyard.
In the early days they added to my daughter's delight -- they were brothers, one brown and one black, and except for a few times when they acted in ways different than I thought brothers should act, they were an uplifting joy to feed, hold or engage in games that they seemed prepared to repeat endlessly.
Sadly, during a particularly violent thunderstorm, the hutch blew over and the bunnies were freed. We couldn't catch them despite repeated efforts to do so. As a result, they lived for a time in our backyard having the best of both worlds: freedom from confinement and a free lunch.
But freedom does not come without risk, and after about two weeks Boinger stopped making appearances. For adult purposes, he was missing and presumed dead. For my daughter, that was just one of the possibilities, which also included the more likely outcome that he had met up with more-savvy rabbits that persuaded him to come live in their place while he learned the tricks of survival in the wild.
But there was no such fantasy possible with Horton. I cannot do justice with words to what happened. Only those who have heard what I am about to describe will know what I mean.
One evening I heard the most plaintive, half-wailing, half-agonizing shriek that I have ever heard. It is, I came to realize, the sound a rabbit makes when being turned into a meal.
Here, Horton was almost certainly in the jaws of a larger animal that had already done some damage but was carrying off his victim for a final attack followed by a gruesome but very natural dinner.
This wailing repeated itself over the course of several minutes, lasting perhaps 20 seconds a wail, with an increasing length of time between each outburst. It started out close to the house and moved gradually deeper into the woods. It was dusk, and without knowing what I would do, I went outside with a flashlight looking for the source.
I never saw the fox, which is what I believe it was, but the light caused a reflection of two eyes, which receded along with the wails moving away from me.
Then the wailing stopped and I knew in my heart that Horton was gone. As horrible as the wailing was, the silence that followed was devastating.
We never saw Horton again. I hadn't particularly loved the bunnies while we had them. But I missed them now, and I was haunted by the sound that Horton had made and what he had intended to express.
In my mind, it wasn't solely an expression of physical pain, although there was plenty of that. It was also the lament of a living creature knowing its life was about to end, an instinctual desire to live despite the terrible circumstances in which it found itself.
Survival of the Species
The silence of that night has stayed with me. It reminds me of the tremendous thirst for life that we animals share.
As I think about my desire to see myself and those I love end their stay on this planet with grace and dignity, I can't help but wonder whether we will want to continue suffering in the jaws of disease rather than letting go.
I had always intended to live well until I could no longer do so, and then end my life with dignity. The bunny's lament makes we wonder whether I have it in me to give up the fight. If Horton wanted to live this badly, despite living a lonely existence that had to be intensely frightening to a creature unprepared for any world more dangerous than a pet store, there had to be something here that I had missed.
My mother is very ill now, and living in a way that she once said she would never want. As my Parkinson's advances I will eventually face the same predicament.
I don't think I will be able to face death with less passion than Horton: I am going to thrash around and fight the fox and scream to the heavens about it.
Despite everything I described going on in my life, I cannot allow myself to be carried away without resistance in the jaws of my attacker, and quietly devoured.
You may get me, fox, but not without a fight.
Dan Stark recently retired as a vice president of AT&T.