A few weeks ago, my friend told me a story over coffee in my kitchen.
Her parents have lived in their childhood home for forty years; so have the next door neighbors. Twenty years ago they stopped speaking to each other, the lingering result of some silly feud about a privacy fence.
My friend told me in exasperation that her mom hadn’t had a good word to say about her neighbor for twenty years; she had refused to speak to him in the neighborhood or even acknowledge his presence.
But then he died—she had heard he hadn’t been well, but it was still unexpected—and my friend’s mom transformed from the holder of a serious grudge to a sad and solicitous neighbor. She relayed the details of everything—the visitation, the funeral, the updates on the family—to my friend in minute detail.
My friend tried to be sympathetic, but she was annoyed. I don’t understand how people can act like that, she said. She spent twenty years hating his guts, and now she’s bringing casseroles.
I don’t understand it either, I said.
I really didn’t. Not then.
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Our chocolate lab is 11 years old. Our vet warned us that labs act like puppies (read: all trouble, all the time) for the first eight years of their lives, and then they slow down, fast. Harriet proved him right: she didn’t mellow much over the years—until she hit her tenth birthday, when her walking range suddenly plummeted. All of a sudden, she was old.
Harriet has never been “my” dog, and both of us know it. My husband has always wanted “a dog he could wrestle with,” and when our child’s occupational therapist said that we should either get a dog or have another baby for our kid’s sake, he was thrilled. Harriet entered the family shortly thereafter. (The next weekend I found out I was pregnant, but that’s another story.)
Harriet follows Will—and even the kids—around the house, putting her paw on their knee, pleading, whenever she needs something: food, water, a potty break. She never “asks” me for anything; she doesn’t expect it from me. This isn’t all bad: she stopped sleeping through the night this winter (plunging us back into something that eerily resembled the baby stage), and we tried everything to get her to stop. We found a solution when Will went out of town: she knew I wouldn’t get up in the middle of the night to entertain her, and she didn’t bother trying. I’m only a person of interest when I’m holding her leash because she loves to walk.
But last week when Harriet woke up, she couldn’t walk. Will carried her outside so she could go to the bathroom. When I looked out the window and saw her stumble, then fall, I surprised myself by bursting into tears.
I called the vet right away and embarrassed myself by crying on the phone; I could barely choke out what was wrong. (The tech reassured me: it happens all the time, she said.) I was terrified that the vet would say it was time to put her down, immediately.
Will and I have talked before about what we’ll do when she dies( she is getting old for a lab). How will the kids take it, and will we get another puppy? These haven’t been emotional conversations for me. Even a few weeks ago, I would have told you I like our dog but I’m not deeply attached to her.
I know better now.
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As much as you hear things like life is short and live in the present, it’s very hard to actually live that way day in and day out. It’s not because we’re all stupid and shallow: it’s because as humans we have an inherent future bias. Our default mental setting is to focus on what’s to come, not on what’s happening now. For most of us, it takes something dramatic—a diagnosis, a near-miss, a death—to jolt us back into the present.
This is why you encounter so many absurdly grateful, unflaggingly happy cancer survivors—and even cancer patients. Everyone who weathers something like that emerges as a different person. You think they’re off their rocker when they say it, but they still say it, or some version of it: I wouldn’t trade this god-awful experience for the world. Such an experience transforms their perspective, permanently.
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Where does that leave us? I would tell you to go forgive someone, to patch up an old misunderstanding, to let go of a grudge. But it probably wouldn’t do any good; that’s not how our minds work.
Instead, consider this: if everything changed in a moment, are there situations in your life that you would suddenly feel very differently about than you think you do now? It’s not easy; our brains don’t like to work that way. But I would encourage you to try—and to summon the discipline, the courage, the grace, the whatever-it-takes, to do something about it, now.