When your perspective changes in an instant.

When your perspective changes in an instant.

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.    
When your perspective changes in an instant.

*****     *****     *****

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.
When your perspective changes in an instant.

*****     *****     *****

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.
When your perspective changes in an instant.

*****     *****     *****

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.

P.S. When we were in the fire, and the waiting room.

49 comments | Comment

49 comments

  1. I know this feeling…I mean, not in quite the same way, exactly. I knew I loved Sonia before she underwent testing for cancer, of course, more than you probably knew you loved your dog. 😉

    But just HOW important she is to me (and how important the rest of my kids are to me) was made crystal clear during the last few weeks.

  2. Amy says:

    Powerful post, Anne. Thanks for sharing. It helps to remind me that all we have is today and all we must attend to is right before our eyes. The people and living things around us are here for a short while. In Ecclesiastes 3:11, the writer says that God has put eternity in the hearts of men yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I believe this another piece of evidence for that yearning and longing for eternity. We don’t want to lose the people or animals that we love. We want them to live forever. God has set eternity in the hearts of men. Have a great day!

  3. Patti says:

    Anne,
    I have felt your pain. We had a dog that wasn’t “mine” and the only other female in the house too. She lived just shy of 17 years, when we finally knew it was time, and you will know, I cried for days. It’s natural. She was family.
    To living each day as it’s your last…I’m prone to that now. I am now almost 6 years past an MI with cardiac arrest (at age 45). It does change your perspective and that perspective changes over time too. At first I wouldn’t even consider buying new clothes or shoes. Crazy? Maybe, but I’m already a conservative shopper. I can tell you that my relationship with my husband, boys and family is different. Nothing is taken for granted. Small things are celebrated. Every day is a gift and I KNOW it.
    Blessings, and peace to you and your family.

  4. Jsnet says:

    What a moving post and I can certainly identify with it. Our daughter moved to Japan last year leaving her very spoiled cat with us. We took him because no one else would. We took care of him and slowly he worked his way into our lives, not like our Miss Kitty, but not an outsider. Then he got sick, so suddenly and died from cancer. My reaction was just like yours, calling the vet I cried so hard I could hardly talk.
    So things do change in an instant.

  5. kelli says:

    So sorry about your dog.
    I had my life perspective changing moment when I finally had a chance to sit down at my desk after spending a week helping my dad in the hospital before he died, then planning the service, and helping my mom and other family members…. all of that – then I sat down and saw my two page list of things to do to get ready for the Thanksgiving meal we were planning on hosting and saw that none of it really mattered. I threw that list out, hosted a simple meal, and have never ever had the same stress approached an event. It doesn’t matter. The people matter.

  6. Katia says:

    Thank you for this reminder to cultivate gratitude every day, toward everyone in our lives. I’m sorry to hear about your dog’s condition. She is fortunate to have you as her loving owner.

  7. Courtney says:

    This hits home in more than one way so thank you.

    My mom underwent treatment over 5 years ago now (yay!) for breast cancer. It was when she was 49. She had been dreading for years the BIG 50. When her 50th birthday came she was so so very happy to be turning 50 and so grateful for the cancer which made her focus on her life and who she wanted to be. She tries to live each day and not hold grudges or let things get to her. I find a lot of inspiration in that.

    My husband and I have 2 dogs. One I got before I met him close to 8 years ago. She’s a small dog so the fact that shes 10 hasn’t really begun to show yet but I’ve noticed. We probably have many years to love her still but I know how heartbreaking it will be to see her decline. We love so strong even when we don’t mean to.

    • Anne says:

      Oh, wow. What a great story about your mom and the big 50. So glad she got to celebrate it! She sounds like such an inspiration.

  8. Karlyne says:

    Good post, Anne! If we can visualize it before we’re forced to face it in reality, it’ll make us better people. And I promise to work on that, because it is definitely not in my inherent personality.

  9. Ana says:

    Great post. But I need to know what the vet said. I was waiting with my breath held…how is Harriet?? We have a 9-year old lab mix that was our “first baby”, so my feelings for the dog are clear, but I do admit she took the back burner after our kids came around. She had a cancer removed in December and I definitely stopped “forgetting” to play with & pet her for a few months (now she’s all better, and unfortunately, on the back burner again…I needed this reminder)

    • Anne says:

      Harriet was totally fine (but super keyed-up forher) by the time we got to the vet. He said there was a laundry list of possible explanations, and that we’ll all have to keep an eye on her. We had an uneventful week with her but then she started doing it again last night. But then this morning I’d forgotten and took her on a great walk. We’ll see…

  10. Jenny says:

    I’ve been through a life changing experience that was horrible and completely changed my perspective, softened me, made me realize success wasn’t so important anymore, people were.

  11. Hannah says:

    I can’t tell you how much I relate to the vignette about your dog. Life is short, getting shorter by the minute. Thank you for this post.

  12. Miriam B says:

    Great post! I really connected with what you wrote about your dog. Growing up, my family had cats and I never considered myself much of a dog person. But my husband really wanted a dog, so we adopted 6 months ago. It was a bit of a challenge getting used to her, but now I can’t imagine coming home and her not being there.

  13. Breanne says:

    Oh man, this post articulates so many of my thoughts from this last week. My brother in law was t-boned by a big truck this past week and as the texts/calls have been flying across the country, everything has been put into perspective.

    He’s okay with a very long road of recovery ahead of him. And I’m grateful for the jolt of reality to work on some of the family relationships that are not great.

    • Anne says:

      Oh my goodness, I’m so sorry. I’m glad to hear he’s safe, although it doesn’t sound like he’s well. Wishing the best for you and your family as you move forward.

  14. Cori says:

    Anne,
    I don’t even know where to start. There was so much in your post. I always appreciate your insight and this one gave me goose bumps. Since my cancer diagnosis, I have tried to be more in the moment and intentional with my interactions. My ongoing struggle is lack of energy to do all I want to do. I can’t begin to count the number of times someone would say to me something along the lines of… you are handling this so well… you are so positive about all this… I don’t know how you do it… Although well-intended, I would always think to myself: what’s the alternative? Curling up in a ball in the corner of a room and giving up? Not an option! However, until you are faced with these types of challenges you have no true sense of the resiliency and strength that is lurking in most of us. Keeping you, your family, and your dog in my thoughts. We have had so many health issues in the last two years with our geriatric cats, including making the tough choice to let one go this past November.

  15. Jeannie says:

    Anne, I hope your dog is OK (it sounds like she is??), and I appreciate your sharing your insights gained from this incident. I had a strange experience last summer; my mother was really sick and would, within days, be hospitalized and diagnosed with cancer (she died 6 weeks later). A member of my writing group had taken a break from the group because of conflict involving 2 other members, and after thirteen months’ absence she decided to send out an email to all of us explaining that she would not be coming back. I read it while my mom was sick, and while on one level it barely scratched my consciousness because I had something much bigger on my mind, on another level I had an epiphany: LIFE and DRAMA are two very different things. I think these moments that you’re talking about can be really effective at helping us make that distinction.

  16. Tina B says:

    My cat Shadow turned 21 in January. We prayed that she would reach that birthday. She’s still a Diva with a strong spirit, but she has arthritis and has taken some bad falls. She has slowed dramatically in the last several months. I check on her every morning and as soon as I get home any time I’ve been away. I hold her every day because I don’t know when it will be the last. I hope Harriet has more years with you.

    • Anne says:

      21! That is seriously impressive. So glad you all have had such a good run together, and glad she’s getting so much love now. She must be a wonderful kitty.

  17. Alyssa says:

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I so often read a story or see something on the news and think, “I really need to focus on what matters…life is so short…we could all be gone tomorrow.” I’ll have those moments several times a day. And then five minutes later I’m yelling at the kids because they left their socks on the floor. You’re right, we know intellectually how valuable our time with loved ones is, and how insignificant so many of the things that upset us really are, but it’s so, so hard to really live that way. I like your advice to just keep trying to have perspective. It’s never going to be easy, but if we keep working at it we’ll be better off than if we never try at all.

  18. Amy says:

    I usually try not to say “I know exactly how you feel,” because I know two situations are never exactly the same. But in this situation, I am completely with you. We have a lab-mastiff mix, Lenny; he was 11 in December. He was my husband’s dog before we were married, and while I love him, I haven’t ever thought of myself as terribly attached. We found out two weeks ago that he has a tumor, and it’s just a matter before it completely blocks his colon. I thought I was prepared for that news; he is old, after all. But it hit me like a ton of bricks that I am NOT ready to say goodbye to him. Thanks for this post; it’s helping me sort through my feelings!

  19. Veronica says:

    That post is a good reminder to work on relationships. It really is the most important thing, and it can be easy to shove aside in the busyness of daily life.And I’m sorry about your dog. Hope she is up and feeling better. We’ve had good luck with our older pup with dasuquin and prescription j/d, though we had to drop j/d because of food allergies. Miss kitty is getting older now, too, and recently diagnosed with some issues. She was my children’s cat, and she has been around for almost 17 years. Now I can’t imagine my house without her.

  20. Jenna says:

    I feel like I get this feeling when I’ve had an exhausting and difficult day with the kids, and then one of them turns up hurt or sick. Suddenly, all of the agitation disappears!

  21. Anne, this is beautiful. Truly some of your best writing to date, at least for me. With a dog I call “the best worst dog,” I can relate to your feelings.

    Your call to action is good, but tough. I’ll have to chew on that one for a while.

    Thank you for all that you do!

  22. 'Becca says:

    When my partner and I first began living together, I wanted a pet and he didn’t care to have one, so I got a rabbit and treated him as my responsibility. I could ask my partner to feed the rabbit while I was sick or traveling, and they would play together sometimes, but in general we both thought of him as MY pet. After 6 years, suddenly my rabbit got sick. He wouldn’t eat, so the vet said to force water and carrot babyfood into his mouth with a syringe. I was surprised how readily and kindly my partner helped and how concerned he was. My rabbit got well. Three months later, he got sick again and suddenly died. At that moment it became obvious that this was OUR pet, a member of our family. My partner was every bit as devastated as I was and every bit as self-blaming, questioning whether we could have been more attentive and treated his illness earlier. We cried together, staying up most of the night, and took the next day off work to dig the grave (our yard is very rocky; I don’t think I could have done it alone!) and have the funeral and recover.

    A couple of weeks ago, my daughter’s babysitter told me about a friend of hers whose husband, only in his early 40s, seemed very sick but didn’t want to go to the hospital because he was finishing a project for work. Finally he told his wife he’d go if she would take a shower with him first. They had a special time together, then went to the hospital where he had tests and worked on his laptop. He finished his project at 9pm, was diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer at 11pm, went into a coma at 12:30, and died the following day. Yikes!!! It’s very, very sad–and I think his employer had better give his family a huge bonus for that diligently completed project–but what really inspires me in this story is his insistence on one last special time with his wife before he gave in to what (he probably subconsciously sensed) was inevitable.

    • Anne says:

      I’m so sorry about your rabbit. What a touching story.

      And that story about your babysitter’s friend is absolutely crazy. What an ending.

  23. Lori says:

    Anne, I’ve been visiting your blog here for awhile because you are a fellow book lover but this post compelled me to leave my first comment. After having lost my mother when I was 23 (I am now older than she was when she passed) and my father ten years ago and my younger brother three years ago – all to cancer – I can honestly say I’ve lived my life always with those thoughts in mind. We don’t always get tomorrows and while I truly wish my loved ones were still with me I also know that their loss has made that profound difference in my life. It wasn’t until recently when my aunt died that my cousin whom I’ve always been very close to said she saw me in an entirely new light, knowing that I’d been 25 years without my mother and she only weeks without hers. She told me she didn’t understand it then but she appreciates me so much more having this new awareness as a result of her grief. I know I am not exclusive as there are people who’ve experienced far worse but my cousin’s words that served as a validation for me is a good reminder to be conscious that everyone has their battles.
    Thank you Anne. I hope Harriet is doing better.

    • Anne says:

      I’m so sorry for your losses, and agape at your cousin’s profound words. Everyone has their battles, indeed.

  24. Heather says:

    Great reminder of living life to the fullest and not to hold onto grudges or bad feelings. I really do try. Lately in some situations it’s been difficult, so I needed this reminder.

  25. This makes me think of Being Mortal by Gawande. He talks a lot about how people’s perceptions of life change as they realize they are at the end of their lives. And how we can grasp a little bit of that in the here and now.

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