I have a huge-assed ego.
Anyone who knows me will tell you this.
My family say that the film about my life will be called ‘The ego has landed.’ (I seriously could give a shit what they say, as long as Eva Mendez plays me in the film).
One of these days, I want a street named after me, I want statues in major cities erected in my honor and I want Valenza, my favorite Italian restaurant in Atlanta, to finally put a sign over their best table, as they’ve been promising for three years, saying ‘This table reserved for Penny f*cking Miller’.......I swear to God, I don’t know why they haven’t done it yet, it’s a simple request. I would boycott, if only their Fritto Misto wasn’t so damn good.
When I die, but hopefully just before I kick the bucket, so I get to enjoy every moment, I want a huge party in my honor.
Here’s how it’s gonna go, in case you’re interested.....
I want all my friends to drink fantastic wine and I want food trucks lining the driveway of the Ranch so that they can all stuff their faces in my honor with Tandoori chicken in herbed flatbreads with cucumber and mint Raita, sweet shredded barbecue pork, KFC buckets a-plenty, Vietnamese Banh Mi sandwiches.....oh, and some big geezer with a baseball hat needs to be grilling 120-day -aged ribeye steak over a fire. All this while a bluegrass band plays all afternoon, to be replaced later by a 70’s disco DJ. Everyone has to wear a T shirt with a picture of me, digitally enhanced to take away my triple chins, with the words ‘What a F*cking megastar!’
Oh, and my dogs, all 28 of them because I count the Frankie and Andy’s Place dogs as my babies, they all get to come and stuff their faces too!
I want the biggest bloody send off imaginable.
I can be light hearted about dying because I am one of those rare people who thinks that her life literally couldn’t be any better. I have ups and downs like everyone else, but I have a dream of a husband and two adult sons that I am proud to count as my best friends on earth and a few people around me who care deeply for me. I spend every day doing something I love and I get up every morning desperate to shove fantastic coffee down my throat so I can get started.
When I die, I won’t feel cheated. I won’t feel short changed.
I’m pretty sure, unless I have a major change before my day comes, that I will accept it with grace. I’ll have zero regrets and will be ready to turn my boots up to the sky. Working with the oldies at Frankie and Andy’s Place we have to deal with death. A lot.
When we first started our senior dog sanctuary, we tried to do every single thing we could to keep every dog alive as long as possible.
We have always concentrated on quality of life, of course, and our mission was to give them the most incredible life they could have while they were with us, for as long as God allowed us to do that. We fought valiantly for every moment of life, tried every treatment available to us, within financial constraints, in order to treat some of the various chronic conditions presented to us when the dogs came to us.
Granted, some of the conditions we have been able to treat very successfully, using love, palliative care, diet and sunshine.
On a couple of occasions, though, we have had to admit defeat. Tried everything, ticked this box or that box and still no success.
Wilford Brimley was one such dog. A thousand year old beagle, Wilford was a sweet old man but he came to us in awful shape, a product of years of neglect.
After a routine dental, which was unavoidable because of the bacteria in his mouth which would have killed him anyway, he went into kidney failure and never really rallied.
It happens sometimes, he was just the unlucky one.
We spent months trying to help him, fluids twice a day every day that made him grow to hate the sight of the bag being lined up and would scurry from us, pills, special diets, this medication or that medication......’this supplement isn’t working so let’s try this one instead’... it went on and on, until one day, I sat down on my own in the cabin and spent a good long time looking at this poor old boy.
Barely able to stand, Wilford raised his weary head and looked at me. I mean REALLY looked deep into my eyes. For once, instead of me trying to shove some medication down his throat or one of us stick a needle in him to try and keep him around, he was forcing me to listen to him. ‘Stop Bloody trying to fix me, woman, and just pay attention.’
‘I’m tired’, he said. ‘I’ve been in this world for a thousand years, and not all of it was good. I wasn’t always loved unconditionally like this, cared for like this; I didn’t ever get to eat like this and I never got to sit in the sunshine much and just enjoy how it felt on my face. But now I have. I’ve had a really wonderful time, I’ve made some good friends here....Boris pisses me off from time to time, but on the whole, they’re a great bunch of dogs and I’ve enjoyed living with them.’
‘I know you just want to save us all, but did you ever think that maybe one of your duties here is to give us a rest stop before the next leg of our journey? That maybe the greatest act of love you could do for me right now, apart from a big bag of McDonalds, is to let me leave? I’m ready. I’ve been telling you I’m ready, my body is weary. Please let me go’.
I called the ladies on the care team and we spoke about it at length as we sat loving on the old boy.
I don’t make these decisions on my own. It’s a big deal to end a life, not a decision to be taken swiftly or lightly, so we share the burden between us, as each of us is equally invested emotionally.
As it turned out, everyone had felt the same message coming from Wilford, but hadn’t wanted to voice it.
The next few days were sunny, so we covered Wilford with a blanket and let him lay in the sun on the deck, we gave him anything and everything that he wanted to eat and then, after we had all said goodbye, we let him slip away, right there, in a sunbeam on the deck, his head on a soft warm lap.
Never seen a dog so thankful to finally be heard.
I feel terribly guilty that I didn’t listen sooner; that’s my takeaway from this whole situation.
Wilford didn’t need to endure those weeks of discomfort and uncertainty. I kept him going for my own selfish reasons, wanting to be the big fixer of everyone’s problems, which is nothing short of egotistical, isn’t it?
He had done everything he wanted to do, he had turned his face to the sun, basked in its glory and was ready to meet his maker. It was I who wanted to almost use him as an experiment to see whether we could fix those kidney issues and make him well again.
For a younger dog, or one with a greater life force, to go on so long and keep trying, would have been very appropriate.
For Wilford, it was wrong.
He was ready, he told me he was ready, but I hadn’t listened. It wasn’t what I wanted to hear.
Last week, when we decided to let Juju the Boston terrier finally leave us, it was because the brain that her body carried around was no longer functioning.
Her body was working; she ate, she moved, she showed some automatic responses, but Juju herself had left the building. We took the painful lesson we learned from Wilford and applied it to her. We looked, we listened and listened some more, then we acted.
Juju was so grateful to finally be free of her mental prison, each of us could feel it. There was a wave of relief that pulsed through the cabin so tangibly that each of the remaining dogs was instantly lighter of being. They too, had been hoping we would listen to what she was telling us.
Frannie, that dear little street fighter of a terrier that has had more peaks and troughs than a roller coaster, despite being, in many ways, worse shape than Juju, is still with us because she keeps telling us ‘Back your shit up, bitch, don’t you be thinkin’ ‘bout no needles, child... I ain’t goin’ nowhere!’ ( in case you hadn’t worked it out, Frannie is quite obviously from the Deep South and talks like the housekeeper from the film ‘The Help’.)
Her legs don’t work. Not one of them.
She just had her eye removed, she’s been plagued with bedsores and infections resulting from them, I have twice scheduled our veterinary hospital to come to the Ranch because I have thought her little body shouldn’t be put through more, but through it all she keeps fixing me with a defiant eye saying “I haven’t given up yet, I can’t hear no fat lady singing!’
And so here she stays, resilient, resolute and with a clear message for all and sundry that we need to listen more than we speak, look hard before we decide and pay attention to the small things......for in them we shall find the answers.
I asked a very wise woman how you know when it’s time to say goodbye to your dog.
She said to me ‘Ask them. They will tell you.’
In life there are so many things that are out of our control, so many choices that are made for us because of laws, or our need to bend to the wishes of decorum or duty or family.
In death, or with the prospect of it looming, we must keep it simple and selfless.
Let’s ask ‘How can I best serve you?’
‘What do you want me to do for you?’
Not, ‘I want to help you this way.’
Today I am going to a memorial service for a bloody marvelous woman I was honored to call a friend.
She was a steadfast volunteer at Frankie and Andy’s Place and one of our Night Crew Mamas: there every week on a Saturday night when everyone else was out drinking and dining, cuddling our seniors, picking up shit, giving out snacks and loving on them before bed.
Gerry was a quiet woman, but one of significance and substance. You’d have been forgiven for mistaking her quiet nature for her being a pushover, unless, of course, you tried pushing her over! Then it was game on!
She had been in remission from breast cancer for 5 years, when it resurfaced last year with a vengeance. We talked about it at length whenever we met up at the cabin and she told me that she was going to give chemo one last go but if it didn’t help her, she was just going to enjoy what was the rest of her life rather than waste it feeling sick.
She kept her situation quiet, telling hardly anyone of her illness and asking us to not to share it with anyone. She knew then she had very little chance of beating it, I see that now, but her wish was to not be anyone’s pity party or have people fawning all over her, driving her mad with their wringing hands and sad eyes.
She wrote her bucket list, decided she wanted to be in New York with her whole family for Christmas, wanted to spend time with her beloved dogs and Frank her husband quietly at home, and that’s what she got.
I am so happy for her that she got her wish, wrote her own ending.
As you now know, her wishes are totally different to mine, but she was not a limelight seeking old Trollop like I am.
And that’s the whole point of this.
Each of us is different.
Each of us sees things differently, wants different things out of life..and death.
Learning from Gerry, Juju, Wilford and yes, little Frannie, has strengthened my resolve to pay closer attention to anyone I come into contact with that faces death, no matter how many bloody legs they have.
Death isn’t to be feared. The prospect of it should make us, as the song says, ‘live like we were dying’.
We should grab every opportunity, savor every taste, luxuriate in sensations and love freely.
So go buy a bag of donuts, go sky diving, neck back a bottle of Veuve Cliquot and fill your face with all the shit your doctor says not to eat.
Then, just in case, plan your leaving party and make it as fabulous as you want it to be, even if it involves naked go-go dancers. Trust me, no one is gonna say one word of dissent. Lastly, surround yourself in life with people who will listen to your needs and wishes. That's the best insurance policy you can get!