“Boxing is real easy. Life is much harder.”
-Floyd Mayweather, Jr
It is the hit you know is coming, but you can’t escape. You’re up against the ropes. They’ve thrown the one-two, and the three is on its way, but there’s nothing to do except take it. There is no going under this one. There is no stepping out of the way. So you let it hit you, protecting the side of your head with a gloved hand and you turn with the punch to lessen the blow. This is how you roll with a punch. Maybe it’s because I’m not so great at rolling with it, but in my experience, the blow still hurts a whole lot. In a fight however, rolling with a punch can mean the difference between remaining upright and not.
The blow didn’t come in the ring this time though. It came when I said “goodbye” to my loyal, gentle, smart (if somewhat neurotic) 16-year-old border collie last Saturday. The friend I have had for more than half my life. In fact, Nell was part of my life exactly the number of years that I lived at home with my parents. She only lived with me about 10 of those 16 years, but 10 years is long enough for a little dog to leave behind a big hole. She was with me when I learned to drive, she saw me graduate from high school, college and receive two master’s degrees, she was by my side through two major breakups, she made seven different houses feel like home, and she moved with me when I came to Boston and helped me through the most difficult year of my life. And now, I seem to be incapable of thinking of anything except that little 40 pounds of dog with her wonky ears and graying fur (that I’m still picking off my clothes). Even my thoughts of boxing have taken a backseat for a moment.
It is the little things that sneak up on me and hit me in the gut, leaving me breathless and bringing tears to my eyes. One minute I can talk calmly about putting her to sleep, saying she had a good last day with so many treats that she started turning down all but the real high-premium treats: sausage and chicken that I cooked up in the morning. I can talk about her last little walk in the woods. It was so slow it could hardly even be considered a walk because her hips were so weak and sore from arthritis that she struggled to stay on her feet. Even still, when a stranger came up to her to say ‘hello,’ she picked up the stick that lay at her feet and tossed it towards the man, her ears up and head cocked expectantly, waiting for a game of fetch. She was Nell up until the end. Sometimes I can think about her and laugh at her antics. But then I’ll sneeze, and this will set off a new flood of tears. Why? Because Nell was always startled by sneezes, chopping carrots, cupboard doors closing, socks landing in the laundry bin…It drove me crazy. Who knew I would miss that? I put away some vegetables yesterday, and my heart sank when I realized there was no reason to keep the plastic bag they came in (this is something only a dog owner thinks about—those plastic bags in the produce section of the grocery store make ideal poop bags). For the first time in years, no one greets me at the door. The house feels hollow and desolate without her. My life feels empty now that she’s gone.
I thought that this wouldn’t be so hard. After all, I have been preparing myself for this for years. My first dog died at the age of 12, so when Nell reached 12, I suppose I began steeling myself for the day when I would have to say “goodbye”. For the last two years, I’m not sure there has been a morning when I didn’t wake up wondering if today would be the day I’d have to make the decision. Or if I would just find her body left behind. I began distancing myself from her a little bit, trying to convince myself that it will be nice when I don’t have to worry about being home at a certain time, or finding a dog sitter, and how I won’t have to get up in the frigid darkness to let her out in the dead of winter. I tried in vain to cushion the blow. But nothing could really prepare me for the pain of putting her to sleep.
And she is only a dog who lived a long, happy life. I knew the blow was coming since she was a puppy. I can’t imagine the pain of losing the person you love too soon. I’m glad that most of us don’t get hit like this too many times in our lives. But when those blows do come, they leave us in anguish, longing to give in and lie down on the mat, to leave the ring and never fight again. We don’t though. Even though every subsequent blow hurts a little more, even when it takes everything we have just to keep our knees from buckling, even if we know we lost the round, we stay on our feet. We stay in the ring. We keep taking the punches and rolling with them because this means we are not only alive, but we are truly living our lives. Even when all seems lost, we keep fighting because we are resilient creatures full of fight and hope and love, and nothing will take this away.