A Lesson from Luke

A Lesson from Luke

From Chicken Soup for the Dog Lover's Soul

A Lesson from Luke

One bright, sunny afternoon in September our golden retriever, Luke, rose from a nap to go for our usual walk to the park. I should say he attempted to rise, because as he stood, he wobbled, tried to get his balance, then collapsed. My heart did somersaults as my husband and I carried him to the car and sped to the vet’s office. After hours of blood tests, exams and an ultrasound, we learned the grim news: Luke had hemangiosarcoma, an inoperable cancer of the blood vessels.

“How long does he have?” I asked through my tears, my arms wrapped around Luke, hugging him to my heart.

“I can’t say for sure,” the vet told us. “Weeks. Maybe only days.”

I barely made it to the car before I broke down in uncontrollable sobs. My husband didn’t handle the news any better. We held on to each other and bawled. How could Luke have gotten so sick without our realizing it? Sure, he was ten years old, but you’d never know it. He ate every meal with the gusto of a starving piglet, and just that morning he’d chased his tennis ball as if it were filled with his favorite doggy biscuits. He couldn’t have cancer, not our Luker Boy, not our baby.

For the next several days we hovered over him, studying him diligently. We took slow walks around the neighborhood, and instead of throwing the ball, we tossed it right to his mouth and let him catch it. One day while dusting the furniture, I picked up his blue pet-therapist vest—Luke had been a volunteer with the Helen Woodward Animal Center pet therapy department, and had visited centers for abused and neglected children. I held the vest to my cheek and started to cry. Why Luke? He was such a sweet dog; he deserved to live.

As I started to put the vest away in a drawer, Luke trotted over, wagging his tail. He looked at me expectantly, his ears perked up and his tongue hanging out.

“You want to put on your vest and go to work, don’t you?” I knelt and scratched behind his ears. I could swear he grinned at me.

Although there could be no running or jumping, the following day Luke joined the other pet-therapy dogs on a visit to the children’s center. I’m often envious of Luke’s ability to light up kids’ faces just by being himself. They giggle and clap their hands when he gives them a high ten or catches a cookie off his nose. But the best reaction by far comes when the children ask him, “Do you love me?” and he answers with an emphatic, “Woof!” The kids whoop and holler, continuing to shout, “Do you love me?” He always answers them.

On this particular day I wanted to make sure that Luke enjoyed himself, so I wasn’t paying as much attention to the children as I usually did. A girl about nine or ten years old inched over to us. Her narrow shoulders slumped and her head hung down; she reminded me of a drooping sunflower. Luke wagged his tail as she neared us and licked her cheek when she bent to pet him. She sat next to us on the lawn and smiled at Luke, but her large brown eyes still looked sad.

“I wish people would die at ten years old the way dogs do,” she said.

Stunned, I could only stare at her. None of the kids knew that Luke had cancer. Luke rolled over on his back and the girl rubbed his belly.

Finally, I asked her, “Why do you say that?”

“Because I’m ten, and I wish I would die.”

Her sorrow curled around my heart and squeezed it so tightly, my breath caught. “Are things so bad?”

“The worst. I hate it here.”

What could I say to her? I couldn’t tell her that she shouldn’t feel that way, or that she had a wonderful life ahead of her. What good would that do? It wasn’t what she needed to hear. I put my hand gently on her back and asked her name.

“Carly.”

“Carly, you want to know something? Luke here has cancer. He’s dying. And he wishes more than anything that he could go on living. You’re perfectly healthy, yet you want to die. It just isn’t fair, is it?”

Carly snapped her head up and looked at me. “Luke’s dying?”

I nodded, swallowing back tears. “He doesn’t have much time—a week, maybe two . . . or just a few days . . . we don’t know for sure.”

“Shouldn’t he be at home or in the hospital?” she asked.

“He wanted to visit with you kids, to bring you some happiness. Just like you, things aren’t good for him either. He probably hurts a lot inside.” I paused, wondering if she was old enough to understand. “But by coming here, it’s as if he’s trying to make every minute of his life count for something.”

Carly sat silently, looking at Luke while she softly rubbed his belly. “Poor Luke,” she said, almost in a whisper. When she raised her head and met my gaze, her eyes looked wary, almost accusing. “You think I should be glad I’m alive and not wanting to die, don’t you? Even if I’m stuck here.”

I took a few seconds to try to gather my thoughts. “Maybe you could make it sort of like a game. Every day try to think of at least one good thing about being alive.”

The counselors began calling the children back to their classrooms. I looked straight into Carly’s eyes, trying to reach her. “If nothing else, there’s always hope things will get better.”

“Come on, Carly,” a counselor called out.

Carly stood. “Will you come back and see me?”

“Yes, I will. I promise. And you’ll tell me lots of reasons to live, right?”

“Right.” She gave me a big nod, and then ran off to join her classmates.

The next week, though Luke’s walk was slower and more labored, we visited the children’s center again. Carly didn’t show up. Alarmed, I asked one of the counselors where she was. They told me that she’d gone to live with a foster family. My heart settled back into place. Good for you, Carly.

Twelve days later, Luke lost his battle with cancer.

When I think of him now, I try to focus on what I told Carly: that Luke made every minute of his life count for something. Perhaps he inspired Carly to do that, too. I hope that she, and all the other children we visited, benefited from being with Luke. I know I did.

Christine Watkins

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