Driving Decisions: Think like a dog

Paul is a good man. A bit prone to gluttony, and a bit self-absorbed, but an Irish Catholic heart of gold and a true friend for life. He insisted that I join him for his family thanksgiving when he realized that I would be one of the few students left alone in the dorms for our first break from study in our freshman year, and his father said “of course”. It was a joyous celebration at his grandmother’s home, and there was a crowd the size I had never even imagined for a family event. I was welcomed, but out of place, and in a home were there seemed to be an abundance of absolutely everything.




September 1977, my father dropped me, my clothes, and a couple of guitars off at UC Davis, some 500 miles north of my home, with a $300 guaranteed student loan to buy books and supplies, my first student loan of many, a work-study tuition waiver, and the belief that I was destined to fail. On the ten hour drive to college he did manage to crush my desires to become a musician, and replace them with the cold reality that I was now responsible for making my own way through life. “Financially Independent” was my legal designation, a classification for minors in California, no longer available, that enabled even well-healed parents to side-step the costs of higher education for their children. What I once had perceived as a clever plan to extract funding form the state, now occurred to me was actually a shove out of the nest. An abandonment of me into a world where I would forevermore have the freedom, and responsibility, to be “on my own”.

Feeling a bit lost and disoriented, I remember watching his large figure shrink as he walked away, across a long grassy field, and the sudden realization that I didn’t have a single penny in my pocket. I chased him down, and he reluctantly took two 100 dollar bills out of his wallet, told me to open a bank account, and we parted ways in opposite directions across the field; he to his car, and me towards town in search of the closest bank. Looking back, he had prepared me well for this moment. He had taught me about banking and saving, although my saving account had never accumulated any money. He walked me through the paperwork to become “financially independent”, and accompanied me to to the bank visit where I signed for my first student loan. He taught me to work hard in order to be make a living trough entrepreneurship and determination, but education was a pursuit for which he saw little value. My drive towards education as a pathway to success was purely my own, and so if that was to be my choice for my life’s path, then I would need to figure out a way to pay for it myself.

As my independence was basically thrust upon me, I never completely understood Paul’s reluctance to fall into his father’s footsteps and become a veterinarian. Paul had the grades, the intelligence, the experience, the resources, and a supportive father with a seat on the Veterinary school’s board of directors. It seemed to be a short, easy walk into a successful career, but it was clear from the day we met that Paul would also forever seek his own path through life. I wasn’t jealous, but with so little support and no similar opportunity of that nature coming from my father, I just didn’t understand why he didn’t just “go with the flow”. Clearly it was rebellion at some level. Perhaps it was simply a rebellion against the force of his father’s insistence that Paul recoiled from. A force that I felt one day a few years after college graduation, now a medical student in Illinois, when I went to pay Paul a weekend visit.

It seemed unusual for Paul’s father to answer the door. Small in size, but large in presence, he gripped my arm with his strong hand. There was power in those intense, bulging eyes and thick, dark unibrow as he abruptly directed me: “Tell Paul that he needs to put his dog to sleep”. “Paul listens to you. He will do it if you tell him to.” Immediately I felt that a heavy weight had been thrust upon me; that I felt indebted to this man for his kindness towards me only made matters worse. I knew that Paul’s dog Mia was dying; he had told me a few days earlier on the phone. He also told me that his father insisted that he put the dog to sleep, and that he was racked with guilt at the prospect of being responsible for ending the life of the dog he so dearly loved. His strong Catholic values about the sanctity of life only compounded his dilemma.

I didn't’ want to get involved in this. I really didn’t understand why Paul’s father felt so confident in my ability to influence the fiercely independent Paul. How would or could I convince Paul of it anyway? How would I even bring it up?

That last question was quickly solved for me as Paul and I set out on our long drive. We lit up a joint and I realized that perhaps the only thing that we would do with our limited time together was to talk about his dying dog. Rather it was more like all I would do on my brief vacation was to listen to Paul talking to me about his dying dog. For nearly an hour Paul agonized, rationalized, theorized, and intellectualized over his binary options, and all of the moral, ethical, spiritual and emotional aspects involved. What right did he even have to end the life of his beloved companion, or was it in fact a divine gift that he possessed the power to end her suffering? Hind legs paralyzed, wincing in pain, soiled with urine and feces, but clinging to life. Would killing her be merciful, or selfish evasion of caring for her needs at her most dire moment.

And I sat silently, weekend plans for fun apparently ruined by an agonizing monologue about a dilemma with no clear solution and no happy ending, the weight of his father’s mandate to somehow untangle this mess dragging me down, and a smokey fog in my head, when finally an epiphany of quintessential mary-jane flavored insight popped up, so I interrupted:

What would you do if things were reversed? What would you do if you were the dog, and Mia had to decide what to do for you? What would you want Mia to decide for you?

We shared a tear in the silence that followed. After a long pause, we found ourselves back to the space that we had shared as college freshmen buddies. Indestructible, invincible, free and carefree spirits off for a weekend of mischief and adventure with a loose outline of a plan in a borrowed car.

Paul hurried home afterwards where Mia sighed her last breath and departed this world with her head comfortably resting in Paul’s lap, his father skillfully easing the medicine into her veins. A beautiful, peaceful moment between man, father, and dog. And by fulfilling his father’s mandate to help Paul reach his decision to end Mia’s suffering, I felt that I had repaid my debt to Paul’s father. Not for the graciousness of accepting me as a part of the family that lonely thanksgiving in 1977, but for the following January in 1978, when Paul and I, and a random collection of unprepared teenagers took the family station wagon on a ski trip to Utah, challenged death and dismemberment in a variety of not so subtle ways, and pretty much destroyed the family car. But that, I must tell you, is a completely different story about the celebration of life and learning and adventure with my great friend Paul.

Robert Pendleton MD, PhD

Febuary 25, 2018

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  • Jean Ness
    commented 2018-04-18 15:25:43 -0700
    Powerful insight reflecting Robert Pendleton’s path to become a representative in Congress as a member of the K9 Party