Hold Tight? Or Unleash?
By Lissa Rankin, MD
Saturday, December 22, 2012
I was about to lead a teleclass in two minutes, when the phone rang.
I could tell by the tone of his voice that something awful had happened.
His name was Dan. He asked if we had a puppy named Bezoar, and after confirming that we did, his voice broke when he confessed that he had just accidentally killed her with his car. He was sitting by the side of the road right behind my house, holding her, waiting for me to come get her.
I bailed on the teleclass, and, heart racing and body shaking, dashed out to Highway 1 to wrap my arms around the 6 month old puppy who just joined the family in July, shortly after our beloved Grendel died prematurely in June.
Petting her still warm head, I could feel the skull fracture beneath my hands as I embraced her limp body. It had been quick and painless, but that didn’t ease the suffering in my heart, especially as I imagined telling my 6 year old daughter the news.
Crumpled on the side of the road with my puppy in my arms, I flashed back to when Grendel died, and Siena and I had talked about getting another dog. I told Siena that if we got a puppy, we would have to be willing to give the puppy permission to break our hearts as deeply as Grendel did, knowing that we would surely outlive the puppy. But this time, I reassured her, we expected the puppy to live at least 10-15 years. I told her she’d probably be in college by the time our hearts got broken again, but I warned her that we can’t ever know, that heartbreak is unpredictable, and we must be willing to keep our hearts open, even as we risk breaking them.
Through 6-year old tears, Siena agreed to give the new puppy permission to break her heart. I did too. We decided the joy was worth it. And it was.
For six months, we relished in puppyness – the ridiculous cuteness, the snuggles, the feisty fierce doggie growls, the nipping bites, the chewed up art supplies under the dining room table, the shoes that became chew toys, the stains on the carpet, the ornaments she knocked off the tree and broke, how she had become a girl’s best hiking companion – the whole enchilada. Our iPhones are full of photos of Bezoar’s spirited young life, and Siena’s art journals are full of drawings of her.
And now she’s gone, and once again, our hearts are broken.
To Leash, Or Not To Leash?
Given that Bezoar was outside in our unfenced expanse of backyard, which lies at the end of a long, car-free private driveway that comes off a dead end cul de sac of a sleepy beach town’s road, I can’t help wondering whether this is somehow my fault and whether Bezoar’s death might have been prevented. Our property backs up to California’s famously scenic and windy 2 lane Highway 1, but it’s down a ravine. You can’t even see it from our yard. It never in a million years occurred to me that the animals or children could get down to the potentially dangerous highway. I thought the backyard was safe.
But you could argue that we should have kept Bezoar on a leash – and for a while, we did. Because she was a puppy, we worried that she would wander off and get lost, traipse around and get hurt, or otherwise put herself in danger. But she hated that purple leather leash. It was evident from the beginning that, like Grendel, she was a country dog, jonesing to explore along with the fox, the deer, and the wild turkeys that roam our backyard. She yanked on the leash and howled until we decided to take the risk and let her have adventures.
And now this…
Is Freedom Worth It?
Two minutes before the phone rang, I heard Bezoar barking in the backyard. And then, just like that, she was gone. Part of me can’t help thinking, “What if I had just insisted she stay inside today?” just like I’m sure the parents of the Sandy Hook children fantasize about what would have happened had they kept their kids home from school last week.
But that kind of thinking doesn’t serve anyone. As I said in this post, there’s no point looking back with the “retrospectoscope.” And as I look forward and think about how to prevent future heartbreak, I notice the tendency I feel to protect my child, my dog, my marriage, my mother and siblings, my heart, and pretty much everything else I hold dear.
Protection Vs. Freedom
Yet, to “protect” really means to limit freedom, to hold them on a tight leash, to restrict adventure, to cling to what matters in an attempt not to lose what I love. I could keep my dog on a leash. I could forbid my child from straying out into the backyard wilderness with her two BFFs. I could get so frightened about school shootings that I home school Siena. I could insist that my husband not get too close to other women for fear I might lose him. I could guard my professional ideas for fear of having others steal them. I could stop traveling because it’s just too risky.
But that’s no way to live.
I can choose fear, or I can choose to set free what I love, knowing that clinging to it not only restricts joy for those I love, but ultimately fails to keep them safe – because life is risky, and as we learned with Sandy Hook, danger is unpredictable.
It’s A Fine Balance
As a parent and dog-owner, it’s my job to keep my child and dog safe. I’ll never be reckless with such an important responsibility. When my daughter unexpectedly ventured off on her Grand Adventure, my hubby and I went trotting after her – and clearly set boundaries around how far she was allowed to venture in the future. Today, when Bezoar died, we told Siena that, like her, Bezoar had gone on a Grand Adventure – and we celebrated her bravery. But we also warned Siena about how risky Grand Adventures can be when you’re young like she and Bezoar are. We also warned her how dangerous it would be to ever wander onto Highway 1 or any other busy road.
While we long to keep Siena safe, Matt and I resist frightening her into losing her sense of adventure.
Loving With A Long Leash
As I was hiking in my beloved Muir Woods with a heavy heart today, I found myself marinating on the idea of unleashing not just my dog, but all that I love in my life. When you’re grieving, especially in an instance like this, when you have no warning and things go from awesome to awful in 30 seconds flat, it’s so tempting to either close down your heart or grasp, panicking, to that which you love.
Yet, I don’t want to live my life that way, riddled with fear and clinging to what I can’t keep safe, even if I try. We all long to roam free and enjoy adventures. We need to push the edges of our boundaries in order to discover how much risk we’re willing to take in our quest to feel fully, radically alive. Taking chances can be dangerous. Mistakes get made. People get hurt. Hearts get broken. Lives get lost.
But I believe it’s worth it to live an unleashed life – even today, in the wake of this loss that might have been prevented.
How Long Is Your Leash?
Do you cling tight? Do you let those you love take risks? Do you let fear or love rule your decisions? Can you trust enough to unleash what you love? Do you take risks yourself?
With a broken but still open heart,
Lissa Rankin, MD