Vail Daily column: We carry them, but they lift us
November 13, 2013
Her name is Eva. She is 6 years old. She had squamous cell carcinoma of the nasal planum, otherwise known as nose cancer. She's beautiful, with big brown eyes, chestnut colored hair and an engaging, playful, lovable personality. She had surgery to remove her nose. Cosmetically disfiguring, but lifesaving. When she woke from surgery, it was almost as if she didn't know she had it, and she most definitely had no idea how it transformed her face from beautiful to one that caused her family to wince when they first saw her. She didn't care though, she just wanted to be with them and pick up right where she left off.
Oh, I should mention that Eva is a chocolate Lab — yeah, a dog. How do I know so much about Eva? Well, my wife is a veterinarian, a surgical oncologist, who knows Eva's story well. The fact she's a dog doesn't change the point of the story though. In fact, I think it serves as a lesson in perspective for us. You see, Eva had no idea what the reaction of her owners would be, but she expected the same as it had always been. She greeted them with a warm nose-missing nudge and incessant wagging tail — unconditional acceptance. She expected the same from them, an affectionate pat on the head, or at least the familiar greeting "c'mere Eva. Good girl!"
But, it wasn't the same. They looked away when they saw her, her nose was mostly gone, and they just could not bring themselves to react the same way — Eva knew it. Almost as if she had misbehaved, her eyes saddened, her head dropped. Heart wrenching, but I get it. I guess dogs are no different than people. We all want to be accepted, to belong, disfigured or not. It brings me to the point of this story. Each year, we get the privilege of hosting a soldier's dinner at the firehouse. You've heard about it — the Wounded Warrior's program for men and women in the military that have been seriously wounded, fresh out of Walter Reed Hospital, the true heroes of this country. Most are single, double, or triple amputees. Some are badly burned — disfigured, kind of like Eva. It's a humbling, perspective-changing evening, and one we look forward to more than any other. We cook them lasagna, break bread with them and just hang with them as friends, brothers, comrades. All we know about them is what we see. That brings me back to Eva. If the tables were turned, and Eva was greeting them for the first time after their disfiguring injuries, I'm betting she wouldn't miss a beat — or in this case a wag. She wouldn't see them any differently. I love how dogs teach us. Good girl, Eva.
Behind the badge, behind the scenes. The phone rang at our station. The caller was from out of state and calling because his mother-in-law was dying of cancer. Her last wish was to visit the mountains of Vail, and her family drove her here for one last visit, one final look at the grandeur we all embrace. The call we received was a simple one, one we receive all the time, a request to carry her to their car for the trip back home — she was too weak, and her family was not able to do it alone, nor could they muster much emotional or physical strength at that point. We obliged. She died a couple of days later. It made a difference to her family, and her. In return, it lifted us up.
A fire captain from the Seattle area called the station. His mother was with other family members in a local hotel they managed. She was in hospice care, terminally ill. His request was again, a simple one. He wanted us to be the ones who removed her from her room and carried her out of the building once she passed. He did not know us; he just knew his fellow firefighters would help. As ironic as it sounds, we were honored to know he trusted us to do this for the family. It lifted us up. It happens again and again. Alzheimer patients, terminally ill, we're honored to oblige. What's the point of these stories? Well, a profound truth has become evident. It's not all about saving lives; sometimes it's about making someone a bit more comfortable prior to them leaving this world. To a family that is hurting, the simple task of carrying their loved one is "lifesaving" in their opinion. As for us, well, we carry them, but they lift us up.
Stay tuned …
Mark Miller is Vail's fire chief.