For the briefest of moments the feeling begins in your heart, but quickly moves down to your legs. It isn't weakness. it isn't numbness. It's as if your legs are no longer your legs. It's as if your legs are the final tethers holding your soul to earth. Tethers that your soul is desperately trying to free themselves from. Each step becomes harder and lighter because your body remains on earth and your soul is trying to be somewhere else, anywhere else but here.
This feeling is one that most veterans, medics especially, have felt before. Many of us are no strangers to death. We have seen eyes that have seen beyond us and felt the soul leave in the final expiration of air. But what many have been saved from is witnessing the death of a loved one.
You see, in the face of Iraqis and even Americans, who we didn't know, dying, our stoicness could act as a shield that protected us from the realities of war. Our shields get a lot of practice in combat. But like all skills that require consistent use to maintain their effectiveness, being a civilian weakens your shield. I don't know if there is any shield strong enough to protect you from watching a little girl that you adopted, loved, cared for, and who loved and cared for you as if you were her whole world, take her final breath.
Lymphoma is a terrible disease. A genetic death sentence. You might win your battles with chemo, nutrition, and eastern medicine, but you will lose the war. You will watch as a once healthy and happy little girl deteriorates in front of you.
You say reassuring things. You smile. You hold her head in your lap. You lay awake and watch her as she sleeps. You cry when you think she won't notice. You pray, at first for a miracle, later for peace for yourself and a pain free departure for her. You begin the journey tired and you end the war exhausted and broken.
When the time comes, the tears you cry, the wailing that comes out, is from the deepest part of your soul. The pain makes you want to vomit. There's no more need to put up a strong front. But even if there was you couldn't put one up if you wanted to. You're decimated. You don't want to go home because that'll bring on more pain. But you don't know where to go. You don't know if you want to be around your family or if you want to be left alone.
Which is where I am right now. I just lost my best friend. A little girl who came to me when I needed her the most. I was at the lowest point in my life and I had a long road to travel. Fortunately I had the best Great Dane in the world to travel down the road with me. She was there to push me to learn how to walk without assistance again. She laid down beside me when I was in so much physical pain that it didn't seem like any medicine would free me from the pain and all I could do was hold her for comfort. For almost nine years we were inseparable.
The next time you hear that there isn't any value for veterans to have a dog with them, therapy or otherwise, I want you to remember this story. Natalia was my best friend, my little girl, and I truly don't know where I'd be now without her. I'm lucky to have had almost nine great years with her and I stand by my belief that a dog can be amazing for a veteran.