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Live like you were dying

Live Like You Were Dying

By Bill Stork, DVM

"He said I was in my early forties With a lot of life before me When a moment came that stopped me on a dime

I spent most of the next days, looking at the x-rays Talking bout the options and talking bout sweet time

I asked him when it sank in That this might really be the real end How's it hit 'cha when you get that kind of news? Man, what'd ya do? And he said

I went skydiving I went rocky mountain climbing I went two point seven seconds on a bull named Fu Man Chu And I loved deeper And I spoke sweeter And I gave forgiveness I'd been denyin'

And he said, Someday I hope you get the chance To live like you were dyin'

He said, I was finally the husband That most the time I wasn't And I became a friend, a friend would like to have

And all of a sudden goin' fishin' Wasn't such an imposition And I went three times that year I lost my dad Well I, I finally read the good book And I took a good long hard look At what I'd do if I could do it all again And then

I went skydiving I went rocky mountain climbing I went two point seven seconds on a bull named Fu Man Chu And I loved deeper And I spoke sweeter And I gave forgiveness I'd been denyin'

And he said, Someday I hope you get the chance To live like you were dyin'

Like tomorrow was a gift And ya got eternity to think about what to do with it What did you do with it? What did I do with it? What would I do with it?

Skydiving I went rocky mountain climbing I went two point seven seconds on a bull named Fu Man Chu And I loved deeper And I spoke sweeter And I watched an eagle as it was flyin'

And he said, Someday I hope you get the chance To live like you were dyin'

To live like you were dyin' To live like you were dyin' To live like you were dyin' To live like you were dyin'"

(Songwriters: Tim Nichols, Craig Michael Wiseman)

If I should ever lose track of my friend Sheila, I don’t have to look in saloon, salon or strip mall. She’s in the barn brushing burdocks, feeding treats, picking stalls or trimming feet. Bennie the 2-ton pasture pet and Boom-truck, Stormie, and Big-Butt (Go-Go) the Quarter Horses are half the herd that currently lives on our 7-acre swamp. Aesculapius has nothing on Sheila Irene Barnes. As she ambles the 50 yards back to our little barn wood berm home, she’ll be baby-talking and nuzzling a big grey klutz of a cat named Stinker, while Remmi staggers like “Johnny comes marching home”. Meanwhile, Token will secure the perimeter against attack by groundhog, squirrel, or rabbit. Sheila takes a half loaf of Kwik Trip 50-cent white bread and stale marshmallows up the hill to our 10-year-old Nubian goat named Percy, and feeds him by hand.

If I am ever loved half as much as her paint horse Santana or any one of the Wyoming fillies, I will be snug as the Little Nutbrown Hare.

If I ever find myself playing second saxophone to Buckfart, I’m out.

Monday mornings I try and make it to the Lakers “Athletic” (and social) Club by 6:00. The chiseled physique you see is no passive process. I do a half-dozen sets of dumbbell presses and ab crunches while being indoctrinated by the gospel according to Fox Morning News babes, then wander the quarter-block south past Blue Moon Pizza, and across the alley to Steve’s Car and Truck Service and Preachin’ Parlor. Forty five years of fixin’, fabricating, towing and hauling anything that rolls, crawls, or flies have given him forearms like Popeye. A heart like Herriot finds Steve presiding over a small pack of German Shorthaired Pointers. He collectively refers to them as “assholes”, but feeds them hot-buttered whole wheat toast for breakfast. They live in a climate-controlled condo the size of the Honeymoon Suite at the Holiday Inn, but they are not keen on being left behind. They fight over the dashboard or the bench seat in the Chevrolet passenger van re-purposed from a gymnastics mom.

In the absence of emergencies, by 7:30 I’m on a thousand-cow dairy owned by Kevin Griswold, where I fear for my laundry. In pen 1, herdsman Rick’s 1500lb “girlfriend” number 2308 loves to scratch her poll on the pliers in your back pocket. Rub her right ear or she’ll lift you up and dump you in the manure. The Tag Lane Farm’s token Brown Swiss lives in pen 5. She duck walks like Chuck Berry singing Johnny B. Good and licks the sky like a Golden Retriever when you scratch her tail head.

The point of it all being: I work with, work for, and am surrounded by people who love animals… all day, every day.

Given the indisputable notion that folks who are kind to animals are inherently good, that makes Dr. Bill a very fortunate hombre.

[The Amazing Dick Bass]

Monday afternoon I trade my coveralls for khakis and white lab coat. First up is a rabies shot and stool sample for a lab pup. Thirty years in law enforcement left Tim Esser helpless for his first four months with Trooper. Next door, the tone is muffled like a funeral parlor. Dr. Clark administers a mL of Telazol and last rites, and gives a hug to Wayne, saying goodbye to his 11-year-old coon dog.

For those who live their lives around their pets, they get to experience the cycle of life several times within their own.

As veterinarians, we participate in that cycle several times a day.

It could be crushing if you let it. It can be beautiful if you chose. It is always impactful.

How much time is left on the clock in our own game of life will dictate just how it affects us.

When my dog Cooder banked off the rear wheel of the Grand Caravan and could no longer right himself, we let him go peacefully in the whisper grass ‘neath the pine trees in the back yard. Paige lay on my back and bawled uncontrollably. For years she visited his little wooden cross for comfort.

Seven years later, her grandma with whom she shares her middle name and from whom she inherited her unconditional kindness was released from the ravages of Alzheimer’s dementia. At twelve years old, there was little that could get her out of her hockey pads, let alone into a dark dress and trench coat. She stood like a corner post between her grandpa and me against the granite-grey stone cold New Year’s Day as the priest crossed himself and we lowered her into the ground.

I knelt before the couch and pressed the bell of my stethoscope against the tiny chest of Petey the 21-year-old Jack Russell Terrorist. I held it there long after silence, searching for other words. Laura was near eighty years old and had defied the beast that is cancer not once, but twice. She had the strength of 10,000 men and spoke with the voice of reason. “You know, Bill,” she paused, “it’s tough when you’re looking through that same keyhole.”

I thought I was there for her.

In five years and hundreds of thousands of words, I have never hesitated to opine. Yet, I specifically make no attempt to compare the weight of a human life to that of an animal. That said, I find it impossible not to apply the experience of knowing, loving, and losing both people and their pets to color and focus the lens through which I view mortality. Whether it be my friends, my family, or my own.

Unless I was surgically sterile and elbow-deep in an abdomen, I’d put down my pen or walk away from paying bills when the red F-150 slowed past the office. John Neupert would come around to collect the quarters in the little plastic puppy on the counter for the Jefferson County Humane Society. He always asked about Paige and Calvin, and “how’s business going?” His sincerity was well beyond the fact that his bank held the note on both our business and building. I had no clue whether it was his last week, month, or year. John was a family man, lawyer, judge, and Navy pilot. He was a gift to our community; I was proud to know him, and knew he wouldn’t be with us forever.

David Letterman asked Warren Zevon how he deals with his diagnosis of lung cancer. He simply responded, “Well Dave, you enjoy every sandwich.”

Sometimes there is an acronym. CRF or LSA at the top of your list of pre-existing conditions might motivate a guy to get in his last fishin’ trip, motorcycle ride, and “I Love You”. Bob Sampson was a lawyer who had 6 kids, served under seven Chicago mayors, and presidents Kennedy and Nixon. He wrote much of the Americans with Disabilities Act, was CEO of American Airlines, and was featured with Jerry Lewis 33 times on Labor Day weekend. Bob had an acronym on his medical record: MD. He was told he’d never graduate from high school. Not a bad bucket list.

If you are Bill Stork, driving north on Newville Road on the first window-down spring day, listening to Rhonda Vincent sing Blue Sky Cathedral, you reflect on the decade you were given with The Amazing Dick Bass. If you are Ryan Haack, milking cows off Holzhueter Lane, you lament: if he were still physically here on earth, Brian Jackson just shouldn’t be on his mind, every waking moment. He thinks about his pain, and that it is a fraction of what his parents feel. Life will go on; it will not be the same.

It’s not supposed to be.

The Amazing Dick Bass and Brian Jackson were taken from us decades before their time. Sometimes the only harbinger is being human; flesh, blood, and finite.

[The Amazing Dick Bass and Arlin Rogers]

Dispatched to castrate two particularly athletic 3-month-old Holstein bull calves, I confessed, “Brian, I don’t think I’ve ever known what you do for a living.” In the process of his explanation, I learned that the eight acres of wooded hillside beyond the calves' paddock was a prairie restoration project. He described that pioneering surveyors like Increase A. Lapham (yes, the peak) would stand at the stones that marked each quarter-section of land and describe in detail what they saw.

Just short of Thanksgiving, Tim Jeffers presented a particularly delightful German Shorthaired cross that he had fostered. Writing health papers takes minutes. As Claire ferreted out the lines I had failed to fill in, we talked Deer Hunting (this is Wisconsin, proper nouns are indeed capitalized), fishing, and faith. The conversation concluded, “Well you know Doc, it’s better to be out on the lake thinking about God, than sittin’ in church thinking about fishin’”.

Karen Hayes is of stout Norwegian construction. She’s had more joints replaced than I’ve sets of tires on my truck, and been eligible for Social Security since the last Bush was in the Oval Office.

“Good Morning Karen, how are you?” I asked as she stopped for Tri-Heart for Trooper.

“Not worth a dern, Doc,” she shook her head. “Getting’ old is no fun; three hours of splittin’ wood, and I gotta sit down for a half hour.” After which she breaks out in a thunderous laugh and a smile that could clear a cloudy day.

I have no intention of jumping from an airplane or signing up for a rodeo.

What I do try, with varying degrees of success, is to search for, accentuate, and celebrate the beauty within every God-given moment and human interaction. The secondary benefit being: that if you manage to not get hit by a bus, it fends off boredom, and gives a guy great material for a book.

Much like the Monday New York Times crossword puzzle, there’s the easy stuff. Everybody loves a mid-January hoarfrost sunrise, Ray Charles singing America the Beautiful, or Scarlett Johansson.

Look for the beauty between. Listen to Glenn Campbell sing Johnny Hartford’s Gentle on My Mind, three times. Pick out Berry Oakley’s bass line on The Allman Brothers Live From the Fillmore East. Know the smell of fresh plowed ground, and from where the wind blows.

See what you can get done before daylight on December 21st.

[© Georges Adins]

My friend Lynn Gustafson was 16 years old on April 30, 1983, when her neighbor passed away. She had walked over to spend time with his sons when three stretch limousines came to the house. She snuck out the back door, horrified at the sight of a wire-thin Brit climbing out of one of the limos to pay respect. Mick Jagger was followed by Keith Richards, Jimmy Page, and Eric Clapton. Muddy Waters was born to sharecroppers on a plantation in Mississippi, where he learned to play harmonica at age five, and guitar by 17. He made his way to Chicago. When he plugged his uncle’s guitar into an amplifier one Saturday morning so he could be heard above the bartering on Maxwell Street, he set the steel of the bridge between Delta Blues and Rock and Roll. When he returned from touring Europe, he brought with him the British Invasion.

At a New Year’s Eve gathering, Paul and Dana Ostrowski, Sheila, and I had a cry. In the last weeks we lost Remmi, Jack, and Frida. Earlier in the year we'd said goodbye to Rocky, Brian Jackson, and John Neupert.

Muddy Waters' funeral proceeded from Maxwell Street to Michigan Avenue. They drank, danced, sang and celebrated his life; then they laid him in the ground.

Whether it be 70, 39, or 13, let us not forget the years they are here.

I have never felt the need to form an image of what happens “next”. Though I don’t expect to be met by St. Peter, Dick Bass, and my mom at the Pearly Gates, I do believe that our time on this earth is a part of some continuum. While we are here, we have no idea who we touch, or how.

The steel guitar and fiddles fall silent, and Tim McGraw pauses:

"And he said, Someday I hope you get the chance To live like you were dyin'…"

I’m thinking maybe today.

Happy New Year.

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