When we checked our mutt Smokey into the veterinary hospital last week, we were asked whether we wanted a DNR, Do Not Resuscitate, order. I’d never really contemplated advance directives for dogs before. After learning more, we decided CPR would be okay. But with a twelve-and-a-half year old canine, we didn’t want more heroic measures. Every life has its limits.
The incident reminded me of a letter John Adams penned to his friend the physician Benjamin Rush, back in 1813. It’s written under the persona of
Adams’ horse, “Hobby.” Hobby says he’ll try to shake a little animation into his Master for a few more months, maybe years. But what can his owner realistically look forward to at the age of seventy-seven? “How many Pains and Aches, which I cannot shake away, has he to endure? How much low spirits?” The horse foresees the fate that awaits a doddering Adams, “withered, fading, wrinkled, tottering, trembling, stumbling, sighing, groaning, weeping.” The thought occurs to Hobby whether he shouldn’t just stumble, accidentally-on-purpose, as an act of Charity—presumably putting a quick end to the senile equestrian, just as we humans compassionately release our animal companions when they’ve outlived their natural span.
I’m not sure if Adam’s letter could be said to reflect his views on mercy killing. That’s a big topic, and medical technology has done too much to transform the way we die to make any exact extrapolation possible. But it does suggest that some things never change.
Whether considering horses, dogs or men, we’ll always struggle with the question of when to fight gallantly and when to throw in the towel.
For Smokey, I know the point is swift approaching when it will be time for a dose of kindness. And when my day finally comes, I hope I’ll have a horse like Hobby—or another ministering angel—to send me quietly on my way.