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World of Another

The scientific study of animals was changed by a German biologist of the early twentieth century named Jakob von Uxekull. What he proposed was revolutionary: anyone who wants to understand the life of an animal must begin by considering what he called their umwelt: their subjective or "self-world." Umwelt captures what life is like as the animal. Thus two components - perception and action - largely define and circumscribe the world for every living thing. All animals have their own umwelten - their own subjective realities, what Uxekull thought of as "soap bubbles" with them forever caught in the middle. We humans are enclosed in our own soap bubbles, too. In each of our self-worlds, for instance, we are very attentive to where other people are and what they are doing or saying. On top of that each individual creates his own personal umwelt. full of objects with special meaning to him... We are bombarded by stimuli, but only a very few are meaningful to us.
- excerpted from "Inside of a Dog," Alexandra Horowitz

My dog is dying. He is under attack by an aggressive and relentless mouth cancer that each day steals a little more well-being and life from him. It's been a balance the last few weeks to provide pain relief and nutrition - and in the process, joy in the form of his favorite home-cooked meals. He comes to the bowl and waits, disoriented on medications to the degree he often forgets he has just eaten. There he stands, large chocolate eyes luminous in his dignified Scottie head, the bones of his skull prominent now, framed by white whiskers and silky brows. His expectation of food is his whole world just now, the instinctive fight to life, a break in the numb ache. And so, too, are our long rambles through the last warm November sun rays that slant against the wild bluff. These are the trails he loves to explore, nose deep in the grasses, the flag of his tail high as he trots ahead of me. It astonishes me how on these paths today, his body a war zone of illness and medication, he forgets his limitations and opens fully to the umwelt of a dog - the fresh scents, the freedom to run, explorations that expand each moment and carry the day into true happiness.

Late last night McDuff had another of the seizures that have wracked him more increasingly as the cancer deepens into his brain. And as I held him and comforted him and wept, soothing the trembles and the fear of his pure and dependent confusion, I became aware of the naked power of touch. The comfort of a known voice, the gentle support in a loving stroke, the truth of what a friend of mine had just said to me, regarding the often crushing challenges faced by our children as they move out into the world alone - "We want to protect them, but all we can do is walk beside them through their difficulties." All I could do was hold my dog as he fought for consciousness, orientation; breathing along beside his own unsteady heart. All I could do was be there.

Being there. This is something I understand; taught by love how to tend the suffering of others, to deepen my own reserves, how to become the sustaining energy in a crisis. Pumping all that you have into the moment to glue life together from one moment to the next. My dog is important to me, he is part of my umwelt. My circle of life. And somewhere deep in his own sense of the world, I am part of his. For now, as long as joy illuminates the suffering more than suffering takes away, McDuff and I will walk beside each other. At some point, we surrender to the losses and let go. But that should be on the last beautiful note of the symphony, don't you think?

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