Author Julia Parker, 46, and her Shih Tzu Shelby, 14, were both diagnosed with cancer in 2016.
In May 2016, at the age of 46, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was in a state of shock and disbelief for a couple of months. My double mastectomy in July was followed by adapting to my “new normal,” which has been an overwhelming mix of fear, anxiety, medical appointments, new health problems, medications, procedures and treatments.
In December, my best friend and 14-year-old Shih Tzu, Shelby, began peeing blood frequently. Her veterinarian referred us to a specialist for an ultrasound of Shelby’s bladder. At the December 30th ultrasound appointment, the specialist told me that she has an inoperable cancer tumor in her bladder called Transitional Cell Carcinoma. He said that she would be prescribed Piroxicam to hopefully shrink the tumor and manage her pain. Her life expectancy is six months to a year. If she’s alive in six months, another ultrasound will be done to see if the tumor has shrunk.
I was more upset about her cancer diagnosis than my own. Unlike my breast cancer that was caught early by self-exam, I had no way of detecting Shelby’s cancer early. I became increasingly angry over the following weeks. Our time together now had an expiration date.
Our relationship began in the winter of 2003 while I was on a weekend trip in Vernon, New Jersey. My friend and I had visited a shop that had a crate of Shih Tzu puppies near the cash register. Shelby was six weeks old. We’ve been together ever since. She emotionally supported me through a divorce. We moved from New York to Atlanta, Georgia in 2004. Whether living in a high rise or our current mountain home, Shelby has always been a happy, social and adaptable dog. We’ve enjoyed many adventures.
Valentine’s Day morning, Shelby scratched at the back door leading to our home’s wrap around porch. I opened it. She walked to a sunny spot on the porch and laid down. Though nearly blind with cataracts, she glanced back to the door as if to see if I followed. I zipped up my hoodie, took a seat next to her in the sun and laid my hand gently on her back.
Shelby and Julia in 2006.
Birdsong filled our ears. The sky was a beautiful pale blue dotted with clouds behind the leafless hardwood and evergreen trees. The Georgia mountain air was crisp and clean.
It is a beautiful day to be alive, I thought.
It occurred to me that it had been quite some time since I recognized the beauty of anything. My resentment about cancer, fear of suffering, fear of dying and anger had been overshadowing the joy of precious life moments.
It is natural to feel fear and sadness when facing terminal illness or death, but you cannot allow these feelings to steal away the pleasure of life and love. While it makes sense to fight for survival, viewing failing health and death as a horrible end to existence does not. Death is a natural part of the life cycle, like winter is a part nature’s four seasons. Religions around the world teach that death for human and animal is a transformation, not an end, including Christianity.
Our soul, and the souls of our loved ones, continue to exist after death. In the Bible, 1 Corinthians 15:44 tells us, “The body is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.”
Death is a passage into the spiritual world. We have all seen miracles brought about by love and faith in our physical world, and it makes sense to expect such wondrous experiences after death in the spiritual world.
2 Corinthians 4:18 reminds us, “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”
Does Shelby have a soul? Will she know salvation? Numerous scriptures in the Bible promise salvation for all living creatures; many listed below:
Psalm 36:6; Psalm 145:9; 11:24, “God’s mercies are for every living animal he has created – not just human kind. God saves both man and beast; “he hateth nothing that he hath made.”
Ecclesiastes 3:19, “After all, the same fate awaits human beings and animals alike. One dies just like the other.”
Ecclesiastes 3:20: “They are both going to the same place—the dust. They both came from it; they will both go back to it.”
Luke 3:6, “All flesh shall see the salvation of God,” and in Luke 12:6 Jesus Christ said of the birds of the air that “not one of them is forgotten before God.”
According to Kevin Nelson, a prominent University of Kentucky neurology professor who has analyzed the brain processes of spiritual experiences in both humans and animals for decades, our animal companions recognize spirituality. Nelson says it’s possible that animals not only experience mystical moments, but they may sense spiritual oneness.
The Bible supports Nelson’s findings in Psalm 148:7-12, which tells us that animals of both land and sea recognize and praise God.
With Bible in hand, my faith has been restored on Valentine’s Day 2017. The holiday, and every day, now has tremendous meaning. It’s a celebration of love that cannot be controlled by time, weakened by failing health, confined by distance or place, or destroyed by death.
Shelby and I made a pact on Valentine’s Day to enjoy every second together. We will savor every loving gaze, every car ride through mountain roads, every walk in the park, or sitting in the sunshine. On our worst days of aches, pain and malaise, we’ll cuddle on the couch or bed under a soft blanket, gaze into each other’s soul shining within our eyes, comfort each other through love and simply enjoy being.
If Shelby leaves this world before I do, I will mourn her deeply, as I do all loved ones. But I will live with joy, meaning and purpose in her memory, as she would want me to, until we reunite in heaven and celebrate our love in new ways.