Kari Costanza is on assignment in Mexico, but a recent family event is on her mind.
Our dog, P.J., has been sick with cancer. It came on suddenly. He went from a garbage-can-raiding, UPS-truck-chasing, barking-at-even-the-friendliest-of-neighbors beagle to a lethargic, puffy, tired old dog who would let the UPS man drive by without lifting a paw.
We took him to the vet and she diagnosed him with cancer and put him on medication. We’d mix the pills in his food and he’d gobble it up. It worked for awhile, but recently the cancer exploded—one side of his face swelled like a Macy’s Day parade balloon. He was panting like crazy, even starting to lose his taste for food.
My husband, Tom, laid out the options: The dog would either get more medication to delay the inevitable or be put down. I hesitated. “What about the kids?” I said, “The kids love the dog. Won’t they be angry if we let the vet put him down?
“We could lie,” I suggested. “We could say he had a stroke and that he died on his own at the vet.”
Then I thought about Santa, a woman I met in Gulu, northern Uganda, in 2006. Santa was a grandmother who took care of her orphaned granddaughters by day. The girls—Lilly, Harriet, and Nancy—spent every night at Noah’s Ark, a shelter in Gulu for children to protect them from being abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). At the time, the LRA often stole children and made them soldiers or “wives” to soldiers. It was safer for kids to sleep at the shelter than at their homes.
I was working on a story about a family whose parents had been killed by the LRA, to show how difficult this conflict was on children. World Vision workers pointed me to Lilly and her sisters. I walked home from Noah’s Ark with the girls one morning to meet Santa. I asked the grandmother how she came to take care of the girls after their parents were killed by the LRA.
Out of earshot of the girls, she whispered, “They weren’t killed by the LRA. They died of AIDS.”
“Why did you tell the girls they were killed by the LRA?” I asked.
“AIDS is too scary,” said Santa.
I pondered that lie for awhile—how in Uganda, for this grandmother, dying of AIDS seemed scarier than dying at the hands of rebels. What an awful world these children live in, where the lies their guardians tell them are big lies because the issues children face are so traumatizing. I couldn’t imagine having to make that choice as a grandmother—choosing death by AIDS over death by rebels.
We told the children the truth about their dog, that they might not see him again and that it was time to say goodbye. Buckets of tears were shed, especially by our daughter, even though the dog had systematically eaten through her Barbie doll collection (he loved their hands and feet). But when we came home from the vet without P.J., we didn’t have to lie.
Remembering Santa’s lie and what motivated it helped me make a decision. Death is trying, but death happens. Dogs die. People die. But in our situation, death didn’t involve fear. I don’t begrudge Santa her decision to lie to her grandchildren, even though for me, rebels are scarier than AIDS. I’ve met so many people living with HIV in Africa who are living life to the fullest. But I’m not a grandmother in northern Uganda. My choices are much easier.
More from Kari in Mexico soon.