UNSAID is told from the perspective of Helena Colden, a veterinarian who has just died of breast cancer. Helena is forced to witness the rapid emotional deterioration of her husband David. With Helena's passing, David, a successful Manhattan attorney, loses the only connection that made his life full. He tries to carry on the life that Helena had created for them, but he is too grief-stricken, too angry, and too quickly reabsorbed into the demands of his career. Helena's animals likewise struggle with the loss of their understanding and compassionate human companion.
My novel, Unsaid, is about the healing power of animals and the importance of communication in all of its different forms. Helena, the narrator, is a veterinarian who has died, but she cannot move on because she is terrified of confronting the mistakes she believes she has made in her life, the thousands of animals she euthanized over the course of her career, and perhaps most of all, her growing belief that her thirty-seven years of life were insignificant. Because she is desperate for closure and connection, Helena haunts - and is haunted by - the life she has been forced to leave behind: her shattered attorney husband, David; her houseful of damaged but beloved animals; and Cindy, a chimpanzee to whom she helped teach sign language, and who may hold the key to unlocking the mysteries of animal consciousness. Helena finally finds her answers when David takes on a legal case to try to save Cindy's life and - using all of Helena's past work -- must prove what it really means to be "human".
I sometimes get asked whether in my "real life" any animals have had the kind of personal impact that I wrote about in the novel. When I hear that question, my thoughts immediately turn to Skippy and I have to smile.
Skippy is one of the animals in the novel--a dog with a heart defect. But Skippy was a real dog - a small, black bundle of fur with a wise and handsome fox-like face. Skippy had been born with a badly malformed heart. He showed up at my wife's veterinary practice one day at a time when we were debating whether to have children. I was totally afraid of the idea of kids - that I wouldn't know what to do, that something would go wrong, that I would fail them somehow. Fear is paralyzing; it closes your heart to all things - good and bad.
My wife operated on Skippy, but she couldn't fix him. She could only give him some additional time. We believed that Skippy likely would be dead within the year. No one wants a dog with that kind of life span, so he came home to us. That turned out to be a very good day.
We were blessed to have Skippy in our lives. He used his time well - unafraid, present, loving, funny, loyal. He was a small dog, but he didn't live a small life. Eventually, three years later, the day came when Skippy looked at us with those proud and intelligent eyes and we couldn't escape the fact that he was in pain. It was time to end his pain.
Veterinarians, I have learned, live in a world of remarkable conflict. They both save life and then take it away. We not only authorize them to kill, we expect them to do so. I don't know of any other profession where the taking of life is such a daily occurrence. And I think for most vets, every passing means something. This certainly was the case for my wife. In the shadow thrown by the need to end Skippy's life, she told me what to that point had been unsaid between us -- that she was dreading the obligation of choosing the exact moment of death and creating another still body, particularly one that she loved so much.
Skippy died right in my arms. I depressed the syringe that released the pink fluid that finally put his heart at rest. I needed to do that for him. I wanted to spare my wife the burden of one more soul.
When it was over, I was surprised at the depth of the loss I felt. The only way I can explain it is to tell you that something deep within me shifted. I realized I was so grateful for every minute with Skippy and wouldn't have traded the time with him for anything in the world, even though that time ended too soon. Then I understood that this was Skippy's last gift to me. By taking his life he taught me how important the act of living really is and how limited by fear I had become. The idea of having children suddenly wasn't so overwhelming.
Without that little black dog I don't know if I ever would have made the leap of faith that brought me my two wonderful children.
So yeah, I have come to believe in the power of animals. I believe they can heal, teach, and push us to be better people. I now live with 29 animals and not a day goes by without learning something from them. To honor the animals we have known, we started a not-for-profit animal sanctuary organization called Finally Home to help lost, abused and abandoned animals (www.finallyhomeanimalsanctuary.org). A portion of the author proceeds from the book is going to that entity.
Was my experience with Skippy unique? This is the best part. As I was doing research for Unsaid, I learned that so many people who have loved and chosen to share their lives with an animal have an equally compelling story about how that animal has changed their lives. This cannot be coincidence. I love that. It makes me believe in the inertia of good things. Stop by my Facebook page and share your story.
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August 04, 2011
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