Author Jenna Blum learns life lessons from her terminally ill (canine) companion.
I’ve only ever cried over two books, and Jenna Blum’s forthcoming memoir, Woodrow on the Bench: Life Lessons from a Wise Old Dog, is one of them. In it, the bestselling author chronicles life with her 15-year-old black Lab, Woodrow, in their final seven months together.
I’d never considered myself a dog person; I really, really wasn’t. I don’t like the shed hair stuck to the sofa or forming monster hairballs in the corners, the drool that anticipates a bone, the mess in the yard. But that was before. Things changed when I got my 12-ounce baby poodle, Judy. Then, after my husband (a dog whisperer) absconded with Judy’s affection, a little Yorkie — Gypsy Rose — joined the family. I was in love.
My rule had always been that when a dog becomes incontinent or unable to walk without assistance, euthanasia is the proper option. But that belief has changed. My husband caring for his infirm rat terrier, Bull, and both of us caring for our 11-year-old German short-haired pointer, Boots, have been lessons in empathy for me. (We lost both within a week-and-a-half of each other.) Now, after reading about Blum’s total devotion to her ailing Woodrow, her story — along with my husband’s commitment — has given me a new, more compassionate perspective.
The bacon-carrot-and-lady-loving Woodrow was Blum’s constant companion. Men came and went, but Woodrow was always with her. He was the one who experienced her big life events — when she wrote her novels, traveled for an author tour, took teaching jobs, moved into a bigger apartment, went through a divorce, and lost her mother to breast cancer.
“While everything else changed, and went, he stayed,” Blum writes. “He was my structure and my laughter, my companion and travel partner, my responsibility and my daily joy.”
One thing Blum refused to dwell on: That she would likely outlive Woodrow and lose her most intense emotional bond. All dog lovers must face the fact that our pets will probably pass away before we do. When Blum thought about losing Woodrow, she envisioned herself “heading toward Niagara Falls in a barrel: the inevitability, the precipitous drop. I wasn’t at all sure I would survive it.”
In May of the year he would turn 15, Woodrow, whose hind legs weren’t moving properly, was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. There was no cure, only medication to improve his quality of life. But the meds caused horrible diarrhea — or “poopsplosions” — all over the place. It wasn’t just a side effect; it was a “horror movie” with poop instead of blood. The first time it happened, Blum spent all night cleaning up her apartment, the stairs in her building, and the lobby, and then covered her floors with tarps.
Blum started taking Woodrow to the park bench across the street at least twice a day. That would be his new spot — on most days, he couldn’t walk much farther. On his bad days, even when Blum wasn’t sure how she’d get him back up the 16 stairs to home, her commitment to the love of her life never faltered.
Not only did Woodrow enjoy sitting by the bench, but the devoted pair began to attract the neighborhood’s dog lovers via what Blum affectionately refers to as “the Woodrow effect.” After all, he was the George Clooney of canines.
Seeing Blum and Woodrow on the bench every day reminded people to “practice a little more patience and kindness in our daily lives,” she writes. This community would, in turn, give Blum the strength to navigate Woodrow’s final days.
As Blum realized, “Sometimes, it seemed, when you let people know what you’re going through, help arrives when you're least expecting it, bringing you what you didn’t know you needed, in forms above and beyond what you’ve ever imagined.”
Blum’s mantra was a quote from Winston Churchill: “Never give in, never give in, never give in.” But in December of that year, she knew Woodrow was suffering. So her friend and vet, Mimi, euthanized him at home, in his comfy bed, while Blum said to him what she did every night, “Good night, Kooks. Mommoo loves you more than anyone in the universe. Yes, she does.”
And then he was gone.
When Woodrow passed, Blum’s friends and neighbors surrounded and cared for her. She learned that a nurturing community — if you open your heart and let it in — is what gives people the strength to survive the worst of times.
Blum’s perseverance amid Woodrow’s decline offers a lesson in unconditional love we can all learn from. (And a practical lesson. The book’s quality-of-life checklist used to determine when it’s time to say goodbye is now saved on my hard drive.) It doesn’t matter that Woodrow was a dog; he was Blum’s beloved.
Woodrow on the Bench is a love story in its truest form. It’s also an ode to animal lovers everywhere and a testament to the fact that our most intimate bonds aren’t always with other humans. Compassion for our animal companions, especially those with disabilities or in old age, is pure love in motion.
Whether or not you have pets, don’t pass up this beautiful, inspiring story. But have a box of tissues handy.
K.L. Romo writes about life on the fringe: Teetering dangerously on the edge is more interesting than standing safely in the middle. She is passionate about women’s issues and loves noisy clocks and fuzzy blankets but HATES the word normal. Find her at Romo’s Reading Room, on Twitter at @klromo, and on Instagram at @k.l.romo.