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On a plane the other day, I found myself absent-mindedly Googling the text of A Streetcar Named Desire. Suddenly, I knew it was no accident. My subconscious was forcing me to acknowledge something. This was the line that did it … "the Grim Reaper had put up his tent on our doorstep."

I realized that my husband, Grant, and I have been living with death for quite a few years in our house. Doggie death, that is.

My beloved Collie-Shepherd, Honey, died a year ago, and Leon, our Chihuahua, is about to shuffle off his mortal coil. It nearly happened last weekend. Just as Honey had done a few days before she went, Leon stopped eating. He was so weak he could barely stand. We all could sense something changing, feel death edging toward Leon. The newest member of the family, a Chihuahua/rat terrier mix named Jerry, couldn't deal with it at all and hid under the sofa the entire day. But after Leon got some fluids from the vet, he rallied. He's still with us. And Jerry came out from under the sofa.

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Leon is nearly 16. He is deaf, pretty blind, has kidney, heart and thyroid problems and was recently diagnosed with dementia. He's on a lot of medication, but he still wants to be here. And for Grant and me, that's the bottom line. As long as he's happy, and not in pain, we want to try to keep him with us. A year ago, the vet told us we would know when it was time to put Honey to sleep, and we did. We really did.

It was on the opening night of Cabaret on Broadway last year, as I was getting my makeup put on. I took a phone call from the vet and he told me, very gently, that a little lump that Honey had had removed was in fact a stage four cancerous cyst. It would only be a matter of months before it spread all over her body. She was old too, and deteriorating in many ways, most noticeably in the loss of control in her hind quarters; the poor thing would poop at random, then look back in utter surprise when she smelled it.

Honey had always slept on the bed beside me and she just couldn't understand why she shouldn't any more. I couldn't bear to see her so confused and unhappy, so we got a plastic sheet to cover the duvet and for about a year we'd be roused from our slumbers by fresh poop in the middle of most nights. But I truly didn't mind. It was inconvenient to say the least, but not untenable. And she was happy.

It's difficult to put into words how much I have learned from these two dogs as they came, and come, to the end of their lives. I used to associate "quality of life" with those lists of the best cities to live in, with the least air pollution and the cheapest houses and the tastiest restaurants. Now it means something very different to me.

When Honey was diagnosed with cancer, we decided to try her on the least potent form of chemo, pills that would slow down the inevitable invasion but that also made her pee everywhere and lose her whole sense of self. Her eyes were watery and she was sluggish and whimpered a lot. She just wasn't Honey any more. When we took her off them, she bounced back. Grant and I agreed that having her for a shorter time as the Honey we had always known was far, far preferable to a few more months with a shell of her.

Her quality of life was lessened so radically when she was on the drugs, and I couldn't stop thinking how much that must be the case for so many people in the Western world today. We are obsessed with extending life at all costs, and often, I believe, those costs far outweigh the quality of life that people are seeking to attain.

Life is a slow march toward death, for sure, and already I can feel my body beginning to crumble. I can no longer leave the house without my specs if I want to be able to read a menu or reply to e-mails on my phone. An old shoulder injury that was exacerbated by dancing in Cabaret for a year takes longer and longer to fade away. I even became aware recently, thanks to my dermatologist, of the existence of "scrotal aging." Oh yes! But I'm still me! I still have my spirit. And though I am totally atheist, I saw on her last night with us that Honey's spirit had gone, and it was that time the vet had talked about.

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What makes this whole period of death so amazing though, is how joyful it is to see such simple things as Leon eating. He barked for his breakfast the other morning and it made my heart leap. His licking my hand has never felt as precious. We're just enjoying him as much as we can, while we can.

And that's how I want to live my life.

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