2 February

Walking Journal: When The Hard Part Of Life Intrudes

by Jon Katz

My walks with Zinnia have been beautiful, calm, and meditative. I look forward to writing about them, and the journal already has a loyal following

Maria walked with us today, which made the walk even more special. We left the other dogs at home.  I am sorry to report that life intruded on our walk today with a vengeance.

Woody Allen famously said, “if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” He was laughing at me today on my sweet, quiet walk in the woods.

Halfway through the walk, Maria got a call from a friend of a friend. The caller said our friend was gravely ill, alone, and unable to care for herself, neither she nor her dog had eaten for days, and she was unable to walk.

She has a virulent form of cancer. She seemed gravely ill. She said she didn’t know what to do and was very worried about her.

I called my friend, and she sounded incoherent and confused, I told her I was calling an ambulance, and we both rushed over there to see her for ourselves.

The ambulance crew was there working on her when we arrived. could see there was an impasse. She refused to go to the hospital, and they said she should go. They can’t take people without their permission.

She claimed to have a doctor’s appointment in the morning, but she didn’t know what day or date it was or when the appointment was. She adamantly refused to get into the ambulance.  I saw her eyes had trouble focusing, and she looked gaunt and hollow-eyed.

She kept saying she had an appointment with a doctor, but I didn’t believe her. It was apparent she had no way of getting anywhere, she could not even sit up, let alone drive, and Maria and I both could never have gotten her in and out of the car.

At one point, Maria came over to her and knelt on the floor and took one of her hands in hers. “We think you really need to get to the hospital…” I thought Maria was close to breaking through. I had tried repeatedly and failed.

But she just shook her head and said the same thing she had said to me. “I have an appointment tommorrow..I’ll just drive myself there..”

The ambulance squad leader explained that they can be charged with kidnapping if they force anyone into an ambulance and remove them from their homes. As it was, we had to sign documents saying our friend had refused to go to the hospital.

The rescue squad left, reluctantly. One of them told our friend they were not comfortable leaving her alone. She just shook her head and said she had an appointment,

They said to call if there was any change.

I decided to respect my friend’s wishes. But she was not in reality.

Then, back at home, I got another call about my friend and learned more about the horrible conditions she was living in, unable to get to a bathroom, unable to cook or clean, unable to shower or bathe, thinking she had fed her dog when she hadn’t.

I’m not comfortable with the idea of leaving a friend alone in that condition, but it is her right to decide.

But this new information made my blood chill.

My friend could not possibly deal with her condition all alone, and it was now clear to me that she wasn’t lying so much as confused about her situation. She seemed almost in dementia, something I have seen a lot of in my volunteer work.

Maria and I just looked at each other. I think I knew then what I had to do.

She had been lying on a sofa, I was told, and through my hospice and other elderly care work, I knew what the emaciated and disconnected look on her face meant.

I called her on the phone, and she answered.

I decided to stop asking her for her permission to help her.

I told her she needed to get to a hospital, and she needed to call 911. I said if she didn’t agree, I would call the police and seek to declare her mentally incompetent.

This was a complicated decision for me. I have a Do Not Resuscitate will and other documents stating that I want no extraordinary care taken to keep me alive if I am seriously ill. Maria is prepared to be my advocate.

Our friend has no advocate.

I don’t want any hospital making decisions around me about prolonging my life by any artificial means. But that is a fight for another day for my friend, first, she has to have her suffering eased so that she can hopefully make clear-headed decisions about her life. She has a family faraway, they – and hopefully she –  will need to help decide her medical future, not me.

We can talk all we want about moral right and wrong, but when push comes to shove, the world is a gray place, never black and white, and I have to listen to my heart and my gut.

She has the right to make her own medical and life choices, but she was suffering and in great pain and alone, and her mind was not clear.

But I was very firm and very clear. Either she agreed to go, or I was calling the police.

This time, she surprised me by thanking me for calling 911 again and agreeing that she should go. I asked her to call me back when she called 911.

I waited 15 minutes and then called her back. I asked her if she had called 911 and realized she had forgotten or had been trying to fend me off.

I called 911 again and agreed to meet the ambulance crew there and told them I didn’t believe she was competent to make this decision.

When I got there, the ambulance squad – we have a great ambulance squad in our town – was already there.

The crew was beginning to try to get her into a wheelchair. That was a good sign. The impasse was over.

She looked at me – wild-eyed now – and said she would go to the hospital. She said she now remembered our conversation. She even joked a bit about how she looked.

She could not, as I suspect, walk, and she admitted that she had not been off the sofa for nearly a week.

That meant she hadn’t eaten.

The poor little dog – the two were inseparable – was hungry and distraught.

Knowing how much she loves the dog, I knew how ill she really must be if the dog had no food.

She had been lying to friends about her condition, or perhaps not conscious of it, claiming she was all right and that everything was all right. She told Maria and me the same thing today.

It was not true. It was not nearly true.

I hadn’t seen her or talked to her for some months, and was stunned at how she looked and how sick she was. I’m not sure what the boundaries are about a person’s right to decide their fate and a friend or any human’s obligation to step in when there is so much suffering and pain.

I can’t speak for others, but her condition crossed a line for me, and there was no doubt about what I knew I should do.

I was wrenching to see how hard it was to get her into the ambulance. Maria and I got home, she poured herself a glass of wine, and I drank some cranberry apple cider. I knew I had to write about this.

Maria and I helped steady her as this profound journey in her life began. Once again, I thought about how fragile life is. There had been some difficulties in our friendship, we had backed away from one another.

Once again, I wondered if I would have the time and opportunity to settle things? Once again, I had no idea. Our lives are complex, friendship is often difficult for me.

Maria thanked me again and again for stepping in; she said it brought her enormous relief.

By dusk, our friend was on the way to the hospital. I hope she gets to come home. I’m talking to a hospital social worker in the morning. A friend of hers from New Jersey is coming up to take the dog while her human is in the hospital.

I notified some of her other friends as well. She will not be alone this week.

I have great respect for the individual wishes of people, but I am glad I forcefully intervened. My friend had drifted apart in recent months, I felt close to her again.

I am relieved the dog is getting out of there for now.

Maria and I made sure the dog had food and water. It was a jarring experience for both of us and a powerful counterpoint to the quiet and meditative walk we were having with Zinnia.

Our friend and her dog are together day and night, and I shudder to think about the rough weeks ahead of the dog.

God is right, of course, life has its plans for us, and I was once again reminded to be grateful for my life, and for the days I that remain for me to live fully and meaningfully to me.

Life can intrude on anything at any time, even on an idyllic walk in the woods. I am thankful for what I have.

P.S. Our friend is in intensive care at a very good hospital, I spoke with the emergency care nurses and they expressed gratitude that she got to the hospital in time. That made me feel a lot better.



  1. It is a jarring experience just to read about this Jon. Thank you for forcefully intervening for this lady – and for making sure her dog had food and water. Thank God you were able to do something before it was too late. What a blessing you both are in this world.

  2. Jon, you often say you have difficulty with friendship but I see that isn’t really true. It’s easy to be there when it’s easy but there you were standing in the gap when it was hard and there isn’t a better friend than that. We should all be so blessed.

  3. So tough for you and Maria. You are smart to make your wishes known while you are clear headed. Had to sign dnr for my late husband. Knew what he wanted but still hard. Gave me some peace to know it was what he wanted.

  4. I have been wondering where your little angel has been-have not seen her for awhile but today I think she must have known you both were needed to help this friend.

  5. Having lost my dad two weeks ago this hit very close to home. You & Maria are good people to step in & help as best you can. And to push to get that help.

  6. Thank goodness you had the clarity and wisdom to step in. . . . so hard, in a situation like this, but the right thing, no question.

  7. What a tough situation; a hard call, but you saw what was needed, and you stepped in. You acted with love and respect for her foremost – sometimes things seem drastic, but are absolutely right. I can only hope that someone would do the same thing for me, were I in her shoes. Sending thoughts of healing, peace, and comfort for you all.

  8. Very poignant. It is a very good writing.

    I think we all see these kinds of things as black and white but when crunch time comes it can be a grey situation. What is right and wrong? Is there right and wrong in our choices for another at end life, or is there only two paths. We putter along hoping that we are taking the right one. In the end we all just do the best we can moment to moment and hope it is the right choice.

    Well done you. Not only taking the path of conscience but sharing the experience so well. It is good for those that have not gone through such things to see in advance that we all struggle with the end life choices for others we love.

  9. Jon, Another Example of your ‘Big Heart’! Thank You for intervening and making provisions for her previous dog! Kimberly

  10. Life will intervene at any given time and most of the time we are not prepared for it but we deal with it the best we can God bless you and Maria for helping this friend out in time and need you were there thank you for your love and concern for all humans and animals we love you Jon and Maria

  11. A very touching writing! You and Maria are earthly angels, seeing the need of your friend and her dog and stepping up to help. Truly a reality check for us all to make sure our family and or close friends know our end of life wishes. It’s not any easy subject by any means but it is one that needs to be talked about openly and honestly if possible. Thank you for bringing it into the light. I am sure many of us out there are thinking today.

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