Bonus Round

September 5, 2017

This summer, our seventeen-year-old poodle Ben, Ana’s companion and personal Secret Service agent (of whom I have written here and here), took a turn for the worse.

It had been coming for months. Back at the turn of the year, we’d had a growth removed from his toe, and a biopsy confirmed the worst fears. Melanoma. The surgeon, who is awesome in every way (and reminds us so much of Bob Burg that it’s almost eerie), told us he was quite sure he got it all. Still, he said, the odds were heavily slanted toward the disease recurring, in a more insidious and systemic form, within six months.

We were told we should expect the worst.

So we immediately began expecting the best.

One of our secret weapons is our dog food. It took Ana and I years to work out the formula (and by “Ana and I,” I mean Ana), but man, have we worked it out. For our two four-legged guys we cook what has to be some of the healthiest dog food on the planet. Grass-fed lamb roast, pressure-cooked with a prodigious amount of seaweed (dulse and kombu), then ground and mixed with a great pile of our own patented steamed doggie-mirepoix: organic heirloom carrots, celery, green beans, yams. Plus, the finishing touch, finely chopped parsley (superiorly beneficial for the kidneys).

Most black poodles we know have hair that’s gone mostly white by the time they reach our guys’ age. Ben and Toby are still 90–95% black-haired. (The seaweed. Gotta be the seaweed.)

Great food. Tender care. A lot of love.

All was good.

Then one day Ben started acting odd. He would go off and sit in the closet, or in the bathroom. Just sit, like he didn’t want to be disturbed. And he started being less and less inclined to eat.

In July, Ana and I took a few weeks at a beautiful little getaway casita in New Mexico. We brought Ben. He was still doing his sitting-in-the-closet thing. Then he started having a hard time sleeping at night. Instead of lying down, he would sit up. For hours. Wouldn’t eat. We grew worried.

I took off to Houston for a few days to shoot video footage with my buddy Chef Charles Carroll (for promotion for our new book, The Recipe). My first evening there, I got a call from a fairly frantic Ana.

Ben had gotten a lot worse. She had found something inside his mouth that she was pretty sure was a tumor. He wasn’t eating at all now. The vet she got on the phone was saying it was over, that she should have him put down and not prolong his suffering. She didn’t know, she told me, if he’d still be with us but the time I got home from my trip.

That night Ana went to bed in New Mexico in tears, and I drifted off, quietly weeping, in Houston.

And then, the next day, something amazing happened.

A different vet encouraged Ana to find an animal hospital there in the New Mexico city where we were staying and get Ben over there right away to get examined. She did. The vet at the hospital had an unexpected diagnosis. That wasn’t a tumor in his mouth. It was an abscessed tooth.

They X-rayed him.

He had really, really bad arthritis in his spine.

So that was why he was sitting in the closets. He hurt. Bad tooth; inflamed spine.

And not a trace of melanoma.

It took a few days and a few false starts to find the regimen of medications that worked: an anti-inflam that didn’t upset his stomach (for his back), an antibiotic he could tolerate (for his tooth), and a pain med he could manage.

He started eating. He started sleeping. He stopped hiding in the closet.

And I thought about the novelist, Stephen King.

On June 19, 1999, King was out taking a walk in his Maine neighborhood when he was slammed into by a van driven by a gentleman who happily confessed that he wasn’t even vaguely watching where he was going. King was smashed to pieces, and recovery looked as hopeless as hopeless can look. Yet recover he did, and here we are, eighteen years (and many, many Stephen King novels) later.

King says he and his wife, Tabitha, call these years their “bonus round.”

That’s what Ana and I are having right now with Benny. Our bonus round.

We couldn’t be happier.

When we returned to the East Coast, our vet here in Florida suggested a little laser therapy to ease the inflammation in his spine. We’ve been doing it ever since, every few days. It has been remarkable.

That first day of laser work, they put goggles on him to protect his eyes, and we got a few snapshots. (At top, posing as Neil Gaiman; above, channeling Hunter S. Thompson.)

Looking at the pictures, you can get the sense he’s pretty happy about his bonus round, too.

How long will this blessed epilogue last? We don’t know.

How long does any of it last?

For that matter, how is it that we’re here in the first place, alive, breathing in this air, walking through this amazing existence? The longer I live, the more a miracle it seems.

When you stop to look, savor, and marvel, isn’t it all a bonus round?


  1. Beverly Bellmore

    Yes, yes it is! I should have perished in any number of crazy things I decided to do and some I had no control over but here I am. Life is good. It was great to hear the whole story from your perspective. I was speaking to Ana about Benny on the phone when she was in New Mexico. I felt he wasn’t ready yet to pass on (and clearly Ana wasn’t ready either) and the naysayers were jumping the gun a little too aggressively. I know because I’ve been there three times in my life, so far. That’s with pets. Twice with parents. Life is good and worthy to be lived to it’s fullest. I’m so glad the little guy got to have his bonus round. Many blessings on you, Ana and Benny and Toby.

    • John David Mann

      Oh thank you, Bev! And thank you for being there for Ana. Having to be away from her right at that critical moment made it all even worse. (But then, all of that now makes it all that much sweeter!)

  2. Dondi Scumaci

    Bonus rounds are FABULOUS! I am so happy for Ben and for you and Ana. What a wonderful story. Much love from our house to yours.

    • John David Mann

      Thanks, dear Dondi — no one knows the lovely hearts of these little (and big!) creatures better than you!

  3. Josephine Gross

    Love this story and how much you love your furry children, so sweet!
    When we dwell in love, we create heaven on earth.

    • John David Mann

      Beautifully said. Heaven on earth, indeed. Next year Bob and I are putting out another parable in the Go-Giver series, and it focuses on a young man who runs a natural pet food company. It’s called, “Angels Clothed in Fur.”

  4. Bob Burg

    I read this article with a heavy heart…even knowing the outcome was a happy one. Ben is such a special little guy and I know how much you and Ana love him. Even the thought of him suffering is painful to think about. I love both pictures of him but especially the one of him smiling with his tongue stuck out, next to his also-smiling Mommy. Thank you for a wonderful post and another great lesson!

  5. Whitney Ryan

    Oh my goodness, WHAT a beautiful post! I absolutely love the idea of a bonus round. It completely changes the scenario from one that’s dark and heavy into light-filled and fun. Makes it much easier to be grateful for the “extra” time.

    Thanks for sharing this re-frame, JDM! As a fellow black poodle owner, I see my dog in Ben and am starting the bonus round mentality now.

    Also, is it weird that my mouth was watering a little reading about how Ana prepares their food?? I hope your dogs appreciate their gourmet lifestyle. 😉

    • John David Mann

      Oh, they do, they do! And that food … not weird at all. It’s delicious. I would serve it to guests (human ones, I mean) without feeling a blinker of compunction. (Is that a thing? a blinker of something? Is that like a blink of a beaker?)

      Thanks, Whit! Coming from you, that’s high praise. (Others reading this: Whitney is a masterful writer herself. Go see her website for a master class in online personality.)


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