Fri 5 Dec 2008
Ack! I am no good at this, I realized yesterday. Saying goodbye to friends. Even on the phone–I have trouble. I find myself taking up new topics when it comes time to hang up, making new plans and arrangements to get together, as if saying “goodbye” is just the very hardest thing. I do this even when I’m the one who wants to end things, even when I’m late to something else, even when I’m going to see the person soon.
It’s kind of a curse.
And so I have been good friends with this dog for twelve years and nine months. We got him when he was nine months old, a darling golden retriever puppy who had flunked out of championship school due to a bad hip, and was just looking for some family to play with. He immediately showed himself to be a lovable clown, tracking down dirty tissues in the trash, going completely bananas with exuberance whenever we would come home, taking us on fun, highly aerobic, merry chases/hikes through the woods. He was a snuggler who just had to be on the couch with us, or finding his 75 pound way onto our laps, unlike our previous dog, who didn’t much want to be in the same room with us. And he was, as somebody described him, “drop-dead gorgeous.” And so lovable and calm and kind that my nine-year-old called him “Jesus in a dog suit.”
Yesterday he came to a calm, quiet end. After an illness that left him dizzy and blind, lame and weak, we had to take him to have him put down.
You never know when the right time for this kind of thing is, I realize. I went on the internet and typed into google, “How do I know when it’s time to put my dog down” and there were hundreds of stories of people grappling with this problem, and all kinds of opinions. The one that guided me the best was from Jon Katz, in a column he wrote in Slate, which was subtitled: “How to make a decision you never want to make.”
Among the wrenching stories, was this bit of wisdom:
It is the nature of dogs to live much shorter lives than ours—just eight years, on average—and it has always been my belief that to love and own a dog is to understand and accept that along with loyalty, love, and devotion come the ever-present specters of grief and loss. This is as integral a part of the dog-loving experience as going for walks.
There’s no Idiot’s Guide for this question, no handbook. The many points of view are strongly held. One vet I know says a dog should be euthanized “when it can no longer live the life of a dog—and only the owner knows when that really is.” A breeder says she puts her dogs down when “their suffering exceeds their ability to take pleasure in life.” A trainer I respect believes her dog should live as long as it can eat.
Another friend and dog lover says she always knows when it’s time: “when the soul goes out of their eyes.”
I looked over at my poor dog, who had not ventured from his bed in hours, who stumbled and fell and bumped into things whenever he tried to get up, and whose eyes were cloudy and filled with pain.
He was not living the life of a dog. And his suffering clearly seemed to exceed his ability to take pleasure. As far as the soul in his eyes, I wasn’t sure about that. He always had a soulful look about him.
A week ago, a friend of mine, a hospice nurse who lost her golden retriever years ago and still gets all teary when she thinks about him, said to me, “You have to consider if you’re keeping him around just for you.” She said it was okay if I was, no one would fault me for that, she said, but that I should start to think about letting go a little bit.
Yesterday, though, was the day. I spent the day with Jordie. He slept most of the time, and I sat beside him working on my novel and talking to him. I listened to music, he slept. At dinnertime, I gave him cream cheese (his very favorite thing) and he licked it off my fingers and then, even when the cream cheese was gone, he licked my fingers for a long, sad time. When my husband came home from work, we took him outside and let him go to the bathroom, and then we put him in the backseat of the car, on his favorite towel. I petted him while we drove to the vet.
It was quick and calm and peaceful. The worst part was that he had to be at the veterinary hospital, a place I imagine that he does not like much, even though he never reacts one way or the other. We carried him inside, and we and the vet and the assistant all petted him and talked to him, and then they gave him the injection while my husband and I cradled him, and I watched as he gradually just relaxed his body and all the tension went out of his face, and the vet said, “He’s gone.”
My friend Lily, who writes the wonderful blog, Bloglily, wrote to me in an email the other day something that I read again when I came home yesterday afternoon with my heart just so full it felt as though it would burst apart:
The thing about
being a dog owner is that they never become independent of you, and
that you care for them through every phase of their lives, including
almost always, their deaths and it is the hardest thing humans have
to do, I think, to bear that with their beloved dog and to make the
difficult decisions about this, knowing they will be separating
themselves from all that love because it is the right thing to do.
It’s the last gift you give to your dog, that kind of caretaking, and
it is heartbreaking to have to do it. But it is fair and right,
given what they mean to us.
And that is what is getting me through. So, please. Go kiss your doggies for me.