It’s Tuesday, November 9th, 2010, and I am helping my sixteen-year-old dog, Foxy, navigate the four wide steps down from the kitchen to the ground-level den. I encourage him by informing him that we are going for a “Ride,” a magic word in his vocabulary. There are two doors out from the den, the front one to the driveway and the back one to the fenced-in yard. For many years now, Foxy has known that “Out” means the back door and “Ride” means the front door. At least he did up until recently. Lately, he’s been getting confused. These days, when he wants to go out, he might end up with his nose pointing into a corner of the den where there is no door. I’ll open the back door and say, “Out?” with great enthusiasm, to remind him of where it is. But most of the time, that’s not enough, and I have to go to him and gently guide him away from where he is stuck. His vision isn’t as good as it used to be, I know. But he’s not blind, not by a long stretch. It’s not his eyesight that is failing to lead him where he wants to go.
Today, I stand and say, “Ride?” and once again, he gets stymied, this time next to my desk. I guide him between the desk and the chair toward the front door, and he stops to let me click on his leash. When I open the door to the driveway, he wanders over to the nearest shrub & relieves himself, and then I pick up the other end of the leash to take him for a short walk to finish his business before we get in the car. For fifteen of his sixteen years, all I had to do was open the car door, and Foxy would take a running leap into the front passenger seat, madly wagging his curved plume of a tail. Now he backs away from the car door, unsure about what to do, until I pick him up and place him in the seat. I have to let the seat back recline so that there is room for him to stand. It’s too painful for him to sit anymore. He can only stand or, after a great deal of slow, excruciating effort to lower his hips, lie down. There is no in between. He is no longer able to keep his balance as we ride along. I try to drive slowly and take turns gradually, but I still have to rig his leash into a makeshift seat belt/harness, and put my right hand on his shoulder, so I can keep him from sliding and falling as we ride along.
As I drive, more carefully than usual, I am trying to forgive myself. Within the next hour, my veterinarian, Hank, an old friend now and one of the nicest people I know, is going to be giving Foxy an injection that will end his life. It has been sheer misery for me to arrive at this decision. My heart aches and I have been frequently on the verge of tears for weeks now, agonizing over what is the right thing, the best thing, the most compassionate thing, the most realistic thing, the most loving thing to do for my sweet, sweet ol’ guy, my buddy, my friend, my hiking partner, my guardian, my student and my teacher, my comforting, snuggly teddy bear of a pup, one of the dearest little souls I’ve ever known.
I’ve had to do this before. And that helps me make a better decision, but it doesn’t make it hurt less. In the past, when it’s come down to it, I ended up waiting until it was so obvious that my furry friend was dying and/or enduring a misery I wouldn’t wish on an enemy, that the decision was unavoidably clear. And twice, afterward, I felt like a heel because I waited too long, couldn’t face letting go, and forced my sweetie-pie to stick around long after his quality of life had begun sliding steadily downhill. Sure, hindsight is twenty-twenty. But I knew. I knew and didn’t want to believe it, wasn’t ready to step up to the plate. So, I made my fur-angel limp through months of pain or debility or organ failure until reality came up and whacked me on the head. Never again. I never, ever want to do that to an animal again.
So this time, I vowed I was not going to do it to Foxy. And I’ve kept my vow. But keeping it has required me to stare reality in the face a lot sooner, and to admit defeat in a way that has been tearing my heart to pieces. That’s not what my life has been about for the past two years. My life has been about staring reality in the face and spitting at it, weaving and dodging and cussing and kicking and persevering. And winning. Not spectacularly, not in a leaping into the end zone and scoring a touchdown kind of way. But slowly, stubbornly, often wearily. But ultimately in triumph. Because two years ago, cancer came knocking at my door, and I’m still here. So, piss on you, Cancer.
Foxy never had cancer. In a horrible sort of way, it would have been easier if he had. Cancer is such a big, ugly foe, and requires such big, ugly weapons to fight it, it’s more obvious what the choices are. Foxy didn’t have one big, ugly, dramatic problem. What he had was the blessing of a mostly wonderful, long, healthy life, mostly with me, which brought him to a very old age. According to experts, a dog of his medium size, or around 30 pounds — although he was so fluffy he always looked bigger — is at about the size that actually fits the 7-to-1 rule for calculating dog years. Which means that Foxy was about 112 years old, a canine centenarian. Considering he spent his first year as a neglected pup for six months, then as a stray who had to fend for himself for the next six months, until he found his way to me, that’s a remarkable life. Yes, Foxy had Nordic dog genes through and through — part Chow Chow, which gave him his teddy bear coat, and part Siberian Husky, those fleet, lean marathoners of the dog world — which accounts for a lot of his sheer endurance. But I also have to take some credit for giving him a place to live that life and to love him to pieces while he was doing it. Among pet owners, I know Hank would give me gold stars. But all of that didn’t keep me from feeling like a dismal failure and a despicable creep as I contemplated ending that long, precious life.
Just getting to the point where I could sit down and write this post without weeping was difficult. Finally yesterday, I was able to outline it. And, as if fate were for once giving me a compassionate pat on the back, instead of a kick in the head, I happened to listen to a radio interview with veterinary behaviorist Nicholas Dodman about his new book, Good Old Dog: Expert Advice for Keeping Your Aging Dog Healthy, Happy and Comfortable. Although Dodman’s book is largely about helping your dog live longer and better, during his interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, he also acknowledged the need to be compassionate and realistic when it comes to canine old age, and not keep your pet alive just because you can. “Some people,” he said, “I have known in the past … with cooperating vets, have just gone step after step after step, when really, you’re on a highway to nowhere.” When you’re not improving your dog’s quality of life in a significant way anymore, when you’re not able to eliminate his pain or improve his health in such a way as to enable him to regain some energy and enjoyment, and particularly when you are fighting a disease process that you cannot easily and reasonably reverse, it’s time to stop and ask yourself whether your dog is benefiting from your actions anymore.
As we entered middle age around the same time, Foxy and I both developed spinal stenosis. At first, it wasn’t too awful. We’d have some occasional misery, but with a pain reliever now and then, we were fine as long as we kept limber. We both got a little worse over time. As I was going through menopause, Foxy was having to take an anti-inflammatory more frequently. We both started taking supplements. But we were both still capable at a moment’s notice of a good, long jaunt of several miles, if not the Iditarod. Two years ago, when I was home recovering from my partial mastectomy, a friend from Boston came down for a visit and the three of us decided to enjoy the beautiful weather and go for a walk on the local bike path, a lovely wooded walkway that crossed my street not far from my house. After only about a mile, or twenty minutes, I noticed that Foxy had started to limp. We all rested for a while, but Foxy was still uncomfortable so we decided to turn back for home. About twenty feet down the path, it was clear that Foxy was not going to make it easily. I also knew that he would not let Nancy carry him more than a few feet. So, with an abdominal binder around my chest, and a gel cold pack stuffed over my beleaguered right breast, I slung him over my left shoulder. When we got back to the road, a neighbor I’d never met before stopped her car and insisted on giving us a ride the rest of the way.
He was not the same after that. Hank suggested a daily dose of medication and a stronger one. Fortunately, the medication went generic so it was finally affordable. Meanwhile, I was casting about to figure out why I still felt like a dishrag months after cancer treatment was over. Foxy and I seemed once again to be going through a similar passage. We had both slowed down a lot and were having a tough time getting better. We’d manage only very short walks together at first, and have to sleep for the rest of the day afterward. Gradually, we managed to get up to about two miles, but I noticed that, for the first time in fifteen years of having a tough time keeping up with Foxy, Foxy was now having a difficult time keeping up with me. When one of my cats, Foxy’s pal Chloe, died shortly after my first post-cancer Christmas, he didn’t know what to do with himself for weeks. He became restless at night, and more needy. Walking together, connected by his leash, became a chore, only good for short walks near the house. The only way our differing cadences wouldn’t bother us both was if I took him to an old cemetery by the river where he could walk off leash as slowly as he wanted, while I trotted along trying to get some endurance back. Foxy had always been the one to literally run circles around me. For every mile I walked, he’d run about three, coming back to find me after going off on a tangent. Now our roles were reversed, and it was I who had to double back and go find him poking along. We visited Hank; we tried a different arthritis medication, different supplements. And steadily, inexorably, Foxy continued to slow down.
The Big Decision began to loom. I kept wanting to ignore it, but I knew that I needed to pay attention, to begin to observe Foxy as objectively as I could, to assess whether he was really getting enough joy out of life to outweigh his decreasing mobility. Then the ugly nights started. At least once a week, Foxy would have a night when no matter what he or I did, he could not get comfortable. It would take him a heart-breakingly long time to lower his hind quarters down on the bed. And only a few minutes after he had settled down, he’d be up again, sometimes standing for several minutes longer than he’d been lying down, whimpering softly, looking at me and sometimes yapping out loud in frustration. I’d get up, I’d help him off the bed and through the kitchen so he wouldn’t skid and fall on the slippery wood floor, then half-carry him down the four steps and guide him to the back door and out. As likely as not, he didn’t need to pee, and he’d just amble to a corner of the patio and stop at a flower pot or a chair, unable to figure out how to get around it. After a few minutes, I’d go out and guide him all the way back. On the ugly nights, this would repeat itself several times until one night, at 3:00 a.m., after he’d woken me up several times, I cried my eyes out in desperation, knowing it was time, maybe past time. His pain was never gone, no matter what I gave him. He was beginning to show signs of a kind of canine dementia. He never came to greet me at the door anymore when I came home. He was not the Foxy I knew. He was an old, tired, suffering dog, and I couldn’t make him all better.
The ride to Hank’s office seems both too short and too long at once. But at last, we arrive for Foxy’s last appointment, and I am happy to see that my favorite vet tech, Theresa, whom I’ve known now for close to 20 years, is there and will be helping us. My friend Jenny arrives a short time later, so she can keep me company afterward, as Hank is getting set up. Foxy can’t stand up on the treatment table without his feet sliding out from under him, so Theresa gets an old blanket, and I help him lie down. I have my arms around him, cradling his head and stroking his side. Hank gives him a relaxant first, so that he will be comfortable and restful when he administers the drug to euthanize him. I am chattering and goofy, which is unlike me, and I realize it’s my nerves. I shut up and lean over to be closer to Foxy. Hank begins the final drug, which is a pink, translucent liquid. Suddenly I think about all the cats that Foxy has outlived, his pals Velcro, Lucky and Chloe. I tell him that soon he will get to see them again, and that undoes me. I choke up, missing all of them, reliving the loss of all of them, as Hank checks Foxy’s heart with a stethoscope. “His heart has stopped,” he says quietly. I lean over and kiss him on my favorite spot, the middle of the soft, flat bridge of his nose. “He’s gone to the Rainbow Bridge,” I think someone says. I look at him, limp in my arms, and I know instantly I’ve done the right thing. I cry. I am shattered, relieved, numb, exhausted and lightened, all at the same time. And I know that Foxy and I have finally found peace again.
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