A very early morning. An antiseptic room in a vet clinic. My two male housemates in rumpled sweats rubbing sleep out of their eyes. Our fourth housemate’s aged, lame, incontinent Yorkie quivering on the examining table – a tiny spot of warmth against an expansive cold metal surface. My emotions cycling rapidly between sadness for my friend and her dog, guilt at what we were doing while she was out of the country, and terror that she would resent me forever even though her dad, not I, had made the final decision. The other-worldly quiet as we three stood there, my hand on the dog as she took her last breaths. These are the flashes of memories that have stayed with me from putting my best friend’s childhood dog down.
Fast forward 13 years…and now it is my own geriatric dog whose pains feed my nightmares. We almost didn’t get J. My condition for our moving to Los Angeles years ago was that we get a dog. I’d never had pets as a kid, and this was my chance! So after settling in, we started checking out shelters. D discovered J at a nearby shelter and fell instantly in love, but J was already promised to another family. D kept visiting and pleading with the shelter staff. But no luck – the other family took J home. Then, a week later, the shelter called. “The family returned him. We’ve got a waitlist a mile long for this dog, including a very wealthy patron. But we know how much you want him. So if you can pick him up within the hour, he’s yours.” I flew out of work and made it just in time.
Even though J is now somewhere around 11 years old (being a rescue, we don’t know his exact age), people meeting him for the first time often assume he’s much younger. He’s frisky, alert, speedy, prone to give kisses, apt to chase squirrels, and always happy to perform tricks and tussle with kids. So I never gave much thought to J getting older. To what that meant. Until last December…
“Your dog is in heart failure.” “Say what?” was the first thing that went through my mind. I’d brought him to the vet because he was coughing. Heart failure was not the diagnosis I expected to hear. “It’s a good thing you brought him in now,” the vet continued. “Untreated, he wouldn’t have lasted more than six months.” “Say what?” my brain numbly repeated.
We were just getting used to the 5 pills a day needed to manage his heart condition – and adjusting to more-than-doubling his daily walks because of the meds’ diuretic effects – when life threw us another curveball. J returned from a routine Sunday morning romp in the yard a completely different dog. The sudden severity and persistence of his behavior change was so bizarre that straight to the ER vet we went. “I think it’s likely a herniated disc” the vet said over the noisy chattering of our 3yo. “Since his heart condition precludes surgery,” she went on, “if he doesn’t respond to treatment a humane thing would be to put him down.” Say what?!
Multiple rounds of even more pills, lots more trips to both the regular & cardiac vet, many weeks of doggie bedrest, one sprained paw, and another veterinary ER visit for aspirating food later, J is still hanging in there. For the most part, he acts like his normal plucky self. But it’s clear to me, our dog is old.
J is such a part of our family, a fixture in our lives, I don’t want to even think about the day J is no longer around. When our kids talk about our family, they always include him as a family member along with the four of us. The recent passing of our dear Cousin Lou precipitated our talking to them about death, and we’ve used it as an intro to begin talking about how J is a very very very old dog. Still, I do not relish the day we have to tell our kids their daily playmate and beloved family member is gone. I hope that day is still years away, but the past 6 months have made the coming of that day very real.
When it does, I hope we’ll have the grace to do what some close friends did when their dog recently passed – take the day off from work and school and spend it sharing memories about J and what he meant to us. In our Jewish tradition, this is akin to sitting shiva. And setting aside time to focus on mourning the loss of a beloved family member, even if he’s a four-legged one, seems most appropriate.
Have you faced a pet’s mortality? How have you coped? How have you helped your kids understand?
This post is dedicated to the memory of the many beloved pets of friends who have recently passed away, most especially Tess.