Recently, one of my sisters and several of my friends have been forced to reach the painful conclusion that it was time to put a beloved dog down.
It’s such a heartbreaking thing, so hard to know when the time is right. You never want the dog to get to a point of suffering, but how on earth do you bring yourself to make such a decision before there is suffering? So it is a process of looking for that moment when it becomes clear that the most humane thing to do is to say goodbye.
I am always amazed at the way we soldier on, going back to work, finishing the laundry, getting done all the things that need to get done. It can only be because we are told that this is what we should do, that it’s not that big a deal because it’s just a dog. But it’s not just a dog. It’s a child, a best friend, a confidant. Always there to lick away the tears after a lost job, a divorce, the death of a parent. Thrilled beyond belief each and every time you walk in the door. So loyal, so genuine, so loving, so smart.
It seems they deserve more of an observation of their exit from our lives than simply a quiet appointment at the vet and a return to work.
I remember sitting in 8th grade Social Studies, a hulk of a teacher with a James Earl Jones voice, who intimidated the heck out of 8th graders by his mere presence, staring me down. He was waiting for an answer to a question I hadn’t heard, because I had spent the whole period watching the clock, knowing that Skipper, the German Shepherd I had received as a puppy on my fifth birthday, was being put to sleep at any minute. I was willing time to come to a halt, finding it hard to breathe, so desperate was I for something magical to happen….an earthquake, a flat tire, a mix-up at the vet….anything that would save her. I remember it like it was yesterday, and it was almost 30 years ago.
When the time came to face the reality of losing Pirate, I didn’t sleep for weeks, both before and after. I had been giving her IV fluids every other day for a year to flush the toxins from her failing kidneys, and she was just worn out from it all. Tired. But she was my best friend. (My best human friend asked me once, “If Pirate and I were hanging off a cliff and you could only save one of us….” She still holds my answer against me.)
I loved Pirate with everything I had, and I had to voluntarily let her go. It was excruciating, and it hurt worse than I can express, probably impossible to understand for anyone who has not had a similar relationship with an animal. I love them all, but she was just different. I have the same connection with Petunia now (because Pirate sent her to me, if you’ve been following along) and I hate knowing that I will outlive her, maybe by decades.
I have the good fortune of a phenomenal vet, who does everything he can to prolong their lives, and then goes above and beyond by coming to my home to put them down when we reach a point of inevitability. They are surrounded by the rest of their pack, completely at ease in their own environment, comfortable. I am able to hold them tightly; free to look like the wreck that I am and to sob openly when they go.
I’m sure you’ve heard the story of the little boy, who, when his dog was put to sleep, explained to the vet that it was okay, because we’re all here on this earth to take a journey toward becoming better souls, and dogs live shorter lives because they don’t have far to go.
To those of you who have lost a friend recently, I have been thinking of you. That in its own way is an observance of these lives, I suppose. They were all fortunate dogs, because you are all wonderful people.