My dog died this past Thursday morning. She was 10-years old.
After my mother died in February of 2017, I feel silly for mourning the death of a pet. I feel like the loss of a pet pales in comparison to the loss of a parent but that kind of thinking is harmful. Death in whatever form is difficult.
I struggled with the decision of euthanasia. Back in 2013, when my cat Micki had kidney failure, her vet pressed for euthanasia. I spent five hours at the vet, pacing around the waiting room, calling every Tom, Dick, and Harry I knew trying to weigh their personal opinion. The bag was mixed. If I didn’t put her down, I was selfish. If I did put her down, I felt guilty.
I was raised in a household where all of my childhood pets died naturally. Sometimes, they did in our arms — like Shadow and Micki Mouse. Other times, they died alone – like Benji – underneath the dining room table, only to be discovered an hour later that he wasn’t breathing. Not once did my parents even contemplate the use of euthanasia.
I argued that if I grew up in a household that made those bold choices, then perhaps, I would have tackled Tykie’s cancer diagnosis differently. But for as often as I toyed with the idea or listened to my father, my mother-in-law or my best friend tell me to do “what was right by the animal,” I couldn’t. She didn’t have a bad quality of life. At least, she didn’t show it.
I took her to the vet on an early Tuesday morning in September when she was diagnosed with a stroke. I was sitting at my computer desk and saw Tykie’s body collapse. Her eyes began to twitch. We spent four or five hours at the vet and Tykie endured three blood tests, an X-ray and intense examination. At the end of the exam, our vet said she had either brain cancer or a stroke but that she showed more signs of a stroke than anything else. I couldn’t afford an MRI for clarification and even if I could, I didn’t have the money to afford regular chemotherapy treatments. The vet’s advice was to keep her comfortable until she went. But it was the kind of news I’d expect a senior dog to get.
For the first couple of weeks, she acted like herself. She ran in the backyard, ate a bunch of food, drank a slew of water. She wanted cuddles and to be up on the couch, sprawled out between the pillows. She jumped up on the bed. She wagged her tail when I walked in from work.
And then, in early December, she had difficulty going to the bathroom. We struggled, standing outside for close to an hour until she went. As the days went on, she didn’t want to go outside. When we did, she’d lay on the ground in the bitter cold and we’d try everything to get her up. We discovered that if we removed her leash, she’d get up and run. So, we worked with this until her motivation stopped.
One night, as I crouched down outside beside her, our next-door neighbors walked outside and asked us what was wrong. I told them that she had a stroke and how our vet told us there was nothing we could do during her natural demise. But then they offered up their personal vet and advised us to visit them.
She had an appointment the next day and my husband carried her into the appointment. She underwent another thorough examination. And the vet said that radiology wasn’t necessary; she diagnosed with her cancer. She had all the signs of it. For the second time in a row, a vet told us all we could do was make her comfortable.
When Tykie came home there was a sense of relief and sadness. We had a correct diagnosis, but it wasn’t the one we wanted. The vet put her on steroids and I foolishly flocked to PetMD to find out the prognosis. Steroids had the potential to extend a dog’s life by one or two months. As soon as I closed my internet browser, I begged with God to let her at least make it to Christmas.
Christmas morning, I hung up our stockings and filled hers with bones and treats. She ate them ravenously. She played with her toys. I took as many pictures of her as possible because I knew it was going to be her last Christmas. By Christmas, though, she was a better version of herself. She ate. She drank. She ran. She played. She slept. She wagged her tail. She got down on all fours, ready to pounce and play.
And then during the first week in February, she started acting strange. One night as my husband was holding her, she defecated on the floor. When we laid down her plate of food, she turned her head. When I came home from work, I found her hiding beneath the entertainment center or our bed. And then she stopped walking.
We knew it was time. And like clockwork, the conversation of euthanasia went down. But as soon as we started to discuss it, Tykie lifted her head and ate her entire plate of food. When we woke up the next morning, she wagged her tail. She drank her water. She ate her food.
It was so difficult to make a firm decision because of how hard she fought. Every time we’d seen her down, she’d fight her way to become the dog she used to be. Was putting her down when she had so much fight left in her the right thing?
Wednesday night, we came home and found her hiding between the couch and our ottoman. We picked her up and laid her down in the center of the living room and noticed for the first time that her head was shaking. That ugly conversation reared its head again and for the first time, my husband said, “I think she might be in pain.”
Identifying pain was difficult throughout her diagnosis when she acted like herself, or ate all her food or played with all her toys. Dogs aren’t like people. They don’t have the ability to tell you when it’s time, or when they want to end it. All they can do is give off signs and for the first time, Wednesday night, she gave us one.
What she didn’t give us was time.
Every day this week, my husband and I drank our morning coffee in bed. But on Thursday morning, we drank our coffee in the living room. We talked about a multitude of things: our co-workers, our friends and our plans to move to Florida. Midway through the conversation, we circled back to Tykie and I announced, quite profoundly that I was ready. About ten minutes later, John walked into the bedroom and found her dead.
A lot of emotions flooded me as I raced into the bedroom to find her body, but the strongest out of all of them was love. I held her in my arms and told her I loved her. When I placed her back down, I placed her down so gently as if I was avoiding hurting her. It reminded me of the moments before the funeral director closed my mother’s casket. At her funeral, my father rested his old pair of glasses in her casket. The glasses represented their 38-year long relationship. They were the ones he wore on the day they found out I was ready to leave the NICU. For me, I had written her a letter several days before her funeral. I laid that and a large-font note I had written her when I was five; I felt like I had brought our relationship full circle with all the words I could use to describe our relationship. The last thing I put in there was a plaque I had bought her two months prior that read “world’s greatest mom.” The plaque toppled over on her cheek as he tried to close the casket and I quickly grabbed it, laying it down on her side so the jagged edges wouldn’t hurt her. I laid Tykie down in the same way.
Later in the evening, my husband brought her to my dad’s house to bury her. It was the home where she spent the majority of her life. It was the home where Benji was buried. And Shadow. And where her long-gone feline mate, Micki was. My husband buried her with all of them.
It’s only been a day and a half and the two of us are feeling all sorts of grief-related emotions. I yelled at our cat, Jeanette when she wouldn’t stop kneading me to wake me up. He yelled at our other cat, Oscar when he dug his claws in his knee as he tried to lift him off his lap to reposition himself. I even got annoyed at our dog, Bella, for not showing any emotion over Tykie’s lifeless body. We left Tykie’s plate of food in the center of the living room and the puppy pad she laid on in case she had to go to the bathroom while we weren’t home. We woke up today feeling miserable and lethargic and empty. When I walked in from work yesterday, the house didn’t feel like it was whole. When John got home, he broke down. And then this morning, he closed the bathroom door and took a bath.
I almost feel silly being this upset over the death of a dog when I’ve endured so much more intense pain and trauma. And then I feel angry for thinking that I have to minimize my grief. I had my dog for almost 11-years. What part of this has to be easy?
Tykie saw me through two marriages and multiple zip codes. She saw me through the loss of my mother and the new cancer diagnosis plaguing my father. She saw me through battles and accomplishments. She saw me through the evolution of my life while I was fortunate enough to witness the evolution of hers. And all I can continue to rationalize is that death is never going to be easy. Even when it’s expected.
Sadness and relief can co-exist. My friend texted me that on Thursday morning in response to me telling her how I felt. I feel a sense of relief and sadness. I feel relief, first and foremost, that she’s free. But then I also feel relief from not having to worry or the stress associated with wondering what the right thing to do was. I feel relief that I can put objects back on the floor and that I can finally cleanse my rug from the scent of lingering urine.
What I feel the saddest about is that I lost the dog that over the course of 10, almost 11 years, was my friend. I miss seeing her wide-eyed expression or her excitement when she walked outside. I miss her standing on her hind legs and resting her two front paws on my lap. I miss her kissing me excessively to the point where it got annoying. I miss walking in my house and greeting Tyke and Bella, because for the first time in 10 – almost 11 years – I’m finally saying Bella’s name alone.
The death of a pet isn’t the same as the death of a person. In five years, the pain and sadness I feel right now will more than likely be replaced by fond memories as it has for every other pet I’ve lost throughout my life. But five years from now, the pain of losing my mom will continue to carry the same weight.
I feel that if I didn’t lose a parent already, then maybe I’d be more okay feeling my sadness instead of trying to remind myself that I’ve had it worse. But I’m not too shy to admit that I’m struggling with that. I hate the process of grieving. I hate the process of feeling so much pain and having no choice but to FEEL it. I hate having to go through the emotions of anger, but I know I have to FEEL angry because I am. How could I not be?
I remember last weekend holding up Tykie’s leash as she walked around and thinking about how it’d be nice to take them for a walk. And as I put it off, I remember saying to my husband, “I should stop putting stuff off. What if by next weekend she can’t walk?” It was like I had manifested my biggest fear.
But that’s the life lesson here: do not put off the moments when you think of them. I don’t have regret for not taking her on that last walk because she had so many walks throughout her life. One chilly weekend was a decent enough reason to forgo it. But, it’s important to push forward and do the things when you want to do them – whatever they may be.
Because at the end of the day, life is short. All we have are moments.
Cherish yours wisely.