I started the car, day one of my suddenly altered life. I no longer had to lower the volume on the stereo to keep from blasting Rufus out of the back seat. There was no need for that second trip to the driveway when I got home, to carry him inside. I noted the sudden uselessness of the tie-out chain as I climbed the porch stairs, empty-handed, and the unnecessary gate blocking his entry to the broken-fenced backyard. The newly prominent food and water bowls no longer serve any purpose, nor the three beds in the living room, nor two in the bedroom (he slept in more beds than George Washington).
No one followed me when I went upstairs to change, or came to stare at me when I sat down to have a midnight snack, hoping he’d get some (he usually did). There was no need to prepare his nightly pill regimen, or to let him out, usually twice, before bedtime. The bedroom door could remain open, and I didn’t have to be sensitive to my laughter during the Big Bang Theory, thinking it might disturb his sleep. I could even have a yogurt while watching TV without him getting up after he had finally settled in, to lick the container. This new-found freedom is both liberating and awful, a constant reminder of how things are different now.
The canine supplements I ordered can be sent back to Amazon when they intrusively arrive later this week. No such luck on the giant bag of new dog food I just switched Rufus to yesterday. At least he liked it, I console myself, and for unknown reason I had even added some wet food, something he loved but rarely got (too fattening). He scarfed it down eagerly, both of us unaware that it was his last meal.
I didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye, but I know that wouldn’t have made this any easier. These things always feel sudden and unfair, no matter the prep time. I had left him hurriedly this morning after serving his meds in a peanut-buttered piece of bread, and oddly can’t remember what I said to him when I left – or leaving him at all. He had a follow-up appointment at the vet’s in the afternoon, which my parents, who have helped me care for him for five years now, brought him to while I was at work. I knew he didn’t seem well the past few days, but he’d had some off and on health issues and I figured he was just suffering the unkind ravages of old age. I left a note to let them and the vet know what I’d observed, in case it was important, and left him alone in the kitchen. The last thing I expected was that I’d never see him again.
In late afternoon I was going to check in with my folks to see how Rufus made out, but had gotten endlessly sidetracked at work. Shortly afterward, there was a call for me on 101 – no doubt an employee or a customer with a problem. It was the vet. The vet never called me at work. Initially there was talk of sending him to a specialty care facility out of state, but when my mom got on the phone, crying, I was confused. Apparently, the specialty facility was grasping at straws. His organs had started to fail, and she revealed the awful reality – they were also suggesting putting him down.
For the next ten minutes I negotiated some torturous and unwelcome decisions while stupefied, trying to keep it together enough to even speak (I was taking the call in public, at the front registers). I tried to interpret the true meaning of the vet’s delicately rendered options. There was so much to consider: his quiet suffering; my folks’ hapless position; my demanding schedule and the approaching weekend; the cost of specialty emergency care that may be of little help; whether I wanted to be there; whether to opt for an injection that might keep him stable through the night, buying me some time, and, just as importantly, allowing me to selfishly see him once more. But what an awful night that would be for both of us. No, last night, when we shared a banana yogurt together, was to be our last – and I’m very glad I didn’t know that.
I made the gravest decision anyone can make and gave the irrevocable approval to end his life. I hung up the phone and headed for the privacy of the office with a look on my face that I’m sure my service clerk had never seen on me before. Thirty miles away, a candle was being lit in the waiting room of All Friends Animal Hospital as all present were asked to observe a moment of silence for my dog.
In the end, the guilt is the worst. I had been frustrated with Rufus of late as he became increasingly high maintenance. I’m not particularly well-suited to being a caretaker. I don’t have the patience. I got annoyed when he wouldn’t come inside, when he would just stand sheepishly and stare, when he’d be overly willful. It got tiresome taking him out to pee so often (he drank tons of water, probably due to the meds he was on), especially after a long day at work when the introvert in me demanded some down time. But I didn’t know how bad he was feeling, and he couldn’t tell me. I wish I had been more understanding, but in truth, I probably had the patience of a saint with him. How could you not when he was so damn cute?
Overall, was I a good master? I rarely took him for walks, though his Grampa did, and he loved it. I was pretty selfish by nature, yet he always licked my face when I carried him, upside-down and cradled in my arms, into the house every night and whispered in his ear. It was our daily bonding moment. I had adopted him five years ago when he was ten, an aging rescue dog who I figured would be fairly lethargic and generally low-maintenance. Instead, he was relatively active and craved constant companionship. Since I live alone and work full-time, this was a problem. However, thanks to my retired parents, he was very rarely by himself. So I know we gave him a good life, even if I didn’t particularly like walking around the neighborhood as much as he did. I compromised by fencing in the yard for him, and he loved to lay out on the deck in the sunshine and survey his adopted domain. Maybe this new guy’s alright, he seemed to be thinking. I’m think I’m going to like it here.
The house screams with stillness tonight, and everything looks different. The dog paraphernalia seems to be everywhere, and nothing else holds any meaning. His absence transforms the place from being a home to just a house, a building filled with stuff. It was only me and him here, and my daily routine (and that of my folks) revolved around him heavily. Every day I dropped him off at day care before work (their house), and then picked him up again at night. On my ten-hour days this was not always convenient, yet it was hours after his death before I even realized that this was no longer a stop I had to make. There would be no sleepy dog to help in to the back seat of the car any longer.
The pill bottles. The toys he rarely played with but that I kept buying him anyway. His pictures covering the refrigerator door. The empty yogurt container on the bedroom floor. The echoes of my long-suffering companion’s existence shout from every corner. I can’t yet bring myself to read the many caring condolences of friends on Facebook, where Rufus had his own page and would make wry doggie observations from time to time. When I posted the news of his passing on my own page – probably the hardest thing I did all day – I said that there were no words to express my feelings. Turns out, I had that backwards. Rufus is the one who expressed his feelings without words, often in the appreciative fashion shown below.