The most lovable pain in the butt I ever knew

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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.

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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.

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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.

Rufus bandana lying

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.

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Remember What Has Passed Between Us

“Remember what has passed between us.”

Jacob Marley to Ebeneezer Scrooge, A Christmas Carol, 1843

My dog died yesterday, and part of me died with him. I never realized how much warmth he added to my life until I had to end his. I never thought about being without him until he suddenly had to leave me. He was pure love; a kind, gentle soul with an endearing personality that you couldn’t help but admire. He was so sensitive that if he picked up on the slightest hint of anger he would leave the room.  If I sighed in disgust at something or, god forbid, had an emotional reaction while playing cards (I’m a poor loser), off he’d go. I don’t know how to make sense of my world without him.  Yesterday was the hardest day of my life.

It was a tough week. Marley’s downward slide started abruptly a few months ago. All along I believed he would get better, or at least not get worse. He had a cancerous growth removed successfully, and was fine afterward. Then, a few weeks later, he started to have trouble walking. A dog of his size who can’t walk is a definite problem. After many tests, the doctors weren’t entirely sure what the trouble was. They put him on medication, and with this he managed to get around alright, with occasional help from me. Some days were better than others. Occasionally we could take our long walks like we used to. He liked that. I’d listen to a Dickens audiobook, and he’d smell everything along our path. There is a big open field down the hill from my house that he loved, and we’d walk up to the gate of the nearby water treatment facility. He would wait at the gate, as if expecting them to let him in. There was a surveillance camera overhead, and I often wondered what anyone watching thought of him standing there. On the way back, he’d insist on lying in a patch of grass to contemplate life, and I had little choice but to join in. It wasn’t my usual style to just be; he had to teach me.

A few weeks later he started developing mysterious symptoms that caused him to lose his appetite. More tests, more drugs, more uncertainty. He started to lose weight, the walks became impossible, and he seemed to lose interest in just about everything he formerly enjoyed – rides in the car, trips to Grandma’s, playing with toys, even his favorite food – Frosty Paws frozen dog treats. He had stopped greeting me exuberantly at the door when I’d come home. But after another vet visit and better drugs, I had reason to hope that he’d recover and have some good months left in him (I had at least accepted that he likely wouldn’t have years, yet still avoided thinking that through to the inevitable conclusion that slapped me in the face yesterday).

The final week he lost all interest in food, something that, as a Labrador, he always loved. Eventually he wasn’t even interested in water. I  couldn’t get him to take his pills. I’d put them in his mouth and hold it shut for a long time, rubbing his throat gently, and he still wouldn’t swallow. I felt awful doing it because it scared him, but I knew he had to take his pills or he’d surely get worse. He spent much of the week crying while I was trying to sleep, and while I was usually able to comfort him, it would begin again an hour or so later. It was unbearable. Part of me felt angry with him because I needed my sleep, but I always had one ear open for his cries because I didn’t want him to be lonely or afraid. I felt guilty for feeling angry. I was frustrated at not being able to help him, even though I had run up over $5000 in medical bills trying to do so.

I’m not sure when it occurred to me that he might not recover. It was somewhere around the last few days when he just didn’t seem interested in living any longer. His eyes looked distant, pained. He wasn’t the same dog I knew. Something had stolen that dog from me, and I was left with the poor, fragile, tormented soul before me. He looked so sad. We said our goodbyes many times those last few days. When I left for work at night, I was never sure what I’d find when I got home in the morning. That last night I cried on the way to work as Barry Manilow crooned on my stereo: “This one’s for you wherever you are / to say that nothing’s been the same since we’ve been apart . . .” I commented to coworkers that I was afraid he’d be dead when I got home in the morning. But when I opened the door apprehensively, I was relieved to see that he had hung on, perhaps just for me to get there. It was his last day on Earth.

His breathing was heavy and he looked distressed, sitting in the middle of the living room and panting. It was Friday, and I knew my regular vet would be unavailable over the weekend. I couldn’t bear to see him suffer any longer. I was being selfish, keeping him alive for me. There was no hope. He was giving up, and I finally had to also. I made the decision I thought I could never make. When I phoned the vet, I opened my mouth but no sound came out. When I finally found my voice after a long pause, they understood instantly. Was 1:30 OK?

Three last hours together. There’s something very unnerving about a scheduled death, and I couldn’t help but think of a prisoner execution. The only thing that kept me from feeling like a creep was his very palpable suffering. I couldn’t bear to see him in pain. I tried to comfort him in those last hours. I said more goodbyes that felt real this time. I thanked him for loving me when I wasn’t so lovable; for always forgiving my faults; for teaching me to be more human, to care for someone and something. I had named him Marley for this very reason – Jacob Marley fulfilled the same role for Ebeneezer Scrooge. While I wasn’t as miserable as that fictional character, I definitely needed some warming up. I told him what a great dog he’d been, and that we would all be following him soon. In fact, my one comfort was in knowing that we are all going to die, which made Marley’s death seem less unfair. It was just an issue of timing. We all have our turn at bat, but no one can stay on the bench when it’s time to go.

It was the hottest day of the summer as we left the house together for the last time. Getting him in the car was very difficult, both physically and emotionally. I was afraid I’d hurt him, which, in hindsight, was a rather unnecessary concern. I wanted him to be comfortable, yet the heat was no doubt adding to his discomfort. Jekyll and Hyde personae argued in my head: “You’re killing your dog!”; “No, you’re doing the hardest thing that love demands – letting go.” It was only a few minutes to the vet’s, and I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or bad. As I was driving, I tilted my rearview mirror, knowing that spot – his spot, the entire back of my SUV – would soon be empty.  Gone were the days when he would be standing right there over my shoulder, looking eagerly out the front window. It was starting to sink in that I would never see him again.

Thoughts ran through my mind of when I first chose Marley. My friend and I were giving him the “dominance” test, turning him over on his back to see if he would tolerate a submissive posture (he did). The old 50s song “Walk Like a Man” was playing on the radio. I sang along to the high-pitched refrain, and whenever I did, Marley immediately stopped exploring and cocked his head to the side as if trying to understand me. That sealed the deal.

The head cock

Once we arrived at the vet’s, the tech, Kathy, helped me get him out of the car. We took him to relieve himself (again, perhaps pointless, but it seemed important to me), where he promptly peed on my shoe because he couldn’t stand up. Normally fastidious, I didn’t care. When we got him inside, we went right to a room we had been in many times before, where they spread out a blanket for him. He was lying in the “play bow” position, with his front paws straight out in front of him. As the tech wrapped the catheter around his left paw with surgical tape decorated in whimsical pawprints,  I saw that she was crying. As hard as this was for me, I wouldn’t want her job. How I got through the next ten minutes, I don’t know. It had to be my concern for him, that he not suffer any more. I tried to get him to look into my eyes, to connect, but he was too distressed. I felt helpless, and that he didn’t know I was there.

When the vet came in, she assured me I was doing the right thing and explained to me what would happen. She would give him a sedative first to calm him down, then a heavy dose of anesthesia, which would end his life. There might be involuntary muscle movement, but this does not indicate suffering. His bowels may let go. His eyes would probably not shut. Did I want her to shave off some fur as a memento? Any particular spot?

The first injection calmed him quickly – shockingly quick. I was gently stroking his rear leg, the one that gave him so much trouble. Was I ready?  It was almost too smooth, too serene. In a matter of seconds he passed from life to death without so much as a sigh, and just stopped moving. That his life could be extinguished so suddenly was disturbing to me, yet I was thankful considering the alternative. Part of me was still pretending that he came there to get better, not to die. In a way, he was doing both. His eyes were still open, but vacant and empty. They used to be so expressive, so full of love and inquisitiveness. It was a haunting image that I’ll never forget. The doctor put a stethoscope to his heart and lungs. “He’s gone.”

I was allowed to stay in the room for as long as I wanted. The quiet was deafening. I put my hands on his head and held them there for a while, a final transfer of love and energy, a recognition of what he had meant to me, and hopefully I to him. I kissed the top of his head. I didn’t know what else to do. I’d have stayed longer, but the stillness was too upsetting. My dog had left me, and now I had to leave him. I picked up his suddenly useless leash and pelt of fur, and left the room alone.

Why do we have to die, I asked myself. Flowers, people, helpless animals. Is it because this forces us to appreciate them, to appreciate life? Would eternal life engender familiarity, boredom, even callousness? Would everything then have no meaning? Is that any way to live?

My favorite movie is Shadowlands, starring Anthony Hopkins as C.S. Lewis, the real-life Christian apologist – one who attempts to explain why God allows suffering in the world. Lewis gives fancy speeches on how suffering is God’s wake-up call to an unappreciative world, but he never really experiences suffering personally. Then he falls in love with an unconventional woman who opens him up to life and love, only to lose her to cancer. He is beside himself with grief. She tells him that “the pain now is part of the happiness then” – that love always brings pain in the end. You can’t have one without the other. It’s part of the deal. To avoid pain, we attempt to live in the “shadowlands,” a fantasy future, always hoping for the next best thing around the bend but never really experiencing the present. A life wasted in anticipation. Thoreau put it this way, saying he wished to avoid, “when I come to die, to discover that I had not lived.” Death is part of life. Without it, life would lose all purpose. We don’t want it to end, but it must. Eckhart Tolle, when asked the meaning of life, said that life has no meaning. We bring meaning to it.

Marley knew how to live. He didn’t dwell in the shadowlands, but always stopped to smell the roses. He knew that the best things in life are not a good job, a fancy car, or a big house. They’re the simple things: going for long walks, lying in the grass on a sunny day, being exuberant about life and people, good times with friends, getting lots of rest, being endlessly curious; always forgiving wrongs, always extending the benefit of the doubt; remembering that life is short and you must live and love while you can – savoring the moments, because everything will surely pass away. Didn’t the Spirits warn Scrooge of this?

Accountants talk of business entities as “going concerns,” meaning there is an assumption that the business will continue for the foreseeable future. Life, however, should not be viewed as a going concern, but a temporary one. It will end, and should therefore be enjoyed while it lasts. It has been my long habit to dwell on past woes and thereby not enjoy life out of distrust for its pesky unpredictability. It’s not going to catch me with my guard down. Marley tried to teach me otherwise, both in life and death. This is his legacy, his gift to me. I will miss him. We were constant companions for eleven years, sharing the tears and the laughter. He used to come to work with me every day, and all my customers knew him. This morning, I came home to an empty house strewn with evidence of his former dominion here: the toys, the uneaten bowl of food, the phone message saying his prescription is ready. Caring for him this last week had bonded us even further, and I was beginning to think I was getting good at it – so much so that many times this morning I forgot that he wasn’t here. I still expect him to come up to me with that eager, expectant look he got whenever he wanted something. Sometimes, before he got ill,  I made him wait if I was busy, but now I’d give anything for his chin on my leg and that look of innocent expectation.

I was closer to Marley than I have been to any human being. As a card-carrying introvert I was never very good at relationships, but with dogs you don’t have to compromise on where to go, what to do, or negotiate space needs. You have all the control. This works for me, but you can’t practice it on people. I’ve tried. It’s not even very fair to dogs, but they are long-suffering and adaptable. I did eventually learn to surrender to Marley’s needs and abandon my selfishness, because I loved him (and, honestly, who can turn away such pure enthusiasm?). When he wanted to go for walks in the morning after his night of sleeping and my long night of third-shift work, I took him. In spite of my weariness, his need seemed quite reasonable and I came to enjoy fulfilling it for him. This shows signs of sacrifice and selflessness for someone you love. Marley knew there was hope for me yet.

His favorite bed

From Shadowlands:

“Why love if losing hurts so much? I have no answers any more. Only the life I have lived. Twice in that life I’ve been given the choice: as a boy and as a man. The boy chose safety, the man chooses suffering. The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.” 

Some of Marley’s ashes will be sprinkled in the field he loved to explore.