It was three years ago today that I got the completely unexpected news that one of my dogs had lymphoma, so reading this essay from Joe Yonan was especially poignant for me:
At age 7, Red had been otherwise healthy when he started wheezing one day last October. The vet thought he had allergies and advised me to return if he didn’t get better within a couple of weeks. Two weeks later, a chest X-ray showed a mild pneumonia, and the vet sent Red and me home with antibiotics that she hoped Red would respond to within a few days. I gave him a dose at about 1 p.m. and went to work; when I returned that evening, he was dead.
It’s too painful to describe the extent of my immediate reaction, or really the reactions that unfolded over the following days, weeks and even months. But I will say that when Gromit was dying, I kept repeating the words, “Thank you.” In Red’s case, too late for him to hear, I kept repeating, “I’m sorry.”
The fact that our pets are so dependent on us makes it all too easy to second-guess our decisions and descend into a pit of guilt. Shouldn’t I have known? Did I do everything I could? If I had just . . . what? Taken him to the vet sooner? Insisted he be hospitalized? What if I had been home? I might not have been able to save him, but at least in his last moments he would have known I was with him, and maybe that would have made it a little easier for him if not for me.
Three and a half months later, my oldest dog woke up from a nap doing what they call “reverse sneezing”, with a thin trail of snot leaking out of his nostril. It turned out to be a tumor in his sinuses, which was inoperable and basically untreatable. I set myself to nursing them both through to the end as best I could.
The younger dog died as well as anyone can die — at home, in good spirits, quietly and uneventfully. My vet came out to my house to make it as easy on me as much as him. We sat on the screened-in back porch with him that chilly October morning and held him, listening to his breath, until there was only silence.
The older dog hung on another fifty-five days. By Thanksgiving week, every day was spent agonizing over my inability to do anything for him, endlessly debating with myself over when it would finally be time. On Monday evening, I finally gave him some heavy-duty painkillers out of desperation, and to my surprise, it seemed to make him feel much better. Tuesday morning, we got home from work (he always went with me when I worked in the newspaper biz), and he was energetic, almost playful. Later that day, a guy brought firewood out to my house, and he dutifully stood in the kitchen window and barked at him while we unloaded it.
Within a few hours, he seemed to look uncomfortable again. We would later deduce that he must have had an allergic reaction to the painkillers.
The next morning, I could barely rouse him. His forehead on one side was swollen and lumpy, and his eye seemed to have moved off-center, probably from the pressure of the tumor. His breathing was labored. While driving around, I kept turning around to check on him, half-expecting to see him unconscious and not breathing. But he made it back home, where I made a tearful call to my vet.
We decided to meet at the clinic, even though she wasn’t working that day, because she wouldn’t be able to make it out to my house anytime soon. I hated not being able to offer him that comfort, since he hated the vet clinic, but circumstances being what they were, I figured I had to make the sacrifice, and I didn’t want to have to make an even worse trip to the emergency vet on Thanksgiving and deal with complete strangers. We agreed that maybe it would be a suitable compromise if I kept him in the car, and she could come out there to give him the shot, rather than stress him out by bringing him inside the clinic.
So that’s what we did. She gave him the first shot in his rear leg to knock him out, and went back inside to give us a few minutes alone with him while he drifted off. I crouched down in front of him and began stroking his head and back and saying all the things I wanted to say to him while he could still hear me.
I wasn’t thinking about the fact that he had been having trouble sleeping as the tumor grew, because it was interfering with his breathing, of course. He was constantly hacking and snoring, unable to sleep for long before waking up, sort of like when you have the flu.
So as I was crouched there, nose-to-nose with him, his eyes suddenly flew wide open. His head raised up, his mouth stretched in a grimace, and he started frantically clawing at the seats. Blood and pus started oozing from his nose and even his eyes as he thrashed violently. “I’ll hold him. Go, go!” my stepson said, as I stared in horrified shock, before I turned and ran into the clinic to get the vet.
She and a tech rushed out and hurriedly finished the procedure while we restrained him. I stood with my hand on his head, weeping over the unfairness, the indignity of it all, the inability to even usher him out comfortably like I had wanted, before I collapsed on the car and sobbed until I was exhausted.
The massive sedatives had allowed him to sleep more deeply than he had in months, enough so that it prevented him from consciously adjusting to breathe better. He essentially started suffocating. My vet tried to assure me that “he” wasn’t really there; it was all just an unconscious reaction of brute biology. But I looked into his eyes while he was desperately struggling, and I’m not so sure. I mean, it’s easy to say when you’ll never get to ask him what he was aware of in those moments. And I don’t believe in such a sharp, clean distinction between “you” and “your body”. The possibility of even one brief second of his conscious mind surfacing above the narcotic waves, terrified and looking for me to help him, is too much for me to bear; it will haunt me for the rest of my life. The thought that he might have died in fear and confusion makes me feel like a failure. Amor fati, hell; I’d rearrange my whole life to make that day easier for him.
I’ve told him I’m sorry countless times since then, and probably will countless more. An act of penance that can never be acknowledged and never expiate.