I lost my big, old, sweet dog, Ash, last night.
The vet gave him a shot, and I watched him die.
It’s not the first time I’ve been through this – the loss of a pet in just this way – but it’s the first time I’ve been in the room. I understand now why they call it “being put to sleep.” It’s a euphemism I’ve never been comfortable with, but that is what it looks like, or at least that’s what it looked like with Ash. We were all on the floor with him – me, Chad, The Boy, the vet and his assistant. Ash’s head was in my palm, but as the drug took effect, his eyes closed and his head lolled away from me, dropping softly into the lap of the assistant.
That sudden distance – the terrible weightlessness of my empty, upturned palm – undid me. I felt both grief and a nearly hysterical, panicked certainty that I’d made the wrong decision.
We adopted Ash in November 2010, after a friend posted his picture on Facebook. He was available for adoption through Muttville, a San Francisco-based organization dedicated to the rescue, foster, adoption, and hospice of senior dogs. (I’d never heard of them before, but now I know there’s such a thing as earthbound angels.) I fell in love with Ash’s picture, his sad, befuddled expression, and I made the case for adoption to my husband, Chad. It wasn’t much of a case. We were in no position to get a dog. We were both enormously busy on career paths that had yet to earn us an income, and we already had Lexi, who is, by any measure, a big, wild handful of a dog.
Realizing I couldn’t justify adoption logically, I resorted to playing the video clip of Ash at his foster home. His foster-mother was behind the camera calling to him, and he was looking around sweetly, seemingly uncertain of what was expected of him. Eventually he stood up and ambled over to her, running right into the camera. The adoption site’s write-up for Ash was heartbreaking. He’d been found wandering rural back roads, severely underweight, his ear badly infected, and with virtually no hair on his back half.
Chad said okay.
We went in with our eyes wide open. We knew he was old. We knew he’d been through a lot. We knew we couldn’t afford heroic medical lengths to prolong his life, but we could love him and make him safe for whatever time he had left. That’s what we said.
Within a week of bringing him home, both ears were infected, and the doctor had prescribed medication for his skin. We’d realized by then that he was deaf as well, and that his back legs didn’t always work the way they should. Also, Lexi wasn’t crazy about him. Instead of playing together as I’d envisioned, they orbited each other warily.
Truthfully, getting Ash was nothing like I’d imagined. Except the part where we loved him, bad skin, bad ears, bad legs and all.
In hindsight, I can see that his downturn wasn’t as sudden as it felt when, the day after Christmas, he started falling down all the time. He’d always been prone to that, and his stumbles had become more frequent over the last few months, but this was the first time he consistently needed help getting back up. He’d been eating less and less over the past couple of weeks (though I didn’t notice at first because Lexi would sweep in and finish whatever he left), and he’d been drinking a lot more. I couldn’t keep the water bowl full.
Two days after Christmas, he started throwing up. I called the vet and made an appointment. His decline was staggeringly fast. By the time we got to the vet that evening, he wasn’t even keeping water down and he stumbled more than walked, as if he were drunk.
Before Ash, and before Lexi, there was our Dalmatian, Randi. We got Randi as a puppy, right after she got her spots. She lived with us for thirteen years. During the last year of her life, Randi’s vertebrae began to fuse together. She had more and more trouble walking until finally she couldn’t control her back legs at all. For the last few months of her life, I used a towel as a sling to hold her back end up, while she walked with her front legs.
People talked to me then about the quality of her life. She’d always been very active, hiking and boating with us, and they wondered if it was fair of me to let her go on like this, confined to her big pillow, unable to go anywhere that I didn’t take her. Chad and the boys talked to me too, but I couldn’t let her go just because she was inconvenient. That’s what I said to them. That’s what I believed. I couldn’t see the truth until finally she lost control of her bowels.
On the day Chad took her to the vet to be put down, I couldn’t pull myself together. I sobbed uncontrollably the whole time he was gone. I sobbed when he came back alone. I sobbed as he told me that Randi relaxed in her final moments, that he’d felt the tension flow out of her, that it seemed to him a sweet release.
Even with all I knew, I worried that we’d done the wrong thing. It would take months for me to believe we’d made the right decision, months before I understood that it wasn’t the letting go I was guilty of, it was the hanging on… the reduced life I’d allowed her to live.
In the vet’s office, we reviewed Ash’s symptoms, each of us remembering more as we talked. The vet listened to us as his hands roamed over Ash’s belly, as he pressed his stethoscope to Ash’s chest. He pulled Ash into a standing position and pointed to his back foot, which was flipped backward so that Ash was standing on the top of it, rather than the bottom. “He can’t feel that,” the vet said, righting Ash’s foot.
We talked about the tests we could do. It was likely that the throwing up and increased thirst were unrelated to the problem with Ash’s legs. A blood test might tell us what else was going on. The vet rattled off some possibilities, varying degrees of awful.
“What about his legs? Will his legs get better?” I asked him, but I already knew the answer.
As we talked, Ash’s legs gave out from underneath him, and he slid to the floor.
Last night I went to sleep telling myself it was the right decision, reminding myself of what I knew to be true about Randi, that letting go had been an act of love, of kindness.
I woke up absolutely certain that I’d done the wrong thing, that I hadn’t considered hard enough the magnitude of a life. Ash’s life.
As I write this, I don’t know which thing I believe. But I do think it has to hurt like this – exactly like this – until it doesn’t.
On my Facebook page, Judith Rich wrote:
My way of dealing with it, including the loss of beloved friends and family members as well, is to give them an ‘assignment’ from the other side. When I had to put down my beloved St. Bernard, Madam, I put her in charge of sunsets. That evening, we had the most beautiful sunset I’d ever seen! I can’t look at a sunset now without thanking her for it. She’s been gone for 23 years and she’s still on duty making sure we have beauty at sundown.
I think that’s beautiful. Driving home from the vet last night, Chad said, “That’s Ash’s moon.” I looked up and saw that the moon was big and full and impossibly white, magnificent.
I’m holding fast to Judith’s words. I love the idea of all the big full moons in my future coming courtesy of Ash.