|But more terrible to love nothing.|
This birthday was one of the sadder days of my life, unfortunately. In fact, I have been bawling so hard and so continuously the past twenty four hours that my teeth ache and my eyes are nearly swollen shut.
Today, after weeks of dithering, I finally put down both of my dogs. Tux, a Black Lab mix, was eighteen. Cosmo, the little white bichon, had recently passed his sixteenth birthday. Both had been suffering from the various, inevitable ailments of old age: blind, deaf, incontinent, arthritic. The writing had been on the wall for a while, and yet I resisted, because I sensed that both of them still had strong wills to live, and still had some "quality of life" (if such a thing can be measured by robust appetites, naps in the sun, the pleasure and comfort they took in greeting me at the door every evening).
There seemed no pressing reason to take the fatal step until last week, when the vet discovered a sarcoma on Cosmo's side. At sixteen, and in fragile overall health, Cosmo was not a candidate for surgery and radiation. The tumor wasn't painful, but she warned me it would eventually rupture; the result would be a bloody open wound that would necessitate immediate euthanasia. And yet still I resisted...
I have, over the course of my life, put down four dogs previous to these, so you might think I would have an easier time deciding when to take action. Truth be told, I wanted someone else to make the decision for me -- my girlfriend, my vet -- but all they would tell me is, "You'll know when the time is right." So for days (well, months really) I've been much preoccupied with the matter of when.
This morning, I awoke and roused them to go outside, initiating the first step in our longstanding daily routine. However, this morning neither dog could be persuaded to get up off the bed where they always slept next to my own, nestled belly-to-back, "ebony and ivory, together in perfect harmony." And that's when I decided that, birthday or no, this was the day that I would have them put down.
I called the vet and made the appointment. Then I defrosted a package of ground beef for their last meal. The smell of warm greasy raw meat was enough of an inducement to bring them shakily to their feet. They staggered to their bowls. Ah, food! That most elementary, dependable pleasure! I watched them devour the rare treat with gusto, their tails wagging stiffly in unison, like metronomes. We had a couple of quiet hours together (that is, they dozed while I sobbed) before I bundled them into the car for their final trip to the vet.
I was grateful that my favorite doctor was attending today. She and her tech inserted the catheters and, per my request, administered preliminary sedatives. (When I asked her for a sedative for myself, she kindly explained it was outside her scope of practice.) "Do you need more time?" she asked. I didn't want more time. I was doing my best to stay calm, so as not to distress the dogs unduly. I was determined not to give full rein to my grief until they were gone.
The injection took effect almost immediately. Little Cosmo's heart stopped beating first, stalwart Tux's a moment later. The entire procedure, from start to finish, took less than five minutes, and was entirely peaceful. It's shocking how easily and quickly life can be extinguished, little more than pinching out the flame of a candle.
I was surprised to see that the vet and the tech -- for whom this is a routine part of their jobs -- were weeping. "I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry," they repeated. "Thank you," I said. "But this is part of the game, isn't it?" We know this going in, when we enter a relationship with another -- whether human or animal -- the day will come when we must part. And it's going to hurt like hell.
There's no escape from death. What we cannot escape, we must endure. There's no way to tunnel around the pain of loss. Love will, sooner or later, exact its toll in tears. Not for the first time I am reminded that grief is just plain hard work.
I made arrangements for their individual cremations. I'm amassing quite a collection of little urns. I have given instructions that they will some day be tucked into the foot of my own casket. (Please don't tell the cemetery, which officially frowns on interring animal remains with human.) Silly, isn't it? I don't believe in an after-life, and yet take comfort in imagining myself lying for eternity, surrounded by my menagerie who will guard me in my endless sleep as they guarded me in life.
I paid my last hefty vet bill, and drove home with the windows open, the chilly rain pelting my cheek, slowly and carefully as a drunk.
I returned home, the dogs' leashes in hand, my house as cold, dark, and silent as a tomb. I dragged the dogs' beds outside so that I wouldn't see them empty tomorrow morning. A friend called, but I couldn't talk for fear of triggering a fresh volley of tears, and my headache was already ferocious. My girlfriend called to check in. She assured me that I had done the right thing at the right time, which was really all I wanted to hear. I found a stray vicodin, leftover from a previous surgery, washed it down with a shot of bourbon, and fell asleep for several hours, listening to the gentle rain thrumming on the eaves.
For the first time in more than twenty years, I am dog-less. It's going to take some time to adjust.