You made a graceful exit
The problem with dogs is that they don’t live long
Not long by human standards, that is. If Molly had been human, she wouldn’t even have had her driver’s learning permit. But Molly was a dog — a very, very good dog — and, at only weeks shy of her 15th birthday, she was also a very, very old dog.
I posted a few weeks ago about the scare Molly gave us, how she seemed to lose consciousness while still standing, how she was suddenly weak and struggled for breath. And how, without much fuss, she recovered and was almost her old self.
Of course, Molly hadn’t intended to give us a scare. Her intention, only and always, was to pursue her agenda of enjoying whatever there was to enjoy in any particular moment. But, being Molly, she’d actually given us a gift — in the form of preparation, or a kind of rehearsal.
It was as if she was telling us, “Look, dearest people, I know you don’t want to admit this, but I’m not going to be around much longer. Like, not much longer at all. I’ll do all I can to be your dog until the day comes when I can’t, but that day is coming so you might want to get used to the idea. Meanwhile, when’s dinner?”
She let us know we were on borrowed time with her
She coughed more than she had before her episode. At night, she snored louder. In the mornings when it was cool enough she still trotted happily across the grass at the dog park when we called her. If she heard us, that is. She was slower to greet us when we came home from an errand, and sometimes she didn’t seem to register we’d returned — or that we’d even left. There were nights when she still took up her post next to the couch where we watched our ration of TV, and nights when she stayed in bed.
We petted and praised and fussed over her more than usual, but tried to keep a lid on our sad-sack behavior: Molly wasn’t bothered by her approaching demise or anything else, unless we seemed upset. We consulted her vet, and were lucky enough to find Gentle Goodbyes, a local organization that offers in-home euthanasia — and about whom I lack words to say enough good things.
We were as prepared as we were going to get, which of course, wasn’t very. Meanwhile, life went on: summer in southern Idaho was flaming out in a blaze of relentless heat, the kids were heading back to school, and we were busy with projects and travel planning and watching the younger contingent of our local clan play fall sports.
Then last Sunday, Molly couldn’t get out of bed
She’d seemed fine, or as fine as she’d been lately, on Saturday evening. But her breathing was loud and labored from her nest in our bedroom all that night. In the morning, she tried to walk to us, looking like a marionette who’d had half its strings broken. We could see she was distressed by the need to relieve herself, so my husband carried her out to the back yard where she immediately took care of business and then collapsed on the grass, her sides heaving with the effort to breathe.
It was the Sunday of Labor Day weekend. We left a message with Gentle Goodbyes, but held out little hope we’d hear back from anyone. Meanwhile we carried Molly out of the heat and back to her bed. Her tail thumped with gratitude, but simply having been moved made her even shorter of breath. Eventually, her breathing calmed and she fell asleep.
And then Gentle Goodbyes called back. A volunteer vet tech listened to us with patience and compassion, asked us a few pertinent questions, and commiserated with us. She said she’d call us back — and she did, quite promptly, to let us know a veterinarian could come to our house the following morning.
Even when you know it’s time, it’s hard to believe it
The vet was supposed to give us a “quality of life” check, but he’d come equipped with the necessary supplies for euthanasia just in case. We were up and down with Molly all that night, feeding her bits of cheese chased with canine Xanax to take the edge off — her breathing had become a real struggle, and she’d begun to tremble. Her tail no longer thumped, even when she gobbled down the (previously forbidden) cheese.
When the vet arrived on Monday morning, there was no doubt among any of this that Molly’s time had come. We just wanted her struggle to end. The doctor listened to our description of our dog, and of the past two days with her, and became misty-eyed himself.
This was another unlooked-for gift. We had no idea what that doctor’s views were on religion or politics or all the other things that humans use to divide themselves from one another, and none of that mattered a crumb. What did matter was that we were all united in the knowledge of the goodness of dogs, and that my husband and I knew that we were in the presence of a very kind, very good person.
Molly never had to leave her bed. The doctor knelt beside her, listened to her chest — her lungs crackled with trapped fluid as her heart failed — and explained everything to us with great gentleness. From his kit he produced a votive candle, a rose, and a small memorial card.
Then he had us feed Molly more cheese treats and say our goodbyes while he administered a sedative. Her breathing eased, and Molly had a few minutes of deliriously happy cheese-gobbling until she lowered her head and closed her eyes, relaxing into the anaesthetic’s embrace. Her struggle was over.
The doctor filled a syringe with an overdose of the barbituate and pushed it into the port in Molly’s vein. She never stirred. Within a minute, as he listened to her chest with his stethoscope, he confirmed that she was gone.
He pressed her paw into a prepared clay tablet for us to keep as a memorial. Once we’d recovered enough to be useful, he quietly laid out a cloth stretcher, covered it with a soft blanket, and he and my husband used it to move Molly’s dear, used-up old body out to his car.
Her ashes, the vet explained, will be scattered over the grounds of a nearby horse farm. Molly, we know, would highly approve.
We are sad, but grateful
For just shy of ten years, we had Molly to entertain us, to make us laugh, to shepherd us on hikes and walks, to wait for us to come home and celebrate madly when we did, and to love us absolutely without reserve, expectations, or conditions. That’s a talent that dogs possess in abundance, and one that most of us humans can only aspire to.
It will take some time to get used to life without Molly. Our cat, Bandit, is serving extra shifts as our emotional support animal, but there’s only so much he’s willing to do, and he’s not a good candidate for taking on walks. But we’ll be okay. There are things in life that are senselessly sad, things that shouldn’t happen but do — just turn on the news and you’ll be awash in them. And then there are things that are sad but make complete sense, that happen because they must, like the timely and tender passing of a dear old friend.
Which brings me to Molly’s final example
There is not a person to whom I’ve told this story who hasn’t said some version of the exact same thing: why can’t it be that way for us when our time comes?
That’s something to think about. What if we could, individually and collectively, really and truly accept that our lives are events, not everlasting monuments, and that that’s the way it’s supposed to be and it really is okay? Might we talk less about “fighting” terminal disease or “defying” aging, and focus more on living fully and well, until it’s time to let go?
And, if we’re lucky enough to have lived that full life and reach our final days, don’t we merit the same consideration as a beloved pet?
Thank you for that last lesson, Molly. Good girl.
Lovely, sweet, and heartbreaking, Jan. We who love animals know such losses will come to us all, and I heartily agree that the gentle kindness of euthanasia should be available to humans. My dad was a physician who championed this idea back in the 1960s. But no matter how we leave this existence, there is simply no escaping the sorrowful aftermath of that departure for those who remain. We loved Molly too, and I share your pain.
I know you did, Anni, and your kind words mean a lot. We sure miss her.
Beautiful tribute to a very good dog, Jan. It brought tears to my eyes. We certainly can learn a lot from dogs.
Thanks, Laurie. I thought of you and how bereft you were when your dog passed away while I was writing this.
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