What My Dog’s Death Taught Me About Living
Last month, my husband and I took our 13-year old yellow lab, Tiki, to the veterinarian…for the last time.
Ever since she was diagnosed with bladder cancer a few months ago, I’ve been bargaining with God (I’m not religious, mind you). First, I asked God to allow Tiki to survive until I got back from a trip to Toronto. She survived. Then I asked God to allow her to survive until my oldest son came home from college for fall break. She survived.
Most recently, I asked that she be allowed to survive until Christmas when my younger son was due to return home. But as her steady decline quickened its pace it was clear I’d bargained all my chips away and there would be no Christmas miracle. So I changed tactics and selfishly began praying that she would die peacefully in her sleep so that I wouldn’t have to put her down. But she didn’t die in her sleep. Why would she? Even if her body was was no longer working for her, she loved life too much to give up. But signs that the inevitable was near were there no matter: The click, click, click of her nails as she paced across the the slate tiles in our home woke me night after night; and the fur around her eyes turned dewy as if she was suffering from a fever. And then, despite all my magical thinking and best attempts at praying, she let us know with one large pool of blood-filled urine that there was precious little life left to wring from her body.
My husband and I spread sheets in the back the car and lifted her onto the seat. We drove to her favorite bridle path where we thought we’d take her for a short walk before heading to the vet’s office. However, as soon as she picked up the scent of that old familiar trail, her nostrils flared and she caught her last second wind. We walked nearly a mile, further than she’d walked since 2015 when she blew out her knee chasing a raccoon across our deck. We passed by a corral where she and I once stopped every day to feed the horses carrots. I clicked my tongue and a black and white mare left her feeding trough to come greet us. I had nothing to offer her and thought as soon as she realized I was empty handed she’d go back to her supper. Instead, perhaps smelling a grief pheromone only four-leggeds can detect, she raised her muzzle over the fence and placed it on my shoulder. Leaning the side of her head against my face she breathed a warm, soft exhale onto my cheek and neck. I surrendered into this beast’s tender embrace of my sorrow.
The mare then did something even more unexpected. She raised her head back over to her side of the fence and bent down to where Tiki’s own muzzle was poking through the chain links, and then she touched her nose to Tiki’s through the fence. Just like God’s finger reaching out for Adam’s, she seemed to communicate, one animal to another, “take this moment, this beauty with you to the other side so that you may remember how good life was.”
Several dog-loving friends advised me to arrange for a home euthanasia but unlike other dogs, Tiki never seemed to mind her visits to our vet, Dr. Singh, who we’ve used since 1997. He and and his staff were extended family to us and it seemed only fitting that they also be present for this. We were greeted with a sad smile from the receptionist, and Tiki was escorted to her usual examining room. She stood patiently while the doctor felt her bladder, and he confirmed we were doing the right thing. As he and his assistant led Tiki out the exam room to go place the IV in her leg, my husband silently reached over and took my hand. I sat still, attempting a breathing technique I’d learned from years of practicing yoga, hoping it would help me through what was about to go down.
The assistant returned with Tiki and spread a fleece blanket on the floor. She and I knelt down and Tiki obediently followed my guide to lie down. The doctor came back into the room with two needles, the first containing a general anesthetic, the second a large dose of phenobarbytal which would stop Tiki’s heart. He placed the first needle into the catheter and began squeezing the pink fluid into Tiki’s vein. I thought to myself, “it’s not too late, I can still change my mind!”. Instead I simply cradled Tiki’s head as it slowly descended to the floor. Just as the assistant had warned me, her eyes did not close. I couldn’t bare to watch as Dr. Singh inserted the second needle but I knew he had because Tiki’s amber-speckled, soulful brown eyes began to cloud over. I said aloud to no one in particular, “the eyes are the window to the soul.” Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the doctor place his stethescope on Tiki’s chest and listen.
Some time later — a few seconds, minute, who knows?–I heard the doctor whisper, “That’s it.” With his words, I exhaled, realizing I too had stopped breathing (not exactly the breathing technique I’d been angling for). The room then fell silent and Tiki’s spirit–as evidenced by her fully occluded eyes-left the auditorium.
For the rest of this story, you’ll have to scoot over, come a little closer.
Closer still. As if I’m your mother on her deathbed about to whisper my parting words of wisdom. Yes, it’s that important.
Okay. That’s good. Now, listen up:
No one ever waited for an envelope to arrive in the mail. No long-distance lover. No warrior’s child. No one.
What we wait for is the letter. Not the envelope.
As I looked upon Tiki’s motionless blonde fur; her barrel-chested body that once bounded through high chaparral in search of rabbits; as I looked at her sweet face that never growled at the hi-jinks of our two-year-old grandson or winced at the pain I know she’d suffered most recently–what I understood, and internalized for the first time, was that our bodies are the envelope, not the letter. What made Tiki who she was, a sweet-natured, strong-willed, immensely loving, loyal and constant companion was NOT her body, the envelope, but rather what was inside the envelope. Her spirit…the letter.
You. Yes, YOU, sitting right next to me. You are not your Tumi briefcase, your Brooks Brothers suit, your BMW, your tinted mascara, your low lights, your perfectly sculpted abs, or your bulging pecs. That’s all envelope. Alright, so maybe your envelope is velum, or embossed or made of artisan paper. Or…maybe coffee spilled on it or it got lost in the mail and your envelope is crumpled around the edges. I don’t know and I don’t care. What the people who know you love, what they enjoy, what they keep coming back for, and what they will miss when you are gone is the letter. The contents. The meaning. The spirit. The YOU.