Elwood/Gary Rogers

What My Dogs Taught Me About Death

It’s not a black and white kind of decision. I’d make it again in a strained, panting, heartbeat.

I’ve never been one to hold dogs at arm’s length. I’ve never had ‘outside dogs.’ Any dog that has been part of my life has been close, part of the family. Dogs in my life sleep on the bed, beg at the dinner table, and snooze on the couch.

Zach was my father’s dog when I was in high school. We joked that he was my father’s second son. He slept on my bed some nights. He was the fierce looking protector who let us know when the pizza man had arrived.

I’d moved out and started my own canine family when Zach declined. I didn’t see much of it to be honest, it wasn’t something I wanted to be exposed to. I knew it would stir emotions that I just wasn’t ready to face. I saw my father and mother caring for what basically amounted to a hospice dog.

Mom and Dad spent some money on Zach, but didn’t go overboard the way I’ve seen some people do, trying to hold on. They helped Zach have as dignified a passing as he was able to have. We don’t know that it was cancer that did him in, but it certainly looked like it. The big brute of an American Stafordshire Terrier withered away to skin and bones. There’s something about helping, comforting; but not clinging that came from Zach’s passing that I’ve internalized. Even after my Mother and Father split, pictures of Zach still persist in both of their homes. He’s the brother I didn’t have.

Vinnie and Bruno were my Boxer boys that my wife and I brought into our family. Vinnie was neurotic, a companion for me when I was working at start-ups and could bring dogs to the office. He was with me on early Saturday mornings when there were server issues or big releases. He played with the kids that other people brought to the office.

Vinnie’s passing was the one that has stuck with me. It started when my wife and I were traveling. I don’t even remember where we were. We got a call that he’d had a seizure. We were used to seizures, Bruno had them most of his life. Bruno’s seizures were mild, quiet, and usually over in a few minutes with little in the way of fuss. We thought Vinnie’s were similar. We were wrong.

It seemed like things were fine when we managed to get a flight home. Vinnie seemed normal, maybe a little lethargic, but nothing terrible. The morning after we got home he had a bad seizure while we were getting ready for work. When the kicking and shivering was over he could only spin in place, like he was terribly dizzy after getting off a high-speed merry-go-round. He panted. He was warm. When I held him his eyes spun in his head.

We should have gone to the vet sooner, I used to tell myself. It took almost an hour for Vinnie to exhaust himself spinning. I held him for most of that time. If we’d gone to the vet sooner maybe they could have done something. I doubt it. The best guess the vet had was an aneurism or brain tumor. If we’d gone to the vet sooner they’d have taken him from us and we’d have waited apart from him as the light of Vinnie-ness left his eyes. There’s no good way to deal with such a situation. He never came out of a vegetative state at the vet. He was put to sleep three days later.

That was the hardest loss I’ve ever had to deal with. To have someone ripped from you unexpectedly, to hold them as the spark of consciousness leaves them, it’s not something I’d want anyone to ever have to experience. Vinnie made the choice of what to do with an ailing loved one for us, or maybe fate did.

Bruno, Vinnie’s adopted brother and Zach’s nephew gave us that choice. Bruno was a brute, eight pounds of Boxer and gentle as could be. Bruno was a sly dog, who would make note of what food had been left out on the counter, wait for everyone to settle down to watch a movie, then slip away to scarf down whatever we’d forgotten to put away. It led to pancreatitis early in life when he got into a bucket of chicken fat. He would break out in hives from who-knows-what allergy, and yet he was a sweet, relaxed boy.

Bruno outlived Vinnie, but by the time he was ten we could tell he was slowing down. He tolerated Elwood, the Beagle who had come along a few years after Vinnie had died, but he couldn’t keep up with the pup. He had a few spells where it was very difficult for him to get up, to move around, and his hindquarters started to shrink. My wife and I thought it might be his time more than once in his last year, but each time he came around and got better.

Bruno’s last night with us, he couldn’t sleep. He was panting constantly. I stayed with him through the night. Elwood may have been there off and on as well. In the morning we went to the emergency vet. His chest had ballooned a bit, I almost couldn’t put my arms around him. He managed to get into the car on his own, though it was a struggle. He was happy to be going for a ride.

The doctor listened to his chest, they did ultrasounds. There was fluid around his heart. Congestive heart failure was what they said. They could drain the fluid, but it would come back. With the memories of Zach wasting away, and Vinnie dying in my arms, the choice really wasn’t difficult. Bruno got up to give the vet a kiss when she came to put him to sleep. I held my big brute of a boxer in my arms as he passed away peacefully.

You wouldn’t think the decision to end the suffering of someone you love would be easy, and yet, there it was. I knew some of the reason was to save myself and my wife the extended grief process. I know some of the reason was to spare Bruno the indignities of getting old and being sick. It’s not a black and white kind of decision. I’d make it again in a strained, panting, heartbeat.

My wife and I split not long after Bruno was gone. Elwood the Beagle has been my faithful companion as I’ve adjusted to a single life. After having a brute of an AmStaf as a brother and a brute of a Boxer as a son, this not-quite-pudgy Beagle is a change for me. Beagles aren’t really dogs in my estimation. They’re more like noses with dogs attached to them.

Elwood’s nose gets him into all sorts of trouble, and my lax discipline caters to the mischievous hound. Elwood is the master of scraps, paper plates and fortune cookies. He’s had his own problems with eating things that don’t agree with him, and with seizures. In the last few years he’s found a penchant for baby bunnies that are born in our back yard.

I’m a Buddhist that catches ants, spiders, occasionally mice, and puts them outside rather than setting traps. I flick mosquitos rather than smashing them. Having to deal with a devilish little Beagle that squeaks baby bunnies until they won’t squeak anymore has been something of a challenge. He looks so happy with the little brown fluffballs in his mouth. I tell myself: “Of course he’s happy, he’s a Beagle, this is what Beagles do.”

I manage to get the rabbits away from him, put them outside the fence, we repeat the pattern half a dozen times before the hutch is empty, before my lovable Beagle has committed bunnycide for his own amusement. I tell myself it’s nature, such as nature is, in our little semi-urban part of Iowa.

Dogs are such an important part of our lives, for those of us who let them into our lives. The bonds we forge are deep and powerful. It’s a shame that they live such short life spans compared to us. Yet without this, they wouldn’t have been able to teach such important lessons about dying. It’s a natural part of living; be it sudden, prolonged, or mercifully quiet and gentle. I just hope Elwood lives to be a hundred.

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