I couldn’t do it. You always hear things like “He will tell you” or “You’ll know when it’s time” but the truth is, for a sentient being who isn't experiencing an urgent crisis, it’s almost impossible to know if you’re doing the right thing. When is the right time? How will I know?
I spent the day at the hospital yesterday. Mentally I was prepared, emotionally I was a complete wreck. It all seemed too hasty. Kumi wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready.
I had made an appointment with a lovely vet who had spoken with me two weeks earlier about Kumi’s condition. She hadn’t yet met Kumi, but she had reviewed his records and gave me sound, compassionate advice about how to evaluate his quality of life. Was he eating well? Was he doing the things that used to bring him joy? Does he have control over his bodily functions? Does he wag his tail? Greet you when you come home?
So many questions! As a former public health researcher, the logical and dispassionate evaluator in me kicked in and I began to make a mental matrix, ranking all the pros, cons, quality of life indicators, etc. Whenever I thought I’d reached the right conclusion, Kumi would come over and put his head in my lap and I was reduced to a slobbering mess. Emotions win over spreadsheets every time.
At the appointment yesterday, I thought I was ready. I went in a little early to see the boarding staff, who had taken care of him over the last ten years whenever I was traveling. They knew him well and had bonded with him over the decade. Kumi’s picture hung in the lobby for many years and one of the staff, Brenda, had essentially become Kumi’s second mom. When it came time for the staff to take official photos for their website, most of the staff brought their own dogs in, but Brenda opted to take her picture with Kumi instead of her own. That’s how much he was loved.
I thought I could hold it together but when the entire staff came out to see Kumi to take a last picture with him, I lost it. I bawled, loudly, in a way that I hadn’t done for months and months since the reality of Kumi’s decline started to sink in. The staff, most of them Latina mothers and grandmothers, came over to hug me and Kumi, reassuring me with kind words and thoughts. Brenda, who had already left for the day, came rushing back to the hospital to say goodbye. That’s how much he was loved.
I was a mess. Yoga pants, ugly t-shirt, covered in dog hair, eyes red and bulging from all the crying. I wasn’t in the right state or frame of mind to say goodbye to my loving companion.
I left Kumi at the hospital overnight because I just couldn’t make a decision. I made an appointment for 7am, figuring I’d take the night to think it through. But it would have been a crazy day. I was supposed to travel to New York, I had a proposal due, several client calls to make. It felt strange to end someone’s life — someone I’ve loved, cherished and moved around the world with for over 13 years — and then just go about my workday as normal. It felt unceremonious, undignified, an unworthy end for a affectionate family member who has been so unwaveringly loyal and loving to me. I needed time to think. It was happening too fast.
I wasn’t ready, and based on Kumi’s behavior, I felt he wasn’t ready either.
I managed to drive myself back to DC and parked in a garage a few blocks away from my house. I couldn’t face going into an empty house so I went to a local restaurant to grab a bite and drown my sorrows. After an hour, I walked home, and it wasn’t until this morning that I realized I had left my car in the garage. Somewhere in the midst of all this, I bought a train ticket using my phone, only to realize today — when I called to postpone my trip — that I had bought a ticket from NYC to DC instead of the other way around.
My emotions had hijacked my brain and frozen all rational thought. Multi-tasking was out. My body was on auto-pilot while my mind was singularly focused on Kumi. I could think of nothing else.
I woke up today, after three hours of sleep, trying to decide what to do. I’ve had a mental block for so many months, almost a year, which kept me from making a decision about Kumi and had stalled my efforts on other priorities.
In the shower, the water beating down my back, my mental block suddenly cleared. I got out, dressed, and started writing the first paragraph of this story. The words flew from my fingertips in a way they haven’t since I was an angst-ridden teenager. After a few minutes, I stopped, realizing it was time to head back to the hospital.
As I sat on the bed and composed myself, my gaze was drawn to the bookshelf. My eyes landed on a small book and I pulled it out. I hadn’t read it in years but decided to open it to a random page. Maybe it will be a sign, I thought. I needed something, anything, to tell me it was the right time.
The book I opened was Jonathan Livingston Seagull. I barely remembered what it was about but I had a vague sense that whatever page I selected would be helpful. Or even if it wasn’t, I silently vowed to imbue it with deep meaning regardless of the words. Here’s the first paragraph I landed on:
So this is heaven, he thought, and he had to smile at himself. It was hardly respectful to analyze heaven in the very moment that one flies up to enter it.
As he came from Earth now, above the clouds and in close formation with the two brilliant gulls, he saw that his own body was growing as bright as theirs. True, the same young Jonathan Seagull was there that had always lived behind his golden eyes, but the outer form had changed. It felt like a seagull body, but already it flew far better than his old one had ever flown. Why, with half the effort, he thought, I’ll get twice the speed, twice the performance of my best days on Earth!
His feathers glowed brilliant white and his wings were smooth and perfect as sheets of polished silver. He began, delightedly, to learn about them, to press power into these new wings.
Reading this, my eyes welled up again, and I had to stop. I walked to the garage to retrieve my car and make my way to the hospital. Armed with Jonathan Livingston Seagull in one hand, and a box of tissues in the other, makeup on, crisp shirt, and cute enamel earrings with cartoon dogs on them, I decided this was a better mental state to say a final goodbye.
It’s over now. He’s gone. I’ve shed a thousand tears but they won’t bring him back. What people don’t tell you about is the unimaginable guilt you will feel when faced with such a terrible decision. You never know — is it too early? Could I have done more? If only he could speak. Am I playing God? So many questions.
I’m back home, having returned minutes ago from the hospital. I kept it together for the drive but as soon as I stepped into the house I lost it. I know what comes next — the arduous task of reliving all the memories by sorting through and discarding physical traces of his existence. For weeks or months, I’ll think he’s still here, and like a phantom limb I’ll reach for him or imagine him licking my feet. I’ll feel guilty for months, and in the end, I’ll have created a bulletproof narrative that makes me look good, turns me into a hero. It was the right time, I will say. He was a good dog, but I couldn’t see him suffer. Underneath it all, I’ll know that I suffered too — we fed off of each others’ pain and anxiety for over two years. We lost sleep, we spent way too long clinging to each other, all the while our health declining symbiotically. In the last year, I’ve strained my back many times lifting Kumi, exacerbating two bulging discs, causing nerve damage and loss of feeling in my right leg. Over the same year, Kumi lost all feeling in his back half. In the end, he couldn’t pick himself up and could barely walk.
Still, I’ll probably always wonder if I could have done more. Doggie massage? Hydrotherapy? More sedatives to sleep through the night? Canine wheelchair? Rubber mats all over the house? It feels as though the guilt will never go away, even if everyone tells me it was the right decision.
For over 14 years, I’ve been a single ‘mother’. I tell people the difference between a dog and a child is that a dog is forever a toddler. Imagine having a toddler for 14 years?! Now imagine that toddler suddenly turns into an old incontinent man.
And yet, as challenging as it has been at times, the sacrifice and hardship were nothing compared to the endless joy, devotion and loyalty I’ve received from my animal companion. He was an amazing dog, living with me in far corners of the globe, giving his love unconditionally. Anyone that’s ever met Kumi has a good story about him. That’s how much he was loved.
Rest in peace, my dearest Kumi. Enjoy your shiny new wings, your forever strong legs and the endless peanut butter treats. I love you.