My dog is dying.
I’ve googled that sentence more than once now. It brings up article after article about how to tell if your dog is dying or helping you predict when it will happen. For some reason, it brings up surprisingly few articles about when you know that your dog is dying. There is little guidance on the excruciating anticipatory grief of knowing that is happening. There are shockingly few reflections on the painful emotions that come up when making decisions on behalf of your best-fur-friend.
Let’s back up a bit. Six years ago my dog had a huge tumor that could have killed him, but it didn’t. I wrote about it then, in case you missed it. Ever since then, he has been on borrowed time. He has been growing tumors from nose to tail. Fast-growing tumors, slow-growing tumors, fatty tumors, cancerous tumors, tumors to remove, tumors to watch, tumors to ignore. At this point, he is a dog held together by tumors.
That might be part of why it is so hard for me to accept that he is really dying. It feels like he’s defied the odds time and again. Sure, he’s a 14-year-old pit bull. Time isn’t on his side. His arthritis gets worse by the day. The cancer has spread to his mouth, where all that can be done has been done and it has started growing back with a vengeance. He’s had cancer for so long that it just seems like a normal part of him.
And yet I know the inevitable is coming. I find myself bracing for it every day, hypervigilant and tense. I watch his every move like a hawk. Did he eat? How much did he eat? Does it look like he’s in pain? Is that tumor bigger than it was yesterday? On his bad days I find myself mentally preparing. I’ve brought myself to tears more than once thinking about my world without him. I think about his long, happy life. I remind myself that I don’t want him to suffer.
It is endlessly painful that we don’t speak the same language. I want nothing more than for him to be able to tell me if he’s in pain. I want to explain to him why there is a ping-pong-ball sized lump in his mouth that isn’t going anywhere. And yet I’m also grateful in some ways that we can’t communicate. He seems blissfully unaware of his own mortality, unaware of the content of conversations held with vets right in front of him. So this communication gap is brutal, but it also means that I’m able to spend my time with my dozen-year companion who has no idea that he won’t live forever. So maybe it’s not all bad.
In this limbo of anticipatory grief that I live in these days, I’ve been reflecting on all the things that arise when we think about our pets. This big, doofy dog of mine has been there through ups and downs. He’s brought me so much joy and comfort and love, whether I deserved it or not. Watching this animal age, watching his illnesses spread, I am struck by the immense responsibility I feel for his well-being. It’s harrowing to know that you hold your animal’s life in your hands, to realize it falls on your shoulders to decide how much suffering is worthwhile suffering and how much suffering is too much suffering. I think of all the people I know who have said, months or years after an animal’s death, “I prolonged his suffering for too long because I wasn’t ready to let him go”.
I keep asking the vets what they think. Just last week I took him in and a different vet saw him, one who I’d never met. After examining him, the vet launched into a well-rehearsed, “this dog is dying, when the time comes, please don’t let this animal suffer” speech. I cut him off. I explained the last thing I wanted was for him to suffer and that was why we were there – to ask his expert advice. Is he suffering? How will we know? He’s a pit bull, after all. They’re hearty dogs who don’t easily show pain. In his 14 years of life, I’ve only heard him whine when someone forgot to give him his 7pm meal. Once it was clear we were on the same page about this whole suffering thing, the vet’s strong and decisive tone shifted to something far more unsure and ambiguous.
“When the time comes, he’ll let you know”. They must teach this phrase in veterinary school, as I have now heard it from three vets and a vet tech. How, I want to know. They make it sounds like it will be obvious, but I’ve known enough people who seem to carry regrets that they missed or ignored the “he’ll let you know” memo when it finally came. I wanted specifics. How would I know?
I received the same vague answers. He’ll stop eating. He won’t show interest in the things that used to excite him. Okay, sure. That seems reasonable on paper. But in reality, it doesn’t seem so black and white. There are days his breakfast goes out at 6:15 am and he doesn’t eat it until 3 pm, at which time he might pick at part of it and leave the rest. But then by the next morning, he’s standing at his bowl waiting for food, gobbling it up immediately, looking up ready for more.
There are days that he seems to have no energy to leave the couch, no clear interest in toys or playing in the yard or moving. And then other days his tail is wagging and he bounds off the sofa, eager to get outside to (slowly) chase cicadas and UPS drivers. As long as it is more good days than bad days, as long as nothing on those bad days looks like unmanageable pain, I tell myself the good days are still worth the bad. But that’s a decision I have to make for him, one that he has no control over. And I worry every day that I’m going to get it wrong. I worry that he’s trying to let me know and I can’t see him or hear him. It’s hard to see the label when you’re inside the bottle, after all.
And so here I am, on this roller coaster of waiting for my dog to “let me know” something that I’m not sure he’ll actually be able to let me know. I try to think about it and not think about it. I’m appreciating the time we still have, while grieving the already-gone walks and games of tug-o-war and being greeted at the door. I’m embracing endless porch naps, while I worry and wait and worry some more. I’ve put travel plans on hold for the foreseeable future. I give him doggy ice cream and help him up on the sofa when his legs won’t cooperate. I don’t try to stop him anymore when he barks at the mail carrier. Who am I to take away any of the few remaining mail-carrier barks he has left in him? And just like that, the days keep passing.
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