Thursday, September 5, 2013

A Pet Owner's Burden of Love

I found out my father and my dog had cancer within minutes of one another on December 22, 1991.  I took the message about my father with somber silence and broke out in tears when my husband delivered the news about my border collie, Lando, a few minutes later.  I remember it so clearly because it was the evening of our anniversary and, as we would do occasionally when our kids were young, we had splurged on a nice hotel room downtown for the night.  We wouldn't go out and paint the town, we'd generally stay in the room, laze around and watch TV.  I would take a long, hot bath.  Maybe we'd splurge on room service.  The quiet was what we were buying.  But that year, within minutes of dropping our little overnight bags on the bed, Greg sat me down to share the burdensome news he'd been the unlucky recipient of earlier in the day.  He told me, gave me some time to compose myself and we proceeded with our uneventful evening and no more was said about it.  Maybe I asked some questions; I can't clearly recall.  I do remember having a hard time sleeping, and it was my dog who was primarily weighing on my mind.  On the other side of the soft Hyatt bed, Greg was troubling over his own thoughts.  The next morning over breakfast at Trudy's downtown, he finally asked me what had been bothering him.  He wanted to know why I reacted more strongly to the news of Lando than I did about my dad.  He must have thought my reaction was at a minimum insensitive.  Maybe even monstrous.  Over two decades later I can tell you that part of it was the shock of hearing about my dad then piled on with Lando, which then broke through my shock and shook tears from me.  But, what I told him was also true then, and is true now.  I responded that there wasn't much I could do for my dad, particularly at that moment.  He was an older man who had lived a full and eventful life who was now in the care of capable doctors.  Lando, on the other hand, was wholly our responsibility.  He depended on us for everything.  His fate would be our burden and our decision.  His pain would be on our shoulders.

The prognosis for Lando, who had a tumor on his brain stem, was dire, and we had been told our time with him would be short.  Dad, on the other hand, who had been diagnosed with bone marrow cancer initially, would be undergoing treatment and everyone was bracing for a battle.  Six weeks later my dad was gone but Lando would live another several months.  The question is whether he should have.  Did I hang onto him too long?  Did I allow him to suffer needlessly because I had endured one loss and couldn't withstand another so soon?  Lando was always a demure creature, so as the cancer worked its way up to his brain, as we were told it would, he turned blind and increasingly still, but really he didn't complain - he wasn't a complainer - and he didn't act overly different than he always did.  When I visited with the vet shortly after Greg told me the news, I worried over what to do and when to do it.  I remember her looking at me straight in the eyes and saying sincerely, "You'll know when it's time."  Well, with all things being equal, maybe I would have.  But things had happened that maybe clouded my judgment.  I lived with the worry and guilt of that for many, many years.  Did my quiet, serious boy lay there wondering when the hell I would wake up and smell the coffee and please, oh please, put him out of his unendurable pain?  I just don't know.  I never ever will.

Lando at about his most playful

 Between then and now, I have had to make end of life decisions for over a dozen animals, but I've never been that conflicted until this past Sunday, but for the opposite reason.  We lost Chappy, the big, lovable lab-cross that I had taken in as a foster nearly ten years before who never left us, not until Sunday that is.  To say I "lost" him is wrong:  Marissa and I took him to the emergency vet and, after discussing it, we asked the vet to put him to sleep, thus ending a week long ordeal for both him and us after he lost the use of his back legs the Sunday before.  There was a lot that transpired between those two Sundays that I could step you through:  I find I can't do it though.  I can't write the words for some reason.  Maybe later.  But it weighs me down too much to think of it, let alone relive it that vividly.  So, sum it up for the purposes of my point here to say that we had turned the World's Smallest Kitchen into the World's Smallest Hospital Room, and you sensed that Chappy felt like it was the World's Smallest Prison Cell.  He hated being away from us.  Happy-Chappy was very, very unhappy and began to become visibly depressed over his situation.  He didn't need human words to convey that to us.  I began to feel some frustration with the situation and, God help me, with him, joined by creeping worry over what would happen next time I had to travel on business.   There was some initial hope he would recover, but as his mood dampened, so did the signs of improvement, and it was looking probable that we would forever be slinging beach towels under his belly to help him walk from one place to another.  My former athlete who loved to play, swim and go on morning walks was handicapped, probably forever.  It was hard to judge his true pain, but his discomfort was clear.  He was forever shifting off the makeshift beds we were making for him, trying to find a comfortable position and never being truly successful.  Then on Sunday he began to blow up like a balloon, particularly in his right front leg and left elbow joint.  So, we got him loaded into the car and whisked him back to the emergency clinic to find out that the steroids he was on had suppressed his immune system, so bacteria had entered through the cracks in his elbow pads and were causing an infection.  It was treatable, and the vet told us some things to do to make the kitchen more user friendly for him, but she opened up the door for the discussion about ending it all right then.  So Marissa, whose dog he truly was because he loved her above all others, and I tearfully discussed it as he lay in front of us, listening to our pained discussion.  I looked down at him more than once, wishing he could tell us what he wanted to do here, but he remained still, just listening, never commenting.  In the end, we decided jointly that this is not the life he wanted and we chose to let him free of it.  He was alert and aware until the last.  And that's the hard part.  If he could have spoken to us, would he have told us that any life was better than none, or would he have thanked us for the courage to end his humiliation and limitation right then and there?  Did I do it because money was an issue or because this was easier for me?  Those are the things that haunt me and will not let me truly be at peace with the decision.  I think we did the more humane thing, truly.  But, without him being able to weigh in, I don't know if I did for him what he would have wanted me to, humane or not.

And that's a pet owner's burden.  Trying to sort through and past all our own extraneous "stuff" to, as that vet told me so long ago, know the right time to say goodbye.  It's not as easy or as clear cut as she made it seem.  Not always.  And that's why I cry for my pets so easily, I guess.  I cry for myself, because it's an immense responsibility to literally hold life and death in your hands.  But, if we love our pets, it's perhaps the most important gift of love we can give them:  stepping up to the plate to say when enough suffering is enough.  God, Chappy, I hope I swung it out of the park for you.  I hope you are running free somewhere with the rest of the pack you lived with.  I hope Kelsey's there, throwing you that stupid rubber toy you loved so much that I bought them in multiples every time I went to the store.  I hope I made the right choice.  I love you so much.  You were such a good dog.

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