We entered in solemnity, already knowing there was nothing we could do. The poor little thing was on life support, hanging on just long enough to say goodbye. We're all at that age when we've lost family and close friends. In some ways, losing a pet is harder. There are no complications or communication breakdowns. There's just this warm little ball of unconditional love. We sometimes have more years of memories with a pet than we had with our family of origin. We grow up with them, relocate with them, cry on them, take naps with them, share meals with them - and then, suddenly, they're frail. They go gray around the muzzle. They move slowly with the rickety gait of age. They quit eating. It's time to go. We really want to hang on one more year, but it's time to go.
Sitting in the waiting room of a veterinary hospital, it's impossible to avoid thinking of all the pets you've lost over the years. Phoebe, who would whisper "Give me a kiss, give me a kiss" and say "Bye bye" when she rode in the carrier. Rita, who would climb up her ladder, and then turn around and climb down on the underside, upside down and backward. Mr. Puffy, who finally learned to fly at age twelve, and spoke at fifteen. He asked for: "Oatmeal." I thought of Spike, with his early diagnosis of Addison's disease, and how he was only two when I sat vigil with him, sure he wasn't going to make it until morning. He's still with us at eight, but we've been sure we were going to lose him half a dozen times. He's spent more time with doctors over the last five years than the two of us humans combined. This time I wasn't there for one of my own, but I knew what my friend was going through, hamstrung by grief and shock.
We try to hold back and not love them so much, so it won't hurt so bad when they go. We can't help it. They love us with such a pure devotion. That's why they're here: to teach us how to love properly, with full abandon and bursting hearts. To greet each other joyously, to trust completely, to forgive effortlessly. Perfect acceptance, perfect friendship, perfect love.
They don't understand how to criticize, judge, or blame. They also don't understand anything about veterinary medicine. They live in a world of scents and smells more profound than anything we can imagine. All they know is that they're in a weird, antiseptic world of fear, pain, and confusion. They're poked and prodded and assaulted with pills. They're locked in cages. They hear the cries of other frightened, sick animals. They're already ill, and now we ask this of them. It's not too much - they'd die for us if we said the word - but it is a challenging request. Please forget everything that happens to you in here. I just want you to get better and hang on one more year, one more year.
I understood the dynamics when I began to tune in to the conversation of a married couple on the other side of the room. They were about a decade older than me. I gathered that they were the companions of the standard poodle down the hall. Whenever the door opened, I could see him, mouth slack with pain and stress. The couple were discussing the prognosis and the cost of the procedure. What would they tell the kids? Despite the sensitivity of the topic and the lateness of the hour, they sounded like they were maintaining rationality.
The upshot was this: the dog needed major surgery, but he was elderly and could only expect, at most, another couple of years of a natural lifespan. He had already had an expensive treatment that had not helped. The surgery might not work, and he might not survive the procedure. My antennae went up when the dollar figure came up, because it matched what I still owe on my student loan. Six thousand dollars. Ooof, I thought, that'll leave a mark. Enough to contribute to an IRA for the year. Enough to cover their high schooler's college tuition for a term (maybe). Enough to bring home another dog (after some time had passed) and leave a hefty donation to the animal shelter. Enough for an older used car. Enough for the entire family to live off for a couple of months. How many malaria nets it might buy, I can only guess.
This is middle age. You wade through grief after sorrow after devastation after loss. You keep your family together. You keep going to work. You think about the price tag of everything, because old age and frailty are coming your way soon enough - if you're lucky. You may wind up caring for your own parents before your kids are out of the nest.
I felt for that couple. I almost wanted to offer my condolences, but I didn't want to make them uncomfortable. These matters are private, even if they must be discussed in a small room with an audience. Sad as it was, I felt they were making the right choice, for themselves and for their family. The surgery was too expensive, the poor furry fellow might not survive, he couldn't possibly comprehend the fear or physical agony, and they had children to support.
They went ahead with the surgery.
Something shrank inside me. Oh, no. Oh dear. They had made a major emotional decision at midnight on a work night. It might take them years to pay for it. Their beloved dog may have crossed the Rainbow Bridge long before they saw the last of the bills. At the next crisis, their position might be that much more precarious, forcing them into options they never would have faced otherwise.
The door opened again, and I saw another glimpse of the poodle's face. He was the picture of misery. He couldn't get comfortable either standing or lying down. He didn't get a say in this. He'd do what was asked of him for his entire life, which was to be there for his human family, until he could keep going no longer. I hoped he made it through the procedure and that his recovery wasn't too hard on him.
Very few happy things happen in a veterinary hospital. At best, all that happens is that the animal has to stand on a slippery metal table, suffer some confusing indignities like the thermometer, and get stuck with booster shot needles. At worst, there is pain, fear, sadness, and the longing to turn back the clock. I loved you so much when you were tiny. How could you let this happen to you? Why is your lifespan so short? Please don't say goodbye. Oh, not tonight. Just one more year. One more year.
It takes courage to let go. Nothing like the courage they show, hanging on just to please us, even when they can't eat. Even when they can't walk. Even when they can't stand up anymore. They've always been there for us, and when they finally need us to be there for them, to stand up for them and do what's right, we balk. We look at life without them and we are seized by cowardice. I can't do this without you. I can't go home and look at your bed and your empty bowl. I can't walk in my front door, knowing you won't be there waiting for me. I remember collapsing at my own front door with the key still in my hand, weeping on my knees for the one who wasn't there. Crying into the carpet, Oh my baby, why, why?
To enter the Temple of Sadness is to lose a piece of your heart. There is no earthly way to get out of there unscathed. They mop the floors with bitter tears. The only way is to somehow try to prepare yourself well in advance. Look into that sweet little face and remember, You are only here for a short time. We will love each other well. We will mark each other's hearts. We will bring something higher and better into this world. Then, before we know it, the time will be up. You couldn't pace yourself. You fit three human lifetimes into one, with triple the love, triple the bravery, triple the joy and gratitude. Now it's your time. Thank you for being my friend. Now it's time to say goodbye. See you on the other side.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.