Dogs, Death, and a Beautiful Day

This morning we had our corgi, King, put down, put to sleep, euthanized.  So many pretty words to say something so hard and so simple.   We had our dying corgi killed.

Late one night ten years ago our 19 year old cat had a stroke.  We immediately took her to an all-night veterinary clinic to be “put to sleep”.   She was so old and she was so frightened and she could not stay upright.  Her eyes radiated panic.   I made a very quick and decisive and easy decision.

Josiah, who was the age Jubilee is now, 10, insisted on coming and on watching.   We TOLD him we were having Frankie “put to sleep.”  He was shocked and traumatized when, at the clinic he realized what “put to sleep” meant.   The look on his face and his desperate plea, “You mean she is dead?” still rattles my soul.   We made no vague illusions with Jubilee.   Josiah felt deceived and we intended no deceit.   Some things cannot be softened by pretty words.   With Jubilee we were quite clear.

The decision with King was not as clear.   His decline was slow and his ability to adapt was stunning.  Feeding had been a problem for a months.  I was very creative concocting tempting foods and, when I held the bowl for him, he would eat the new cuisine for a day or maybe two and then stop eating again.  I cooked more for King in the last two months than I have cooked for my family in the last year!

Friday, the 26th of June Jubilee, Roy, Peter, and I took a road trip to see the eldest child, Ruth, her husband, my friends, our friends, and NYC.   Between the time we left in the morning and David coming home after work, King had a stroke.  He could not stand, he was panting and drooling and David called very upset thinking he would have to “put him down” that night, but King rallied.   We decided to keep him comfortable and let his life run its natural course.  King proved to be a fighter.

For 11 days he refused to eat and would take just a little water.  He listed heavily to the right and could not stand up.  He figured out how to move up and down the hall by leaning against the wall and dragging his back end along.  (I think the left back leg still had some get up and go, but he listed so heavily to the right that it did not do him much good.)   Every day we called to see if King was “still with us.”  Every day we were amazed to hear he was still alive.

The day we returned, Tuesday July 6th, he started eating, sort of.  He deigned to drink Ensure protein drinks.  We started very slowly, but his digestive tract was NOT in agreement with his renewed appetite.  He became more and more distressed and on Thursday night we decided- no, I decided – it was time to make preparations.  Saturday and Sunday the kids and David would be at a big swim meet and I did not want to be home alone trying to dig a grave under our fig tree.

In a feminist fail, I asked David if he would dig a grave for King.  David, remembering how much it helped Josiah to dig the grave for our first dog, Wolf: digging and crying, digging and crying, digging and crying- invited Jubilee to join him.   When Peter came home from coaching he helped, too.   While they dug, I picked imperfect pears.

Thursday night was hard.  King, only able to move forward, kept getting himself stuck  in corners which required several midnight reorientations.   David also got up with him several times when he was agitated, scared, and panting- an indication of pain or distress.  I finally made a barricade using my 33 year old Singer sewing machine to fill the most obnoxious niche enabling King to keep moving forward without getting wedged into the cracks.   We hoped he would “pass” naturally, but the distress level in the house, his and ours, was palpable.

Euthanasia.  Such a slippery slope.   Yes, we don’t want our animals to suffer, but there is also the pull to avoid our own suffering.   We “put them out of their misery” when they are our animals, and yet we deny our fellow human beings the same courtesy.   We have to be careful to put them out of their misery and not just be putting them out of our OWN misery.   We all know the legends about putting the elder member of the tribe on a sled and hauling them out to the woods to be left to die.   Compassion.  Self-preservation.   Such a slippery slope.

(My sporadically affectionate cat is sitting next to me.  I wonder if she knows.  “Storm, do you know?)

When I was ready to make the decision to have King “put to sleep”, “put down” I imposed mightily on our horse vet.  Dr. Alton and his team of wonderful, caring veterinarians and assistants has been there for us through some hairy situations.  (Literally hairy.  A huge hairball wedged into Big Red’s second colon and required surgery.)   Dr. Alton’s predecessor, Dr. Howell, helped us the week before Christmas, 2010, put down Ribbons, another elderly and sickly cat.  He was at the barn looking after horses when I asked him to “put down” Ribbons who was having his first good day in several weeks.  He agreed.   He and his assistant took Ribbons into the back of the barn and held him and stroked him and “put him to sleep.”  I wanted that for King.

Thursday I had texted Dr. Alton and talked to him on the phone.  He graciously agreed to help us.  Friday morning I texted Dr. Alton that we were coming and asked if he would meet us outside.   “You bet.”

Peter and Roy came home from swim practice Friday morning and Peter played his guitar for King.   King had always been a fan of music.  Guitar lessons and piano lessons were his favorite days.  As soon as the instruments came out King was in the middle of the action.   Since King’s hearing was pretty much gone Peter sat on the floor with King and played.   Some of the time with the guitar touching King’s side so he could feel the vibrations.   Some of the time, just resting the instrument on his leg while King leaned against the same leg.   King seemed very happy.   We encouraged King to drink some water.

The ride to the other side of Granbury is just shy of half an hour.   King and Jubilee rode in the back bench seat of our 20 year old Ford van.   Jubilee sat on King’s right so King could list to the right against the seat back and Jubilee would stop his forward motion.   He scooted forward and laid his head in her lap.   King loves riding in the van and he did not seem to mind Jubilee’s tears and kisses as we drove.   He kept looking up and bonking her in the face with his pointy corgi nose.  The tongue, as quick as ever, would lap her drippy-from-crying nose.   It was a good ride and I am thankful for the intimate time Jubilee and King had together.

We parked beneath a huge oak tree in front of the clinic and texted our doctor that , whenever it was convenient, we were here.  He and a man whose name I did not get- a vet in training- came out to “do the deed.”   Dr. Alton kept apologizing, “I am so sorry.  I know this is hard for you.”  He shared, what we instinctively knew, that this is the hardest part of his job.  Truth be told, I should have been the one apologizing, it was hard on everyone present.  I was asking a lot from this good man and he gave sacrificially.   He is a dad with children just younger than Jubilee and I know Jubilee’s grief was tearing him up.

Isn’t it interesting how tear, liquid from the eyes, and tear, to rend apart, are spelled the same in English.  Indicative of their close association or coincidence?

I brought a large rectangular plastic storage bin and King’s favorite blanket for bringing him home.  Ruth and I sewed up the blanket for him several years ago when his joints started getting stiff.  It was a huge fuzzy pillow sham which we filled with thick memory foam.  We had removed one of the seats in the van which made a nice open place in front of the open van doors.   I picked up King and moved him from the bench seat next to Jubilee and placed him on his blanket in the bin on the floor of the van.   He greeted the new arrivals.  King LOVED riding in the van and he LOVED meeting new people.  He was overtly gregarious.

The sky was blue with a few wispy clouds and there was a breeze, a cool breeze.   The equine veterinarians, angels of mercy, came out to our extravagantly painted van, shared our pain, and suggested that we not watch.

Sharing pain is a beautiful gift.

Jubilee and I climbed over a rail fence, which was a little taller than it looked, and sat on the beautiful slab, stone-hinge benches under the same oak tree as the van.   Jubilee sat in my lap and cried.   Ten years old is not too old to be held and holding her was comforting to me.   She told me she was not ready.  I told her I was not either.   I did not realize that our ministers of mercy would “treat” King right there in the van.  I am so grateful!  It was good to share the old gnarled oak with King for “the end.”

From where we sat, with the open van doors blocking our view, we could see our veterinarian’s legs and feet beneath the door and the tops of their heads through the door windows.   Dr. Alton had to leave to switch meds as King’s veins were already collapsing.  King did not make any sounds and he was always quick to make verbal complaint- a trait of corgis.   I took comfort in King’s silence, the katydids, the sky, the breeze, the clouds, and Jubilee’s open expression of our shared grief.   Our unnamed veterinarian stayed with King while Dr. Alton fetched the new meds.  We could tell that Dr. Alton’s associate was stroking King.  I love our vet-in-training for staying with King and loving on him.  It would have been within his right to stand and stretch or just step away from the trauma for a moment.  He stayed with King and comforted him and by comforting King, comforted us.

Next week I will drive back out there and ask him his name, ask him and thank him.

A few minutes after Dr. Alton returned they were finished.   Both our heroic equine veterinarians hugged us wished us well.  I did not get his name, but I got a sincere hug.  I went to the van, ahead of Jubilee, and found King gently wrapped in his soft lime green blanket.  The little white paw prints on the material made it the perfect doggie shroud.   King was still warm as I pet him through to blanket to say goodbye and determine which end was which.  I peeked, his eyes were open.  He did not look dead.  I decided not to let Jubilee look and she was fine with that.   She had held him and loved him while he was alive and it was enough.

Before we buried him she wanted to touch him.   “He is so cold,” was all she said.

The drive home was teary.   We took turns crying and we cried together.   Jubilee called her Dad and her big brother, Forrest.  Telling her story to her Dad and to Forrest helped her process.  Listening helped me process.  Jubilee could not get through to Ruth, her big sister, and that was very distressing for her.  She was unable to reach Ruth until almost bedtime.

Because she needed to process and share her grief and was unable to reach Ruth, Jubilee started texting friends.  First Melissa and her daughter, Rivers.  Melissa is one of my dear friends and River’s is Jubilee’s oldest and dearest friend.  Next Jubilee texted Teri.   I love that we share friends.   Jubilee, 10, and Ruth, 26, both consider Melissa and Teri as their own friends and they are correct.   I love inter-generational relationships.   They are so important when I screw up or my children feel like they can’t talk to me but still have a trusted adult to talk to.   I am so thankful for generous, caring friends who love me and love mine.

Once home I placed King in the basement and Jubilee took a bath and I started writing.   Roy and Peter came home from working at the barn a couple hours later and we buried King under the fig tree with its almost ripe fruit.   King fit perfectly into the grave David, Jubilee and Peter had dug the night before.   Peter gently picked King up from the bin, careful not to disturb his fuzzy shroud, and placed him gently into the ground.   Watching my 16 year old son, the youngest boy, take on this heavy responsibility reminded me that soon he will be more man than boy.   He will be a good man.   I took a shovel and began covering him up.   After a minute Roy took my shovel and finished.  Peter pried up a large natural stone slab and placed it over King’s grave.   We want to make it, if not impossible, very difficult for scavengers to dig him up.

The breeze was still cool.
The katydids were still trilling.
The clouds still wispy.
Our hearts:  heavy.

We walked up the incline to the house and ate lunch.
Life stops.
Life goes on.

We search our memories for mercies and joys and ways to be thankful
for what has passed and what is to come.

Begun on Friday, July 10th, 2015 by Gwen Meharg.  Completed on the next day.  Saturday, July 11th, 2015, Josiah Odell Meharg’s 20th birthday.
(I have had two computer viruses since I began writing this and Storm, my sporadically affectionate cat, has joined me again.   She is stretched out sleeping and looking out the window.  I reach over and stroke her and tell her, sincerely, that she is a good girl.   She isn’t doing ANYTHING.  Just laying next to me and I automatically deem her a “good girl.”   Maybe I need to talk to myself and my kids that way more often.   Laying around enjoying the sun?  Good girl!    Taking a nap instead of doing algebra?  Good boy!   Hmmm, maybe not.)

Embracing Scars and Imperfect Pears

David, Peter and Jubilee are outside digging a place, a grave, for King under the fig tree.  We spied three ripening figs.  David and the kids are going to be at a two day meet this weekend. In  a feminist fail and told them I did not want to dig a grave while they were away. King is still with us but he had another stroke or seizure in the wee hours of the morning.

His days are short and he is JUST a dog, but sometimes JUST DOGS bring a tenderness to the heart that allows unfinished mourning to flow.

We passed the fourth anniversary of the death of my niece in May. This weekend a cousin is finishing packing up her son’s home after his untimely death. Another friend just finished the trial over the wrongful death of her son. It is coming up on the anniversary of one of the death of one of my dearest friends 16 years ago.  Another friend lost both her parents, who were also my friends, in less than a year.   Summer stirs hearts and katydids drone on and on their song of sorrows.

Yes, King is JUST a dog, but he has also been a good friend and a faithful listener. We have cried several times today. We cried for his impending death. We cried for my sister. We cried for my cousin. We cried for friends and their losses. We cried for our own losses.

Life is hard. So are the pears. But life is also sweet. The pears, just barely. Life is beautiful when we release the illusion of perfection and embrace our scars.