Trigger Warning: If you’ve recently lost a pet, you may not wish to read any farther. This entry explores grief and coping with loss.
It’s been nearly a month since we lost Sally. That last Saturday was hard on her, but we had a short walk, plenty of “savoury bits,” and naps in front of the fan. Perhaps I should have known, should have heard the difference in the sound her struggling breath made. Perhaps I should have called the emergency vet and made arrangements to have her put down. But she’d had many rough spells in the past 12 months, and she’d always rallied the next day.
If I Had Known It Was the Last Day
That night, she must have been in agony, forcing air past a tracheal flap that had finally ceased to work. It tears me to think of it, to remember how she made a point of gazing first into my mother’s eyes and then into mine. After that, it was only a matter of hours, or maybe only minutes. She wanted to be outside in the darkness, lying in the wet grass. We took turns sitting outside with her, speaking soothing words as she would rise and dash across the lawn, duck under bushes, try desperately to find a comfortable position.
When she desperately tore through the foliage of a closely grown corner, wedging herself between the trunks of two large bushes, I knew without doubt that she had chosen her dying place. I knelt, wedged against the splintery wood of the fence, eaten alive by mosquitoes and who knows what, holding a flashlight angled upwards. I watched my sweet Dingo die, her sides heaving more slowly as she tired from the struggle, until at the last she spasmed and breathed no more.
It has occurred to me many times in the subsequent weeks that I could have granted her an easy death, a slow sliding into sleep. This, ostensibly, would have been far kinder. But Sally hated the vet, and I can’t help but think that for her to die in some clinic’s back room, surrounded by the barking of strange dogs or the harsh smell of cleaner, under the glare of fluorescent lights would have been perverse. She wasn’t like other dogs. She was too smart to trust anyone implicitly, and I think she would have known what we were doing. As it was, she went ungently, but in a place of her choosing, which she had selected in the weeks leading up to her death.
The Gift Year
Sally passed away a bit more than 12 months after the emergency vets had looked serious and spoken words with terrible sounds of finality. Up until that point, she’d had increasing difficulty breathing, but we didn’t know why. So, when her struggle became more intense than usual, my parents took her to the vet where she went into cardiac arrest. They put her in the oxygen tent after stabilizing her, then transferred her to the emergency vet for tests.
The ultimate diagnosis was laryngeal paralysis, a somewhat common ailment in Labs, which is half her breed ancestry. But they usually only live to be 12 or 13 years old, and Sally was 14 at the time. The surgeon did say that she would be a candidate for the operation that would pin open her tracheal flaps. But while it would enable her to breathe more easily, it would also permit food to become lodged in her airways, predispose her to respiratory infections, and eliminate her ability to bark. Sally lived to bark. At everything.
Puppy Soup is Made with Miracles
So we took her home and opted not to have the surgery. They said, “Make her comfortable.” And numbered her remaining days in weeks, possibly a few months. We spoiled her more than usual. I stopped looking for a job. She declined. One night, after a day of vomiting and struggling to breathe, a friend helped me to make a simple “soup” of finely mashed ground beef, water, and peas-and-carrots. The Dingo loved it, and seemed to gain strength immediately afterward.
She hadn’t been able to keep her canned food down at all, so we hadn’t been feeding it to her. That was when I made the connection between her breathing difficulties and her diet of canned food, which she received in the evening along with a half cup of kibble. I told my parents what I suspected, and asked to try an experiment. Puppy Soup was born–chicken, bone stock, oats, and specific vegetables to come as close to complete nutrition as I could get.
As soon as we got rid of the canned food and began feeding her only the Soup, supplemented with her Old Lady Dog formula kibble, she bounced back. In fact, she was more alive and full of energy than she’d been in years. I began taking her on long walks, letting her set the pace. At times, that meant pausing to sniff blades of grass for five minutes a piece. In other instances, she would want to run, and so we would–me, trying to keep from tripping on uneven pavement, Sally with her tail curled high over her back and her head up, an enormous dog-smile lighting her features.
While some might condemn us for not putting her to sleep last summer, I think anyone who knows dogs will understand. This last year was a sweet gift. Sally may have held on for us, because she knew we needed her. The utter emptiness of a house without her stands silent testament to that need. But nothing lives forever. In the space of those months, I poured my life into caring for her–this Dingo, who had been the brattiest, yappiest, most intractable of puppies. She became my constant companion.
If what behavioral specialists say about dogs is true, she bonded with me differently, was more responsive to my moods and the commands I used when we walked, because I became the Alpha in her eyes. In many ways, she became my dog more than she was for anyone else. It was because of her that I finished No One Has Such a Dog, and No One Should. And while I can’t yet bring myself to read any of the essays, quite yet, I know she’s there. I know that anyone who reads them will meet her, laugh at her antics and her sassy attitude, know her sweetness. That is some comfort, to know she will be waiting for me in those pages when I am ready.