Last Sunday I drove eight hours to visit my family in Washington. Even though I had made the trip little more than a month before, I was loving the length of the drive and the freedom of being on the road. My eight month-old was asleep in the back of the car, and my pup was sitting on the passenger seat beside me. After several hours of driving through the dark, it was morning, and the early sunlight was turning the mountain tops to the west of Baker City, Oregon a rosy shade of white. I had cash in my pocket, I was singing along to songs on my ipod, and for once I wasn’t feeling worried or overwhelmed by the responsibilities of daily life.
The drive back to Boise couldn’t have been more different.
I guess I should have seen it coming. Ziggy, my dog, hadn’t been healthy for some time. Eight months since her diagnosis her whole face had changed: Her snout was swollen, her forehead was too, and she regularly had strings of milky-looking snot and blood hanging from her nose. Most of the time she breathed through her mouth, but when she didn’t, when she tried to breath through her nose, as all dogs do, she sounded like she was snoring, or snorting. The neighbor kids even asked once if she was growling, and I had to explain to them about the cancer.
The holidays so recently past had been accompanied by a particular kind of guilt, one brought on by family members’ reactions when they saw Zig. My grandmother was probably the most forthright of everybody when she said, “Don’t you think it’s time?”
At the time, I didn’t. My vet had indicated on several occasions that if Ziggy was still enjoying food, human contact, and walks, she still had some quality of life left. She enjoyed those things, and we had her on medication to minimize the pain, bleeding, and swelling. So I put off the decision.
But my family’s unease made me uneasy as well. I was always questioning myself: Was I waiting to euthanize her because I didn’t want to say goodbye? Maybe I wasn’t as aware of her discomfort as I should be. Maybe my family was seeing the situation through clearer eyes. The scary truth was, nobody could tell me when it was time. Not really. Of all the people in the world, I was Ziggy’s person, and nobody else spent nearly as much time in her company as I did.
After Christmas, back in Boise, I watched Zig carefully. She wasn’t eating hard dog food anymore, but she loved the rice, ground turkey and peas I made for her. She hung around the kitchen while I was cleaning or cooking, and gobbled the slices of deli meat I passed her way. On walks she was becoming slower, but her tail invariably curled up into a question mark when we were outside. I took her lead and walked slower, too. When she couldn’t handle longer distances, I chose shorter routes.
Last Sunday was such a gorgeous, un-February-like day that I decided to stop, near the end of our drive, at one of my old favorite hiking places in eastern Washington. The Hog Lake trail is short, a mile or less, winding through scattered ponderosa woodland and ending at an overlook over basalt cliffs. In the spring you can see a waterfall pouring in a wide cascade into a pothole lake.
Zig didn’t make it as far as the lake, but that was okay. We stopped frequently, and I held Little Guy steady while he practiced stepping awkwardly over the uneven ground. When we stopped, Ziggy would sit or lay down. She looked excited to be out — Her tail was up, and several times she broke into a shambling trot that once would have been a sprint. But one of her front legs was bothering her, and when we got back to the car, she was limping badly.
When I first adopted Zig five years ago, she had a weak leg. Our first walk together was a stroll of an hour or two on a flat river trail in Wyoming, and when we got home from that she was hobbling. The vet clinic didn’t know what to tell us at the time; nothing was obviously wrong. I called Zig’s foster mom and she said that Zig had been confined in a kennel for several months before she was taken in for foster care, and that she probably just needed to build up some strength in her leg. We continued to take her out for walks, and I put hot pads on her leg when we were hanging out at home. Over time the problem disappeared, and Ziggy was hiking and running around just like any other healthy dog. Her leg had been fine for years. This re-emerging problem seemed like the worst kind of bad timing. Wasn’t she dealing with enough already?
I figured Zig’s leg was acting up again because we weren’t as active anymore. I figured all the time sitting in the passenger seat of the car while I drove to Washington, and before in Idaho when I had brought her on errands, had led to the limping. I knew that a bad leg would likely mean the end of walks for us, and that being the case, it was time to seriously examine Ziggy’s quality of life.
But we were away from home on a trip, and I thought that Zig would be okay if we didn’t walk much. She loves my parents and I thought she would get some enjoyment from hanging out with my family. I thought maybe the leg would improve a little if I put a hot pad on it.
Our stay didn’t go too badly at first. My parents were glad to see us, as they always are, and they gave Ziggy some attention every once in a while. But I felt a little frustrated when they mostly paid attention to the baby, and mostly ignored my sick dog. It made sense that it would be this way. All cultural norms value people over animals, and Little Guy requires so much maintenance that he hijacks most of the attention wherever he goes. My mom knew I was upset about Zig’s health, and she was very caring, but mostly she wanted to comfort me. I just wanted to comfort Zig, and I felt kind of sick when I realized that I was the one being in the entire world who really cared about this loving, well-behaved, sociable dog. It didn’t seem fair. By all rights of temperament, Ziggy should have had many people agonizing about her health and happiness.
Sunday passed, and Monday. Zig wasn’t doing spectacularly well, but she seemed relatively content. My parents had a lot of chicken in their fridge, and Ziggy ate well.
On Monday night Zig became noticeably uncomfortable. She hopped on three legs whenever she got up to move, and she seemed unable to settle in one place for long. Sometimes she would sit with one paw in the air as though somebody had asked her to “shake,” even though nobody had.
After some discussion, I decided to drive her into Spokane to see the emergency vet. I always hated bringing Zig into the vet. When I first adopted her I thought I could train her to like the place by bringing her by sometimes on the course of our walks and having the receptionists give her treats. That may have helped a little in the beginning, but after five years of teeth cleanings, porcupine quill removals, biopsies and checkups, the vet made her nervous. That evening as we sat in an empty exam room, Zig tried to crawl onto my lap, all fifty pounds of her. Under her fur I could feel her heart beating fast and I felt bad, as I always do, that doing something to help her would frighten her so badly.
That night the vet gave Zig a shot of pain medication. We went back to my parents’ place and she slept really well. But that was the evening I made my decision. I texted a veterinarian from Boise who did home euthanization visits, and asked for an appointment. She texted me back and said she could come on Friday.
Tuesday passed without major problems, but again that night Zig became more obviously uncomfortable. She didn’t want to stay in one place. We were already planning to leave at 3:00 in the morning for the drive back to Idaho (Little Guy does much better on long trips when he is sleeping), but at 1:00 a.m. I decided we might as well leave a little earlier. I figured I could take Zig to our regular vet when we got back to Boise. In the meantime I hoped her normal pain pills would suffice and that she would do okay in the car.
The night passed on the road, and Ziggy didn’t seem comfortable, but we were managing. At one point I tried to give her pain pills wrapped in lunch meat. She ate one, but wouldn’t take the other. She wouldn’t take any lunch meat without pills, either. I became more worried.
By the time the sun had risen Ziggy had started to whine in her seat — Not a lot, not constantly, but every once in a while she would let out a quiet whine. I pulled off the road at Baker City, Oregon and called my parents. They said the nearest vet clinic was back the other direction in La Grande, and it didn’t open for another hour. At this time we were two hours away from Boise. I weighed my options and chose the latter.
As I got back on the highway I called our regular vet clinic, which was open already, and explained the situation. I asked if it would be possible to give Ziggy another shot of pain medication. The receptionist told me the vet would call me back. We hung up, and I got back to driving, one hand on the steering wheel and one hand on my pup. She was panting hard, and her eyes were wide. I wondered what I was doing.
We drove straight to the vet clinic. I didn’t have a lot of cash on me at that point and wasn’t sure how much was on my card. If I drove home I could have grabbed some more, but I was too worried about Zig. I called my parents again, and they said they would cover me. I left a message with the home-visit vet and asked if she could come earlier than Friday.
Remembering Ziggy’s fear of being in the vet’s office, I left her sitting on a patch of grass near our car and walked in holding the baby. I asked the receptionist if the veterinarian had any time to see us now, or if at least one of the vet techs could come out and help me get Zig to swallow her pain pills. I went back outside and changed Little Guy’s diaper, then sat on the sidewalk between him and Zig. Little Guy was intently crawling over me and pulling himself up on my sleeves. Ziggy was pacing close to me on three feet, then sitting, then getting up again. I noticed one corner of her nose, which had been dry-looking the other day, now looked almost cracked. She looked so awful, and I began to worry that the veterinarian wasn’t going to have time to see her. I realized that my idealized Friday home visit wasn’t realistic. Any home visit was looking unrealistic.
Dr. Miller came outside a couple minutes later. She commented on Ziggy’s swollen nose and said that her bad leg might be a sign of the cancer metastasizing, but it was hard to say for sure. Then she looked at me and said, “I think it’s time.”
“I know,” I said.
Dr. Miller took Little Guy from me and went back into the clinic to hand him over to the receptionist and gather the medication. I called Ziggy and we sat in the sun on the damp patch of grass. She leaned into me, I hugged her, and I could tell she was uncomfortable. She shifted around and yelped once, but didn’t pull away. We just sat like that, and I tried to keep my face and voice calm so she wouldn’t know I was upset.
Two vet techs came outside a minute later with paperwork and some tools. I signed the paperwork, and one of them injected a sedative into Ziggy’s haunch while I continued to hold her. A few moments later I felt Zig sag into me. She was still breathing but her body was limp. Her nose was pressing into my chest and I moved her head a little to make her more comfortable. Maybe it did. I wasn’t sure if she was aware of anything at that point. Her one eye that I could see was slightly open, so I looked at it, called her name quietly and tried to make encouraging sounds. I was slightly alarmed to see Zig’s lower jaw start to shake, but that passed, and she continued to breath while one of the techs shaved a patch on her front leg and inserted a catheter. When that was done they asked, “Should we get Dr. Miller, or do you want to sit with her for a while?”
“Go get the doctor,” I said. They left, and I sat in the grass with my pup.
A minute later Dr. Miller was back, holding another syringe. “Your little boy is doing really well in there,” she said. “He’s really happy being passed between all the staff.”
“That’s good,” I replied. I said something about him starting to enter his clingy phase. Dr. Miller said something else about Zig. Maybe she asked me if I was ready. I said something back. Then she was inserting the syringe into the catheter and injecting the medication to stop Ziggy’s heart.
I watched Ziggy’s face closely while this happened. To see if her eyes moved, to see her last breath. I had been through this once before with a family dog, and from that other time I thought I remembered one last breath, not a big one, just a normal one, followed by an intense stillness. Somehow it wasn’t quite like that with Zig. When Dr. Miller pulled out her stethoscope I was still half expecting to see that last movement. But then Dr. Miller said there was no heartbeat, and I realized my pup was gone.
Dr. Miller gave me a hug before going back inside. I sat in the grass with Zig on my lap for another minute, and then a tech came out again, this time with wheeled cart covered in a blanket. She helped me lift Ziggy onto it and then I stood, feeling my dog’s soft black fur one last time. And then the cart was taken away and I was alone.
… Except, of course, there was the baby inside to pick up, and the bill to pay. And then I had to call J and tell her the news, and call the home-visit vet and cancel our appointment. J took the rest of the day off work and took over my errands for me, taking Little Guy to his physical therapy appointment and dropping off a meal for somebody in our local parent group. I went home, and unpacked our things from the trip. Then I truly was alone, and the silence swallowed me.
The patterns of grief have been written about many times before, and my own feelings over the past few days, though intense, aren’t novel. A number of people have said nice things to me, and several distant friends on Facebook wrote me to tell about pets of their own that were recently lost.
The best message came from a woman in my dog walking group, who also lost a dog to nasal cancer a while ago. She wrote,
“I remember afterwards feeling like everyone else’s life was normal and mine had stopped. I had all this ‘free time’ that I didn’t want. No more hand feeding my dog, cleaning up the blood or just hours of holding him. No need to get up and let him outside right away. Or to rush home and give him medications. I didn’t know when to put away his beds and leashes. When it was okay to stop crying. How long I could keep talking about it. I wasn’t prepared for what to do afterwards.”
Her words weren’t exactly words of comfort, but they described what I was feeling so accurately that I felt, almost, comforted. Ziggy was gone. All the responsibility of caring for her and worrying about her was over. My new responsibility was to find a way to live with that freedom.