The Last Days of Greta the Dog

the-great-gretzky

I sit bolt upright in bed.

Tick-tacky. Tick-tacky. Tick-tacky.

The dog is pacing again, pacing on the hardwood floor at the bottom of the stairs. My head is fuzzed with sleep; the clock reads 3:04 AM.

I will her to settle down, to curl up on the couch, to sleep until morning. But the tick-tacky accelerates, and then stops.

She is padding up the stairs; she is nosing open my bedroom door.

“What is it, Greta?” I ask softly. “What is it, pup?”

She paces around the room.

I grab Mark’s old bathrobe and pull it on, and the dog and I go downstairs. I let her out; I feed her. I give her pain meds and an anxiety pill. Eventually, about 5 AM, she circles around, makes a nest in the blanket on the couch, and falls into a deep, snoring sleep.

Tired but wired, I contemplate returning to bed for an hour.

In the last month, the dog has slept through the night just once…and then she was up at 5 AM. We are drained and dragging and very, very sad.

*************

“Remember,” says Mark, “when we would take her to the ball field?”

Oh, I remember. She had just come to us, Greta had,–a rescue dog who might have been, different vets told us, nine months old or who could have chalked up two years already. She carried a bad history in her frightened eyes and flinching bones. We got her used to walking on a leash, and we would take her for long, long walks. Still, we could see the energy poised in her muscles, poised and held back.

So on Saturdays and Sundays, out of season, we would take her to the ball field, unclip her leash at home plate, and yell, “Go, Greta; go!

She would run the bases, madcap, blurring, her little legs pumping. We would stand in the baselines and she would dart around us, triumphant, tongue lolling, a laughing dog. She would run and she would run and she would run, and we would see something in her face that she lacked in everyday life: joy.

After eight or ten or twelve pulsing revolutions, she would slow down, and then finally she’d come to rest, back at home plate. We would take an old Tupperware bowl and fill it at the outdoor faucet and she would lap the water noisily until it was gone. Then, exercise-sated, she would trot along beside us, hop into the car, and head home, relaxed and calm for a little time.

*****************

One Saturday, not long ago, we took a family road trip. We walked the dog before we left; we filled her water bowl and her food dish. When we locked the door behind us, she was sleeping on the couch, the deep, almost paralyzed sleep that has characterized her daytimes for the last few months.

It was a good trip, and when we came in, recapping and happy, setting treasures on the kitchen counter, we were surprised that the little dog didn’t greet us.

She wasn’t in any of her accustomed places; we searched for her downstairs, and then I heard her labored breathing.

Greta was at the top of the carpeted steps to the second floor, panting and quaking. She would not come down, and when I went up to get her, stench assailed me. She had soiled the light green carpet in Jim’s bedroom—soiled it thoroughly and monumentally.

We got the dog downstairs, dug out bags and rags, filled a bucket with warm water, pulled the carpet cleaning potion from under the sink. Mark and I scrubbed and cleaned and deodorized; we took bags outside to the garbage can. We opened windows and started fans, and we sprayed antiseptic. We scrubbed some more, until the mess had disappeared, and only pungent cleaning smells remained. Then we went to find the dog, who was shivering uncontrollably in a corner of the couch.

“Oh, Greta,” we said. “Oh, pup.”

It took a sedative and a pain pill and hours of stroking to get her calmed down.

******************

And then we counted the sleepless nights. We thought about the fact that panting and quaking—in fear? In pain? In both?—was now the little dog’s default mode. She couldn’t hear us very well; her eyes were ebony marbles, fogged with white. I called the vet almost every week; he worked with us, adjusting medication.

Maybe a bigger dose of anti-anxiety medication would help.

Maybe a hormone tablet would stop the piddling she’d begun to do in the house.

Maybe a stronger sedative would get her through the night.

We looked at the little dog, standing in a corner of the kitchen by the big window, staring blindly at a world she couldn’t see, hear, or comprehend.

That Monday, we went to talk with the vet, a young man, compassionate and kind; we did not take Greta with us.

***************

Dogs are not people, of course, but they do share some commonalities with humans. Like us, they are shaped by their earliest treatment.

We didn’t know the story of Greta’s early days, but we knew they weren’t good. But if we just love her enough, we thought, love her and care for her and show her the good world—well, then she’ll come around.

She came to love us, Greta did,–our little family of three humans. But she needed constant reassurance, a constant sense of safety. She was terrified of mail carriers, remote controls, and loud noises of any sort. She dragged her food dish beneath the kitchen table and only ate after dark, when no one was watching. Thunderstorms sent her into spasms, and, when visitors came, she backed up, barking and snarling.

Years of love and firmness didn’t reassure her. One vet said, “Their early lives shape them, for sure. But they are also, as we are, born with personalities and challenges.”

We stopped trying to change the little dog and gentled her into the safety of three. She lived with us, protected and beloved, for 13 years.

******************

Our vet sat with us, rolled out the evidence, and told us gently that it was time. We knew he was right; we knew the little dog was in pain and befuddled, unhappy and suffering.

*****************

There is a room in my mind that I try so hard to avoid, but no matter what corner I turn, there it is, first entrance on the right. The door is cracked invitingly; some warm light beckons from within.

I call it the Second-Guessed Room, and I have explored it to my rue.

The floor, which looks concrete, is viscous. If I enter without thinking, I find myself sinking, trapped, caught, mired in what-ifs. Maybe I shouldn’t, I’ll think, and the sharp-edged issue I’ve been dealing with becomes fuzzy at the edges. It’s no longer clear just what the best path might be. It’s no longer clear that there is a path, at all. My decisions unravel, and progress stalls.

We came home from the vet resolved. We would get through the weekend; on Monday we would make that appointment.

But every time my thoughts wandered, they came to that door. Sometimes, they couldn’t help but go in.

And the voices lured them deeper. “Who are YOU?” the voices taunted. “What right do YOU have to decide…?”

And below that, gentle voices would be murmuring: She’s not that bad! She’s just a little old! She’s not suffering.

And I would waver, then realize I was up to my ankles in quicksand. It would take a hard, sucking effort to extricate myself, to clamber back into the hallway and slam that door shut behind me.

*******************

The worst part about the procedure was the sedative. They took Greta back to give her the shot; when they returned her, she was shaking but bright eyed, pleading, pleading. She headed toward the door, turned her head, begging: Home home home.

And then the back legs gave out and she folded to the shiny floor, and her head wobbled, and she was falling.

And I projected everything I didn’t want to see into her eyes—read, “Please!”

Read, “Don’t do this!”

Read, “You’ve betrayed me!”

Then even the wild eyes were quelled by the drug.

They settled her on the table, on a soft and comfy rug, a fleecy blanket folded under her head, and we held her as the needle went into her hind leg. Like a giant sigh, the tremors left the little body.

And the little dog left us on a peaceful swell.

The tech was red-eyed; the vet stepped outside. I couldn’t bear to look at my husband: one hand soft on the dog’s still head, the other groping for a Kleenex.

*******************

They told us everything we knew but needed, still, to hear: she was suffering. We did everything we could. We had to help her. It was time.

It was time, I agreed silently. It was time. And then I thought, Tonight, maybe I’ll sleep.

We walked out into bright, affronting, sunshine and drove, gob-smacked, home.

*******************

That night, at just about three AM, I bolted upright, listening for what woke me up. The house was quiet.

No pacing on the carpet around our bed.

No padding feet on the stairs.

No tick-tacky, tick-tacky, tick-tacky, of dog claws on the hardwood.

Nothing.

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58 thoughts on “The Last Days of Greta the Dog

  1. These are always painful decisions, especially so when they are difficult. 13, 14, maybe 15 is a very good lifespan for a fox hound/ beagle (hard to tell from the photo. Am I right?). I hope you take comfort in knowing you gave her a good life.

    1. Thanks, Janet…and you are spot on with your fox hound/ beagle mix conjecture. (Maybe a few other things thrown in, too…) She did have a good life; that, and support from people like you, are great comforts!

  2. Saylor Helsel

    Oh Pam, unfortunately I have been there many times myself. Doesn’t make it any easier. My fur babies are my escape from anxiety. I so feel your pain and send you all my strength. You have been a wonderful fur mommy. You gave her a life she would have never experienced. God bless your big beautiful heart. All my love to all three of you.

  3. Cynthia Tuck

    Dear Pam—I knew this was coming with a great sense of dread. What a wonderful life Greta had with so much love. Those pets just work their way into your heart & it is so hard to let go. I hope you will be able to sleep all nite soon….

    1. Thank you, Cynthia! This passage is part of having a pet…a part I always conveniently bury when we first fall in love with the furry little creature. Life is settling in…

  4. JoAnne Leone

    Pam, it has been about six weeks since we traveled this same journey with our 16 yr old Cubby. My heart goes out to you and your family. Writing about these emotionally wrenching of life’s hurdles is cathartic, but usually is not literary. You are an exceptional writer and took us further than just the emotion.

    “The floor, which looks concrete, is viscous. If I enter without thinking, I find myself sinking, trapped, caught, mired in what-ifs. Maybe I shouldn’t, I’ll think, and the sharp-edged issue I’ve been dealing with becomes fuzzy at the edges. It’s no longer clear just what the best path might be. It’s no longer clear that there is a path, at all.”

    I’ve visited that room many times,as well. Reading your prose was the first time I actually realized that the room had an exit door.

    Hugs.

  5. I’m looking at my perfectly healthy 9 year old dog with tears knowing he will be there in a blink. Oh how much we love our little dogs. Bless you.

  6. SUReynolds

    Tears are rolling down my face as I empathize with you . It’s so very hard to give up our furry friends but we know that it is crueler still to let them continue to suffer . You gave her a beautiful life and she gave you back all she had . You both are the better for the relationship . Run free, Greta, run free .

  7. Melanie

    I’m in tears as I write this. Our “pup” was 14 when she began to fail. She couldn’t manage stairs. She couldn’t see clearly. She slept more and more. The vet thought her neurologic system was affected. She was having accidents, a lot. Abby had helped us through a very dark time when our youngest was diagnosed with schizophrenia. In her teens. Now we needed to bring her the comfort she brought to us so naturally for all those years. Gut-wrenching, yes, but I didn’t want to keep her alive for us. She deserved better. Thank you for your beautiful story.

    1. They give us so much, and share such important passages. Our dog journeys sound very similar.

      I hope your youngest is doing well–I understand some of that parenting challenge, too. Thanks for this lovely comment, Melanie.

  8. I’m so sorry,Pam. It’s nice to know Greta’s ending life was filled with love and compassion thanks to her three humans. For me the anguish of “choosing the time” to say goodbye is eased a bit when I remember the words of a dear vet friend from long ago: “…better two weeks too soon, than two weeks too late.” Hugs!

  9. Oh Pam. My heart aches for you. I understand your pain and loss. It hurts so much. To love hard is to suffer hard at the loss. It is so worth it though. Please feel my hugs of sympathy. I wish there were the right words. You gave her such a good life and she gave you three so much love and joy. I’m crying. I’m so sorry.

  10. Kim Allen

    A special dog, embraced and loved into a good life,
    Given peace, watered by loving tears,
    Pain free, her spirit is set free
    to run those fields again,
    Emptiness, too loud,
    rather than her signature sounds.
    Let the love you felt for her
    Fill your heart.

  11. Lovely, Pam. Your essay brings back fond memories I have of the Yorkshire terrier, Chestnut, who belonged to my in-laws and nephews, the Popa family. Chestnut was a bundle of energy, loving and sweet, and he became the only animal I’ve ever loved. Towards his end, he developed problems similar to those of Melanie’s dog, and when my sister sent word to us that she finally had to put him down, none of us took that news with dry eyes. After two years of silence, Merri Lyn adopted yet another Yorkie with similar characteristics, Rocky by name, and he has brought us similar happiness.

    Every time I read an essay like this one, I automatically relate it to our common difficulty with letting go of our human loved ones. I ask myself, “Why do we not ease the suffering of our fellow humans with the same compassion we extend to our beloved animals?” The answer is simple: humans are far more complex than our pets; they have voices that sound even from the depths of the most dire circumstances; they can endure *almost anything* if they have a reason to. Not so for the animals we love. We must act for them; they cannot act for themselves. I’d like to think that our tenderness toward them in their last hours is preparation not only for the comfort we must give to our families in their hour of their death, but also for our own passing. We must comfort ourselves even as we are comforted. We must be gentle with ourselves at the end–not so easy to do, maybe, after a lifetime of self-recrimination, but it can be done, and we owe it to ourselves and those we care about. Greta knew she was loved, and she loved you. Our families know we love *them*, too. They can see it; they can feel it. Every word, every gesture is adequate; Nothing that is offered to us at such times is insignificant. Even silence carries with it a sense of peace and love, if those we care about are around us.

    I wish for you and yours such peace, such love. Treat yourselves gently. Grieve as you must. Return to us as soon as you can.

    1. The question of easing human life has been badgering me this week, too, John. But the concept of articulated choice, as you point out, makes each human situation unique. As a dear friend whose child is very, very ill, said recently, “No one here is giving up yet.”

      Hope makes the difference, I think.

      Which is not to say that we give up on our animals. We do, though, when we adopt them, take on the responsibility of determining when the suffering dominates the quality of life.

      Thank you for your understanding and for taking the time to comment so thoughtfully!

  12. Teri

    Oh sweet Greta…she is running that baseball diamond and lapping up her water again. What a wonderful life she had with three beautiful, caring humans. Sending you three much love and a tight hug for each of you.

  13. Oh, this made my heart hurt. Hugs to you. I had to put mine down when she was ten. The sadness of holding her and watching her leave after the injection, overwhelming. It takes love, lots of love, to ease their suffering when the time becomes apparent.

  14. Kathy McCaslin

    Hi Pam I just read your article and am crying. I know how hard it is. I have not had dogs but I had cats. I have one now that I am waiting on the right day to take her to the vet for the last time. Thinking of you.

  15. I know that you know that it was the right decision. Sometimes, it’s more about the suffering pet than the owners. It doesn’t make it any better or easier and the passing may become less painful. You may think you have worked through it all and then out of nowhere, a smell, a toy, a conversation will bring back all the pain. She couldn’t have been more loved. I send sincere sympathy. Such beautiful writing. Thank you. XXX

    1. Thank you so much for this. I like the emphasis on our suffering pets rather than their grieving owners. It IS about what’s best for them, not what’s easiest for us. But you’re so right…we will miss her for a long, long time!

  16. Gene Tinelli

    I’m 75 now. Your piece brought back all the end moments, the last times with my pets. Cats, dogs, and soon, one cockatoo. They’ve all looked at me, almost saying it’s time my friend. I’ve held most of them in my arms as the barbiturate seeped into their veins, spirit touching spirit until the last sigh, For a moment, I feel like the tears will never stop. But they do. Yet the memories can still bring them. The dues of love. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    “Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened” Anatole France

    I’m glad you had a wonderful journey with Greta. She wouldn’t have had it any other way.

    Namaste Sean. Sleep well.

  17. Oh no! This post made me cry. I am so sorry about Greta and glad you were able to make a very difficult decision to ease her suffering. Two years ago we had to do the same mental dance with our beloved 14 1/2 year old beagle – when is the right time? have we done all we can for her? have we waited too long? In the immediate aftermath of her leaving us, I swore I would NEVER, EVER get another dog. Two years later I am awaiting, with excitement and no small amount of anxiety, the arrival of a new beagle puppy to our home very soon. I am so grateful for the companionship, laughter and lessons each of my dogs has brought to my life. Thank you for your writing – you has such an elegant way of expressing yourself!

  18. Having seen the title of your post in my email inbox, it took me until today to finally open it. I cried all the way through, remembering the very similar story of our sweet Daisy 4 1/2 years ago. I’m so sorry for your loss Pam. We can gain some comfort in knowing what good lives we give our pets while they are here with us.

    1. I just read your “What the Chuck Were We Thinking?” post, and it gives me hope for the future. Thank you so much…it helps so much to share this with people who, like you, have been through the same loss.

      1. It took a long time to allow ourselves to open our hearts to another pet. It’s so sad that they’re with us such a short time, but the joy they can bring while they’re here is worth it.

  19. I can only imagine the struggle associated with a decision such as this. My hat is off to you and your husband. I hope I can make that choice with such courage, as I know it is on the horizon.

  20. Wow. Thank you for sharing. I try to remember all the great times I have had with the doggies and that they truly are free now. One thing that amazes me is even during their vulnerable states, they still have that fight to stay. Wish I had their courage.

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