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.