Reblogging this from another blog I write, which focuses on animal lives—not incidentally, the lives of non-human animals are subject to focused and relentless types of forgetting. This one is for the memory of Chuck, our dog, who died peacefully at our home on Tuesday at around 5:30.
"I will take care of him." She is quiet for a moment. "Then I will call you."
Our vet is downstairs with me, standing in our front yard. In her arms is our dog Chuck, his body still warm but slack, wrapped in a blanket with grey and orange patterns. I cannot remember the pattern in any distinctive way. I have misplaced my glasses somewhere in the last hour while I cried. She is talking in gentle euphemisms about cremation.
For weeks now his health has grown steadily more unpredictable. I have resolutely interpreted as inconsequential the thinning hair, the gradual weight loss, the unprecedented resistance to curling up next to us on the couch. As if these were minimal changes, a chronically ill dog just aging before his time. On Friday night he did not finish his food.
There were tests and medicines and once more, for a few days, my sitting daily with him in our bedroom, administering fluids subcutaneously from an iv bag. I suspended it from a wooden clothes hanger on the closet door. Even if all this worked the status quo we could hope for was so far from the dog we knew, even the dog we knew last year. “We make it to the end of the block and that’s about it,” I told Dr. Rowan on Friday. This the dog that used to run two miles with me, walk every day with L., fly heedlessly over the couch. He would tear between L. and me in gigantic figure eights at the park, coming home caked with red dirt and mud from the baseball field. “Do you know where you are?” we would say, and let him off the leash, illicitly; he would tear around the diamond and into the outfield, easily outrunning me.
Still, in contrast to the worst stages of his crash almost three years ago, the end of the block is something. I remember coaxing him up and down driveways to build his strength up to tackle curbs, picking him up to skip the two steps up and down our porch. Yet even yesterday he walked unaided up the steps to our second story apartment. In fact, yesterday was a very good day. Chuck and S. chased each other around the house; freed from dietary restrictions, we let him eat sweet potatoes and clean out our ice cream bowls. He performed his entire repertoire of rarely-seen tricks and came marching out of his crate with a toy in his mouth, which he has not done in years.
But this could not last. His liver, too, was going, and this meant the whole medication regimen had to be reworked, a dreadful and destabilizing prospect. Grief for a good life is like this, from what I know: a relief, but a terrible one.
"I am sorry, Mr. D." Dr. Rowan says just after she has scooped up Chuck’s body. She is careful but his head still moves at that awful angle. L. has left the room; I can hear her sobbing on the couch. I touch Rowan’s shoulder, the only time in six years I have made such a gesture. "Thank you for everything, Dr. Rowan," I say, as coherently as I can manage. We are heading downstairs.
The euthanization process has been as emotionally wrenching as we feared it would be. L. and I have set up the place for them on our bed—the same spot, in fact, where he spent his first night with us, me assenting to L. and bringing the howling puppy into the bed despite what the books and websites say, his little body shuddering as he wedged in between my left arm and my body. That first night I checked to make sure he was breathing, his sleep was so quick and total.
Today the vein takes a while to find; his blood pressure is probably low, Rowan explains. I nod and keep his face close to mine. He looks at me; I am talking incessantly to him. He does not writhe or twist, not as I have seen him do before. I call L. back in the room. She offers him pieces of sweet potato. He wolfs down the entire bowl full as if no one else is in the room. It is magnificent. When they have him secure, when we have him close to us, the first injection moves through him so quickly it startles me. He sits, his tongue lolls out. I gently move his jaw together, and L. and I ease him to his side on the bed. Feeling his body go limp strikes both of us, we discover later, as the first time we have felt him really relax in many weeks. His joints have ached now for a while, it seems; his historic commitment to, whenever possible, curling up so as to touch both of us finally broken. His breathing now grows quick. They put a second catheter in the back leg when the vein up front fails them. He jerks at this, it is upsetting. We speak to him and he quiets down. “Do you know where you are?” I say. “We’re here. We are going to the park. Think about the park. Doesn’t that sound good?” I am lying impulsively. I want him to think of the place, consider our smells along with the other smells he loves.
Before Rowan and the tech arrive, L. and I sat alone with Chuck in the living room. He shifted from one place on the rug to another, legs kicked out in varying degrees of discomfort. We were with him on the ground, telling him the stories of himself—of the beach he went to, of what he was like when the baby first came, of places he hid when it was supposed to be time for bed, of the hours he spent curled up L.’s bathrobe, or in her lap, or surreptitiously on her side of the bed.
"He will not close his eyes," Dr. Rowan says to me, mercifully, as she sees me trying to do this after Chuck’s heart and breath have stopped. I nod, accepting. His head is still heavy, warm in my hand; L.’s head is in my lap where his unfocused look traces his last gaze: right into her face. Our voices, our smells. He has given us a great deal, it occurs to me. Comfort in so many of the normal desperate moments we have shared; a reason to get over ourselves and outside every day, if just for a moment; a constant presence through the late nights and mornings while I wrote my dissertation; above all, a lesson to our child from the very beginning that delightful creatures exist independent of him—as his companions, friends, not as toys. Chuck’s ears hot and rigid in our hands, I think, whatever else, at least we have given him this. A good end. A good enough end.
How to unravel this little life from ours? The absences are already stark: no intermittent clatter of claws, no tiny machine for catching scraps underfoot every time L makes dinner, no warm length of fur and teeth attending every return of ours to the house with equal, unqualified joy; an impulse to go outside and just walk around in the evening’s heat though he does not need me to walk him now. In the grand scheme it is no great thing, I guess: a dog’s life. But then I think, what else is a life? A small set of connections, a warmth up against someone’s side, a breath of air against another’s skin, and then we are gone, dirt again. What more, really, do most of us hope for?
We clean up the visible traces of him as quickly as we can. We have to retrieve S. from our friends soon, and there is no reason to have the house filled with reminders, points for interrogations from a near-two-year old, responses to which can only be vague or upsetting or both. S. has only this past week really started talking to him, following him around to offer the food on the hi-chair tray. “Chuck! Come! Mecidine!” he has been saying, in imitation of us.
I am unprepared for explaining this to him, and unprepared for the grief if he does not need an explanation. It is undeniable that we are privileged in our option to mourn a dog. But here we are, and what life is not small, I say.
When we picked up Chuck for the first time, he was the member of his litter that did not bite my shoes, did not chew at my face. He licked my nose frantically. All this confirmed L.’s preliminary investigation online, aimed at finding a black dog. He howled all the way from the shelter director’s home in Arlington to ours in Dallas, stopping only when we half-shamefully fed him cereal because there was nothing left to eat in the car.
"I am awfully sad," L. said tonight, alone on the couch at 10:00 for the first time in over six years. "Yes," I replied, helpless. Yes.