When the pandemic lockdown began in March, my husband and I started walking every day to burn off anxiety. One day we hooked up our 14-year-old dog, Thomas, whose mobility had been declining since the end of last year, to his leash. We took maybe ten steps before we realized he was no longer able to go with us. As our time at home progressed, it become clear – after close examination of his gait and phone calls with his vet – that what we thought was arthritis was actually a degenerative condition similar to ALS in humans. Thomas’s fate would be a slow march to paralysis – first his back legs, then his front, then his respiratory system. I realized at about the same time that his tail was no longer able to wag, and instead hung limply down between his haunches.
One of the blessings of this pandemic for us has been getting to be home with him as this unfolded. He couldn’t go on leashed walks anymore, but he could roam our acre-and-a-half property at his own pace, the boundaries of which he had somehow intuited and always respected. He still enjoyed lying in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows in our sunroom – an activity I called “Old Dog TV” – and barking at squirrels, the kids next door, and occasionally, nothing at all.
As his mobility changed, so did our infrastructure: when he could no longer jump across the creek, we made a bridge. When he could no longer struggle up the front steps, we built a ramp. When his back end began to slide off the ramp, we built guard rails, and I decked them with fairy lights so he could see it at night, like a runway. When he could no longer handle the steep descent on the right side of the house, we reached his backyard via the gentler slope on the left.
During those months at home, his world began to shrink. The dog that had once backpacked in ten states, across rivers, over mountains, and through prairies, had to find his wilderness in an ever-shrinking circle around our home. Still, there was dog-joy: as late as early July, he was able to supervise our yard work, and took the time, as he did every year, to carefully examine the prairie flowers popping up in the meadow across the creek. Something had died back there in June, and his frequent carcass-sniffings were so routine that it seemed he was engaged in some sort of community science project. He was still busy.
But a few weeks ago, he began to need help getting up. It was easy enough at first, but then it got to the point that only my 17-year old, with his youthful strength and still-supple spine, could get this 75-pound dog on all four paws. Time for another infrastructure adjustment: on the recommendation of friends, we bought him a mobility harness. That expanded his world a bit, one more time. With a human hand on the back handle of his harness, his hind end was controlled enough that he could move about again. Always, we kept an eye on the most important question: was there dog joy?
Soon, that dog joy was down to two things: Food, and communing with his people. He enjoyed those things as much as ever. But the outdoor-loving dog, the one who had refused to limit his yard-surfing during a polar vortex, who insisted on attending every hike in oppressive heat and humidity, manic grin on full display, tongue dangling, no longer liked being outside. He would reach the bottom of his ramp, pee, and then try to swerve immediately back indoors. Even the gentle slope to his backyard, the creek, and his community science project had become too much, and was abandoned.
And so I found myself sitting on my front porch one morning, phone in hand, trying to will myself to call a number. After twenty minutes of unapologetic procrastination, I dialed. There was no answer. I didn’t leave a message. I sat another ten minutes. Then I sent a text, as the outgoing message invited.
This internal struggle eventually ended in a phone call with a warm, kind veterinarian who specializes in pet hospice and in-home euthanasia. She immediately confirmed everything I’d been feeling. Degenerative myelopathy makes it incredibly difficult to make “the call,” she said. The dog is not usually in pain, or overtly suffering. Their world has shrunk dramatically, yes, but they are still themselves. It makes the euthanasia decision, as the vet put it, “brutal.” She was right.
It was Monday. I made an appointment for Thursday morning.
That was the frank but warm conversation I needed to have. I wasn’t getting it with his normal vet, and I don’t blame him for that; his job is to make animals better. This vet’s job is to know when to stop trying to make them better. Still, I don’t regret the struggle to decide. There are some decisions that should be hard, even agonizing. This one, I assure you, was both.
It didn’t make me feel better to have that decision confirmed over the next two days. Just before Thursday, Thomas developed a terrible UTI – in the advanced stages, dogs with degenerative myelopathy sometimes can no longer empty their bladders fully. My big, strong, hiking dog was almost immobile and was now definitely uncomfortable. Getting up with the harness put pressure on his urinary tract, so we were back to lifting him ourselves.
During those last two terrible, precious days, he ate a lot of steak and salmon. Increase the dog-joy, I thought, where it can still be found.
On Wednesday evening, I roused him from his place in the corner to go out. He did the usual pee-and-swerve, and we walked back up the ramp. Then we walked around the house a little, my hand on the back handle of the harness. I followed him wherever he wanted to go. He walked back to the front door. I opened it. We both stood in the doorway, surveying the yard and the trees bathed in the honey-colored light of early evening. After about five minutes, he stepped forward. I followed, and we walked down the ramp. For the first time in two weeks, there was no swerve back indoors.
He seemed to sense something in the air, and we walked – haltingly, as always — down the gentle grade to his backyard, around the garden, and back up again. We motored around the strawberry bed in the front yard up a slight grade to the road. Each patch of grass was sniffed, and then the next one, farther on.
By the time we were in my neighbors’ yard, I realized with a jolt that we were taking a walk again together, as it used to be. I let him go as long as he wanted; he crossed the street to sniff some evergreens, and we naturally moved back home. When we reached our ramp again, my son and husband came out of the house, and I told them, astonished, that we’d just taken our first walk in months. They could tell; his tongue was dangling.
Now that they were outside, Thomas turned, again, toward the road. He wasn’t finished. The four of us walked, each human taking a turn with a hand on the harness, for almost half a mile in the waning golden light. We all knew we were in the midst of something glorious, even as we knew the hourglass was draining.
I’ve always known that there are these moments in life that crystallize in memory, like jewels tossed from the heavens. The older I get, the better I am at identifying them when they’re happening. So there it is now, tucked into my mind’s eye, the four of us taking one last, improbable walk as the setting sun spills through the giant pines on our road.
It was all he had left, physically – all three of us had to help him lie down comfortably when we got back to the house – and he spent it all on that walk. Nothing was left unsniffed; no patch of grass was left unmarked.
And then, the next morning, it ended much the same way it began for me and my beautiful, brilliant dog: me sitting on the floor with him in my lap, trusting me.
I felt like I could barely breathe for days. A week and a half later, as I write this, his absence is still a body-wide ache. Every day, though, a little more of that ache — not too much, just a little – is replaced by gratitude for having had such a great dog, and for so long.
Mary Oliver’s words about death revisit me over and over again:
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
There are extra tasks in that last part when it comes to our animal companions. That morning on the porch, when I clutched my phone trying to force myself to call the vet, I was engaged in a direct confrontation with that third condition: When the time comes to let it go, to let it go. With animals, we are so frequently called not merely to accept a death that is imposed on us, but to cause one, at precisely the right time, to spare our friends needless suffering. We must have a clarity of mind that all our own feelings are desperate to avoid.
Letting it go is a practice. I did the affirmative part well enough last week. Now, dammit, I’ll spend some time letting the rest of him go, at my own pace. I don’t know how long that will take, but when the time comes to let him go, I suppose I’ll let him go. That time isn’t here yet, though.