My beloved dog turns eighteen in two months–an approaching date I hope we’ll see. And while I’m incredibly grateful to have had her as long as I have, at the same time it is fraught with worry.
I realize sometimes my steadfast insistence that I will do anything for her comes across as naivety–every time there’s a crisis (and they’re growing in frequency), well-meaning people see it fit to warn me that it “might be that time”.
I am not stupid. I am not blind. I live with her 24/7. I know I will lose her this year; I know no matter how prepared I am, I won’t be ready; I know this is coming because it is something I–quite literally–think about every single day. She is a toddler I can’t get a babysitter for; I carry her up and down the stairs four times a day, I medicate her, I experiment and do whatever I can to get her to eat, I wake up with her in the night, I sleep when she sleeps, I play with her, I clean her, I am ever-vigilant for clues because she can’t tell me how she’s feeling. The difference is that she is not a toddler I will get to see grow up–instead, I will watch her die. Soon.
People in my position don’t need warnings. Of course I am constantly monitoring her quality of life on a daily basis.
We need trust that we will make the right decision when it’s time; we need space to be able to air our worries without yet another reminder “they don’t live forever” or “you might have to make that decision soon”. Much of the time, I end up shutting down and dealing with these worries in private because it’s easier than have someone remind me of her mortality for the millionth time. (Multiple times now I have had to smile politely in the face of someone who felt it necessary to, upon hearing her age, say to me with a gasp, “Eighteen years! That’s like having a child–what are you going to do when she’s gone?” Well, I imagine myself saying, I don’t know about then, but right now I’m going to punch you in the fucking face for bringing it up.)
Every time I catch her sound asleep in the corner of my eye, my breath catches and I watch, living a lifetime without her in the instant I wait to see the rise and fall of her chest. I suspect it’s the permanent way my brain is wired from complex-PTSD as a child, but I spend every moment calculating and preparing and planning, so I’m “ready” for things, such as facing a life without her. It never stops. So no, I don’t need reminding.
In the fall, before she was diagnosed with canine cognitive dysfunction, I knew she was no longer herself and that it might be time to say goodbye; the medication worked wonders, though, and it’s bought us more time.
Tuesday night when she had an acute gastrointestinal issue that didn’t resolve with my usual tricks, I thought this might be it; fingers crossed, it’s better today after some meds from the vet, and it’s bought us more time.
Someday soon, there will be nothing that can buy us more time. Likely in a few months. Maybe in a few weeks. Perhaps even tomorrow.
But that day is not today. Death is not taking her without a fight; as long as she’s fighting, so will I fight for her.
I tense up at the sense of silent judgement sometimes–I know she’s lost a lot of weight, I know her mobility isn’t great, and I know how it can look to someone who doesn’t live with her or know her. “I just feel so bad for her,” pity spoken with that judgement.
Here’s the thing: Sophie does not feel bad for herself. She’s not in pain. She’s not depressed. She plays with her toys and chases the cat, as well as she’s able with the loss of muscle mass from Cushing’s. She brightly trots over to greet me whether I’ve been running errands for an hour or in the kitchen making dinner. She cuddles and eats and is happy still.
It’s hard to watch her deteriorate, yes, but that’s age.
Her life doesn’t lose its value because she needs help up and down the stairs; she doesn’t stop being my friend because I have to trick her a dozen ways to take her pills; there is no point in which money becomes more important than her quality of life. I’ve gotten a lot of, “I commend you–I don’t think I could do that” and I literally have no idea how to respond, because how can you not do this for the life you agreed to take on guardianship of? What other options are there? I’m not going to have my dog killed because it’s difficult to see her slow down–it’s not about my comfort, but hers. Our pets are expected to sacrifice so much for our schedules; we dictate absolutely everything in their lives. Why wouldn’t I do that for her in her last years?
I’ve also come to think that if I could invest as much love and care into myself that I do for her, perhaps I’d be unstoppable. Until such a time–if ever–that I can view myself that way, though, I will practice on my four-legged family.
I haven’t slept now in days, although she has finally–even though every hour I woke up in the night to check on her, she was sound asleep after days of exhaustion from being sick, I still couldn’t relax. Though able to go all winter around sick people without picking anything up, I’m so rundown now I’ve picked up a cold. The body’s reminder to slow and rest, I know. But alas, the calendar doesn’t stop while I take care of her, and I have loads of work to do to pay the vet from this week and my regular bills.
So if you want to do something for people in my position, don’t warn us or try to prepare us–we can do enough of that, I assure you. Don’t seek to comfort with that stupid fucking rainbow bridge poem or life after death affirmations–when she leaves me, she will be gone, and all dogs going to heaven does not make me feel any better. Don’t make your own difficulty in seeing the animal slowing down with age the focus rather than the feelings of the person living with them–because I assure you, having her at my side since I was seventeen, everything is infinitely harder for me.
Instead provide a safe space to talk without bringing up a beloved’s pet impending doom.
Reaffirm that the animal’s guardian knows best.
Hold space while they fear.
And if you don’t know what to say, hand them wads of cash for their considerable vet bills. Bring them a homecooked meal. Offer to help them clean. And honor the life they’ve worked so hard to take care of.
Oy, that fucking Rainbow Bridge poem. I’m tearing up just thinking about it, and I hate it so much.
As someone who had to say goodbye a few years ago to my beloved 21 year old cat, I understand this post far more than I wish I did. Why do people feel like they have to shine a light on the shitty parts? My superpower is coming up with worst case scenarios that no one has ever heard of — believe me, whatever bullshit thing someone “helpfully” points out, I know it.
My heart goes out to you, and I wish you as many good minutes as possible with your Sophie.
Skyla Dawn Cameron says
Thank you, Margaret. I know perhaps sometimes it’s a case of people not knowing what to say, but I wish more would practice a blanket reply of “Is there anything you need or that I can do?” (Or, again, just handing over a cheque for vet bills or bringing over some food, etc.) It works so much better than saying upsetting things. I have had lifelong anxiety, every time Sophie sneezes my brain is already going through every possible worse case scenario. And I hate feeling judged when I’m already so conscious of her quality of life.
Melissa (My World...in words and pages) says
Oh you have done so much, and continue to, for her comfort. I have no doubt she’s well taken care of and feels lots of love. I hate these days as much as I love them. So bitter sweet. Give Sophie a hug for me.
Skyla Dawn Cameron says
I know how much you go through with your girls as well–love to you guys. <3