If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you’ve read mentions of our old hound, Flash, that patrolled our back yard for the last fourteen summers. Three years ago, he began to go into decline, with a steep drop in function that started last winter. Three weeks ago, I had him put to sleep.
If you have read my new blog, “Cutting a Dead Man’s Toenails”, you know the whole story behind our decision to let Flash go. I would like to thank those of you that clicked on that. It has, to date, been read by four times as many people as my next-most-popular post. It seemed to strike a chord in people, making them look back on their own experience of letting a beloved pet go, or look forward to the day when they would have to make that difficult decision for their animal(s).
Some folks were deeply touched, imagining my pain or feeling that I recognized theirs. Some people thought it was a ridiculous exercise in sentimentality, worthless as anything but a vehicle for my own grief. I felt I was reporting on an event as it unfolded over the course of eleven days, albeit in a very personal way. A reader may have thought I revealed too much, giving a voyeuristic picture into my family’s private moments. I will only defend that point by saying that my family is quite used to hearing their words repeated verbatim, with their successes and foibles made public for all to see. Fair or not, they are never shocked to find parts of their lives in print. It’s one of the things you get used to when you are related to a writer.
I won’t deny that I wrote “…Toenails” to deal with my own emotional turmoil. I told a friend of mine, Tammy, that I often write about difficult experiences in my life to gain perspective and, sometimes, when a life event doesn’t come out well, I will write a piece of fiction that corrects the bad outcome. But the main reason I wrote the blog was to tell pet owners facing a euthanization that there is a better way to do it than going to an impersonal clinic and driving home with a body in the car, or, perhaps worse, alone, no longer accompanied by your longtime companion. The drive, both ways, is excruciating. The procedure itself is painful enough for the pet owner, but crying while steering a 2,000 pound vehicle through traffic could cause a whole different kind of human anguish.
I had the conversation with Tammy at her father’s funeral. When she told her friends about his passing, she wrote that she had prayed the very morning he died that she would not prolong his suffering when the time came. That he passed quickly and in his sleep (in his Lazy Boy) was an answer to that prayer. Of course, the loss of a parent and the death of a house pet are similar only at the basest level, but both sometimes require us to make level-headed decisions that leave our own complicated emotions out of the equation.
At my house, we still tear up at times, missing that sweet animal that saw a goodness in his humans that is often hard for us, with our complex brains, to remember. This morning, pulling out a rarely used dining room chair, I found a cushion edged with fur that had apparently been in Flash’s way when he made a shortcut between the kitchen and the back door. Kath turns into a puddle when she’s preparing food and there’s no one in the doorway patiently waiting for a dropped tidbit. But we know we made the right call. He was facing little beyond pain and confusion going forward, losing interest in most everything but sleep. A scratch behind the ears is a wonderful thing, I suppose, but it wasn’t a reason to keep living. Here’s the thing…a human who is lucky enough to be lucid and communicative at the end of their life has a chance to tell you, “Let me go.” They can tell you the pain is too much, or that they don’t want to fight anymore. Your pet can’t do it. They’ll just keep going because YOU want them to. They’ll do anything for you. You are their whole life.
On the human end, who among us doesn’t wish for a quick, painless death, like the one Tammy’s father had? Many of us live our whole lives in fear of the end, placing hopes on an outcome we likely won’t control. We can hedge our bets by adding codicils to our wills, or inking ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ tattoos on our chests. Again, our pets don’t have this option. We have to hear what the veterinarian says and listen with an open mind. We have to remember that there is a responsibility in pet ownership, and one of those duties is to end the suffering when it becomes too much.
Home euthanization for your animals is a thing now. If you are facing the end of your pet’s life, please consider this as an option for their benefit and for your own. Make some phone calls, ask your friends. You’d think that the cost might be a lot higher, but it’s not. The mobile vet usually doesn’t have a brick-and-mortar workplace that they are paying for, nor a receptionist that needs a weekly paycheck. Talk to them about your situation. Don’t be offended if they ask you about what you’ve done to safeguard your animal’s health. This is their job. They do not want to put an animal to sleep that can be saved.
When Flash passed, he was in his favorite place, surrounded by friendly faces. There was no stressful drive, no panoply of dog smells to ponder on his way to the exam room. There was no painful lift to a cold, metal table. He laid in his own bed, on his own back porch as the sedative took effect.
In a particularly cruel twist, Tammy had been tasked with putting her father’s dog to sleep just weeks before his passing. But, as she told me at the funeral, “If you’re not willing to do that when it’s necessary, you shouldn’t own a dog.” I can only echo her sentiments.
I can’t pretend that I understand Tammy’s pain. My father is alive and mostly well. As a writer, I try to speak only of those things I know. I know how difficult it is to let your family pet go. Doing it at home was as peaceful and as humane as anything I have ever done and I place it among the best decisions I ever made.
By the way, I asked Tammy before I posted this if I could use her name. And my mother, a retired minister, delivered her father’s eulogy. It was funny and sentimental, just like my posts about Flash. At 1500 words, it was just about perfect. It was 6000 words less than my eulogy for Flash, so the attendees should be grateful that I did not inherit my verbosity from her. She didn’t have to say as much, because for 76 years, Tammy’s father spoke for himself.
I wrote a volume because our animals can’t speak for themselves. Your aging pet can’t tell you what they need. Please…when you can’t end the pain, end the suffering.