The Heartbreak We Choose
Supporting a pet through the end of life is like caring for a baby. Relentless needs are constantly evolving, feeding and pooping take front and center, and sleep is disrupted. Both situations are heavy with love and sacrifice, but they move our hearts in opposite directions. While a newborn promises a long future of easier days together, an old, fading dog reminds us that the hardest part is yet to come.
Sometime after line-drives became gentle lobs, but long before the tennis ball was fully retired, there unfolded a gradual progression of bent rules and new privileges. Most of the earliest changes were unconscious, like “forgetting” to make him sit for a treat. Others were more deliberate, like finally granting his quest to sit under the dinner table. Eventually, the allowances became downright shameless, like smuggling meatballs from my plate.
In hindsight, I wasn’t merely “spoiling” my old boy; I was augmenting his quality of life.
For a long while, Max’s declining comfort and mobility were easily accommodated. When his weak joints refused to jump, we lifted him into the car. When stiffness became pain, we added a second medication to his anti-inflammatory. And when family walks became unmanageable, we pulled him along in a wagon. Long gone was his former exuberance, but he was content. Family life marched on.
Now, suddenly it seems, Max is elderly… and his discomfort exceeds my ability to compensate for it.
Good days are far outnumbered by not-so-good ones. He sleeps all afternoon and becomes restless at night. Finely-attuned to the sounds of pacing and panting, I awake frequently to offer water, turn on the fan, or escort him outside. The growing inconveniences are a labor of love; I would continue them indefinitely… if they weren’t beginning to fail. I would do anything for him, and it’s almost time to prove it.
Looking back to his adoption, my dog is the only thing that hasn’t changed since 2005. Twelve years, two marriages, six moves and three states… Max stood with me through it all, steady by my side, as the world evolved around us.
Through divorce, job loss, financial struggle, miscarriage—all my darkest days—Max was there with his quiet, absolute presence. He stayed up all night with my insomnia, waited outside the bathroom for my stomach flu, and spent long days in bed with my broken heart. Through new love, remarriage, pregnancy, motherhood—all my greatest joys—Max was here with pure, undoubting encouragement. He fell for the man who makes me happy, rested his muzzle on my expectant belly and accepted my son, like a slow, patient grandpa. For 4,254 days, he has been my constant, unwavering companion. My home.
The embodiment of devotion, Max wins my victories, loses my defeats, and loves my soul mates. Unbridled by the concept of death, he has no doubt that our duo is forever. I’m glad he’s unaware of the wretched truth, because I’m not evaluating his quality of life; I am his quality of life. But I’m rapidly declining under the weight of this decision.
It’s often said that a dog is ready to die when he’s just “not himself” anymore, but too many things remain untouched by the aging process: He still does the flappity-ear shake to announce himself into a room, and still snouts along the couch in celebration of an especially good meal. Stroking his whiskers still makes him yawn and, sitting with him now, I still hear the familiar thump of his sleep-wagging tail.
With or without his quirks, Max could never seem completely un-himself, when loving me is so much of who he is. I think “readiness” is better measured by what Dr. Jessica Vogelsang described as the “…intuitive emotional bond that develops between owner and pet when they are signaling that they are done.”
I’m not making this decision alone; we’ve been partnering toward this for a long time. We’ve brought each other so much comfort over the years, it feels wrong to write full-blown misery into the end of our story. I don’t want our goodbye to be an emergency. I don’t have to wait until he stops eating or falls down the stairs. Rather than waiting in distress for some moment of anguished certainty, I can trust myself half as much as Max does, and drop this yo-yo of self doubt. I can let him go because I feel, like no one else can, that it’s time.
So tomorrow I’ll ask the vet to make a house call and I’ll spend Max’s last few hours alone with him. I’ll give him an extra pain pill, cuddle up to a movie and feed him salami. Dignity intact, he will greet Dr. Hamilton enthusiastically while I breathe through the sickening anxiety. I’ll play the song that feels like “ours,” and hold him as he drifts into a barbiturate overdose. With the rise and fall of his last breaths, I’ll thank him for being such a fine boy… and my heart will shatter into a thousand pieces when he dies in my arms.
I’ll see the doctor out, rush back to Max’s body, and have the complete meltdown I’ve been resisting for months. The deadness will startle me when he doesn’t lift his white muzzle to comfort me. I’ll sob into his neck and, for the last time, feel his tear-soaked fur against my face. Lying still with him, I’ll collect myself enough to call the rest of our family home. My son and our other dog will kiss him goodbye, my husband will carry his body to the crematory, and I will never see him again.
Every cell in my body recoils from the thought of ending my best friend’s life; I want to throw myself on the floor in kicking, screaming refusal. I feel like I’m being forced to overcome my own survival instinct: volunteering to walk the emotional plank. I’m absolutely terrified, but determined not to let fear steal the end of our togetherness. There’s still a little time to lean into each other. So tonight I will trim his nails one more time, brush his soft black fur, and tie on the handsome blue bandana. I will sit with him all night and try to keep him comfortable, reflecting on his life lived so fully—-so faithfully—-for me. I’ll speak softly of our adventures, from the bottom of Death Valley to the top of a city skyscraper, and of how deeply he savored simple pleasures: chasing rabbits, barking at the mailman, and basking in the sun. I’ll talk about the way he grumbled out of bed to accompany every late night newborn feeding, warming my feet at the rocking chair. I’ll remind him that, as soon as that baby could talk, he declared that “Max is a happiness dog!”
He was right. You’re a good boy, a great friend, and the best kind of happiness. I’m going to miss you for the rest of my life.
Several Weeks Later…
The next day went almost exactly as imagined. It was agonizing, but also full of love and importance. Grieving Max is painful, to be sure, but it feels more natural than preparing to lose him. Anticipating the loss was desperate, agitated dread; a blinking, neon orange. Mourning him is sorrowful, empty throbbing; a muted storm cloud gray.
The grief comes in waves, swelling up from a thousand daily reminders. It sneaks up and bears down when my three-year-old asks, “Mama, is Max alone?” I know time will blunt the edges but, as life resumes its normal ups and downs, the ache to hug my dog is still sharp. I’m learning how to be sad without him; navigating without my North Star.
I’ve lost so much more than a pet, I miss his love: the kind you can’t get (and wouldn’t want) from a human relationship. It would be weird if my husband burst into crazed elation upon my return from the grocery store, but it sure felt good when Max did it.
No complicated relationship dynamics, no mixed emotions… nothing but the pure love of a dog is worth the heartbreak we choose by loving them back. So I’ll take the winter to heal, and then I’ll choose it again. I’ll adopt another dog—-again and again—-knowing that each will break my heart.
But none so deeply as Max.
“We, who choose to surround ourselves with lives even more temporary than our own, live within a fragile circle, easily and often breached. Unable to accept its awful gaps, we still would live no other way.” —Irving Townsend
“Dogs … are constant reminders that life reveals the best of itself when we live fully in the moment and extend our unconditional love. And it is very true, that the most tender, uncomplicated, most generous part of our being blossoms, without any effort, when it comes to the love of a dog.” —Maira Kalman