“A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself.”
– Josh Billings (a.k.a. Henry Wheeler Shaw; humorist and lecturer) *Dogtime.com
Remember when you were a kid and you thought that being an adult would be SOOOO great? You could go to bed late, eat ice cream for breakfast, and watch whatever you wanted on TV? (All of which is great, and all of which I do…except for maybe the TV part. My battle against the army of tiny minions for control of the TV is futile.)
But then you became an adult and realized that you had to get up early to go to work, that eating ice cream started showing up on your hips and in record time, you were going to memorize every episode of The Amazing World of Gumball on Cartoon Network.
There are things that really suck about being an adult. Paying bills, working everyday, being responsible for your own hair. Recently, I would say at the top of my list of sucky adult things was making the choice to put not one, but both of our dogs to sleep in a month’s timeframe. I had taken for granted that my parents had taken care of this horrible task when I was growing up. But now we were the parents. It’s like that meme you see about looking around for an adult, then realizing you are the adult, so you look for an adult who is more adult that you are. An adultier adult. It was one of the those scenarios. Why couldn’t there be someone more adult to hold our hands and navigate these waters for us?
When I first began dating Ryan, he introduced me to his beautiful Brittany, Rhoda. She was smart, sweet and always incredibly soft. She took to me right away (which was a relief, because if a man’s dog doesn’t like you…) Even though she was a medium-sized dog, she thought she was a lap dog. If she was inside, she would climb onto my lap or onto the couch next to us. If we were outside, she would plant herself next to me, mostly because she knew I was a sucker and I would pet her until she tired of it, which wasn’t likely, or I had to get up. If I stopped petting her, she nosed me until I started again. But she was very much Ryan’s dog. If he sat down, she abandoned me immediately, if only for a moment, to go to him. With a word, a nod or sometimes even a look, Rhoda knew what Ryan was thinking. He has told me repeatedly that she was hands down the best dog he has ever owned. I have never seen a bond like that between a dog and a person. He had her for 13 years.
Hunting trips were too much for Rhoda, but even in her retirement, she would walk the tree line on the perimeter of our property, looking for rabbits, squirrels and birds. She would follow Ryan around while he was doing yard work, or lie content on the porch. Ryan wanted to get another hunting dog soon so Rhoda could mentor her, so he put a deposit on an upcoming litter of pups. We never conceived we would lose Rhoda so soon.
Last month, Rhoda’s health declined rapidly over a couple of days. She stopped eating and drinking, her stool was tarry black and she could barely walk. It was so fast. I felt helpless, but I wanted to do whatever I could. I fed her Pedialyte with a child’s medicine dropper. I cooked her chicken and eggs. I carried her outside to go to the bathroom and cleaned her up when she messed herself. I sat next to her dog bed, covered her with a blanket and loved her. I scoured the internet for information. I internally begged Ryan to take her to the vet, but when I mentioned it, he said he didn’t want to do that. I couldn’t push him. I did not understand his decision, and for a while, it was hard for me to not be angry with him. What if there was just a little bit of hope that we could save her? I tried hard to see where Ryan was coming from. Rhoda was 13 years old. She had a great life. She was well-loved. What if we took her to the vet and they poked and prodded her and there was still nothing they could do? What if they kept her overnight and she passed while Ryan wasn’t there?
On the last day, Rhoda would not even raise her head from the bed. She was not interested in the water or the chicken I gave her. I called Ryan. He left work early. I had to tell the kids and I knew I had to do it before Ryan came home. Four heartbroken kids took turns sitting with Rhoda, tears flowing, telling her how much they loved her and remembering their favorite memories. After they were finished, it was my turn. I laid down on the floor next to Rhoda and ugly cried. I had only known Rhoda for two years, but my heart was hurting for Ryan. I knew he was hurting and there was nothing I could do to fix that. Ryan walked in the door and Rhoda raised her head for the first time that day. She was waiting for him. Ryan made the heartbreaking decision to put her to sleep with dignity and end her suffering.
Ryan buried her out by the shop, where he could holler at her anytime he wanted.
Last October, Ryan and I rescued a shih tzu named Bella. When Ryan was a baby, he had a shih tzu named George. As in, George was waiting for him when he came home from the hospital. There are professional baby pictures of Ryan posing with George. At the end of his life, George died in Ryan’s arms. I think Bella reminded him of his childhood dog.
Bella was a sweet-natured dog and instantly attached herself to me. She had been badly neglected. She was underweight, had fleas and worms and had matted fur all over her body. We got her fixed up. She was a wonderful addition to our family. But, she pottied on the floor, a lot. At first we thought it was just the transition into a new house. After a while, we had her treated for a UTI. Then we had her treated for another UTI. Then she seemed to be peeing all the time, even on herself and her bed. So off to the vet we went again.
We expected the vet to tell us it was another UTI and give us a better antibiotic. The vet began the exam and after feeling around for a moment on Bella’s bladder, the vet soon had a concerned look on her face. The vet explained that Bella had bladder stones. Ok, I thought, like kidney stones. Antibiotics and she can pass them, right? After answering several of our questions, the vet explained that Bella would have to have surgery and it could be between $900 and $1,200. It may not fix the issue. She may have to have surgery each time they come back. Or we might want to take her to a specialist at K-State. Our other option was to put her to sleep. She was in pain. My heart sank. I blinked back tears.
The vet asked if we wanted to work her up for surgery. Ryan and I sat uncomfortably for a moment until I said that we needed to go home and talk about finances. The vet said she would send us home with pain medication. When she left the room, Ryan turned to me. “I already know,” I said. “We can’t afford that.” That was a lot of money for a family with five kids. It was a lot of money for a surgery that might not work. It was a lot of money period. Bella sat at my feet and stared up at me with her cute little face. I felt like a terrible person. My job was to take care of her and I failed.
We took her home and I spent the rest of the day and the next loving on her. I told her she was a good dog. I told her that she was pretty. I told her I was sorry. The pain medication made her sleepy. Again, I scoured the internet for hope. Even if we could spend that type of money, how many surgeries was I willing to put her through? How many tests and x-rays? How long did I want to prolong this? What was her quality of life going to be? I couldn’t be selfish. But I was going to be a coward. The next day, after crying most of the morning, Ryan made me go to the gym. Ryan was taking her to be put to sleep. I told her goodbye and left her by the door waiting for me to return.
Ryan buried her next to Rhoda.
That was Sunday. The kids would be home on Monday and Tuesday, which meant that we had to break the news to them at different times and after she was already gone.
That night, I thought I would slip into bed, turn my back to Ryan and cry silently and privately into my pillow. I felt terrible. Terrible for not being able to take care of either dog. Terrible that my kids were going to hurt. Terrible that I made Ryan take care of it. Just terrible, like a kid who had just lost her dog. Ryan put his arm around me, which was cue for the floodgates to open. I sobbed like a baby. I apologized and sobbed some more. I was thankful for the comfort, for the non-judgement, and for the dark, so Ryan couldn’t see the snot streaked across my face.
The next few days were heavy. Empty dog beds and the absence of wagging tails were hurtful reminders. Ryan placed a decorative ring around the place where the dogs are buried and we are searching for something pretty to plant. We even considered a red fern.
Having to make the decision to put a family pet to sleep and navigate your children through it is one more thing that I need to tell my parents thank you for doing when I was growing up. It is just one more thing that I didn’t truly understand the ramifications of until I found myself confronted by it.
In another week, with still sensitive hearts and a little excitement, we will welcome Ryan’s new hunting dog, Scout, into our family. It feels too soon, but we had little to do with the timing. I am trusting that God saw all of this playing out and knows best what we need for healing.
As photographer and writer Roger Caras once said, “Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole” (Dogtime.com).