On Saying Goodbye
There are many different kinds of love. There is love between humans, love between animals, love between humans and animals. And then there is the love between a woman and her dog. It's a place where innocence and trust collide, joy and sorrow meet, life and death breathe. This is the love that is hardest to grieve, hardest to let go, hardest to say goodbye to. Such was the love I had for my Freckles. This is her story.
Wednesday, February 18, 2009. Ordinary in every way, at least the ways that matter. But it was the last day of life for Freckles, my poodle, and it was something I did not know. At least I think I didn't; I don't know. Denial can be so strong when one is faced with loss. It's a funny thing – it promises today will be no different than yesterday. And because you love, you listen.
Freckles' appetite had waned. She'd even been turning her nose up at the canned food I'd give her as a special treat, something she used to love so much. I made her grilled chicken with rice and broth. She'd eat the chicken and leave the rest, sniffing at it, then walking away. I made her pancakes, a favorite. They sat in her dish untouched. She wasn't keeping much down. And she slept and slept, not particularly unusual for a dog of 15. Most days she just wanted to snuggle and sleep. And I had convinced myself that her loss of appetite had more to do with less physical activity than an actual medical problem. She still enjoyed short walks and was occasionally able to jump up on the sofa despite her arthritic joints. So that morning, before I left for a few hours, I gingerly lifted her up on my king-size bed, high off the ground and completely inaccessible to her, her favorite place to sleep. I wrapped her up in her favorite brown blanket, a soft mix of fleece and fuzz, arranged her stuffed animals, and kissed her goodbye. She fell asleep quickly. I left the house, Freckles safe in bed. I would be home soon, and all would be well.
When I returned home I walked into the living room and found feces, dark and coagulated, covering the floor. Freckles was laying on the couch, curled up in a tight ball for warmth, eyes closed, breathing deeply. Why did I have to be gone today? I immediately called the vet and made an emergency appointment. I think maybe it was then that I knew. I knew this was not going to be okay. This was not going to end well. I felt light-headed and nauseous, a sense my world was going to change in ways I could not control. Why wasn't I here, with her, today?
I had an hour until the appointment. I went into the bedroom, turned on a low light and soft music, brought Freckles in, and shut the door. Again I lifted her onto the bed, wrapped her in her brown blanket, joined her on the bed, and snuggled under my quilt. We were facing each other, her big brown half-open eyes staring up at me. I felt an incredibly deep connection with her. Such love was communicated in that moment. I'd never felt closer to her. I gently stroked her. She nestled into my hip, something she'd done every night of her life. Our closest, most intimate contact. The two of us drifted into a peaceful sleep together.
Her paws hitting the floor woke me. She began to urinate and poop right there in the bedroom. It was time to leave. I picked her up, put her in the car, and we drove to the clinic. She shook the entire way. She'd never liked the vet's office, and right then I wished I'd had enough money for a house call. Fortunately the ride was short, and we were called in immediately. Freckles was put on the scale. She was down to seven pounds! She had always been a healthy 11 pounds, and I could see how emaciated she'd become. How could I have not noticed that? I'd always attributed her weight to natural aging. She slept more, ate less. It made sense before. But now the reality of her condition startled and confused me.
During the examination the vet told me that because of the weight loss and the vomiting and diarrhea, it was likely Freckles had tumors in her intestines, and though her heart and lungs sounded good (I experienced momentary hope), Freckles was suffering greatly. Options were limited. And then there was her age, 15. How much energy did she have left to fight? What was her quality of life? What was the most humane thing to do? I had never wanted to make that choice. I think most pet owners would like their beloveds to die peacefully in their sleep. Sadly, most of us aren't that lucky. We have to make that sacred decision for our pets. And there was no doubt in my mind that to continue to let her suffer was not only cruel but a betrayal of the trust she had in me. I knew it was time to say goodbye to this creature, this creature who had loved me in a way I had never been loved before. I still don't remember signing the release or exactly what my vet was saying in that cold, sterile examination room. Everything got fuzzy. We were left alone to say our goodbyes, whatever that meant. Freckles began to pace. I began to weep, bitterly. Could she sense she was going to die tonight? Why did I leave her alone today? Couldn't whatever I had to do have waited? Dammit! I held her, stroked her, kissed her, told her over and over how much I loved her, that I'd never forget her. She took half a biscuit the vet had left in the room from my hand. I cried as she licked the last crumbs from my palm.
The vet and vet tech entered the room. They asked me to lift Freckles up onto the examination table. That cold, metal table. I cursed myself for not bringing a warm blanket to make her more comfortable on the last surface her tender skin would touch. I laid her on her left side so they could shave a small portion of her leg for the injection. I was assured it would be quick and painless, an overdose of barbiturates that would cause her to fall asleep instantly. Fall asleep forever. I held her close. "I love you, baby, I love you. Everything's going to be okay," I whispered into her soft, fuzzy ear. I kissed her cheek as the needle went in. In seconds her eyes glazed over. And then she was gone. I thought maybe she was still alive because her eyes had stayed open. I begged the doctor to be sure, frantically grabbing Freckles and holding her to my chest. She checked twice; her heart had stopped beating. It was over. They left me alone in the room. Me and my dead dog. I held her, wept over her, kissed her lifeless body. Guttural cries rose from a voice I did not recognize as my own. You were alone on your last day! The guilt of that would haunt me always.
When the vet came back in, I grabbed at her frantically, pulling on her white lab coat. "Tell me I did the right thing! Tell me! Tell me!" She hugged me hard. "You did, Brenna. You did the right thing." Whether I believed her or not at that point I don't know. That small, fragile body lying there, never to run in a grassy field or nibble her favorite cheese again. I would not be comforted. In the next moment I was handed a tiny casket to take Freckles home in. I wanted my husband and daughter to be able to say goodbye before we cremated her. I cried all the way home, Freckles in her casket on the passenger seat, somewhere beyond this earth and the reach of my love for her.
At home we held each other in a circle of grief, tears ebbing and flowing. No comfort, just pain. We took Freckles out of the casket and held her, kissed her, rocked her. We wrapped her in her favorite baby blanket, placed her stuffed bunny inside, and replaced the lid. We set the casket in the garage so she would stay cool before she went back to clinic the next day. No sleep came that night. The bed felt so empty. For 15 years Freckles had curled at my hip as I drifted off to sleep. Loneliness rocked me, a loneliness I had never experienced before.
As morning broke, I ran out to the garage, still half thinking I'd dreamt the entire thing. The body was now cold and stiff. I lifted her out of the small box to hold her one last time. Her eyes were still open. I gently brushed them shut, laid my head on hers, and soaked in these last moments with her earthly body, the body that had brought me so much happiness and love. My husband watched this exchange, sweetly settled her back in the casket, and left for the cremation. I weakly crawled back into my big, empty bed, crying so hard I could barely breathe. She would never lie on this bed with me again. Never again. I turned the light out and cried myself into a fitful sleep.
For weeks and months after her death, everything took extraordinary effort. Food no longer tasted good. Nothing was funny. Sleep never came. My stomach hurt. I vacillated between aching and numbness. I cried all the time. Life without Freckles was foreign. I couldn't remember how to do it. On a sunny day I'd think, "Freckles will want to go out and lay in the grass for a nap." All thoughts returned to her. I didn't just lose Freckles physically that night. My heart went with her. And I had to learn how to live again. With time even the memories fade. And the only thing that remains is the love we shared.