After the loss of a pet, or anyone you love, your mind bounces around the timeline of your relationship. You remember your first meeting, the final moments, the random moments that make life worth living, the decline in health, the energy of younger days…. If there’s a pattern, I haven’t figured it out.
Kristen and I had been together for a year and a half when we got married. We bought a house two months before the wedding, and both knew that we would be getting a dog almost immediately after. I had a dog as a child, but never as an adult, and I was more than ready. There was a dog-sized hole in our souls, and the time was right to plug that sucker up.
We were both on the same page when it came to deciding on what type of dog to get. We both wanted something friendly, large-ish and medium energy. Basically, a Lab. We also wanted to rescue something, so a Lab-mix it was. We went to Feeders Supply about a month after we got back from our honeymoon, and found two Lab puppies — sisters — wrestling around in that way puppies do. Kristen wanted to take both of them, but I was hesitant. With a new house and a new marriage, one seemed quite enough. We decided to take the one who was a bit lower on the energy scale between the two of them (looking back, she was just the one more tired at that particular moment).
The people at the shelter had named the puppies “Hope” and “Faith” (gotta call them something besides “LA345 and LA346”). We took “Faith,” although we knew that wasn’t her name. It took a couple of days to decide on her proper name. I was pulling for “Caprica” at the time, but Kristen wisely threw her veto on that one. (It was a good move, because as much as I liked Battlestar Galactica, I hated it’s spin off prequel, Caprica.) Eventually, we decided that her name would be Maggie. She was really very Maggie.
Maggie Caprica Davis.
(I had to go back to the store for a bit of paperwork the next day and found out that Maggie’s sister had been adopted about an hour after we had taken Maggie home, so all was well).
We also adopted a grey kitten at the same time. We wanted them both to not know a time without each other, and it was my hope that they would be buddies and go on wacky adventures together. Maggie and Lando (I named the cat, Kristen having already thrown her veto) never did build that kind of bond, though. Lando grew to a tepid acceptance that Maggie wasn’t going anywhere, and Maggie enjoyed the times when she could hold down Lando and give him a good sniffing and snuffling.
It was a good balance. It was a good family.
Kristen and I thought that we would have a child or two someday. Nature decided that wasn’t in the cards. We then thought about adopting. After a couple of tries and a lot of energy, money and emotion spent in that direction with no results, we made our peace with it being just us. Our family would be what we made of it, and we slowly became fine with that. Maggie filled that emotional space, and she filled it well. We knew (and know) that dogs are not children, but much of the same energy goes there. We built our routines. We built our expectations. We built our lives.
We knew that something was wrong when Maggie wouldn’t eat. She was a Lab, and Labs are always up for putting something down their barkhole. She couldn’t get comfortable, and she was panting for no discernible reason. We took her to our vet, figuring that she might have ate something she shouldn’t have, or maybe got the dog flu. It was a kink in the day, but we didn’t think that much of it.
The vet wasn’t sure what was going on, so she decided to give her a quick ultrasound to see if that would shed some light on the situation. We waited, still not that concerned. In our almost 10 years of experience with her, Maggie was practically indestructible.
When the vet came back in with Maggie, though, we knew that the news wasn’t good.
“There seems to be a lot of fluid around her heart,” she said.
That’s never good news.
We made an appointment to take her in to a specialty clinic the next day, one that deals with cardiac issues. My hope was that, for whatever reason, Maggie would be better the next day. She wasn’t, though. Her appetite was gone (to the point that she turned her nose at bacon), and she was getting weaker.
We took our ailing dog in, hoping to get some answers and treatment. Hoping that the news wouldn’t be as bad as we had been unconsciously preparing ourselves to hear.
She told us that there were a couple of reasons as to why there might be fluid buildup around her heart. It could be some type of infection, which could be treated, or it could be a tumor, which was not as treatable.
I’ve never pulled harder for an infection.
The vet let us be in the room when she gave Maggie her ultrasound. In other times, there would have been no way Maggie would have laid still enough for the procedure without some kind of relaxant, but this day she just content to lay on her side, which is all that was necessary for the test.
The image played on a large monitor behind her. At first, it was difficult for the untrained eye to know what we were looking at. As the vet moved the wand around, though, it was soon clear we were looking at Maggie’s heart, beating the best it could. As she moved in to get a better look, there was another mass moving in time with the beating of her heart, being pushed and pulled along with it.
It was a mass about a quarter of the size of her heart.
It wasn’t an infection.
It was the tumor.
“The tumor is vascular,” the vet would tell us. “It starts to bleed into the pericardial sac. The pericardium is a tough membrane that surrounds the heart. As it fills with blood, it makes it harder for her heart to beat, and it also starts to crowd the other organs, which is why she’s having trouble breathing and doesn’t want to eat.”
There were other things that the vet said. This type of cancer often metastasizes to the spleen. If we did surgery and chemotherapy, we might extend her life another six to nine months.
I heard all of this, but I can’t say that I was listening at the time. My eyes were still watching that thing connected to Maggie’s heart. Her good heart. The thing that would take her from us.
Working from home, Maggie quickly became my Vice President of Canine Affairs, and gave me that certainty of being able to take part in a quick belly rub, a game of fetch or tug of war, or just a sympathetic ear when I needed to vent. When I’d inevitably read one of those articles online about a dog who recovered after being abused by someone, or how the loss of a dog affected its owner (if you’re reading this, I’m assuming you can relate), I’d stop what I was doing, go find her usually asleep on the couch, and give her a snuggle. She’d wake up, wonder what I was on about, and then allow it. We had a rhythm and it worked.
We had options, the vet said, as we watched the tumor on the screen.
- We could do nothing and let the process take its course.
- Since her final moments would be uncomfortable, with her struggling for breath, we could euthanize as a kindness.
- We could have her drain the fluid off her heart, which would give her a few more days and “give us our dog back” for a bit. Given the nature of the tumor, the fluid would inevitably come back, though, and we’d be back in the same situation.
- We could operate and put her on chemotherapy. The best-case prognosis would be six to nine months.
Kristen and I came to a decision fairly quickly (thank God for spouses on the same page at moments like this). We didn’t want to keep bringing her in to have the fluid — it wasn’t a pleasant experience for Maggie and, yes, expense was a factor; it wasn’t a cheap procedure. To operate and put her through chemotherapy would have been for us, and not her. Not fair.
We’d have the vet drain the fluid off this one time, to give us our dog back, but when the time came, we’d call someone into the house to let her pass quietly at home before she got too uncomfortable. We needed the time to say our goodbyes and to have some time to wrap our heads around this situation that came out of nowhere. Our dog had never been sick a day in her life, and now she had days or hours to live.
Maggie was a mutt (a Lab mixed with something — it was never clear what, exactly, that was. Greyhound, maybe?), and she was the perfect dog for us. She was a larger dog, which is something we both wanted (a big dog is more fun to rassle with). She had a sense of playfulness and humor, which is something not every dog (or human) has. She was smart about the things she cared about (it took me a couple of months to realize that she had trained me to give her a treat around noon every weekday).
She was a people dog, greeting everyone who came through our door enthusiastically (sometimes a bit too much, but she had the personality to pull it off). A friend of ours said that Maggie never met a stranger. As an introvert, I always appreciated that about her and wished I could have bottled some of that for myself from time to time.
Never really being around other dogs, on the rare occasions she was she reminded me of myself. She wanted to play but didn’t really understand the social rules of the room. Usually, she’d just wind up annoying the other dogs with her in-your-face humanity and back down when they inevitably snapped. She’d never be an alpha dog; she was content to beta along and see what happened. As long as there was a treat down the road and someone to scratch her ear, it was all good.
After we brought Maggie home, it took a couple of days for her to shake off the procedure and get back to normal. To our delight, though, she did get back to normal. Naps on the couch, barking at that damned cat that entered our yard from time to time, playing with Lando (who wasn’t as delighted about her return to normal), bringing us her toys and inviting us to try and take them from her….
It was easy to almost forget that she had a terminal illness.
It was almost impossible to ignore that there was a time bomb, waiting to go off without the courtesy of having a digital timer counting down the days.
We lived under the Sword of Damocles, looking for signs that the tumor had started to bleed again. We watched for changes in appetite, for changes in breathing. We were told it would probably be a matter of days, and we know we annoyed Maggie with our constant hovering and demands that she allow us to pet her constantly.
A few days stretched into a week. No changes.
We decided that whatever time we had left with her would be her “victory lap” for her just absolutely nailing being a wonderful dog and a Good Girl. She got the fancy, expensive dog food. She went for rides in the car for no other reason than letting her stick her head out the window (in the cold January air) and sniff the sniffs. McDonald’s cheeseburgers were never in short supply.
One week stretched into two. We always knew Maggie was a fighter. When we were on vacation a couple of years ago, a family member watched her. She told us, once we had returned, there had been an accident (“…but she’s fine,” she added quickly). Their house is built on a fairly steep hill, and there’s a wall at the end of their driveway. On the other side of the wall is a 10-foot drop to a secondary driveway. Their son, standing on the second driveway, had called to Maggie at the top, thinking that the dog would go around the hill to get to him. She instead jumped over the wall, flew for a short time, and then landed on her chin. The boy was traumatized at thinking he had inadvertently killed the dog. Maggie, however, got back up, shook it off, and continued on. The only evidence that it had ever happened was a pink mark on her lip that she’d carry for the rest of her life — her badge of honor commemorating that one time when she flew.
Two weeks stretched on to three.
At the end of the third week, after Kristen and I had returned from the grocery on a Saturday morning, we noticed that Maggie had gotten sick. She came out, panting. Her belly, obviously upset, was a bit distended.
The bomb had gone off.
Right after Maggie’s initial diagnosis, we called a vet who specialized in in-home care, including final care, who came recommended from friends who had been forced to make a similar decision a few weeks earlier (Maggie had got some extra loving when we had heard about their experience, not knowing that we’d be in their shoes so soon). Dr. Courtney Bennett from Heart’s Ease Veterinary Care came over to do an assessment, and since Maggie was her old self at that moment, made a new friend. She discussed the procedure, what we could expect, what plans we wanted to make in the meantime, how to best medicate her to prolong her life, and so on. All the while, she gave Maggie treats and became her new BFF.
Someone in Courtney’s line of work, I realized, needs a special skill set; you’ve got the veterinary science part of it, but you’ve also got to be able to deal with people who are, shall we say, not at their strongest. You’ve got to be understanding and compassionate, but also a little firm, given the reality of the situation. This is not a pleasant conversation to have, but her calm, concern and sympathy made it better than it had a right to be.
She checked in with us a few times in the following week, which was appreciated. It was easy to ignore the reality that we were facing since Maggie was acting so normal. It was a reminder to not take this time for granted, to enjoy Maggie’s Victory Lap along with her.
When the time came, Courtney showed up within an hour of us calling. She again explained to our blubbering wrecks what would happen, and that we were easing Maggie through her passage. It was a kindness, and it would be peaceful.
And it was.
The last thing Maggie experienced in this world was her humans petting her, rubbing her ears and telling her what a good girl she was. She was the best girl.
May we all be as lucky when our time comes.
The past week has had its ups and downs. There are times when we’ve gone out and both felt almost normal, and then there are those moments that break our hearts all over again. For Kristen, there was when she was sitting on the couch, wondered where Maggie was and almost called her. For me, it was when I was making myself some lunch, dropped something on the floor and expected Maggie to be on it like an old-timey detective nabbing a criminal. I still walk to the back door every night before I go to bed, the time I would have let her out for her evening constitutional. I still expect to see her barely visible black frame in the shadows of the dimly lit yard. I still do this, not out of necessity, but out of a habit I haven’t yet felt like breaking. I will, but it probably won’t be today.
There will be other dogs, of course. My wife and I are dog people and that has never been in doubt. We’re planning on moving in a few months, though, so it’s going to be a while before we bring home a new puppy to join our family. We’ll have our own house to sell, and having a puppy and the wonderful assorted chaos that goes along with that might be a bit much to work around. I’m not sure if this delay is a good thing or bad; I’ve just accepted that it is what it is.
My best friend said something I knew to be true: Maggie would want us to give another dog the experience we gave her. She had a good life, never wanted for anything and knew nothing but the love of her owners, her parents. I know there will be a time when we’re ready to bring another pup in, and it won’t feel like we’re trying to replace Maggie (as if). Now’s not that time. Knowing that the time is coming, though, provides its own kind of comfort.
A few days after Maggie left us, we went to pick up her ashes. We plan to spread her ashes somewhere on the grounds of the new property we buy — whenever that happens — but we’ll hold onto them for now. As luck would have it, Courtney came into the office with her own dog. An older Goldendoddle named “Buddy.” As we talked, Kristen and I both got down on the floor and started petting Buddy. Shy as first, he warmed up to us quickly and allowed us to get our dog fix. He even did that thing where the dog puts his head against your chest while you rub his neck.
Petting Buddy was almost a reflex action for us. Something we didn’t know we needed until we got it. And, man, did we need it. We felt better going back to the car after our Buddy time than we had since we said goodbye to our girl.
A quote by comedian George Carlin has been bouncing through my mind the past week: “It’s inevitable when you buy the pet. You’re supposed to know it in the pet shop. It’s going to end badly. You are purchasing a small tragedy.” It’s true, of course. A dog’s life is measured in years, not decades, and for every time you bring a squirmy puppy home you’ll also face the heartbreak of saying goodbye (since nothing’s certain in this life, there’s always the chance the dog will outlive you, which is a different kind of tragedy, but also another story).
Given a long enough timeline, though, that’s true with any relationship we have. With the exception of the “plane crash” scenario, one person will always leave before the other. The only solution to that is to never get close to anyone ever, and that’s a crap way to live.
Did Maggie leave a ragged hole in our hearts? Certainly. Would we trade anything for having had her in our lives? Certainly not. She was a Good Girl, and if the pain we’re feeling now is part of the price for her company and her love, so be it. The pain will fade, but the love of a dog stays.