An Appointment with Mercy

When faced with the decision to euthanize a beloved pet, an owner’s obligation comes due. From the moment that animal entered your life, you’ve been walking with a shadow partner called Death. It’s likely you’ll outlive your pet, and your commitment is to see them to the end. Pets remain dependent on their owners and rely on this mercy; the tough question is determining the timing.

For the thirty-plus years we’d been together, Doug and I have always had pets. We’ve put down two cats, a dog, and lost two felines to wild animals. Only one pet—a cat—died of natural causes. At the peak of pet ownership, we lived with four cats and a dog. Now, we were down to one dog. One old dog, Charlie, our fourteen-year-old, black-and-white English Springer Spaniel.

We adopted Charlie eleven years ago from a neighbor whose circumstances had changed. At three, Charlie was a sweet, energetic dog who immediately fit into our home. Calm with a loving temperament, he was ready for action at a moment’s notice. He leaned his full body weight into you when you sat with him on the floor or the couch, which he quickly claimed. He was up for endless fetching sessions, loved to swim, and, in true Springer fashion, sprang with abandon through the woods and fields we hiked together.

Charlie adored children, which was a bonus for my piano students. He became a fixture in my studio and happily fulfilled his role as greeter, consoler, and companion, falling into dreamland once the music began. His steady presence became a comfort for Doug’s father when he lived with us during the last nine months of his life. Whenever we left the house, Walter’s question was always, “Where’s Charlie?” and there he came down the hall, sacrificing his regular spot on the living room couch to lie by Walter’s bed or chair while we were gone.

Over the past year, Charlie had been in slow decline: he lost his hearing, his arthritic hips weakened until he struggled up the three porch steps, and he showed signs of dementia: irrational whining, confusion, and odd behaviors, such as facing the rear of his crate and barking. The vet said that the panting Charlie regularly exhibited could be from pain or anxiety, or both. My hardest task was releasing the attachment to the dog we fell in love with—vibrant, healthy, and strong enough to spend an afternoon begging for one more tennis ball toss off the dock—and accepting him as he was now: a diminished version of his former self.

I read an article about a woman in the same position who, instead of crying as she faced the reality of her dog’s limited time, would say: “I have you now.” I accustomed myself to forgetting the joy and strength in Charlie’s body and in his firm, responsive senses, and learned to love him as he was now: an oldster, as my friend called him affectionately.

He never stopped loving us, but his eyes grew sadder, and he slept for longer periods. There was not a lot of tail wagging during those final months. My heart twisted when I left him in the house sleeping as I headed to the studio, remembering how he’d always be out the door ahead of me.

In the early days of his dementia, I continued to bring him out to the studio, staying hopeful against the reality of his condition. After completing the ritual treat toss, I’d settle in at my desk. Once the goodies were located and consumed, he would begin whining relentlessly and sometimes barking at me for no reason. Occasionally, if I ignored him for a few minutes, he’d lie down and sleep. But most of the time, I’d take him back to the house and return to the studio alone.

One day I yelled, “Stop, just stop it!” at his incessant whining, which prevented me from concentrating. I immediately felt terrible, apologized, and held him close. It wasn’t only the annoyance of the whining that made me snap at him—it was the memory of the hours we had spent in the studio when he was my constant companion, when he’d lie in the patch of sun on the carpet, or I’d tie him out so he could survey his two-acre, peaceable kingdom.

Over the past six months, Doug and I bartered with death. We juggled and adjusted meds and supplements, assessed Charlie regularly, and asked each other, “Is it time?” I put that question to him the day after Christmas, remembering the cat we’d put down years before on that day. “Not yet,” he said. We continued to strain our budget on medications, supplements, and vet visits.

One morning in early February, Charlie did something he’d never done. After I fed him that morning, I went to the bedroom to dress to take him out, assuming he’d wait at the back door as he always did. Unbeknownst to me, he walked by the bedroom, down the hall, and urinated on the carpet. In eleven years, he had never soiled any surface in the house. Thinking he had a UTI, we ran a urine sample to the vet that morning, but the test showed no infection. When I spoke to the vet, he mentioned possible causes and further tests that could be done. For the past six months we’d been propping him up with palliative care; Doug and I had already discussed it: no more tests. The vet agreed with our decision.

Before I went to bed that night, I sat with Charlie. I sensed from his unusual behavior that morning that he was telling us he was ready. Something in me shifted; I became ready, or at least ready to be ready. We’d turned a corner.

According to a recent survey by the American Pet Products Association, sixty-seven percent—two out of three homes—of American families own pets. Of those, ninety-five percent consider their pet a family member. We wanted to avoid the dreaded final car ride to the vet, where you’re asked to pay ahead of time so you can escape to the privacy of your now-empty car while your pet’s body grows cold on a stainless-steel counter. It seemed more than cruel: it seemed barbaric. Twelve years ago our last Springer, Abby, was put down at home by a local vet who, although not trained in palliative care, was kind enough to come to our house on his way to work one morning to perform the euthanasia. My body vibrated with shock when, a few minutes later, our girl was unceremoniously zipped into a black bag and carried out to the vet’s car. I decided then that if we were ever to put down another dog, I wanted a different, more thoughtful experience.

In-home pet euthanasia is a growing specialty answering a growing need, a service which gives owners privacy and ritual while providing comfort and reassurance for the pets, who feel safer at home. One article calls it the Good Death Revolution.

Through our vet, I was referred to Dr. Krier, a vet certified in Hospice and Palliative Care for Pets, a certification which involves a hundred hours of training completed over sixteen months. The irony of her last name was not lost on me. I connected with her on Valentine’s Day and liked and trusted her immediately.

“Is he in crisis?” she asked. 

“No, we can keep him comfortable,” I said, thinking about our counter full of medications and supplements.

Between two forecasted snowstorms and our respective schedules the coming week, we settled on Saturday morning, six days away. Good, I thought, I’ll have time to get used to the idea.

Charlie usually slept soundly, but that night he had trouble settling down. His panting became incessant. He fell asleep eventually, but the panting continued unabated the next morning. We dosed him with his usual anxiety and pain meds, but they did not calm him. At nine o’clock, we called Dr. Krier.

“Things have changed. Can you come today?”

She had two appointments over an hour away but could be here in the afternoon. She would later tell us that when a family makes an appointment for a week away, more often than not they call within a day or two to ask her to come immediately.

We set Charlie up on his bed. I brought out candles. Doug played his guitar. I stroked Charlie’s head and talked to him and chanted Akaal, the mantra I’d learned in my Kundalini Yoga class to help spirits cross over. Finally, around eleven, he fell asleep. I stretched out next to him to feel the warm weight of his body against mine one last time. 

The vet texted at one o’clock. She’d be here in half an hour. 

When Dr. Krier entered the house, Charlie rose from his bed to greet her, tail wagging, as if to say, Thank God you’re here. Because of COVID, she retreated to her car between the two injections: the sedative and the actual euthanasia. We gave Charlie a dish of ice cream to distract him during the first injection and watched his eating slow down as the sedative kicked in. When his nose dropped into the dish, we pulled his head away and laid it down on the bed. We stroked his silky fur. After the euthanasia injection, it didn’t take long before he was gone.

Dr. Krier gave us plenty of time with him before she came back into the house. She kneeled next to him to listen to his heart. “He’s dead,” she said, plainly, but not unkindly.

We wrapped our boy in his blanket—the one we used for car rides—and the three of us carried him out to her car. I fixed the blanket to cover him and kissed him one, two, three times, and petted his head once more. It was then that it hit me: we’d never see that beautiful, noble face with those soulful eyes again. 

Dr. Krier provided a sense of dignity when she handed Doug a small vial of bubble mix and he blew bubbles as she read the Bubble Release poem about bidding goodbye. Later she texted me the poems and links to resources for grieving pet owners. I was touched when she reached out by phone the next day to see how we were doing. 

When she drove away, I stood by the window and watched her car go down the road, my last sight of Charlie. I recalled the image which had come into my meditation during the past week: Charlie on a raft looking back at me as the boatman poled the river, then turning around to face forward as the raft rounded the bend. The next part of his journey was one we couldn’t travel with him.

Doug and I both cried in each other’s arms. We took a long walk and held hands the entire time. When we reached the turnaround, we stopped to watch dozens of crows in the trees edging the cornfield as they repositioned themselves and made a general ruckus. Then we turned toward home and entered a house that rang hollow.

I take comfort in the fact that we carried Charlie to the threshold and helped ease him over it. He trusted us completely to take care of him and we fulfilled our part of the deal. We gave him the final gift of freedom, and he gave us the final gift of leaving no doubt he was ready. 

Throughout the eleven years he owned us, Charlie taught me plenty but the greatest lesson he gave was toward the end when he showed me how to love him as his mental and physical capabilities grew more limited. I came to treasure him the most then, for who he remained at his core and for his stoic acceptance of physical decline.

If the definition of mercy is a compassionate treatment of those in distress, who showed mercy here? Charlie, by letting us know he was ready to go, or us, by paying attention and responding with a humane transition? In the end Charlie, as all the dying do, determined the actual timing. Which was a mercy in itself.

 

 

Photo by Celyn Bowen on Unsplash, licensed under CC 2.0.

Nancy McMillan
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