I just came back from vacation to realize my dog is dying. Though this sounds like it might be the opening to one of those old country songs where “There’s a tear in my beer cause I’m cryin’ for you dear,” I can assure you I’m not sitting on a bar stool in some hole-in-the-wall saloon swilling nine beers as I write this. “I’m so doggone blue” though, so most of Hank Williams Jr.’s lyrics still apply. My 8-year-old golden retriever, Ryan, is on my lonely mind.
A few weeks ago my husband and I took our kids on a whirlwind two week tour of Europe, mostly through England, Wales and Ireland. That alone was enough to make me want to throw a few back and break my self-imposed #soberliving streak. As a high school English teacher, it’s just too easy to hit the bottle in the afternoon when the day has been stressful, and they’re all stressful, so I gave up the sauce about six months back in an attempt to find a healthier coping mechanism than white zinfandel on the rocks every evening around five. The stress of traveling abroad and flying over a giant black hole (the Atlantic) was almost enough to cause me to leap off the wagon, but after whispering countless prayers in cramped airplane bathroom stalls and performing signs of the cross upon four different touchdowns, I made it across the pond and back without boozing and in one piece (or five pieces if you count the husband and kids individually.)
When our golden retriever saw us walk in, he made sounds I’m not sure another canine has ever made. The muscles in his throat constricted into this high pitched whine that sounded like a small child’s muffled crying into a pillow. Beyond his relief to see us again, I could tell that something was wrong. He was holding his head differently, that slanted way he holds it when his jaw or ear is hurting.
Ryan has battled an autoimmune disease on and off for a year. He was first diagnosed with Masticatory Muscle Myositis (MMM) last summer right before my husband went away for a week on a work trip. The timing couldn’t have been worse. While my other half was hanging out listening to live jazz after a day of attending one riveting presentation after another, I was caring for five kids (our niece and nephew were staying with us on the lake), a new puppy, and a sick dog. To make matters worse, the medicine Ryan was taking caused him to come down with another condition called Cushing’s disease. I’ve lived through a lot of crazy in my life, but that week may be the closest I’ve ever come to feeling crazy. I might have joined Jack Nicholson and flown over the cuckoo’s nest together any number of the times I woke in the night to let the puppy out, or when I schlepped out of bed in the morning with our youngest son who seems to be the world’s answer to an anti-vampire. When first light reaches his retina he’s ready to start the day, every, blessed, day.
Living in New England you’ve likely seen the “Life is good” brand on mugs, t-shirts and all manner of outdoorsy kind of paraphernalia, but when you’re the sole lifeguard to five kids while watching a new puppy chew everything in sight and your old puppy is panting like he climbed Everest when he moves three feet, “Life is not good.” It’s crap. It’s craptastic every day because you know if any one of these balls you’re juggling drops, a kid dies, or a dog dies, or you have just murdered a puppy. Either way you slice it, somebody’s dying. (I admit, I do have a bumper sticker with a wave on it that says “Life is good,” but I bought it in a lighter moment when no one around me was actually dying, and I stuck it on my coat rack, so I don’t think many people notice it.)
I haven’t really thought much about last summer until now. As I look at my old dog and my new dog and compare their spunk (they’re both sprawled on the floor in identical positions of repose at the moment) I’m wondering if Ryan should be taking six pills in his food morning and night just to sleep all day? Is it normal for a dog to be on pain pills around the clock? When is it okay to let him go? If I don’t buy him this medicine that could support a small village of sheepherders for at least a year in any one of the scenic towns I just visited, then Ryan won’t be able to open his mouth to eat. And if I do buy the meds, and he continues to open just wide enough to get food in, am I prolonging what has become a painful existence for us both?
How do you let go of your heart? This isn’t just some fluffy question you hear as a voiceover on a Hallmark movie commercial as a teaser for yet another series about a woman who lost her husband to smallpox and now must find love again at the hands of a young blacksmith in 19th century New England. The girl always seems to be wearing a lacy, high necked shirt with puffed sleeves, and the guy’s dressed in a leather vest or at the very least a leather tool belt with a brooding expression that says, “I really, really want to kiss you right now.” I’m asking a serious question. How do you willingly part with a creature who has slept beside you, run to you with unbridled joy in his eyes, rolled over the millisecond he thought a belly rub might be in his near future, climbed mountains, hills and fields to the syncopation of your footfall, and still continue to exist? How do you say goodbye to a friend knowing that you chose for that friend to go away?
I can tell myself that putting Ryan down is for his own good, and I wouldn’t be lying. I don’t want him to live like this, trepidatious of every mouthful, every step slower than the last, but there are moments when the pain pill kicks in, and he forgets it’s hard to swim out to that stick. And he swims. When he finds a way to pick up the tennis ball and crouch over it like the treasure it is. When I see him roll over and over again in the backyard on grass that tickles his back in all the right places, and he makes that sound that a dog only makes in the throes of passion or when he’s found something dead.
It strikes me now that this feeling isn’t so different from what I experienced on those airplane rides over the Atlantic. It’s what I felt for my husband and children when we stepped out of our known world into a new place that could potentially put us in harm’s way. Every airport was suspect; every crowd housing a potential terrorist. There is no safe place in our world today, and that reality scares me. Granted, I’m usually the one stopped at TSA because I’ve forgotten to dump the liquid from my water bottle, but the fear of losing our life and the lives of our loved ones is real. Whether we acknowledge it or not, all life ends in loss.
Doing something that causes me to lose someone I love, or doing nothing, just sitting back in my reclined seat while looking out the window and letting death happen, this is what scares me the most. Regardless of what I do or what I don’t, loss is going to happen eventually. This is the unavoidable truth, the uncomfortable reality we all face. Death is unavoidable. Sometimes I make peace with this fact by telling myself that life is about surrendering to death. I’m not talking about jumping out of the airplane or going shark diving or doing anything crazy. For me, surrendering to death boils down to being okay with how I’m living. Am I living my best life? Am I being as kind and loving and selfless as I can? Have I asked my husband how he’s doing lately? Have I kissed my kids a million times today? Have I scratched Ryan’s ears and rubbed his belly? Have I told the new puppy I don’t harbor any grudges for all those shoes we lost?
Life, and death, is about loving the ones I love as much as I can while I can and then letting go. So maybe “Life is good” after all. The more I think about it, the more I realize I need a new mug, and Ryan needs a new collar.
Emily Denbow Morrison is a high school English teacher, freelance writer and editor from coastal Maine. She is living happily-ever-after with her handsome husband, three beautiful children and two beloved dogs. And a cat.