Monday, August 30, 2010

Goodbye, Mattie

We had to put our dog down this weekend. It was a surprise—she had never been exactly healthy, but over the last week or so, she'd been gasping for breath and looking disoriented and uncomfortable. So we took her to the vet, expecting to hear that she needed antibiotics for a chronic illness she's had since puppyhood. But then the vet called and told us she probably had cancer and we needed to make a decision right then. If we wanted to, we could bring her home for the afternoon to spend a few more hours with her. But that would be it.

So that's what we did.

Mattie was a really important part of our family, and the news was like a bomb going off in our midst. We were shocked and sad and everything you would expect. I was guilty for all the times I was a less-than-perfect dog owner (and there were lots of those). I missed her already, even before we had to take her in for her final appointment. But it was the cruelty that really struck me.

Mattie was technically my son's dog—we got her when we he was four years old, and we felt that he needed a playmate. He needed someone to mess up his world a little bit, to introduce a little delightful chaos in to his life. So she was his dog ... she slept in his room, she thought of him like her brother.

But she was also my dog because, in the pack, she clearly viewed me as the alpha dog. I was the one who could control her when no one else could, and I was the one she came to when something was wrong or hid from when she peed on the floor or got into the garbage. So when the vet called with this awful news, my wife and I made a decision that wasn't really a decision, and then we started the wheels turning toward her 2 p.m. appointment.

I'd never felt like such a heartless bastard. I knew she was dying no matter what we did, but once we decided to put her down, it was up to me to usher her toward that moment. She had trusted me her whole life because that's what dogs do. So when I clipped the leash on that final time, she trusted that wherever I was taking her was OK. When I walked her outside and helped her into the car, she looked scared, but she was watching me to make sure it was OK. When I walked her onto the grass and hugged her so she could see the sunlight and grass one more time, she must have thought that things would still be OK, because I was there.

Then I walked her into the vet's office and into the little room where the vet had spread out a blanket. My wife and I both wanted to be present for the event ... we felt strongly that we owed her that much. She deserved to die with the people who loved her. The vet had warned us it could be traumatic because of her illness, that it might be "hard to watch," so we had spent all day preparing ourselves anyway.

In the end, it was peaceful and fast. I had my arms wrapped around her body and my wife was holding her neck and head. I knew I was holding her in place so the vet could find a vein, but she wasn't scared because it was me, because it was us, holding her. She crumpled after the shot was given, and I felt her heart stop beating with the side of my face, and everyone in the room was sobbing. She died with her head in my lap, looking at my wife with her eyes open.

God, I miss that dog. It's only been a day, and I still think I can hear her nails on the terrazzo floors or hear her breathing on the rug behind me. A writer's life can be lonely, and lots of times, she was the only one around for the hours I spend staring at this screen.

I haven't stopped feeling like a bastard. My brain knows the truth, but my heart hasn't totally absorbed it. She trusted me with her life, so when we led her to her death, she went without question. She trusted us with her life, so I hope she knew that we made the best decision we could, that by leading her into that room, we were trying to stop her pain and free her from the disease that had riddled the inside of her body so quickly.

This has been a horrible weekend, and we're still all in shock. I didn't know if I was going to write about this—I was afraid to open myself to it again because there is this sense that life must go on. We still have school and work, and nothing else has changed. Except now there is a hole in our house, and there is silence where there wasn't any before, and there really isn't a bright side or a silver lining to it.

I'm just sad. Goodbye, Mattie. We loved you.


Sarah Laurenson said...

I have given many of my animals this final gift, this release from pain and suffering that we often withold from ourselves.

We do the best we can by our babies and we sometimes have to find the strength to let them go when making them hang on might postpone our pain but at their expense.

My 16 yr old Beagle is approaching his "survival average of 2 yrs post surgery". He came to me at 8 yrs old with skin cancer and has had many forms of that pop up. But this surgery was for primary liver cancer. They thought they could get it all and cure him. They couldn't.

In about 2 weeks, we will be at that 2 yr mark and he is still going strong. But I watch him every day for signs that all is not right in his world. And I worry that I'm not giving him enough affection in the chaos of every day life.

We are only human and they are such magnificent creatures of God. They teach us about unconditional love, about making these hard choices, about being a part of pack society. I'm sure they would teach us a lot more if we would only listen.

My heart goes out to you and your family. I hope you find comfort in knowing you made a hard choice that was the best one you could for Mattie. And being there with her at the end was the best, loving act you could do for her.

Stephen Parrish said...

You're no bastard. It was cancer that killed her. You spared her unnecessary pain. I'm sorry for your loss, Jon. My pets are members of my family too. Thanks for writing this.

Natasha Fondren said...

Oh, Jon. *bawls*

This last year, struggling with my asthma... my God, but I do NOT want to go with my lungs drowning in mucus, or just shutting down. Even gasping for breath all the time. It's too terrifying.

Stick me with a needle and let me go peacefully, with the people I love hugging me. No contest.

I am so, so, so sorry, Jon. *hugs*

Mark Terry said...

So sorry. I'm a dog person as well and the one time I've put down a dog it was heartbreaking. I certainly dread it the next time.

Jude Hardin said...

I had to take my dog Trixie to that appointment when I was 23. I'd had her since I was 9, so I literally grew up with her. Along with all the other memories, she saved us from a home invasion one time (the bad guy had jimmied the front door and was inside the house when she met him head-on). Special dog.

So I feel for you, bro.

Kath Calarco said...

Big hug, JVZ. You did what your dog wanted. She probably had suffered silently so her family wouldn't worry. But when it's time, it's time. Animals have that inherent ability to let go and move on as well as letting their humans know without causing too much hurt.

Hubby and I had to make the same decision last July. I wrote a poem in honor of her final day and her afterlife. Sometime when you're in the mood, look for it at my blog. It was July 8, 2009.

Melanie Avila said...

Jon, I'm so sorry. :( You know you did the right thing, and you're not a bastard. You were with her like she wanted.

I'm just glad I can type this because I can't talk now. :(

Erica Orloff said...

Well, crap, you made me cry before my coffee.

Jon VanZile said...

Thanks everybody ... I really appreciated your words.