Geez, I said I would be back, but I did not expect to take this long. Take it as a good sign. I’ve been embracing my forties, enjoying my children’s move from baby-ness to older kid-dome, giving our new dogs a happy and active life, and taking charge of my own health and happiness. I guess this is what we call moving on. It’s been an incredible journey, but that does not mean I’ve stopped thinking about Petey and Ben. Today weighs particularly heavily on my heart because June 27, 2013 is the day we said goodbye to Ben. Every time this day passes, I remember that I have more to say about this experience. So without any further rambling, I will now share what I started writing more than two years ago. This picks up where I left off in my Bracing for the Inevitable post:
On a spiritual level, I had come to terms with Ben’s impending passing. I knew, as I said earlier, that Ben’s spirit would live forever and always stay near. On a day-to-day level, however, my anxiety continued to rise. How would we know when it was time to tell him goodbye? Rob and I agreed that, as with Petey, we didn’t want Ben to suffer. But figuring out if he was suffering proved challenging. My experiences with Petey did not serve as a good gauge. Despite his cough, Ben did not look like a dying dog. He was very much alert and coordinated. He never had any accidents in the house and didn’t even have to go out too often. So much of what I read didn’t apply to him, either. Several sites suggested loss of appetite as a tell-tale sign, but Ben still ate. Some mornings, he didn’t show an immediate interest in his food, but later in the day he would devour everything in his bowl and want seconds. What if his tough exterior was just fooling us? How much room did he have left in his lungs? What if we waited too long and he suffocated to death? I would never forgive myself.
It was incredibly scary, but we had to establish a criteria unique to Ben.
Sites and online threads specific to lung cancer in dogs noted coughing up blood as a red flag. I also scoured the ASPCA site, which gives several guidelines for determining whether or not a pet has a good quality of life and when it’s time to euthanize. Though I saw some of the usual guidelines that I didn’t think Ben would ever meet, the following questions resounded with me:
- Does he avoid his favorite activities?
- Does he seek out unusual places to sleep or hide?
Ben already couldn’t take walks with me anymore. In addition, when we got home one evening after spending a couple hours at my in-laws’ house, Ben did not run to the front door like he normally did. I called him, but he did not come. I rushed upstairs, afraid I’d find him dead in my bedroom. But when I got there, he was just lying under my desk, awake. He followed me back downstairs, but the whole situation was so unusual.
The following statement also jumped out at me: “If you observe that moments of discomfort outweigh his capacity to enjoy life, it is time to euthanize, even if your pet still experiences pleasure in eating or socializing.” Slowly, this was becoming the case. I started dreading nights the further we got into June. Normally, Ben would follow Rob–who goes to sleep earlier than I do–to bed. But climbing the stairs became more and more difficult, and he started staying on the couch, even after I went upstairs. He would come up when he got too lonely, though, and have a coughing, heaving fit in our bedroom. After he settled down, I’d lie in bed, my heart pounding, and tell myself that the time had come.
But it wasn’t a constant, steady decline. He’d have a rough day and then a good one or two. I approached the weekends with caution, asking myself each Friday if I should take him in now; my vet’s office is only open half a day on Saturdays and closed on Sundays. What if he clearly started suffering during that time? But watching him, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. After one bad Saturday night, I woke up early the next morning and researched our weekend options. I found a few, including the emergency vet and some agencies who specialized in at-home euthanasia. But when Ben awoke that morning, he stayed mellow and had very few coughing fits. I even made the appointment with my vet the following Tuesday morning but canceled it a little later when Ben improved and had a day with minimal coughing.
Later that same week, though, those fluctuations became much smaller, and Ben’s behavior became more and more telling. One afternoon, my in-laws stopped by briefly. Normally during their visits, we’d have to put Ben in a different room because he jumped all over them and never calmed down. This time, Ben walked outside, wagged his tail, then lay on the ground in front of my mother-in-law. She had to bend over to pet him. It was like he wanted to tell her goodbye.
The next day, he could only walk a few steps without having a coughing fit. And during one of those coughing fits, he hacked up some saliva tinged with blood. I left Ben downstairs that night when I went to bed, thinking there was no way he would try climbing stairs now. A few hours later, though, he woke me up when he jumped on the bed. As he settled next to my shoulder, still wheezing while he drifted off to sleep, I curled up next to him. “You don’t deserve this,” I whispered.
I made the call the next morning. The assistant asked me to bring him at 9:30. Ben lay on the stairs’ landing, and I sat there petting him, praying that he would go as easily as Petey did, that I was making the right decision again.
By now, the family was awake, and Rob nervously kept busy around the house. He’d had such a humorously adversarial relationship with Ben, but now, he was clearly heartbroken. I had the kids give Ben kisses. When it was time to go, I asked Ben the same question I always did before we went somewhere together: “Want to go bye-bye?” He sprung from the stairs and onto the foyer floor, his tail wagging, then coughed. Rob, watching from the living room, started sobbing.
I held in my tears until we got outside, and then I lost it; I’m sure that, once again, the neighbors heard me crying. I asked in the car if this was the right time, hoping that the song on the radio would tell me (a practice I’d gotten into lately). I turned the key, and Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On” blasted in. Robert Plant screamed, “The time, the time, the time is now!” I had never gotten a clearer answer.
When Ben and I walked into the vet’s office, I said hi to the assistants behind the counter and then immediately doubled over in a silent cry. I must have said I was sorry several times because, by the time we got back to the room, one of them told me to stop apologizing. She said goodbye to Ben with tears in her own eyes, and then he and I waited for the doctor. Next came the same steps I’d gone through with Petey: kind words and reassurance from the vet, a sedative, then a 20-minute wait before the doctor would return to give the injection. I expected Ben to surrender during that waiting period as easily as Petey did, but that’s where my dogs were different.
When we were left alone again, Ben didn’t come to me. He sat in front of the door and whined like he always did during routine vet visits. I called him over, and when he still didn’t come, I picked him up and sat on the floor with him. I cradled him against me, told him I loved him, asked him to give Petey a kiss for me, asked him to always stay near me. I could feel him getting heavier, but unlike Petey, he did not fall asleep in my arms. When the vet and his assistant returned, Ben was clearly groggy, but his eyes remained open.
The vet laid Ben on the table and, as he and his assistant positioned him, Ben stared up me, motionless, passive. I stared back, channeling all the love I could. About twelve seconds after administering the shot, the doctor said, “He’s gone.” Ben’s eyes, now glassy and unfocused, stayed open. I ran my hand over his coat. The vet offered his condolences, understanding all I’d been through in the past four months. I hugged him, and as I thanked him for everything he’d done, I felt a warm nudge on my forearm. The hair on my whole arm stood up. I knew that was my signal. Ben was okay, and he would always be with me.
That didn’t mean, though, that moving forward would be easy. I sat in the parking lot, holding Ben’s skull-and-cross-bones harness tightly and crying, for a long time. How did all of this happen? How did I lose both of my dogs within four months? Why didn’t Ben get as much time as Petey did? Why didn’t he get to be the alpha male for a couple of years? I had to remind myself that he did have 13 years and that every pet, every person, every living thing has its own path. I would have to learn to accept it.