I put Alec to sleep on Saturday, July 31. He breathed his last breath at about 6pm, at home, with me holding him. I struggled with this for days but I had to let him go. I know he did not want to leave me. It broke my heart to do this. I can barely type these words without being blinded by tears. There were multiple things happening at the end, all of which suggested his body was shutting down. He had deteriorated and was having trouble breathing. The vet said he probably had fluid in his lungs. He didn’t want to, or couldn’t, go outside anymore. I had to support his hind end with the harness I used when he was paralyzed to get him out at all. The cancer might have spread to his bones or it could have been a slipped disc. I will never know. It didn’t matter because there were so many other things happening related to the cancer. But I could only get him out to go potty about once every 12 hours, he was so weak, and his urine was dark and minimal compared to the amount of water he was drinking. The water was going somewhere else, which means he was dehydrated. He was pale and anemic. His abdomen was distended, likely filling with fluid. Basically, his insides were leaking and his organs were shutting down. He barely moved except to sit up and watch me, and occasionally change positions. The smallest movements exhausted him at the end.
Throughout these days, he rested in his little house (his comfy kennel that he loved and insisted on staying in, despite my wish to cuddle closer), intermittently dozing and raising his head to watch me walk around the apartment, or to smile at me when I sang to him or acted silly. I sat by his bed during the day and wrote in my journal, watching him, talking to him. At night I slept with my head outside his little house, where he wanted to be. Each day I wondered, is this it? Do I make the call? I agonized and talked it over and over with my vet, my friends, a pet loss grief specialist, and even animal communicators. I talked to Alec a lot, too. Everyone said I would be sure when the time was right – that I would know.
The truth is, I was never sure. Rationally, I knew it was time. Logically, I do not think I waited too long, nor acted too soon. But emotionally was a completely different matter. I am a very logical person but my emotions are strong and not easily controlled. They complicate everything. I always thought I’d be able to put my emotions aside, be reasonably objective, and make the right decisions for Alec. With help from an amazing vet and a couple of good friends, I think I ultimately did that. But it doesn’t make it easier to live with. As I sobbed and sobbed after he was gone, my vet said something that resonated. She said, “You took on his suffering. Now you are suffering so he doesn’t have to.” I think maybe she got that just right.
Making things harder than I ever could have imagined was the fact that while his body was so sick, his mind was alert – he still looked cheerful, for god’s sake. I thought it would be like previous bleeding episodes when he was so weak he could not lift his head. I thought the end would come when he had one of those bleeds but did not recover. He would be “flat out” and I would know. But it happened more slowly than that. I wasn’t prepared for him to still be watching me with his usual smile. I expected to see that look in his eyes saying he wanted help, wanted to go. I never did. But his body was dying, and there was nothing I could do about that.
The vet said Alec might pass away peacefully on his own eventually…or he might drown (from the fluid in his lungs). She said he could also go into cardiac arrest. I asked if this meant his heart would just stop and she said no, he would feel like he could no longer breathe. He would gasp for breath. Those images are what did it. He would be scared and in pain for his last moments. This might not have happened, but no one could guarantee it wouldn’t. I could not risk that. And what possible payoff would there be for that risk? I realized there was no reward for him in it. It would just be for me. I would have some more time with him and also avoid the emotional pain of making this decision. What would Alec gain? Nothing. I believe he already had hung on this long for me. The “quality of life” scale had clearly tipped. He could no longer do the activities he enjoyed. He had basically stopped eating the last few days (he would still obligingly take a treat from me, but would only hold it in his mouth for a moment before dropping it, untouched – this was heartbreaking), and although he was drinking plenty, he was clearly dehydrated. He could not go on walks, could not swim, was too weak and uncomfortable to move around. It had been days since he even wanted to hang out on the stoop. The only thing remaining was our relationship.
The enjoyment of a relationship with their guardian might be higher or lower on some dogs’ quality of life scales but I knew it was high on Ali’s. A different dog might not have held on for that, but I could tell Ali genuinely liked being with me, even if we were just sitting around. I started to realize as his condition deteriorated that he was probably not going to willingly leave me, that he was going to continue to put on a brave front, acting like he was “okay” even when he was not. He was fighting for me. It was not fair to make him keep fighting. Not when he would never get better. Not when he would only get worse and worse. Like I said, logically it was obvious. So why are tears streaming down my face as I type this? Why do I feel like I made a mistake? Because I made the call to separate us forever – that is how a friend described the feeling of making the euthanasia decision for her dog with whom she shared an uncommonly deep bond: separating them forever. That really hit home with me. And of course that is why I hoped Alec would choose the right time, to somehow be able to leave his body on his own…to spare me this. But I started to think that was not going to happen, and it was not fair. I had always put his best interests first and it was my responsibility to end this. It became increasingly clear that he would suffer for me, to stay with me. How could I allow that? I was all he had left in this world. His only joy. Why did he keep smiling?? God, that made it so hard.
He might have lasted another few hours, maybe days, maybe longer. I don’t know. He was a fighter and as much as I wished with all my heart he would peacefully and painlessly pass away on his own, I came to realize the chances of that were slim. One evening after the vet left, after another agonizing conversation about what to do, my friend Mike stayed behind for a minute helping me evaluate Alec’s condition, and he said, “I hate to say this, but it might be better if he just goes in his sleep.” I said, “Are you kidding? I have been praying for that every night!” Then the reality – the awful, awful reality – hit me and I suddenly burst into tears. “I can’t believe I am praying for Alec to die in his sleep,” I sobbed. How did this happen? How did we get here? Spinning, spinning.
Even as Alec deteriorated over the last couple weeks I never got any “release me” signs whatsoever (and I was watching – believe me I was watching), and there became no doubt in my mind at the end that he wanted to stay with me, which made it so hard. However, as the vet pointed out to me, dogs, like children, do not always act in their best interests (for example, running into traffic, eating objects that will have to be surgically extracted, or, in Ali’s case that one time, jumping over a cliff), so just because Ali did not want to leave me did not mean this was best for him. As much as I wanted to honor his wishes, as much as I hoped he would know it was “his time” to go, he never stopped watching me with his big brown eyes (still so bright!) as I walked around the apartment, with his usual interest and gentle smile. I started to think he would never stop watching me, would never willingly leave me.
Even though so many people assured me I would “know,” I probably would never have been 100% sure. But I did know he was dying and was not going to get better. In fact, he would only continue to get worse. If I was waiting for a sign that it was the right time, I realized that sign would be that his condition had worsened so much that it would be undeniable. That would be my “sign.” Would it be fair to him to let him get sicker and feel worse just so I would have a sense of certainty? Of course not. I never had a problem with the logical side of things, although I had to talk it out over and over and over again until I had examined every angle and still would come back to the same place. He was not going to get better.
As obvious as this seemed, as I have told others, I think in my case it was particularly hard, having seen Alec beat the odds once before, having nursed him when I had to express his bladder, when he could not even stand up on his own. Here we were again. Me bringing him water, helping him outside. But this was different. This was terminal cancer. But because we had been through such an intense (and for me, scary) experience when he became paralyzed, and then made it so far in two years – together! – it was extremely difficult for me to “give up” on him. And of course everyone assured me I was not doing that, but I would be lying if I did not say that is exactly what it felt like in some ways. But medical options were exhausted, I had waited and prayed for a miracle, and it was to the point where making him wait while he got sicker was simply not the right thing to do.
Saturday, July 31, came and it was not the first day I had thought about doing this. Almost every day the previous week I had my vet on call. Every night I thought, “One more night. It doesn’t feel like the right time.” On Saturday morning, he seemed worse, his breathing more labored, his eyes – usually so bright – starting to half-close at times, even when his head was up. He had steadily declined over the last couple weeks, and more quickly over the last 48 hours. This was only going to end one way. He was not going to get better. I prayed, oh how I prayed, for a miracle, but I could not make him hold on when he was going to die from this awful disease anyway (and soon), knowing the dying process could be painful and that he might panic. I had to take responsibility.
I always vowed to take care of him and I had to do that now, even if it meant ending his life. This is extremely hard for me to write. I have told other people that a peaceful death is the last gift we can give our beloved animals who are dependent on us for everything. But these words felt hollow when it came to me and Alec. Our story was not supposed to end this way. Maybe in a few years, but not now, before he even reached his tenth birthday. Not when he had only recently started walking again. While this is difficult to write, it is even harder for me to think about. I forced myself to sit down and update this because I am avoiding thinking about it. My journal, into which I recorded the last few weeks in great detail, has stood blank except for a couple occasions where I have scrawled into it like a crazy person following hysterical fits that scared even me. They scared me so much, I have been afraid to go near this bottomless pit of grief that is staring me in the face. Maybe if I don’t look it won’t be real. Or it will be real, but in a more abstract way. I don’t even know what I mean by that.
After it was done, my friend Mike and I sat with his body for a few hours and drank a bottle of champagne I had left over from the celebratory “benign hematoma” period (April to mid-May). I didn’t know if I would want his body taken away immediately or if I would want to spend time. I was glad we spent time, even though I knew it was just a shell. Mike had been apprehensive, but as I cried and we talked over Ali’s body still on the bed and pillows where he had lain the last few weeks, he said, “this is bizarrely not creepy.” And it wasn’t. There is a full-service funeral home for pets outside Portland, and they have a 24-hour pick-up service or you can transport the body yourself. I decided to make that decision in the morning but knew I did not want to stay in my apartment alone, so I said good-bye to Alec’s body again and went to Mike’s house to sleep on his couch.
Once he went to sleep and I was alone, my grief opened up and threatened to swallow me. I sat on the couch desolate, crying and sobbing as quietly as I could (I did not want to wake his housemates) for hours. I began to feel frantic and like I needed to be back in my apartment, closer to Ali, even though it was only his shell. I woke up Mike and he drove me home against his better judgment (“I think this is a horrible idea,” he said more than once, but drove me anyway). After he dropped me off and I was alone again I became even more hysterical. When my crying turned into a bizarre urge to break things – something I have never experienced before – I realized I had made a mistake. I drove myself back across town in the middle of the night and have only returned to my apartment once since, to pick up a few things before leaving town. Mike took care of meeting the pet hearse the next day. I had said my good-byes to his body the night before and I knew the next day it would only be stiffer, colder. It was not him. He was gone. I told myself this over and over.
Although I had put away his toys a few days before (except for a couple), and Mike was kind enough to remove and clean up some things afterward, Alec is obviously still everywhere. His chemo pills in the fridge, his beds and little house (even though Mike folded it up and propped it against the wall), my detailed notes on the coffee table recording the last time he took each medication and what time he last went out to pee, the vet bills on my desk, his leash and jaunty bandana hanging on the hook, a partially eaten greenie, a pile of treats, and on and on and on….a heart wrenching reminder everywhere I look in the small apartment we shared.
My best friend Kristine, whom I have known since I was seven, flew me back east to stay with her and her boyfriend Ryan. Being here, in a completely new context (I had never even seen their new house), has been a lifesaving distraction. In fact I’d like to not leave, to not have to go back to my apartment, ever. Of course I am going to move. I can’t be there without him. I already gave my 30-day notice. But I have to go back to clean, pack, and deal with all of Alec’s things. Since I can’t even face that right now, I am focusing on one day at a time. But I am going to have to deal with reality very soon.
I am working from here, but it is difficult. I feel like I need a leave of absence. Unfortunately I already took a lot of time off to care for Ali while he in hospice. Kristine and her boyfriend took me to Vermont last weekend, which was another welcome distraction. As long as I keep moving I am okay.
This feeling reminds me of a lyric from my favorite songwriter, Chris McCaughan:
I’m momentum, in transit
alive in the rhythms of movement
it’s when I stop and start thinking
that I realize all the people I’m missing.
In my case there is just one “person,” but the sentiment of safety in momentum rings true. When I stop and start thinking, things threaten to fall apart. This has only happened a few times over the last week but each time has been so bad I have backed off from trying to process this. In our hotel room in Vermont on Saturday night, after Kristine and Ryan had gone to sleep, I don’t know what happened, but I found myself curled up on the bathroom floor hysterically crying for hours (good thing they are heavy sleepers). The pain was so gigantic and suddenly I could not stop the images and flashbacks of Alec’s last days, of me finally (after pondering and putting it off many times over the previous days) authorizing the euthanasia, of our last minutes and hours together…of how he never stopped smiling at me even though he was clearly so sick and weak…of him even sitting up and barking with all the energy he could muster when the vet and her tech entered our home that last day…of him watching us smiling as we sat around his little house discussing this decision, while I went over and over and over everything again with them, all the stuff I knew and just had to say out loud and be reassured of one more time…of him willingly eating the baby food I gave him that had the sedative in it (so trusting), which set the death process inexorably in motion…of me holding him, forehead to forehead, as his heart beat for the last time…of coming back that same night and finding his body colder and starting to stiffen but holding him anyway and sobbing hysterically into his fur, “I’m sorry…come back…I’m sorry…come back.” I felt like bashing my head against the bathtub to make the images and thoughts stop. I didn’t, but I guess I might be a little worried about myself. It’s deceiving because I am not like that all the time. I have been able to put up a brick wall between me and the fact that he is really, truly gone and not just waiting for me back in Portland. It’s momentum and distraction. I know I can’t keep the wall up forever. I am afraid of what’s on the other side. I am afraid of never seeing him again.
But two weeks later, the wall is starting to crack. Writing this, sitting here and crying while I try to think of how to tell people I have put Alec to sleep, is part of it. I have begun crying…and crying…letting some images come. But I have to keep backing off. The way I felt in the bathroom in Vermont was scary and I know if I am at that place again I may need to get help. We’ll see. I am analytical enough to see myself, to know when I should be worried and when I am just feeling what I have to feel – intense sadness, longing, aching, denial, disbelief, and anger that my sweet baby shepherd had to endure so much at the end after having already been through so much. That I could not prevent this. That I looked forward so much to this summer and taking him swimming all the time. But he died instead. Thoughts like this threaten to consume me, as I go from our last minutes together to our last weeks, months, and ever outward until I am viewing our whole relationship in its entirety, which I can do now of course…because it is over. I cannot explain how jarring that is. The simple thought that set me off the other night was merely this: “I can’t believe it is all over.”
As I was just telling Kristine, Alec was my world. Not only did I spend almost every waking (and sleeping) moment with him, but I was also constantly trying to think of activities to make up for his lingering disability, to keep him happy, stimulated, and fulfilled, and there were countless ways he was woven into the fabric of my daily life, routine, and constant concerns. I logged hours on the internet searching for new shoes for him, ones that wouldn’t wear out or get holes right away, investigating new potential swimming spots or hikes that might be flat enough that he could do them, looking for supplements for his back, just general research stuff that took up a lot of my time, my brain space.
Happier times last summer, 2009. We explored a new swimming spot on the Sandy River. Alec had only been out of his wheelchair about a month at this point, but he did great on the longish walk to the river.
There was also this blog and other things I had started to write about Alec, like the little article about doggie wheelchairs for Animal Wellness magazine. I thought that was just the beginning. He inspired me so much. A lot of people said after hearing Alec’s story, “wow, you should write a book.” I heard that enough times that I was actually planning to do it. I started to take their suggestions and encouragement seriously. I guess what I am trying to say is if my brain is the size of the U.S., I feel like taking away the part that Ali occupied leaves me with some meager area roughly the size of New Jersey. No wonder I feel so lost on a good day, panicky on a bad one.
As I have said before, I never allowed myself to mourn for what was lost when Alec became paralyzed and later due to his lingering disability. I focused on what he could do – walk without his wheelchair, go for long swims that he loved. But now that he is gone, when I start to crack open the window of my grief, sadness pours in and I mourn for all he lost when he became disabled, all the activities he could no longer do. I did my best to make it up to him and I know he had a good life, but still. After his paralysis, there was no more running, no more frolicking, no more games of “stick,” no more playing with other dogs.
It breaks my heart to think it ended this way, with him so sick. He had only been out of his wheelchair for a year. He was so innocent and so sweet. Why did this have to happen to him?? And I know people go through stuff like this all the time, parents lose their children for god’s sake, and that makes me sad too. How do they do it?
People have said they hope I can find peace, and I do too. But for now I have only begun to process me without Alec. These last few months have been so stressful, but now the hard part begins. I think of the lonely road stretching before me with reluctance, trepidation, and sorrow. So I try to stay present as much as possible. But it is hard to keep the past and future at bay. I cannot fathom that I will never see him again. That he is gone. When I think of the past, I think of how impossibly happy I was. Or perhaps “content” is a better word. It’s hard to walk around in a state of ecstatic happiness every day, although that is exactly what I did for the month and a half after receiving the false benign biopsy results. My euphoria lasted until Alec’s second bleeding episode on May 14, which started the hellish and all too short struggle with cancer that ended on Saturday, July 31. I told Alec when I was saying good-bye (and I told him many times before those last moments) that being with him was a dream come true, that I could not possibly love anyone or anything more than I loved him, that he made my life so much better. And I thanked him.
Honestly, the only thing that got me through those terrible last days and weeks without losing my sanity was the belief that Alec would never leave me, that we would never be separated, that our bond was too strong to be broken. I realize to some it will sound like I did lose my sanity after all! But it was like a lifeboat helping me to the other side of what I knew was inevitable, what I could not, despite my trying, stop from happening. He was going to leave me, whether he wanted to or not. I was always skeptical about life after death and spirits and whatnot, but faced with losing Alec, I suddenly had no choice. We could not be separated. Our relationship would continue, albeit in a different form (what with him in spirit and all.) I told him repeatedly we would still be together, our bond cannot be broken, he will just be in spirit now. Our relationship will change, not cease to exist. I told him this was merely the beginning of a new chapter: Alec’s Story, Part 2. And I believed it. I had to. But now I am so afraid he is not with me. I have tried to feel him, to see him, to hear him, but I can’t. I wonder if I made it all up just to survive his passing. But if so, how will I survive now? I have not given up. I am still trying. I still believe with all my heart that our bond cannot be broken. This is the only thing giving me comfort as I try to keep breathing, keep working, keep living.
And so I keep writing. Alec’s story is my story now I suppose. I thought I could never write with him gone, but maybe writing will keep him close to me. Maybe it will feel like that anyway. I don’t know. I don’t know anything yet. Except that I will always listen for you, Alec. I will always be grateful to you for being my amazing shepherd, my dream come true. I will see your smile everywhere. I will never stop loving you. I will never stop watching for you.
Frustrated by the limitations of language, especially as it pertains to our relationships with friends of a different species, I have always said my love for Alec was beyond words. This remains true now that his physical presence – incredibly, but undeniably – is gone. Now our love is beyond life. At least mine is. I have no idea where he is, if he is anywhere. But I do know that me without Alec feels…wrong. I hope I can find peace, I do. but I feel far from peace right now.
I know this post is over-long and repetitive, but as I read back and see what I am repeating, I realize I need to hear it. I need to understand that I made the right decision and had no choice. I mean, I had other choices, but they would not have been in Alec’s best interest. I need to know that just because he did not want to leave me does not mean I did the wrong thing in making him go. It was the cancer, the cancer, the cancer. Not me killing him. So I am leaving this rambling post, because it reflects what my brain needs to process right now and I think writing some of this down has been an important step. Besides, I don’t have the mental strength to edit this properly.
I may be half mad with grief, but I am still able to appreciate kindness. Once again, I really sincerely want to thank people who have left supportive comments on our blog, which I started for a completely different purpose, and which of course I never thought would end this way. Many of you have never met Alec or me, yet have taken the time to wrap me in your warm words. Your beautiful and caring sentiments have moved me to tears – the sweet kind. You are wonderful and compassionate and your words have brought me comfort. Thank you for caring about Alec’s story and for taking the time to write. How I wish there would be more photos, more updates. Once words could not express my love…now they cannot express my sorrow.
And I don’t know what I want, but I know where I want to be
And everywhere I go, I wish you were here with me
Stars hang on tiny strings, my dreams are made of memories
Once everything made sense, now I get so alone that I can’t sleep
Will somebody please tell me if this is where I’m supposed to be?
– Mason Jennings
I’m trying to find places to breathe now.
You are the roots that sleep beneath my feet and hold the earth in place.
Excerpt from a silly song I wrote for Ali but never finished: There must be a reason why I love you so much
There must be a reason why I love you so much
We go together, you know that it’s true
The molecules between us are sticky, sticky like glue
We go together, you know that it’s true
Out of everything and everyone in this whole wide world
I picked you.
I love you, Ali.