Throughout life, there are dozens of lessons, beliefs, and opinions other people tell you when it comes to living. Whenever something big happens to you, like a juggernaut of change beating you with smashed automobiles just like the legendary Marvel villain, these tidbits appear as if everyone were Gandalf. I think there is almost a human compulsion to spit advice whenever someone tells you about a life changing event. We turn into dragons, hurling streaks of buttery fire, hoping it takes hold as a torch you can carry into the unknown.
One piece of advice I heard endlessly while being a pet owner was: “There is nothing harder than having to put your dog down.” I didn’t believe it. The world is full of hollow knowledge and wisdom. I thought you could just go get another dog and regrow that love like scrap of a plant in a pot.
I hate it when the world’s right. Sometimes the pain of this certainty is worse than the circumstances themselves. Even just reading the sentence above this paragraph is hard for me, and I’m sure other pet owners. Putting my dog Millie down was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The decline of her health leading up to being euthanized. The questioning of my decision to have that needle end her life like a narrow button being pushed on her ribs. The actual process of bringing her into the vet, wrapping her in a towel like a newborn baby, and waiting for that steel door to ache open like a cursed gate to the underworld. The whole experience is awful. Worse, you can’t prepare yourself for any of it. You’re at the whim of death, yet, you’re in control of your pet’s life. It’s an absolute contradiction.
Millie’s kidneys had failed, weighing down her long dachshund body like a broken bridge. She’d become half-paralyzed due to the stress on her spine. Fluid built up on her tiny frame like some sort of sci-fi monster with bloated flesh, the type you’d find on derelict space station crunching on human bone. Even worse, her personality remained intact as her cells miscommunicated. She still barked, licked, cuddled, and loved, but she was broken. Her neck had stretched to twice its size to compensate for her paralyzed form.
I did the right thing by putting her down.
It was hard for me to believe it. All I could think about was a recent winter where my depression skyrocketed, and I was numb and unfeeling. I isolated myself completely from friends and family. I would sleep all day beneath a bundle of covers, which felt like they weren’t even there. The only thing I could feel on my body was this aching inside my wrists. Whenever this wall of sadness tips over like a renegade chemical truck from an action movie, I have these painful, numbing feelings where my hand attaches to my arm. It’s like the flesh has gone sour or bad, and needed to be removed. I’d tried that a few times as well. Anything to distract me.
Millie would stay curled next to me like a pinto bean. When I breathed, she breathed. When I shook, she shook. We were in this eerie symbiotic state of sadness. She was sad that I was sad. For those few weeks where the weight of the past and present was crushing me into this oblivion, the only thing that would get me out of bed was Millie needing to go outside. Eventually, those trips exposed me to the world, and made me level out. She’d saved my life in more ways than one.
Recently, I had a vivid dream about her. It felt real, but like I was viewing it through a cracked lens, like my life was a first-person shooter. She was trying to crawl up on a couch to get close to me. She was partially healed from her ailments, but not completely whole. There was something lost in her eyes. They weren’t completely together, like they were forged by my subconscious and memory in an eerie haste. She jumped but fell backwards trying to get close to me, and she was hurt again, in the same brutal way from seven months ago.
When I put Millie down in that opaque cell of a vet room just off the highway, I said many things to her. Right when her breathing stopped, and her body switched from being my best friend, to a still and empty vessel like a child without a home, I whispered something to her. She was on her side. Her snout looked plastic. Her tongue was hanging out like a puppet without a string. I knew any moment she’d be gone from this world. I would never see her again. I leaned in close to her little flap of an ear, and through the tears I said: “It’s okay. You can sleep now. I’m going to be okay. I have my family now. It’s okay. You can sleep.”
Then, she was gone.
She didn’t have to be curled next to me in a clamp of tears and trembling ever again. She didn’t have to stretch her body onto a chair I was sitting on, as I rested my wet eyes on the keyboard of my computer. My sons were born just a week before I had to put my dog to sleep. Millie had met the my wife, the woman of my dreams, just a year earlier. Millie helped me bond with my stepsons, and gave us all something to love and laugh about. It was almost like her body had lasted long enough to get me to my family, to fatherhood, to others who could cuddle next to me when my sense of life fails, and shadows rule the world.
If I have another gloom-made dream, where my half-broken dog and best friend is trying to reach me, panicked and worried, I really can only do one thing. Pull her tight in the unreal fog, and whisper in her whining ear:
“It’s okay. I’m okay. You can sleep.”
You can read more of Patrick’s nonfiction and monsters at www.basementsaid.com
Ok- real talk. I had this dog once…. picture her: Rottweiler head, Doberman body and the size of a great dane. She was incredible. I walked into a shelter in the middle of the California desert and she was there….. horribly underfed, with her fur falling out in clumps. It was love at first sight. I knew I was not leaving there without her. Fast forward a few years later…. she was hit by a large one ton truck. As I made it to the vets office after she’d been scraped off the road….I knew it didn’t look good. Her two front legs had been completely pulverized, internal bleeding and little chance she’d survive the night. At the recommendation of the vet- we thought the most humane thing we could do was put her down and let her go. Here is where the real talk comes in: I have very few regrets in life… but here is one. At the time- I wasn’t doing well with the situation and I didn’t think I could stand there and watch her die. I opted not to be there while she was put down and took her last breath. Why? What’s wrong with me? How is it that I managed to leave her all alone with strangers while she slowed down and spent her last moments on that cold, steel table? Why wasn’t I there? Why didn’t I hold her and pet her and tell her everything was going to be alright? How is it that I was so selfish that I let her do that by herself and all alone? So- there you have it. I still think about it even though that happened almost a decade ago and there have been other dogs since then…. I still think about it and I hope when I see her again, I’ll get to apologize for leaving her in her darkest moment when she needed me most. – Kate