Over the past six months, I’ve been watching my Chinese Crested dog, Dennis the Menace, begin the process of dying. Not surprising, for a 16-year-old canine. Frankly, I’m surprised he reached that ripe old age; I’ve never had a dog extend much past 10. His sister Spot went two years ago. His nephew Sluggo, also 16, is still surprisingly bouncy and relatively healthy. His slide into the darkness will be sooner than I’d like. But this process is not easy and it’s not fun and it’s very, very hard to wrap my head and heart around.
I suspect Dennis’ actual death is fairly close. He rises feebly, sleeps a lot, eats very little, and has difficulty walking far. He’s nearly blind and his hearing is shot. He can sleep through thunderstorms that once set him on edge.
Just today, though, he tangled with Sluggo for no reason other than to assert his role as Alpha. Since neither one has good teeth, I don’t worry so much anymore about their posturing, except Sluggo can now knock Dennis over with just about one good slap of his tail, and when that happens, Dennis seems a little more confused, a little more tentative, a little more lost in the mists.
This past weekend I told Charlie I thought it was time. And we all know what that meant: time for a peaceful release from the trials and tribulations of this world. I went through my Monday a little teary, maudlin … mourning. When I got home expecting to see two dogs instead of three, there was Dennis, curled up on his bed, snoozing away. Charlie had apparently not understood that I was giving permission to put Dennis down (he was my dog long before we were married). Charlie wasn’t about to do anything like that without talking it over with me first, he said.
So here I’d mourned all day only to find I’d plunged myself into sorrow for nothing.
Or maybe it was for something, because sitting on the swing in the backyard, watching my once proud and regal dog search his way along the side of the house to find the open door so he could go back into his comforting den, sparked some kind of understanding inside. I actually saw my mother in his eyes. Mom died three years ago, but in the year or two before her death, she had retreated, like Dennis, into a world that had become almost too much to comprehend and deal with. Like Dennis, she had become tentative. I don’t know where she was all the time – lost in the mists, I suppose.
But two days before she died, Charlie and I stopped by to see her, since we were leaving town. She was more present that day than usual, and when we turned at the door to wave and tell her we’d see her the following week, she flashed a beautiful smile that was so reminiscent of her personality that I caught my breath. There! There was my mother! She was still there, and I will ever be comforted by that visual memory, since it was the last time I would see her.
And now I see that in Dennis – a flash of the dog he once was, and an appreciation for the dog he has become now. It’s not unlike the way I remembered with fondness the woman my mother had been and yet learned to appreciate the woman she had become toward the end.
So I started thinking about how we put our pets “down,” put them out of their misery when quality of life seems to be fading. And I think that, if we’re not careful, we wind up doing that for ourselves, not really for them. If we were to be fully honest, we’d realize that we don’t necessarily want to relieve their misery, but our own, because it’s so damn hard to watch and it hurts, and there already is enough pain in life. We project our feelings of sadness for their infirmities and think they must be tired and ready to let go, when the reality is our pets live so in the moment that they give no thought to death.
What we project are our feelings of sadness for the loss we know awaits us. Uncomfortable with death, we take our pets prematurely, put them “to sleep.” We don’t bear witness to their dying, only to their life. And in many ways, we blunt our acceptance of the yin and yang, the light and the dark, the inevitability of that transition. We keep death at arm’s length. It becomes less real.
So for now, Dennis lives on. It may not be for much longer, but until he’s ready to go, unless he’s in pain and discomfort, I will let him find his way through the mists gracefully and with dignity. And I will hope to be as brave and dignified as he has been.