This picture shows the last picture ever taken of my dog; my son took it the day before she died. Logic tells me that her death was inevitable, that Peri lived a long and full life, that at least I had a chance to say goodbye, that she was just a dog, that there are millions of people in this world who face tragedies much more profound than the death of an elderly dog, that it’s an extravagance to be in mourning over an animal. But my heart says something else.
This dog, just an animal, thirteen and a half years old, already slowing down and starting to develop cataracts, was such a huge part of my world that grief feels like it’s chewing a bloody raw hole into my heart. The pain is profound to the point of being physical. It’s been almost 48 hours since I had to have Peri euthanized, and just when I think I’m starting to heal, the wound re-opens and leaves me short of breath with bleeding heart. I’ve tried to suck it up and move on, to do what needs to be done, but a shadowy “Never again” follows me on silent feet and leaps out at me when I’m least expecting it. The sight of a chair where Peri will never again curl up, the bowl she’ll never again eat out of, the road she’ll never again follow me down…All these trigger spells of convulsive sobbing.
Maybe this was my fault. Peri had had a nasty cough a couple of weeks ago; maybe if I’d taken her into the vet’s office then, they could have caught whatever was afflicting her and treated it in time. As things were, she seemed to be recovering on her own, and I had just gotten over a cough myself; I assumed she just had the canine equivalent of a cold. I didn’t realize something was seriously wrong until my husband and I were woken by a frantic scrabbling at 4 a.m. the Sunday before last. Peri was clawing in circles as though she were trying to get up, couldn’t move her hind legs, and was panicking. We got her calmed down, and I took her to the vet later Monday morning. The vet said her lungs were extremely congested—“crackly” was the word he used—and he sent us home with some antibiotics and water pills. Of course, he had to add the caveat that at her age there could be no guarantees, but he seemed relatively optimistic that she could be treated.
All seemed to be well for the next few days. Peri was lethargic and not interested in the walks that she usually loved so passionately, and she walked stiffly, but I attributed that to her convalescence. Things changed on Friday morning. When my son Sage and I got home from Storytime at the library, he reported that he could hear her Peri crying in the basement and that she was having a fit again. She’d stopped convulsing by the time I got down there, but she was in obvious distress. We took her back to the vet, where she was given prescriptions for steroids and anti-seizure medication on top of the two medications she already had. The vet sent her home with us and, since it was a nice day, I took Peri and Sage to the local park. Sage made a new friend and was playing; I stayed in the car where I could keep an eye on both him and Peri, who was lying in the back seat. After about 15 minutes, though, she started to convulse again. I called Sage back to the car, and we returned to the vet clinic.
The vet looked surprised and chagrined at Peri’s latest seizure, but she decided to keep the dog overnight and hydrate her via I.V. I spent the evening half expecting to get a phone call saying Peri didn’t make it, but when the clinic opened Saturday morning, I instead got a call saying she was doing fine, had eaten breakfast, and could be picked up any time before 2 p.m.
Sage went with me to pick her up—he insisted on wearing his clip-on tie in honor of the special occasion—and the vet led out a stiff but ambulatory Peri. She seemed to be resting comfortably the rest of the day, but her condition deteriorated rapidly on Sunday. Her hind legs went first; she began to have trouble standing, and by nightfall, she was listing to one side when she tried. She always was a dutiful little dog, though, so she made her way by force of will to squat outside as she’d always done. During the night, all four legs stiffened to the point where she seemed to be in rigor mortis despite being conscious and breathing. I don’t think she was in physical pain, but the paralysis was incredibly stressful for her. She tried desperately to get up when she had to urinate but couldn’t stand; she was obliged to void her bladder on the kitchen floor when I brought her to her water bowl and tried to get her to drink.
I honestly didn’t think she’d last the night, and I was almost hoping that she would pass quietly away so her suffering would be over, but neither of us was so lucky. The next morning her condition hadn’t improved. She lay on her towels on the floor in my bedroom, eyes open and flickering about, breathing steadily but otherwise unable to move. I ground up her medicine and gave it to her in milk by dripping it into her mouth with a syringe, but nothing worked. By the time Sage had to leave for his four-year-old kindergarten class, shortly before noon, I knew she’d be gone by the time he came home.
Sage had seemed to know this was coming even better than I did. On Friday morning, when all had seemed to be well, he’d woken up screaming. He said he’d had a nightmare that animals were attacking Peri and then that I’d given her away without telling him. It took about twenty minutes to calm him down and assure him that I’d never do such a thing. I told him that we couldn’t be sure how long she’d live but that I wouldn’t ever give her away. He was so inconsolable for so long that I feared for how he’d react when she really did die. Foolish me—I thought at that time it was something I’d deal with in a matter of months, maybe years, not in a matter of hours.
I wanted to make sure Sage’s nightmare didn’t come true, so I explained as best I could that Peri would be gone by the time he came home from school. He petted her once and said goodbye, then headed out with me to wait for the school van. He was stumbling through the snow and crying. My heart was breaking—for him, for the dog, to be honest for me—but as I buckled him into the van, I reminded him about the invitation to his birthday party that he needed to give to one of his friends. The thought of the upcoming party—his fifth birthday, a pool party, his first one with other kids invited—quickly and fortunately distracted him, and he seems to have gone through the school day with few problems.
Peri and I didn’t fare so well. I made a 2:30 appointment for euthanasia and spent the rest of the time until then petting her, saying goodbye, listening to her breathe, and going out into the kitchen when a storm of tears overtook me so that I wouldn’t distress her any more than necessary. Secretly and stupidly I watched her for signs of a miraculous recovery.
I seemed to get one right as it was time to go to the vet’s; when I came into the room, she was sitting up. Hope flashed through me, but she quickly flopped over and I knew this situation had to end. I put her on some towels in the front seat of my car and drove the ten miles to the vet, concentrating furiously on the semi-ice glazed road and trying to keep the tears at bay.
We arrived at the clinic. I carried her into the special euthanasia room and put her on the table. Fifteen eternal minutes later, she was gone. The vets took her out the room’s back door to wrap her up for me, carefully keeping the other door closed so pets and their owners in the waiting room wouldn’t be distressed by the sorrow a few feet away from them. When the vets returned, Peri was a pink-wrapped bundle with her name and a hand sketched heart labeling it; her collar and tags lay on top.
I made my way through the waiting room and loaded Peri into the trunk; I had to keep her out of sight because my next destination was my local elementary school, where I was teaching an after-school Creative Writing class. I’ve been a teacher for twelve years, so I know how to get in front of a roomful of kids and forget about everything outside those classroom walls. In fact, the lesson went well, and I came out of the school in surprisingly good spirits.
The uplift didn’t last, though. My rational mind knew that Peri wouldn’t be running out to meet the car as I pulled in, but I couldn’t help looking for her. My rational mind knew that she wouldn’t be on her chair in the living room, or on her old papasan, or on the couch downstairs, or walking around the house, or by her food bowl, or on the floor in my room, or in any other of the places she loved. But I keep looking for her even so.
Logic still insists that I have no right to be so sad when this little drama is so minor in the grand scope of human tragedy. Logic is right. I know it is. This loss is a mere nothing compared to the losses of others. But my heart still says something else.