I knew buying Marley and Me for the airplane trip was a bad idea. It was inevitable that I was going to read the book at some point, of course- I’m drawn to dog memoirs like flies to garbage- but maybe the timing was just a little off.
It’s not like I didn’t know what was coming, after all. Death is part of the package deal, right? That is the Great Dog Story Arc- playful puppy arrives, mischief abounds, dog saves the day, at least one close brush with death, reflection on lessons learned, and then, the inevitable moment with the solemn faced vet. It’s a predictable format because that is pretty much exactly how it plays out in life. Living with a dog is like observing life in its finest, most distilled, pure form- eat, poop, love, die. It’s all great until the final chapter, when things are slowing down, when you look at your pal and notice the white cast to his muzzle, the hitch in their step, and then you settle into the wait for the end.
Helping people say goodbye is one of the key parts of my job. I thought euthanizing someone’s pet would be a lot harder for me than it turned out to be; not that it is easy, but it doesn’t feel wrong. It is never easy to see people hurting, and I’ve had my own share of misting over during a particularly emotional goodbye, but I am motivated by the certainty that in doing this, I am helping to free a companion from suffering I can no longer alleviate. I always have the ability to say no if a person brings in a pet to be euthanized for what I feel is the wrong reason, a reason that I don’t feel justifies ending a life. That type of thing happens very rarely, fortunately.
The first time it happened I was very green- only a few months into practice. A long term client brought in her Golden Retriever for yet another instance of a skin infection brought on by flea allergies that the owner was unwilling to treat. She told me, as her dog laid by her feet with big brown eyes looking trustingly up at her, that she was unable to deal with it and wanted to put the dog to sleep. I looked at Mulan, five years old, and other than her treatable flea allergy she was in wonderful shape. So I refused. The owner didn’t want to bring her to a shelter, and I didn’t want to put her to sleep. The owner would not leave the clinic with the dog. I convinced her to sign the dog over to me so I could find a home for her, and two days later that home turned out to be mine. (I was apparently the only one surprised by this shocking turn of events.)
So in this case, we get to skip the Formative Puppy Years. When Mulan entered my life she was past the shoe chewing stage, the incessant bouncing, and completely housetrained. She wasn’t much for mischief, but food was her Achilles heel. On the rare occasions she got into trouble, it inevitably involved a pilfered goody. The one and only time I was ever tempted to strangle her was the night before my daughter’s third birthday party; it was midnight, and I was taking a break from decorating an elaborate Dora cake. I was on the phone with my sister trying to stay awake, and I heard in the background: slurp, slurp, slurp. As my sister tells it, all she heard on her end was me saying, “What the….”, then a pause, then a blood curdling shriek as I realized this arthritic old dog was still capable of hoisting her 80 pound self up on her hind legs if there was a strawberry cake centered on the dining room table. So hypnotized was she, so thoroughly committed to her crime, that she didn’t even wince when my indignant howl pierced the room. The slices of cake at the party were a lot smaller than I had planned on, but no one was the wiser.
She was a chowhound whose love of eating, any eating, would make the most voracious lab look like a finicky ascetic. I looked to my husband as she rabidly devoured a leaf of Romaine lettuce and some cucumber slices with such gusto you’d have thought it was prime rib and said, “Man, if she ever stops eating, then we’ll know it’s time.” Like that would ever happen! Ha!
Mulan may be the most sweet dog I have ever encountered, and I’ve encountered a lot. While Emmett responded to the new baby in the house with distrust and by peeing on every baby item I let him near, Mulan settled into the role of watchful companion, tolerating multiple ascents up Mount Mu, lending a furry shoulder to the cries of both a tantrumy toddler and her exhausted mother, and of course, serving as a housekeeper most determined to keep our floors free of pesky food scraps.
Her descent into seniority was a protracted, lazy one, a gradual slowing down as both her joints and her kidneys began to fail her. When I removed an oral melanoma from her this past summer, I knew the “when” was moving from the abstract to the concrete, but not enough to deter me from trying radiation to slow its spread. But life does as it will, and at the end of a particularly trying day, when I was trying to get Mulan to eat she not only refused but turned her head away from me. My words came back to haunt me: it was, indeed, time. In the end, I did euthanize Mulan as her old owner wanted; I merely held out for 6 years or so until it was on Mulan’s terms instead of hers.
No matter that I do this all the time for other people; it didn’t make the decision any easier, any less agonizing. I cried nonstop the days leading up to it; and on New Year’s Eve, a day of closure, my dear friend came to my house and did for me what I have done for so many others yet could not do for myself. Mulan laid her head in my lap, big brown eyes looking trustingly up at me, and she left. And I grieved. And unfortunately for the guy sitting next to me on that flight to Seattle a couple weeks ago, I still grieve, especially when reading books that end with a faithful companion being helped over to the great big Dog Park in the Sky. I had My Dog Skip in my bag for the return trip, but I chickened out and picked up an Us Weekly Instead. There’s only so much one dog lover can take in a given period.
dedicated to my own little Valentine, Mulan. Miss ya, girl.