Some Before, During and After

It’s over – we euthanized Pippin Thursday, June 25th. I’ve had pets before, but never from baby to death. My veterinarian, Dr. Katz (I kid you not)  eased us through the transition. She had a separate room away from the check-up rooms, on the opposite side of the office. The lighting was dim, there were sweet decorations around – like rocks painted by a friend of hers with angel-dogs and angel-cats. There’s what looked like a changing table with a blanket on it. We put the blanket on my lap and lay Pippin on me. Afterward, I would pick up him with the blanket and lie him on the changing table.

As soon as we walked in, the staff was ready for us. We were led directly to the room, followed by two attendants.  They explained the procedure, asked if we had any questions, asked how we were doing. There is no soothing like kindness, and they were full of it. They processed my payment in the room, before the procedure started, so we could leave directly when it was over. Neither Natalie nor I wanted his ashes – I think having Philip’s is enough. But we will be getting a paw print.

Then Dr. Katz’s assistant came in. Another kind, lovely woman. She gave Pippin a shot to put him to sleep. We were warned his eyes might stay open, and they did. Natalie and I sat next to each other, holding him, while he relaxed. Ten minutes or so later he was still somewhat awake, so he got another shot. A few minutes after that, Dr. Katz came in. She touched his face by his eyes and squeezed his paws – no response. It was time. She sat on the floor with her assistant, shaved a bit of his leg, found a vein, inserted the needle and then the drug. I thought I would feel something when he died, a lightness, a sense of something leaving his body. I didn’t. A minute or so after the injection, he was gone.

Years ago, when I first moved in with Nadiya, Pippin kept pooping in the house. It was a reaction to living in a new place, but it went on for too long and I thought I was going to have to get rid of him. Philip was living in a house by campus and offered to take him in if it came to that. He didn’t get him then, but he has him now.

When we left the office, Natalie leaned against a wall, bent over and sobbed. I rubbed her back and wondered why I didn’t feel the same. I had my bi-weekly therapy appointment that evening. My therapist said I was in shock. Okay. But I’m still not feeling much of anything and it’s more than a week later.

I don’t understand the magic of connection. It’s what I’ve been writing about for one of my next posts. You can’t force it. I love Pippin, but at some point I didn’t feel connected to him. He grew into a serious dog. He was always happy to see me, and I don’t mean he had a temper. Well, a bit of one. His idea of playing with a ball was taking it in his mouth and lying down with it, then growling if you came near. We tried to cure him of that – we’d force the ball out of his mouth and say, “no.” But nothing changed until he got older and didn’t care enough to take the ball in the first place.

We got Zoe when Pippin was six. I thought for sure he’d get excited – he was intensely interested in other dogs when we were outside, so I figured I’d get him one for his own. Plus I had this idea in my head that shih-tzus should come in pairs.

My neighbor Jim had a friend Elaine who raised shih-tzus, and gave me her number. It was around Christmas time, 2007. I called, Elaine told me she had a litter that she wasn’t showing until January, but since Jim was a good friend, she’d let me come and see. When I got there the puppies were toddling all around the kitchen – six of them, I think. I picked one up as I spoke to Elaine. Puppy put her tiny head on my shoulder and I stroked her. “You can’t pick one yet, she said. They’re young, and I’m waiting to see how their blaze comes in.” These were show dogs, and the “blaze” was the shock of white hair above their eyes. Then she looked at the puppy I was holding. Unless you want that one, she said. I can tell her blaze isn’t right.

Of course I wanted “that one.” I had to wait six more weeks to get her, sometime mid-January. By this time, Philip was 16, Natalie 14. I wanted to make Zoe part of Christmas, but not as a gift. I wouldn’t give a dog to a kid as a gift. They’re simply not going take care of them the way they need to be taken care of, and what happens when they grow up and leave? So I made a certificate that read, “This entitles the Smyth Family to one female shih-tzu named Zoe to be picked up in three weeks.” I put it in an envelope under the tree and had the kids open it last. They looked at each other, looked at me, and shrugged.

Yeah, I felt dopey, but I wanted that puppy and no amount of adolescent indifference was going to change that. Besides, wait til I got her home – who doesn’t love a puppy?

Pippin, for one. When he saw her, he gave a sniff and walked away. As the weeks went by, nothing changed. Sometimes when he looked at me I thought that if he could talk he’d say, “Really? I mean, really???”

Mourning is as it is. Grief knows its own mind. Pippin was hard for me. He had anxiety – he would constantly pace and start howling for no discernible reason. He threw up several times a week for years. He was serious. He had to be on leash or he’d wander away. And by the end he was deaf and blind, had to be carried anywhere you wanted him to be. It’s no wonder I grew apart from him. Zoe’s different. She’s so happy it looks like she’s smiling. She’s affectionate, gentle and her feelings are easily hurt. Sometimes I put her on my lap and talk to her, and she makes noises like she’s trying to say something back. She stays by my side, she looks for me. I can read her – something I couldn’t do with Pippin.

Connection. There’s so much to say about that. More, then, in my next.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

What’s Left

Pippin and Zoe, December 2014

Pippin and Zoe, December 2014

Death has a color, and for now it’s a washed-out gray blue – in fact, it’s exactly the color of the sky is as I write this, the 5:30 sky of a hot east coast almost-summer evening where it seems to be clear but if you look close, the blue’s shaded with a wispy, uneven layer of cloud. God, I hate this heat – the air’s thick with it, I’m sticky with it. I feel dirty in summer, my skin like flypaper that all things unseen cling to. I can’t get clean – whatever’s washed off in the shower is waiting for me when I get out. I don’t like summer, where I can taste the smell of rot and moving is slow and heavy. I feel fat in summer, feel like every fold of skin is filled with sweat, feel the food sit undigested in my belly, like it’s too hot to make its way elsewhere.

And the bugs – the huge mosquito in my hallway, the dining needle by the front door, the spider winding its web down from the ceiling, the creepy-crawlers crawling around as I sit on my front step trying to write this. It’s up to me not to let what I have no control over not bother me, but I’m not doing a very good job of it.

Maybe death took on this fading color because Pippin is fading and I have to decide whether to speed the process. When to speed the process.

I took what’s left of Pippin to the vet for his yearly checkup and shots. He can’t see or hear. He has chronic ear infections which makes him rub his head on the rug. Neither antibiotics nor the constant cleaning of his ears help. He’s on three medications for a collapsed trachea. He paces, he whimpers. My vet said it’s anxiety because he can’t see or hear. It’s like living in a tunnel. She prescribed anti-anxiety medicine and decided with all the meds he’s taking she didn’t want to vaccinate. He’s gained two pounds in three months – water weight from all the water he drinks? Enlarged heart? We can’t tell without further testing and he is not up to it. But his main problem is that his vision and hearing are gone – and there isn’t anything going fix it.

Go home, my vet said. Talk to Natalie. Write down everything that makes Pippin Pippin, see what’s left.

That’s the thing. He used to always have to lead when we walked. Now he won’t walk on leash because he doesn’t know where he is. He used to play with Zoe. He used to take a toy in his mouth and not let anyone take it away. He used to play tug of war. He used to like the dog park. He used to go up and down the stairs. He used to not bump into things. He used to not poop in the house. He used to wag his tail.

He used to greet us when we came home. Now he doesn’t even know we’re there. And when we go near to pet him – he jumps from fright. He doesn’t know what’s coming at him.

He becomes disoriented. I’ll bring him outside to pee, carry him down the stairs and to the lawn, where he’ll lie on the grass when I put him down. I try to stand him up and he sits. I’ll push him a little to get him walking, he’ll hunch down and refuse, sit right back down.

What an awe-ful decision to make. To be in charge of a death. I think of going to the vet and exaggerating his symptoms, so she’ll be the one who says it should be done. Am I then to live with that? If I think it’s time for him to die, then I have to take responsibility and decide. And I will hold him during the process; I will feel the life leave his body and that seems terrible and frightening.

It’s not uncommon to wish death for someone already sick and dying. It seems a relief for all concerned. Pippin is hard to take care of – thank God Natalie is taking care of him right along with me. So I think to myself, “Well, do I want his end so I’ll no longer be inconvenienced? But that wish is only part of the story. It’s tangled up with love for him and wondering how to prepare for what death takes and what death leaves.

And there is the voice in my head that Philip is asking me not to listen to. That voice focuses on one aspect of this and says I’m selfish and uncaring to even think of euthanasia. That I’m too lazy to care for him. My love for him, the fear I have of actually doing this – that’s lost in the stern, arms-crossed, head-shaking voice in my head that finds the worst and twists it into all that matters. It’s subtle, insidious and constant. I don’t notice it most times – it’s just the way I think. But when Philip says, “Let me be the voice in your head,” this is what he means. Why turn this into all-I-care-about-is-myself? Feeling that I want this over with is part of my humanity. As is the way I love him and the way I dread what I have to do. I mean, what would Philip say? Love him, care for him best as you can, look at what’s left and understand that the time has come.

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This has been hard to write. I’ve been working it for a couple weeks. How to end, I wondered? What do I say, how do I feel? Yesterday’s visit to the vet was decisive. Tomorrow, 3:00, Natalie and I will bring Pippin to be euthanized. I’m numb as I write this. Makes sense, I think. Pippin’s still here, it’s all unreal. Being no stranger to death won’t make this easy; it will make it different. And as I said to my friend Pete, I’m okay now, but when I’m not – you’ll hear about it.

© 2015 Denise Smyth