This is how it happened. This is how a dog dies.
A year ago, Lilo got into the bony remains of the ribs I’d cooked for dinner. She unhasped the latch of the cupboard where we keep the trash basket with sheer doggy strength, and crunched them down while we were out shopping. Cooked pork bones can splinter in such a way the shards can tear gullet, intestines, other vital organs. When she passed blood–and not enough bone–we took her to the vet, who doped and fed her stuff to make her intestines glow on x-ray.
And everything worked out. She recovered, bounced back to full health, and we fitted the trash cupboard with a magnetic lock to ensure this never happened again.
A month ago, Lilo was diagnosed with a uterine tract infection. Ordinarily very careful to let us know when she had to go out, she’d wet herself a number of times leaving warm wet patches underfoot and in our bed. When she was young she’d often from suffered UTIs; now she was older, she was even more prone to them. The vet performed abdominal examinations, prescribed medication, and nearly three weeks later her bladder was completely under control.
She was fine, we thought.
A week ago, we celebrated ThanksGiftMas. It was the first and last of its kind, a sad sort of holiday cobbled together from what was in the cupboards and in the fridge, and a few things purchased from the supermarket, walking there and back again, in the cold and in the rain. We listened to festive music, for a while, and played a game in which Lilo’s special occasion toy, a plush raccoon with a squeaker in each paw and and tail that rustled, was stuffed with ham and turkey for her to tear from its guts.
I brined and honey-roasted a chicken, all in a matter of hours. We made her a plate with meat, gravy, broccoli, carrots, peas, potatoes–all her favourite things. She ate well, which was good. On ThanksGiftMas at least, she still had her appetite.
The Friday before ThanksGiftMas, our dog fell ill. It happened in the time it takes to brine and roast a chicken; though of course, that was only how it seemed to us. Her illness had seized hold long before Friday, because by Friday it was already too late.
On Friday morning she said goodbye to my wife. She held her head high and kept her tail in the air. She hated letting people leave, and did so only grudgingly once they’d petted her and told her to be a good girl. Friday morning was exceptional only in that it would be her last.
At midday she was fine. After the business with her UTI I took her out every two hours. The block in which our apartment is situated is one of the few in Madison to allow big dogs. Nearly every apartment here houses a dog, but during the day with their owners at work, it’s rare to encounter any of them.
So we had the estate to ourselves. Snow had fallen on-and-off since Halloween, and though I couldn’t smell the other dogs’ pee I could see the deep yellow wells they’d left. Lilo sniffed them, prodding her nose as deep as it’d go and withdrawing it sugared with snowflakes. She’s timid, but she likes other dogs. This was her way of discovering who’d been out while she’d been inside. My wife called it ‘checking her pee-mail.’
At midday she ate voraciously as always. At half-one, with cold and darkness drawing tighter with every passing day, I decided we should take our walk early rather than in twilight. I keep her leashed in a harness. She hated it at first, but after slipping her collar more than once it became a requirement, and she got used to it. She’d even lift her paws for me in the end, one at a time, not really understanding they had to go through the harness loops but knowing in some abstract way that paw-lifting preceded walkies.
The funny about walks: she only truly enjoyed going when it was all three of us. With my wife at her side and I behind (yet still holding the leash) she could out-walk us both. When it was just me, she would required a acclimation period. Walking to the elementary school and back, for a third of the way she’d strain at her leash, stubbornly refuse to move, try to trick me into retuning home by waddling in for a squatting poop, then crossing the road instead of delivering the goods.
But after that first third she’d get used to the idea, and enjoy the rest of our walk. She loved walks so much, we referred to them nonchalantly as ‘strolls’ so we could talk about them without overexciting her.
More than that, after reaching our half-way point, a yellow line marking the crossing guard’s patrol, she’d half-garrote herself trying to run home. It was as if she remembered that exciting as walks were there was every possibility my wife might have returned while we were gone. She didn’t want to miss family time.
My first sign she was sick was her lagging behind all the way to the school and back. She didn’t get used to our stroll, neither did she tear home at the half-way mark.
But even though she was such a happy dog, it wasn’t completely unknown for her mood to drop. Madison’s water is ridiculously hard. I’d know to change the Brita filter according to Lilo’s stool softening, and our dog seeming a little off-colour. Once changed I’d pour her a fresh bowl. Soon enough, she’d be fine.
She vomited while I prepared dinner. Headphones on, wrists deep in flour, and all the while she was trying to get onto the balcony so she wouldn’t make a mess. When I noticed, I let her out, cleaned up her sick, and out in the snow she vomited again, and again, and continued to vomit through the evening and into the night. Our year-old carpet washer, bought specifically to clean up her messes, died a death of its own, reeking of electrical fire under the strain of keeping up. When my wife came home Lilo didn’t lap our couch multiple times at high speed, but managed only two circuits, walked slowly and carefully.
By nightfall she wasn’t herself. She had lost her appetite, but also her wag, her penchant for licking. When presented with a friendly hand she’d turn her head with her tail between her legs. She trembled, first in her hind quarters, then throughout her body. Her teeth chattered. At times she removed herself, slinking under the table or staying away when we moved from one room to another. At others she clearly wanted to get away, but lacked the strength to do so.
At bedtime we managed to coax her to her customary position at the foot of our bed. She stayed there, lying still, barely breathing.
And yet in spite of her lethargy she was restless. She didn’t want to move but she couldn’t make herself comfortable comfortable. She wanted to lie somewhere soft, but anything softer than the carpet troubled her. We built an impromptu staircase so she could climb onto our bed, and moved the mattress into the living room so she wouldn’t have to. Neither was good enough. Neither felt comfortable.
On Saturday morning at half-past five we took Lilo to the emergency vet. She’d screamed when my wife had touched her stomach. Her stomach, my wife said, felt hard.
Hard stomach are death sentences for dogs. After rib incident I’d been careful not to let her eat anything that would disagree with her, and took even more care this spring, after Lilo snaffled a piece of a cheeseburger that had lain all winter in the snow. I hadn’t seen her eat anything untoward, I said, but that didn’t mean she hadn’t. Dogs can move more quickly than a clumsy human hand, and they’re always hungry for floor snacks.
But she hadn’t poisoned herseld. Her stomach felt hard because she’d been holding it taut. After asking questions the emergency vet took Lilo into a back room for x-rays. We held each other, hearing her screams as she was lifted onto a table and held in place. She’d been unnaturally calm on the ride there–this, the dog who squealed like a pterodactyl at the very prospect of going for a ride–but now she was panicking and in pain, and it hurt us to hear her.
When she returned the vet escorted us to another room. On a computer she showed us Lilo’s x-rays and told us there was a large mass throughout her liver.
How could this have happened? I asked. She’d been x-rayed a year ago and nothing had shown up then.
The vet loaded Lilo’s x-rays from 2013 and flicked between them.
Before. After. It started to sink in.
In the days that followed, I read an account of a dog who was diagnosed with lung cancer. His owner said it looked as if his lungs were filled with cotton balls.
Lilo’s cancer looked more like sheets of the stuff wadded up and crammed inside. It looked like the fibrous pink insulation my dad always warned me about, the stuff that was in our loft growing up, that he couldn’t touch without coming out in a terrible rash.
On Tuesday, when we took her to the non-emergency vet, we were told the mass was so large the vet couldn’t tell if it was in Lilo’s liver or in her pancreas. The mass was so large it had pushed her stomach further into her body; she couldn’t eat because there was no room for food. My wife’s favourite anecdote is the time Lilo ate half a loaf of bread from the counter, pooped, threw up, then went back for the rest. In the past, if she hadn’t room for food, she’d make it.
When we left the emergency vet she was on methadone, the same drug prescribed to heroin addicts. She’d been given painkillers, and nausea suppressants so she could eat while we decided what to do next. Our options were sparse; they would soon dwindle further. The chemotherapy the emergency vet recommended would likely be useless. The two months of pain and medication still ahead was certainly an overestimation.
Lilo–Lilo as she had been–returned to us partway through Sunday. It wasn’t much of her–and watching videos we took of her that day and the next it was easy to see we’d overlooked how much discomfort she was in. We couldn’t believe she was so sick–how could we? We still can’t, and she’s been gone six days.
Our baby. It’s obnoxious, perhaps, to call her that. But we loved her as much as we could, not nearly so much as she deserved. The happy good girl, who liked nothing better than to jump in bed between us, and be petted by both her parents at once. My wife often remarked: “I couldn’t love her any more if I’d pushed her out of my own crotch”, while I was the johnny-come-lately adoptive father, who’d missed her puppy years but made up for that by taking care of her every day thereafter. She was my constant companion, and my friend. Since moving to America I’ve spent more time in Lilo company than in anyone else’s, including my wife.
This small part of her returned after we struggled to get her pills down her neck. She wouldn’t take them straight, and as she wasn’t eating we couldn’t mix them with her food. Peanut butter had once been her favourite treat; now, she wouldn’t even sniff the spoon it was on let alone eat a pill slathered in it. Nor would she eat it slathered in butter, or swallow it once it had been pushed into her mouth and her muzzle held shut, her throat stroked. She’d only take her medication if was if it was pressed into chicken, so we bought a rotisserie roast just for her.
On Monday, the first and last ThanksGiftMas, I cooked another chicken. Her appetite hadn’t returned–she still avoided her usual food–but she’d eat chicken and bacon and anything meaty. Our neighbours, dog-owners themselves, came to say goodbye, and brought with them a pack of ham which she demolished over the next day. Her faeces was a bright reddy orange that came in small squirts that were hard fought for. Even squatting in the snow caused great pain, and it took longer and longer for her to find her spot. She wasn’t trying to trick us. She wasn’t trying to run home.
I made the call. On Tuesday we’d lose her forever.
Monday evening was magical. The clouds were low, the snow driving, and everything glittered, a secret world too cold for human beings but ideal for dogs. We went for our final walk. It wasn’t much; in truth, we simply let her potter around, plodding up to front doors, sniffing bushes, leading us wherever she wanted to go. The emergency vet had advised us to make her a bucket list, but as Lilo was too sick this would have to do.
Perhaps it was the that cold numbed her. Perhaps she was so excited by the heavy snowfall her pain was momentarily set aside. She was more energetic, more playful then than she had been since before she’d contracted her UTI. At twelve, she was old, but not particularly old. Seeing her in the snow, with cars inching along the icy roads, their high-beams turning all the world into a snow globe it was hard to believe there was anything wrong with her. She even got to play–albeit briefly, on veterinary advisement–with a fluffy west highland terrier also out for a walk.
But by morning her renewed appetite was waning. She ate breakfast, but wanted nothing more to do with food–not even the lunchmeat she’d enjoyed the day before.
Post-snowfall, the ride to the veterinary surgeon’s was stark, with sky and road and tree-branch in high contrast, the darkest, the lightest. I kept thinking, how could it be so beautiful? How can every tree be frosted and every path frozen? How can all the world be scenic, bright and delicate as snowflakes, as if decorated overnight?
How can this be, when our baby cannot?
She hid behind my wife’s legs in the examination room, and kept moving, restless. Recently we’d switched surgeries; the new vets knew only that we wanted to euthanise Lilo, and upon seeing her energy, wanted to know how we’d reached this decision.
I passed over her diagnosis. They looked at her x-rays.
An hour of unexpected but very much needed consultation preceded Lilo’s euthanasia. My wife had found reports online that surgery, not chemotherapy, was the best way to cure Lilo. The vet drew a table of our options, and went through them in heartbreaking detail. I’d gone in expecting alacrity; I didn’t want to draw this out. I’d already made the hardest decision of my life.
My wife needed to be convinced otherwise. She, too, had made her decision, but wasn’t there still hope? Wasn’t there a way for us to pay away the cancer?
Surgery was an option, but the vet did not recommend it. It would need to be imminent, the surgeon would need to be at the top of her field, and this was Thanksgiving week with little hope of finding either. Should we succeed the procedure would be extremely dangerous, especially given Lilo’s age; and besides, should the cancer prove to be in her pancreas there was nothing that could be done at all.
After surgery Lilo would have to have chemotherapy, with all the dangers and hardships that would accompany it. After chemo, there would be no promises. The vet stated that a month after chemo we may very well find ourselves in the same situation we were already in–worse, even, as during surgery and chemo Lilo would continue to get older, facing the same problems all dogs do in their teenaged years.
If everything went correctly, if all our coins came up heads, that would be our best hope.
It was no hope whatsoever.
Our second option was to wait. We didn’t have to euthanise her that day, the vet said. We could wait for condition her to deteriorate.
How long? we asked
“Oh, until tomorrow,” she said. “Maybe as long as Friday, though in all likelihood you’ll need to schedule an emergency session on Thanksgiving.”
I liked our vet. At first, when she started drawing up charts and explaining the situation we’d already researched in agonising, repetitive detail, I hated her. But she looked and sounded like Stephen King, and upon remembering she’d tended to this oh-so-sick dog three weeks before and hadn’t found a thing, a look passed over her face. She knew how fast the mass had appeared. She knew how fast it had grown. Our description of Lilo’s worsening lack of appetite, demeanour and range of motion only confirmed it.
Her explanations, tortuous as they were, only confirmed just how bad Lilo’s condition was. Given our wonderful Monday it was easy to forge that she was heavily medicated. Without the pills she would be in the same condition she had been in Friday night; or far worse, given that a weekend had since passed. Her refusal to lick our hands or stay in our company was, the vet said, her way of leaving our family. In the wild she would have wandered away and lain down, offering herself as prey. She didn’t want to draw predators’ attentions to us, that was all. She didn’t want her suffering to bring wolves upon her family.
It took until Thanksgiving for me to find some peace in our decision. While turkeys were trimmed and pies were baked we went to Starbucks, bought a frozen pizza, and watched the third Hunger Games in a cinema that was surprisingly full. Surrounded by people, and having no interest in the film I was victim to my own inner monologue for two hours, during which I replayed Lilo’s final moments, how she fought a triple dose of sedative to uncharacteristically snap at the vet techs; how she only calmed down when my wife and I sung her lullabies; how she became so tired she wanted to lie down, but the pain caused her to keep moving; how we had to lift her onto a blanket in case she urinated herself at the end; how we held her in the final moments as her chest slowed, and whatever made Lilo who she was, whatever was left of our happy good girl, left the vessel it had inhabited, the vessel which was no longer her. All these moments and more I replayed, feeling guilty, shameful, sure I’d killed my beloved girl when there had been no real need.
I’d forgotten Lilo had made her peace on Friday, and that if I was to feel guilt it should be for medicating her to bring her back. By Tuesday the effects of her meds were already running out. Barring bouts of vomiting I’d never known her not to eat. That morning she hadn’t been throwing up, but neither had she been eating, sniffing her bowl, looking at it balefully from across the dining room. It was uncharacteristic. It was unprecedented. For the first time in her life she’d decidedenough was enough.
She’d already made her peace.
If Monday hadn’t been as wonderful as it had been I’d feel guilty, but we had an entire day to say goodbye, and given how quickly the end came that’s far more than we should have had.
On our way to our baby’s death, escorting her down snowy steps she could barely manage, we ran into Eric, the custodian of these apartments. Every time he’s visited he’s played with Lilo, letting her lick his head while he fixed the garbage disposal or trimmed the ends from our blinds. We told him where we were going and what had happened. “That’s terrible,” he said. “She’s the best dog. I run into a lot of dogs here, everyone has dogs. But of all of them, she was my favourite. You guys were lucky to have such a great dog.”
I loved her. My wife always teased me, saying she was sorry she made me love a dog. I, in response, would lie and say I didn’t.
But I did, and it wasn’t she who made me love her, it was Lilo herself. She was the kind of dog–and can any dog be like her? I find it hard to believe–who was called ‘sweetheart’ by so many who met her, time and time again, even though we didn’t use the word ourselves. I’ve lost count of the number of times strangers have hollered “Say, that’s a good-looking dog!” or “What a beautiful dog! What breed is she?” as if, if they knew, they request one from a shelter, another just like her. At the start of the November a car pulled up beside us, the window rolled down, a woman stuck her arm out and waved at Lilo. “Hi!” she said to her, before pulling away.
For all the ill luck, as fast and as viciously as it came, we were lucky to have her. She made us a family, and we are less without her.
If videos still came on tape we’d have worn out the few we have. We didn’t know to take more; it wouldn’t have mattered if we had. Like pictures, memories, time, it would always be too little.
You already know to cherish your loved ones every day. We all do, yet whether the end comes fast or slow, all we have is never enough.
Of course I want more time with her. Of course I wish she was still in our lives. We, all of us, we always want one more day, don’t we? And my wife and I, the luckiest people in the world, were given one more day.
And so the most beautiful dog, our happy good girl, our baby, who loved green beans (whether or not they were actually green beans) and cuddles, and having the inside of her ear scratched (not too deeply) and also the place where her back met her tail; who liked walks well enough but loved family walks best of all; who still remembered coming with me when I took out the trash, even though, since moving to Wisconsin, she’d always stayed behind; who worked her way around a safety latch to gorge herself on ribs; who tolerated our nieces and nephew long after my own temper broke; who sought my protection from thunderstorms and snow plows; who had a love-hate relationship with our vacuum cleaner, and who sometimes mistook toes under the bed sheets for snakes; who barked at all men until I came into her life, whereupon barks were saved for strangers, and taunting assholes who deserved to get their bottoms bit; who, whenever we left her alone in our apartment, would make herself a nest from the doormat so that we couldn’t open the door when we got home, and who, even as we tried to force it open, would attempt to squeeze through the gap, simply happy to see us; who was so much a part of our lives, the reason I spent so much time in the cold, rain and snow, and at absurd times of the day and the night, and the reason why our apartment and my day alike feel so empty, is gone.
To say she will be missed seems redundant.
So instead I’ll say something the Daniel of ten years ago, who didn’t realise how much missing those early years would hurt, would be surprised to read.
I loved her, and I’ll love her always. She was ours, yes, both of ours, and we loved her.
But she was also my dog. I am better for having known her.