When Do You Know It’s Time?
Today, I spent a good part of the morning at the vet’s office with my boy Diego, 16-years-old this month, and decided to write about him and old dog things. Anyone who’s cared for a dog that has lived into what I call the Ultra Years — past the normal breed lifespan — will certainly relate to the many changes I’ve witnessed and adjusted to over the past few years.
It’s hard to remember that the 42-pound Chow/Pit cross who can now usually be agile, 58-pound, muscular, curly-tailed guard dog that posed for pictures and devoted himself to licking my feet. Diego was found in by my neighbor in a cardboard box dumped at a laundromat in 1994 when he was 8-weeks-old. We’ve been together ever since. He’s incredibly smart, understands about 50 words and phrases, loves riding around in the car, and likes affection but not all the time.
These days, our dog-and-caretaker life centers mostly around Diego’s, or Mr. Poopy’s, bodily functions. Today I found out that, yet again, he has a bladder infection — an unfortunate recurrence which, in Diego’s case, involves expensive bacteria — the kind that require $10 pills to exterminate. We also learned that his kidneys are failing more than they were 6 months ago, and his hind legs are just… not very connected to his brain anymore. But he’s not blind or deaf or terribly demented, and doesn’t seem to be in pain.
Me? I’m tired. I can’t remember when I last slept the whole night because I’m usually up in the wee (wee) hours cleaning one mess or another as Diego struggles to get outside; listening to make sure he comes back in; or kept awake by the click-clickity-click of his toenails on the hardwood floors as he laps the house for unknown reasons, like an old person walking the mall. It’s the exhaustion of having a newborn. He sleeps on towels and small blankets that are washed almost daily. Is it time to say good-bye just because he has accidents and seems a little daffy? The vet told me that’s usually when people make The Decision. But I can’t do that.
It has occurred to me, as I told a friend not long ago, that caring for an old pet in this way is the closest that many of us will come to experiencing the end stages of human life. Where dying parents and elders were once looked after by family members at home, they are now almost always in hospice, nursing homes or hospitals. Families may visit and spend as much time as possible with their loved ones, but they aren’t there day-in and day-out, participating as fully in the dying process as they did in the living, experiencing in the small, gray hours the struggles and changes and odors that occur as the body and mind begin to go their separate ways. Struggles that are now the business of paid professionals.
So today, like most days, I weighed the options, tried to assess Diego’s quality of life (and mine), shed a few tears, and decided he still has enough persisting dog qualities and enjoyment of dog things to proceed. I’ll do my best to keep his life comfortable.
And as I try to prepare myself for the day we’ll say good-bye, I feel blessed to have shared this bond, to have walked with such a loyal friend and indescribable comfort, my constant companion, bearing silent witness to all that has enlightened and devoured me over the past 16 years.