(Aspy next to the 9th green at the Twin Lakes Golf Course, watching Rich putt)
The 4th of July is a day of celebration for many people. I know that it should be for me, but it honestly is not. The 4th of July is the day that we mark the passing of our senior dog, Aspy, under what I consider traumatic circumstances. Much like we involuntarily mark the dates of the people we love who have left this Earth, we do the same with our beloved companion animals. We do our very best to focus on lives well-lived and be thankful for the number of years we shared walking a path together. That is what I will try to do on July 4th. It will be bittersweet as I do my very best to force away the memories of our dog's last day with us.
As I've written about before both of my website and in my book, I became an animal welfare advocate when I learned what was happening at my local animal shelter and in the wake of another personal loss. It is abundantly clear to me that using the word euthanasia to describe the destruction of healthy and treatable shelter animals is entirely misplaced. Making a decision to euthanize a beloved animal has nothing whatsoever in common with decisions made in shelters every day to end the lives of animals who were, or could have been, someone's beloved companion.
But back to the subject of euthanasia of beloved companions. Anyone who has ever made what Marian Hale once called "That Terrible Decision" regarding a companion animal is torn with having made that decision. We are plagued by doubts about timing. Did I wait long enough? Did I wait too long? Did I allow my selfish love and need for that animal to cloud my thinking? Did I really put the welfare of my beloved companion first? Could I have done more?
I've come to believe that when the decision to euthanize an animal is made from a place of love, it is always the right time, because it will never be the perfect time. We do our very best with the information available to us and once the act is done and our companion no longer shares our lives with us here, we have to forgive ourselves. I know that's easier said than done and I struggle with the decisions we have made regarding our own beloved pets throughout the years.
It is easy to look back and say that we waited too long with Snake and we kept her around for us and not for her. It is easy to say that we waited too long for Aspy. That we likely should have let him go after he had his stroke in the summer of 2015. But he had so many good and happy days after his stroke that I choose to focus on those extra months he had. He was fiercely loved. He was a member of our family. We did and would have done anything for him. And in the end, that caused just to make the decisions that we did.
While others are celebrating on the 4th of July we will be experiencing our day of remembrance.
Love your companion animals for as long as they are with you no matter how poorly they behave or may frustrate you at times. They have the cognitive function of children and they do not act with malice. If you believe your pet is suffering or his or her quality of life has diminished so greatly that you are wondering if it is time to let them go, please consult with your veterinarian. Euthanizing pets is very difficult for them; they are attached to the faces they have cared for over a period of years. But they have a degree of objectivity based on their education that we lack because we are thinking with our hearts.
When your beloved companions are gone, you will find yourself wishing you had just one more day with them. That is natural. But likely not what they need from you.
One more day, one more time
One more sunset, maybe I'd be satisfied
But then again, I know what it would do
Leave me wishing still for one more day with you.
(our annual memorial trip to the places Aspy loved; next to the 9th green at the Twin Lakes Golf Course)
("One More Day" by Diamond Rio)
April 22nd is Earth Day. A day celebrated around the world to demonstrate support for environmental protection which was first celebrated in 1970. In our household, it is a day of remembrance as we recall the passing of our beloved dog, Snake.
My husband, Rich, rescued Snake in 1992 with the help of the Lassen County Game Warden in Northern California. She was a German Shepherd/coyote mix dog who spent the first two years of her life chained to a tree with a heavy logging chain. The the only way to save her was an adopter who was experienced with dog behavior and trauma. It took time to take her from a dog who “pancaked” and did not trust people to a dog who was confident and loyal. Snake was a sight to behold. She looked like a German Shepherd in the body of a coyote, all muscle and heart. She was incredibly smart and a true athlete. She lived to chase a Frisbee, jumping and twisting in the air to catch her toy. She was very protective of us, and we were always careful with her around other dogs and other people; she was part domestic dog and part wild child.
Snake had been declining for years and we knew the day would come when we would have to make the decision that was worst for us, but best for her. She had become trapped in a body that no longer functioned well. She had trouble digesting food, was intermittently incontinent and had mobility issues. When she began to have cognitive issues in addition to her physical issues, we knew it was time. On a sunny Saturday morning in 2006, Rich called our veterinarian and asked her to come to the house. This was something we had arranged months in advance, but we did not make the decision until that morning.
I took her for one last walk as I tried to hide my anguish. I worried she would feed off my emotions and be scared. It was a beautiful day, and she seemed to be feeling pretty good, but we knew it was time if we were to save her from suffering and pain. We didn’t realize until later that it was Earth Day. We buried her on our rural property (we called it Snakehaven) in a breathtaking casket Rich had been quietly building for months. (We were later forced to move thanks to a shooting range which opened near our home; Rich undertook the heart wrenching task of recovering Snake's remains so that we could have them cremated to take the with us to our new home.)
Even when we know ahead of time that the ones we love are going to leave us, dealing with that loss is another matter entirely. The void left by the absence of someone you have lived with for so long is both striking and shocking. We told ourselves Snake had a long and wonderful life because those things were true. Having her euthanized was one of the hardest things we had ever done, and so we struggled with the decision. Did we let her go too soon? Had we waited for too long? We agonized over our decision for days, weeks and months.
I've had numerous conversations with people in the last 14 years about the decision to euthanize a beloved pet. Marion Hale once aptly described it as The Terrible Decision. It is difficult enough to lose someone you love to tragedy or under natural circumstances. Losing someone by choice for their benefit to either prevent or alleviate suffering is another matter entirely. We anguish over timing. Should we wait? Is it too soon? We tell ourselves that today was bad, but maybe tomorrow will be better. Sometimes that proves to be true. Other times it does not.
I have come to believe that there is just no good time to say farewell. It is an imperfect process which is clouded by love, compassion, memories and hope. It can be hard to think clearly as we try to force ourselves to choose what we hope is the "right" time. There is such thing in any absolute sense. Any time a decision is made to euthanize an animal for reasons of mercy, that decision is right because it is made from a place of love and sacrifice. It is putting aside our own selfishness and making the selfless decision to let the soul we love go as peacefully as possible.
When the time comes for you to say farewell to your beloved pet, I know that you too will do so from a place of love. Make your best decision based on the information you have about quality of life and once the deed is done, forgive yourself. The passage of time may not heal all wounds. Grief does become less painful in time as you shift from focusing on the void left and you focus more on positive memories, giving thanks for the time you walked a path together.
Our companion animals speak with us through body language and behavior. If they could talk, I feel confident they would tell us what they want and they would say, "please. It is time to let me go. If you love me, give me wings."
We love you, Snakey. Run wild and free. May we meet again some day.
I can count some of the worst days of my life on one hand and they all relate to loss. The euthanasia of our dog Snake on April 22, 2006. Earth Day. The death of my father on October 28, 2010, from lung cancer which had moved to his brain. The death of my mother less than six months later on April 20, 2011, from stomach cancer. The death of my father-in-law who had lived with us for more than 15 years exactly five days after mom died. And the euthanasia of our dog, Aspy, on July 4th of 2016.
Aspy was sitting in front of my living room chair when the first seizure happened. I thought he was dreaming at first, but when I looked down at him, it was obvious I was wrong. Rich jumped into action and held him steady while I stroked his body and prayed out loud and repeatedly for God to bless his soul. The seizure lasted two to three minutes and it was terrifying. He howled. I was surprised at how hard his body shook. Rich called our vet as soon as the seizure ended in hopes that she would be able to see us that afternoon. We were only 15 minutes away and could leave right away. She could not help us. She told us to go to the emergency veterinary hospital about 40 minutes away. We waited in an exam room for more than three hours just to be seen. After a CT scan was done, we were told about an hour later, in the waiting area, that Apsy had a mass in his liver, one in his spleen and that the cancer had likely moved to his brain. We were also told the first 24-hours were critical and to monitor him. It was early the next morning when we got home tired, upset and confused.
Aspy was sleeping on the rug in our living room in the early afternoon hours of the 4th of July when the second seizure hit. It was much worse than the first. He shook and howled. He lost control of his bowels and his little heart was beating so fast I was sure he would die from the seizure. I stroked his body again as I tried unsuccessfully not to cry and as I prayed out loud again and over and over for God to bless his soul. I’m pretty sure the seizure lasted about 45 minutes; I kept looking at the clock and know it was at least 30 minutes. I just don’t know. We could not reach our veterinarian so we took him back to the same animal hospital where we had been earlier that same day. The seizure stopped while we were on the way to the emergency hospital and we almost turned around. We did not. We had Aspy euthanized that day.
I could tell you about our disappointment in our veterinarian of 20 years. She has her own life and could not drop her plans to help us. I could tell you about how our experience at the emergency hospital the first night was one of the worst experiences of my life; I’ve had more compassion shown while getting my car’s oil changed. I could explain in detail what happened during the euthanasia process which had me cussing like a sailor, banging on the walls and contemplating criminal behavior while Rich endured his own private hell and wondered what in the world was going on. We later wrote a three page complaint letter to the emergency hospital, not that they cared about our complaints. We told them that when dealing with people like us, they should be mindful that they saw us, and our beloved pet, on the very worst day of our time together and that it was seared in our memories for all time. No one ever bothered to call or apologize in any way for what we experienced and the trauma we endured. I call it trauma because it was. We both had a really hard time in the days, weeks and months to come. We tried to but really could not talk about what happened. The memories were very real and playing almost nonstop on a loop inside out heads; talking just made it worse. Even as the months went by, the memories managed to rise to the surface without invitation or warning. We were told we should get another dog. It would make us feel better. We just could not.
If you are reading this, you probably have a veterinarian you trust to care for your animals. That person is likely only available to help you during normal business hours Monday through Saturday and may be closed one weekday. But do you have a plan for after-hours care? For emergency care or treatment when your vet is on vacation? How about holidays?
I cannot encourage you strongly enough to develop a plan for veterinary care when your own veterinarian is not available. If your veterinarian provides after-hours care for established patients, that’s wonderful. You are fortunate. If that person or veterinary practice does not, take time now to figure out where you would go and what you would do if you needed help outside normal business hours. Determine how long it would take to travel to emergency providers near you. Read the reviews for those providers. Have a plan in place ahead of time for care whether it is injury care for a broken bone, torn ligament or some other non-life threatening situation. Have a plan in place for end of life care. Will you take your dog or cat to the veterinarian? Will your veterinarian come to your house when the time comes? Don’t assume that you can just make good decisions from the hip when accidents happen or tragedy strikes. Your brain may not process information well when you are under duress and you just may not think as clearly as you normally would.
We did adopt another dog last September, over 14 months after Aspy left us. We still miss Aspy and I try really (really) hard to not think about his last 2 days. It’s just too difficult to go there. We found Rusty at an animal shelter with the help of Petfinder, a wonderful tool with which I have a love-hate relationship. I love how it helps place animals; we never would have found Rusty if not for Petfinder. I hate how many animals there are in need of new homes.
We have a new veterinarian we work with who is closer to our house. His office has after-hours care for established clients. We call a number and the on-call vet is paged. Although we probably won’t need it, the veterinary hospital has a storm shelter in the basement in case of severe weather (we have our own storm shelter at home). Our Pet Parent Plan for our new dog, Rusty, provides for him to be boarded temporarily with our veterinarian if something happens to both of us at the same time. Our vet has said he won’t charge for this. Boarding Rusty short-term until my cousin can transport him to Texas will be on the house. We were told, “it’s the least we can do.”
Be ready. Please.
If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all. - Hamlet
(candles image courtesy of Mike Labrum)
Fingerprints. Footprints. Pawprints.
I first learned of the concept of a Soulprint a few years ago, thanks to the incredibly talented Martin Page. Martin and his manager, Diane Poncher, allow me to use Martin's music in my animal welfare projects. When Martin released his "In the Temple of the Muse" CD in 2012 and I first heard the song, "Soulprint," I knew I would try to use it some day. I just didn't know at the time that I would end up using it to honor a loss.
I think all of us want to make a difference in some way. All of us want to be remembered. Only some of us are truly able to change the world or society or even a community. Most of us do well to be good people who love our families and our friends, who work hard and who try to help others when we can. Also universal is the reality that the longer we live, the more precious time becomes as we lose those we love. Death is a part of life. I have my own beliefs about God and death and The Other Side which I don't force on anyone. Although I believe that there is an After, I feel incredibly strongly that we must all do our very best to be grateful for the time we have here and the time we share with the people we care about. It is easy to let ourselves assume that we will have X amount of time based on how long other people in our family lived or based on how hard we try to eat well, exercise and avoid bad habits. The truth is that no one is guaranteed any more time than today and we are well served to do our very best to treat each day as our last.
Losing beloved animals over the years taught me about death at a young age. Losing my parents in a 6 month window of time to cancer taught me to leave no words of love, apology or advocacy unsaid and to do my very best to appreciate the blessings in my life. I have always been outspoken and I attribute part of that to my military background. Your tax dollars at work, I guess. Losing Snake put me on a path of animal welfare advocacy. Losing my parents simply honed my focus on my advocacy and allowed me to cast away some of my fears about what others think.
I've crossed paths with a lot of wonderful and passionate people over the years in my animal advocacy and we all lost an incredible person yesterday. Dana Kay Mattox Deutsch. I think I was just lucky to see the post about her passing in my Facebook feed. Had I not looked at the right moment, it may have been weeks before I heard the news. It took me a while to process. Surely she was not gone. I had just talked to her a couple of months ago and she sounded fine. I am told she had lung cancer even though she had never smoked, which is the case with many people. I am also told that it moved to her brain, as was the case with my dad back in 2010.
Dana. I first met her in 2004. I was working on some slide show to promote animal adoption and I ran across her photostream in Flick. I emailed her to ask if I could use some of her images and of course she said yes. I went on to use countless images of hers over the years. At one point I did a slide show specific to the shelter where she worked at the time. We used "Ordinary Moment," by Fisher, a song which has always held a special place in my heart since it was the first Fisher song I ever heard. We kept in touch when she moved on to her new job in North Chicago. I was kind of surprised that she had chosen to become an animal control officer. It is a hard and often thankless job in which you see a lot of neglect and tragedy. I knew from talking to Dana that she took an incredible amount of pride in her work. It was her life's passion. I could hear the energy in her voice each time we talked and I always felt empowered after speaking with her. When I later did a project for her about Ralphie (her beloved dog she rescued after Hurricane Katrina) I felt closer to her. I had seen so many images of him, and of all the animals she had helped for so many years, that I felt a tight bond with her.
We will never really know how many people Dana helped. How many animals she saved. The numbers are surely staggering and for that I am grateful.
Dana's Soulprint was, and is, deep. She is gone from this place far, far too soon. I am so very happy to call her friend. I am honored to have walked Life's Path with her for a while, even if from different physical locations. She was a kindred spirit and I have to believe her legacy will be strong as she inspires others to live with the type of passion she showed each and every day.
I read something yesterday to the effect that Dana will still making calls to try to place animals from her hospital bed in the days prior to her passing. I had to smile when I heard that. Of course she was.
I miss you, friend. I love you, I will honor you as I move forward by using your images and remembering how very hard you worked each and every day to make a difference. How deeply you loved.
I feel your Soulprint, even though your light has gone. I feel your Soulprint on me.
(images courtesy of Dana Kay Mattox Deutsch; "Soulprint" courtesy of Martin Page)
1 safety harness
5 bags of snacks
6 pairs of socks
We met him when he was just a baby and it was love at first sight. The bond was immediate. We cleaned him up, got him the medical care he needed and began teaching him language skills. We taught him right from wrong and as he grew, he learned to trust and became a key part of our family. Rich took him everywhere. He loved to travel and would sing along with songs on the radio. He was sweet and mellow and while he wasn't gregarious, he was friendly to everyone he met. People regularly remarked on how handsome he was and how well behaved he was. We took him golfing with us and he loved to ride in the golf cart and sing. As he aged and time began to take its toll, Rich put up a ramp for him and modified his diet. When he got sick, we cared for him. When he had an accident, we cleaned him up and assured him that everyone had problems sometimes. When he didn't feel well, Rich made him special food. After his stroke, he stayed in a baby's playpen for days so he wouldn't try to walk on his own and hurt himself. He rebounded from that and while he was never quite the same physically, he was always just so happy. Even when walking became more of a challenge, just the idea of going for a ride led to him do what we called The Happy Dance as he leaped and bounded toward "his" truck with joy. He was with us for 17 years.
If you didn't know me very well, you may think I was talking about our child. And he was our child. He was a dog. But he was just as much a child to us as any human child.
When we say Aspy was our child, some people either bristle at the notion or they just don't understand it. Love for the human species and love for other species are not mutually exclusive. I can love my spouse with all my heart, as I truly do, and still love a dog with all my heart. And to say that our dog was our child does not mean that we humanized him. We did not. It means that much like a human child, we cared for his every need. He had the cognitive function of a child. He was with us from the time we woke up to the time we went to sleep and sometimes during the night if he needed us. His presence was as woven in the fabric of our lives as any other child. And as we try to find our way forward without him, we grieve for him and we miss him as we would any other member of our family, human or canine.
I know there are people who have animals and those animals are mostly just present in their lives. They may appreciate them in some ways and be annoyed by them in other ways. But to truly bond with an animal is a unique experience in life and if you have shared such a bond, count your blessings. Anatole France once wrote that until one has loved an animal, a part of one's soul remains unawakened. Yes, yes and yes.
If you have had to say farewell to a beloved dog or cat and you sometimes cry over that loss, even years later and for no obvious reason, you are lucky. If there are days when you think you hear them or see them, you are very fortunate. If you sometimes find your mind wandering to the years you shared and the unconditional love provided to you, you are blessed. Some people will never know that love or that type of bond. I've come to understand that as much as the grieving process tears us apart, it is also something we must honor. Grief is an emotion which is as powerful as the love which creates it.
I love our boy. I miss our little man. He was our child.
1 Christmas stocking
2 rain coats
3 tooth brushes
4 travel bowls. . .
our heartfelt thanks to Ron Wasserman for this lovely piano composition about our loss
simply entitled, "Losing a Friend"
Most of us who love and share our lives with companion animals think of them as like our children. They are not human children and if we are doing a good job, we don’t humanize them. They have different needs than children, different instincts and different language skills. We know deep down that they are animals, but they are very much like children on a host of levels. They rely upon us for food, water, housing, medical care, guidance, training, language development and a host of other things which become woven into the tasks of our daily existence. I have read that dogs have similar cognitive function to that of a young child. Feline cognition seems to be a less studied topic, but that may very well be due to the fact that cats have better ways to spend their time than helping us figure them out.
Because our animals are childlike in their dependence on us and their needs, I feel pretty strongly about our responsibilities toward them. I think that anyone who brings an animal into their life must take that decision seriously and be prepared to care for that animal for the duration of his or her life. I am pretty much zero tolerance when it comes to people who tell me that their dog or cat is precious to them, but they have to give them up because of ___________ (fill in the blank). The excuses range from I don’t have time or the dog won’t listen or the cat refuses to use the litter box or we’re having a baby or some other reason. I was in a pet supply store once and saw a flyer for a gorgeous dog which read “New home needed immediately! Moving to Minnesota!” I grunted and asked the woman at the counter, “what? Do they not allow dogs in Minnesota?” I just think that having pets equates to making a promise. You don’t give away your relatives, you don’t give away your children and you don’t give away your pets or, worse yet, surrender them to an animal shelter where they may be summarily destroyed. If they mean so little to you, please. Just don't get a pet or become a foster for a homeless pet instead.
In spite of my zero tolerance for people who treat pets like an old lamp or a used sofa, I am well aware that there are times when people simply cannot keep their pets even though they do love them deeply. People get sick. People die. People lose jobs. Houses burn down. In those instances, my personal hope is that some family member or friend will step up to take that beloved pet (or pets) so that the person giving them away doesn’t lose all contact with them. It could be that they get well or get a new job or get a new place to live, after which their animal can be given back to them. In cases there that cannot happen or does not happen, my secondary hope is that the community in which that desperate person lives is a no kill community so that a local animal shelter or rescue group can help re-home the animal and the person can be assured that their pet’s life is not at risk. People who are going through hard times have enough to think about without worrying about whether their dog or cat will live or die. I also recognize that animals often are incompatible with other animals in a household and need to be re-homed for their own well-being. I have no issue with this at all. I would much prefer that a pet be placed into a new and more compatible home for the benefit of everyone, human and animal.
All this leads up to the title of my blog about preparing for the worst. If you are a pet caregiver, I really want you to consider doing two things now and I hope you will take them seriously.
The first thing I want you to do is to have a plan about what would happen to your animals if the unthinkable happened and you died or got so sick you could not take care of them. Much like people in some religions name Godparents for their children, I want you to really make plans for a Petparent. This can’t just be some wishy-washy assumption that someone you are related to or someone you know will step in and help. It has to be a direct conversation with someone in your life to get them to commit to taking your animals and keeping your promise to those animals in the event you no longer can. I’m not suggesting you have anyone sign a contract. I am suggesting that you have a face-to-face chat or serious telephone conversation in which you get a commitment from at least one person that they will care for your pets if you die or become so ill you cannot keep them.
Although my parents did not die suddenly and we lost them both to cancer in a short window of time, this was part of our planning. My beloved aunt in Texas agreed to take mom and dad’s cats and that is exactly what she did. Tommy and Batty now live in Round Rock and I know that my “Auntie M” loves them dearly. Just making those plans took a huge burden off of my mom while she was battling cancer because she knew the cats would be safe after she could no longer stay. Before Asp left us, we had a similar plan with my aunt. Aspy had been to her house and pretty much ignored the cats (thankfully). She had lost her dog, Phinny, years back and agreed to be Aspy’s Petparent should something happen to us.
The second thing I want you to do is to have both a Plan A and a Plan B to receive veterinary care for your animals either after normal business hours or on holidays. Most veterinary offices work pretty much from 9-5 and only certain days each week. Do you know where you would take your pet or who you would call if you had an emergency? Do you know if you would be able to afford it? If your Plan A for after-hours/holiday care could not help you, do you have a Plan B? Short of having a family member or child who is seriously ill or injured, I can think of nothing more traumatic than to have a pet who is injured or experiencing some life threatening condition outside of normal veterinary hours. Most cities have hospitals where people can go. Many cities do not have emergency veterinary hospitals and only a very limited number of veterinarians are in a position to help their regular clients outside of typical business hours.
We learned this second lesson the hard way just this last weekend. We had our Plan A: our veterinarian. We have known her for two decades and we continued to have her treat our dog even after we moved to a new city. She knew Aspy’s history and she also knew about most of the challenges he faced in the last year of his life. Based on that relationship, I allowed myself to think that she would be available if we needed her after hours or on a holiday. When we let Snake go in 2006, she came to our house to euthanize her when the time came and so it would be more calm and less clinical. I guess I just had it in my head that when we made the decision to let Aspy go, whenever that may be, she would be available to us. She was not.
Aspy had a short seizure in the evening of July 3d. He had been sleeping and it came out of nowhere, at least from what we could see. It was terrifying. Our vet could not see him so we took him to a local animal hospital about half an hour from our house. It was a terrible experience and we were all left tired, drained, upset and confused. We were told Aspy had a mass in his liver, one in his spleen and that the cancer had likely moved to his brain. We were also told the first 24-hours were critical and to monitor him. We did. He did not survive the monitoring period. Aspy had another seizure in the early afternoon hours of the 4th of July holiday. It went on and on and on and I feared his heart would just give out. We could not reach our veterinarian so we took him back to the same animal hospital where we had been earlier that same day and we had him euthanized.
I think Rich would agree that our Independence Day was one of the worst days of our lives and one of the worst experiences of our lives. Making the decision to euthanize a beloved pet is incredibly difficult. Ours was made more difficult because of the distance we had to transport our dog and the manner in which the process was handled once we arrived. I’ll spare you the details. Let’s just say it was light years away from what I had envisioned in terms of us setting the time and place and having it be an essentially peaceful passing like we arranged for Snake. It was heart wrenching and infuriating and I admit that I am having a really hard time not thinking about it. The veterinary hospital is about a mile from my office and that proximity to the place where I spend most of my waking hours is just too close for me. We will never go back there. I have written a letter to the veterinarians we interacted with to implore them to make some changes to how they handle ordinary customer service issues and specifically how they handle end-of-life situations.
If you truly love your pets, you do not give them away absent some extraordinary circumstances and you behave responsibly so their care is provided for in the event something tragic happens. Make plans for your Petparent. Make plans for after-hours or end-of-life care. Make sure you can afford unexpected veterinary costs. You will sleep better for having done so. And I hope you can avoid some of the trauma we have endured this week. Aspy could not stay. But we would have liked to say farewell in a more controlled way and in the presence of more compassion.
Make plans. And then enjoy your time with your companion animals. Life is fleeting and precious.
We met him over 16 years ago. We saw him in the cow pasture on a parcel adjacent to our then rural home. A small, white dog, lingering close enough to the cattle to stay warm but not so close as to bother them. It took my husband weeks to gain his trust in order to feed him. We hadn’t planned to keep him originally. Snake, our coydog, wasn’t good with other dogs and we feared she would hurt him. But he came to trust Rich, Rich fed him and we housed him separately from Snake as we tried to find a home for him. One day during a “let’s hope she won’t hurt him session,” Snake decided to chase the puppy around our dining room table and they developed a sort of friendship. We named him Asp and he became a member of our family. The bond between Asp and Rich was really beyond description. They were like two peas in a pod. After Snakey left us, the bond grew even stronger and it was as if they were two parts of the same person. Rich often joked that they could speak to each other telepathically and teased me about the fact that Asp sometimes didn't listen because I was speaking "with a cat accent."
I have told people over the years that I think there are times when animals enter our lives as part of some bigger plan. Believe what you will. This is my belief and I cannot be convinced otherwise. Sometimes we cross paths with animals because we are meant to help them in some way, even if it’s just to be a stepping stone to some new life. Sometimes we are meant to share our lives with them and they are meant to share theirs with us as they teach us what we value and how to be better versions of ourselves. We know all along that they cannot last as long as we want and we accept that as part of the relationship. We know they will leave us some day. We just try our best to focus on the present and how very much they enrich our lives just by being there to accept us unconditionally, make us laugh, make us cry and help us cope.
Asp had a stroke last September and it was debilitating. We were less than 24 hours from having him euthanized by our veterinarian and had even called the local business which provides cremation services. We didn’t want him to suffer and we were prepared to put his needs first, as every animal lover must. We decided to go for one last R-I-D-E and when he rebounded, we decided to let him stay and see if he could recover. He slept in a child’s playpen for days so he wouldn’t hurt himself trying to walk on his own and Rich boiled chicken to feed him because he had trouble chewing kibble. As the days and weeks went by, he improved. Life got back to normal for the most part and he was happy and eating and back to being our boy. We knew it would not last, but we followed the lead all dogs show us: try to live in each day and just enjoy the now.
I think most people can count on one hand the worst days of their lives and we are no different. The 4th of July holiday was one of those days for us. Aspy had a seizure on Sunday night and it was one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen. It didn’t last too long and we took him to an emergency clinic for help. The vet who ordered his ultrasound gave us the grim news. Aspy had a mass in his liver, a mass in his spleen and it was likely that the cancer had moved to his brain. We took him home and hoped for the best, but it was not to be. We let him go on Independence Day after a prolonged seizure, the vision and sounds of which will surely be seared in my memory for all time. Did we do the right thing? Did we wait too long? Did we not wait long enough? Such are the questions which haunt and plague every animal lover who has ever had to make what Marion Hale once described as That Terrible Decision.
I know we are blessed. I have faith that the soul of our little man was saved and that he is not in pain. Each day was a gift and while life will never, ever be the same, our focus has to be on what was best for him. No matter the cost to us. Some people have never known the type of bond we have shared with our dogs and for them I feel sorry. With great and powerful love also comes great and powerful loss, but we wouldn’t miss any of it for anything. We love him. So we gave him wings.
He asked her, "what gifts can I bring you
to prove that my love for you is true?
I want to make you mine forever.
There's nothing on this earth I would not do."
She said, "anything I've wanted
you have given willingly.
So now there's only one more thing I need.
If you love me, give me wings
and don't be afraid if I fly.
A bird in a cage will forget how to sing
If you love me, give me wings."
I originally posted this a few years ago as a way of honoring my parents. They say that story telling is good for the soul. I am re-posting it here in advance of the 5th year anniversary of my mom's passing and as I reflect back on times shared and values forged through family bonds.
I’ve often told people that I grew up in an animal-friendly household. Thinking back, that’s probably an understatement. It was more like an animal-integrated household. We never had a dog. I just recently learned the story behind that and while I’m a huge dog fan now (often accused by my husband of speaking with a “cat accent”) it all makes perfect sense to me in hindsight. We always had cats and sometimes had many of them. In our childhood home, animals were family members to be loved and respected - quirks and all - just like humans. It started with Spot and led to Callie and Mark and Leroy and Barbara and Annie and Dave and Tommy and Batty. Most had “people names” and that pretty much reflected their status in our house. We never questioned how animals were to be treated and the fact that my siblings and I all have animals as adults (all of whom are rescues) speaks to the values taught to us at a young age.
In the Fall of 2009, Time’s Winged Chariot took two swipes at our family. Dad’s lung cancer was diagnosed in September; mom’s stomach cancer diagnosis came in December. To say we were all in shock is another understatement. Dad’s cancer was somehow easier to rationalize. He had been a long-term smoker and had worked his entire life in an industry which was at one time replete with carcinogens. Mom’s was less fair somehow. She was a 20 year breast-cancer survivor and I think I had allowed myself to believe she had paid her dues to The Fates and would live for decades.
Both of our parents were in really good health before being diagnosed. No serious chronic conditions. Very physically active. That state of being “otherwise in really good shape” served them both well in the months to come. They began this dueling schedule of chemo and radiation as they tried to keep balance and make sure one of them was in reasonably good shape at any given time. At one point, dad’s oncologist (whom mom later worked with) commented that our parents really were taking the whole concept of doing things together way too far. My sister and brother, both of whom live close to our folks, were there each step of the way and I’m eternally grateful to them. I can only imagine the juggling acts they both went through as they tried to retain a degree of normalcy in their own lives - work and family - while being there for mom and dad and doing everything possible to help keep our parents in their own home. With the cats. No one really talked about how long the arrangement could be sustained. We knew they wanted to be in their own house and we all pretty much assumed that dad would outlive mom by years. I distinctly recall a conversation with dad at Scripps Green in La Jolla (mom was doing prep work to have a power port implanted) in which dad said he really thought he had another good 8 to 10 years left.
I made multiple trips back in the ensuing months to see my parents and to help in some small degree. Each time I’d visit, I’d marvel at their strength. Dad said he felt good. Mom was as funny as ever. During that time, I came to have an even greater appreciation for creatures who can only be described as Feline Therapy on four legs. I know that the concept of therapy animals is normally associated with dogs, but the cats were as empathic and as nurturing as any mutt I ever met. Batty loved to stretch out on dad’s legs as dad sat in his favorite chair with his feet up on an ottoman, sometimes pushing whatever book dad had been reading out of the way and demanding attention. Mom couldn’t rest in her bed or sit on the couch near dad without at least one therapy cat at her side, providing comfort just through breathing and the touch of hand on soft fur.
Time’s Winged Chariot returned in the summer of 2010. We didn’t know exactly what was wrong at first, but dad’s cancer had moved to his brain. We lost him in late October. It was quick and it was awful. And it was only then that the subject of the cats came up. Mom was devastated, of course. She and dad had been together pretty much their whole adult lives and as she tried to process the loss of her life partner, she also knew she had to make plans for the cats. They would outlive her. I remember her asking me in a phone call if I had rescue contacts I could reach out to who might take them together. She did not want them separated. I said, “sure, mom. Don’t even worry about it.” She had a similar conversation with my aunt (who was also doing the back and forth visiting routine), soon after and the deal was sealed: the cats would move to Austin and that’s just the way it would be. A great weight was lifted from mom’s heart by her sister and she was able to return her focus to her own treatment as we all grieved the loss of dad. Mom had one condition on the relocation of the cats: they could not be transported in a cargo hold. She just would not hear of it. We assured her that we would come up with some other plan.
And we did. Mom left us in April of 2011, less than six months after dad left. It was quick and it was awful. But I guess there’s a degree of poetic justice to that. Together in life, together beyond. As we began the “what do we do now?” process, the cats were a priority issue. We had to relocate them soon and had to come up with a plan. In the end, it was better than our folks could have ever hoped for and was totally in keeping with how we were raised. They could fly on American Airlines in the cabin but each cat had to be in a separate crate and each had to have a human escort. We had two friends who were willing to escort the cats, having been offered an all-expenses paid trip to beautiful Austin, Texas. My brother had a lot of frequent flyer miles and while I’m not sure how they work, he was able to get flights quickly even though the flights were almost fully booked. Each cat took a separate flight with a separate escort and both Feline Relocation Operations went off without a hitch. How'd he get seats on such short notice?
Not to worry, mom, dad. The cats flew first class.
In June of 1992, I was staying with my folks as I transitioned back to civilian life from my GI Jane days. I got a call from Rich that was a game changer. He had met a girl. She was young, came from an abusive situation and he had decided to take her home. “You'll like her, I know you will,” he said. I was a bit taken aback. I didn't know he had been looking.
Her name was Snake and she was a young German Shepherd/coyote mix he had saved with the help of a local game warden in northern California. She had no fur around her neck, having been chained to a tree by a heavy logging chain her entire life. “It may not grow back,” the vet had said, “and she has never really been socialized to people. She could be a challenge.” I had never met anyone quite like her before and I just didn't realize at the time that she would change not only my life but that she would change me as a person. She was wicked smart and incredibly athletic and completely devoted to our little pack. She was beautiful and graceful and Heaven help the person who got a little too close to either of us without her consent. She looked like a Shepherd but was the size of a coyote and was a wild child in many ways. She loved her Frisbee. She loved to out on the lake in our pontoon boat and jump into the water to retrieve a tennis ball over and over again. She was just a sight to behold.
It was October of 2002 when our vet gave us the bad news. “She's got a degenerating spine condition and she probably has about a good six months left before there will be quality of life issues.” We did what any good animal caregivers would do: we completely overreacted. We were devastated. I could barely look at Snake without bursting into tears. She had been with us around the clock for so many years that she was just part of life, like breathing. Rich made a heavy duty ramp that would hold a half ton person so she would no longer need to use stairs to get in and out of the house. I bought a super ortho bed from Foster & Smith that could have been used for a small child. We limited her impact activity and were careful to keep her from being too sedentary. We worried and we wondered and then one day life just went back to normal and we tried not to look too far into the future.
Snake was with us another three and a half years. In her final months, we knew our time with her was coming to a close. Her vision and hearing were almost gone, she had trouble getting up and down on her own and she had trouble digesting food consistently. Rich began the labor of love that was to become her homemade casket. Much like her bed, it was suitable for a small child. We had talked about what we would bury with her when the time came. Her beloved Frisbee. Her dishes. Her squirrel toy, on which I had performed “surgery” so many times that it was almost as much heavy-duty thread as it was fake fur. Her hand sewn Christmas stocking. I wanted to do something to help and was of no use in Rich's woodworking shop so I came up with a plan. “I'm going to make her some homemade dog biscuits and put them in an air-tight container to go with her,” I told Rich. He smiled, tilted his head to the side a bit and said, quite softly, “shes' not Egyptian, Babe.” I laughed. He laughed. The mood was lightened. And I began making her dog biscuits anyway.
We let her go on Earth Day of 2006: April 22nd. We didn't know at the time that it was Earth Day. We just knew we could not keep her here any longer for ourselves and we had to be selfless for her sake. Our vet came to our house to help her and on that day, our lives were again forever changed. We gave her wings.
I have continued to bake Snakey's favorite treats in her honor. I share them with friends and with people who have helped in my advocacy to which I am devoted in the memory of a beautiful girl who changed my life. And who change me as a person. I became an animal welfare advocate because of her. I miss you, Snakey. I am sure your soul lives on and perhaps we will meet again some fine day.
When the singer's gone, let the song go on.
It's a fine line between the darkness and the dawn.
They say in the darkest night, there's a light beyond.
But the ending always comes at last.
Endings always come too fast.
They come too fast, but they pass too slow
I love you and that's all I know. - Art Garfunkel
A friend of mine said farewell to her beloved dog last week. Rawley had a sarcoma. He survived the surgery, but went into respiratory distress two days later. It's thought that he threw a blood clot. He was getting the very best of care and his family was there to make sure his departure was peaceful.
I cried when I heard the news. I know that makes little sense to many people. He was not my dog and I never met him. He was my friend's beloved boy and because I understood her grief, I developed what I call empathy grief from thousands of miles away. What I felt and still feel pales in comparison to the heartache I know she is enduring, but between myself and others, there is this sense of community loss for a single dog. I think that for those of us who have shared incredible bonds with our companion animals, the loss felt by another person just takes us back to our own losses. We relive that feeling of helplessness as we try to do or say something, anything that might help.
To my friend, I truly am so very sorry for your loss. To Rawley, I am so very sorry you could not stay. I am sure you had a wonderful life here and I just wish it could have been longer.
I spent a lot of time just staring at my own dog in the wake of Rawley's passing. Our dog had a stroke in early September and it's a miracle that he's still with us. His days are surely numbered and I really do my best each and every day to be thankful for the blessing of his presence in our lives. A day will come when we too have to say farewell and there will be nothing we can do to keep him here. And I know my friends will feel that empathy grief for his passing.
When I think of the complete anguish over losing a beloved pet that I have felt and which I know is felt by people like my friend, it brings home to me the tragedy that is loss of life in our nation's animal “shelters.” Thinking back, pretty much every animal I've ever loved and lost would have been destroyed in a traditional animal shelter and while it is tragic that their lives are so short even with the best of health, the true tragedy would have been if their lives had been ended for no reason at all.
Each and every day perfectly healthy and treatable animals are destroyed in shelters using our tax dollars for no other reasons than they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and we have failed to end the outdated practice of killing them. We like to think that ours is a great country in terms of our lifestyle and our values. I think we can never really consider ourselves a great country until we stop being hypocrites. We cannot possibly say that we are animal friendly as a nation while we continue to spend countless tax dollars each year destroying the very creatures we say we love. It just doesn't make any sense.
Rawley mattered. Rawley was much beloved. And he is much missed not only by his own family but by people like me who never met him. Each and every shelter dog in America deserves the same. They matter. They too could be much beloved and much missed when the time comes when they can no longer stay here. But that time should come as the result of old age or incurable disease and not at our hands. Only when we end the public shame which is our sheltering system will we be able to call ours a truly animal friendly nation.
That's all I know.
I am an animal welfare advocate. My goal is to help people understand some basic issues related to companion animals in America. Awareness leads to education leads to action leads to change.
image courtesy of Terrah Johnson