The rain started in suddenly about fifteen minutes ago and then, as quickly as it came, it left trailing off like a sigh. The late night humid spring took a cool turn and my dog’s panting slowed. I’m sitting here on my couch, not watching a movie I have on the TV. Instead, I’m watching my dog breathe. Memorizing every fold of her skin, every spot on her ticked fur. I lay with her a while ago, alongside her worn body, gently trailing my palm down her back, feeling every anorexic ridge of her spine sticking out, my nose buried in the fur of her neck, breathing in the dog smell I’ve come to know as home. I can feel the catch in her breath, the effort of remaining. I am afraid to go to sleep, to let down my guard, to let go.
Tomorrow I may have to euthanize my dog. Her name is June and she is 12 and four days ago I learned she most probably has cancer, although the only way to be sure would be an invasive surgery she might not survive at her age. The news was devastating, as I’d convinced myself her rapid weight loss was a simple infection that medicine could fix. Still, I thought, cancer does not mean today. I once had a Rottweiler diagnosed with bone cancer and given 4 months at most who lasted 2 beyond that prognosis. Surely June might have a few months. Surely there must be a way to beat this. Just yesterday I was told there is no beating this, it is beating her, and rather quickly, and the kindest act of love would be to let her go. And soon. As in a few days.
I became practical. Not today, I thought. She has to come home and eat dinner and I have to at least have another walk with her. She has to sleep to the side of my bed below me in her dog bed, looking up to see if I’m still awake. Not today. Maybe Thursday. I leave town on Friday for a week. I cannot leave the sad task to my dog sitter. I have to do this myself. So Thursday. That gives me a day to grieve before having to get on a plane and get to the festival. I call my best friends. They will take off work and help me. They will drive with me. I do not want them in the room. I want to hold June on my own, the two of us together as it has been for the past 3 years. Thursday it is.
Last night my friends came with their old dog, June’s friend. June perked up a bit. My friends brought me dinner. They let me cry. We shared our dinner with June. We laughed. We talked of other things and for a moment everything was normal. Then I’d see June try to lie down on her distended belly, in obvious discomfort, and I’d cry again. After my friends left, my ex husband called on a video call. He wanted to see June one last time. To see his face breaking down was more sorrow than my heart could take. I tried my best to hold the phone up so that he could see her. We talked briefly about the day we adopted her, 11 years ago. For a moment, I missed him. I missed us. In the grieving, much was erased.
This morning I awoke and looked into June’s eyes and something had changed. There was effort. A fog. Maybe pain. I couldn’t tell. My stomach dropped and I thought, not today, not today. And then immediately a calm settled in and I thought: if today, so be it. I got out of bed to put the kettle on the stove and June padded in behind me as she always has, waiting for her breakfast, and then gulping it down and licking the bowl clean. Not today, I thought, with relief. Not today. And then I began planning: if she can make it a few days, a few weeks, maybe even a month… I thought, I just have a one week teaching gig then a festival. She’ll be fine with Milton, my friend who watches her while I tour. I’ll come back, we’ll have some time together…I began stretching out the days ahead, believing she’d hold on.
I have held three other dogs as they fell to the last sleep. I grieved each of them deeply, most especially the first. But with all of them, I shared that last moment with my ex-husband before the ex-ness. It is a far emptier thing to let go alone. With my marriage, it was partly the dogs that kept us together for a long time. That was a good thing. We allowed silence to creep into our marriage and were able to ignore it with one or two large dogs sleeping in between us. We drifted away from each other and closer to the dogs. Eventually, I confronted the quiet and I left. It was a sad parting, but felt inevitable, and we both grieved deeply into the fur of our beloved shared dog June. Somehow in this, we remained close friends, helped each other find our new apartments, June going back and forth between. Perhaps it was June who prevented bitterness from infecting our bond.
June lived with my ex for a while, as he grieved, when I first moved away. He says that it was June who kept him sane, who saved him. They’d walk for miles and miles in the shadow of Liberty, rebuilding his life.
Eventually I moved thousands of miles away to a new town and brought June with me into my house with a fenced in backyard. I fell in love with another man when he got on his knees immediately upon meeting June and nestled his beard into her nuzzle. He would live with me for a very short time, bringing his own dog into my home. That man would tiptoe backwards very slowly out of my home, my heart, my life, his dog would die, and through it, June was my anchor. June would lie next to me on my front porch as I watched the sun set over my street, drinking enough wine to numb my heartbreak. June would sleep next to me in my bed, curled up around my legs or on the pillow.
I joked that June saved me like my ex says that she did for him. But living alone never seemed lonely with another breathing creature with sad hound eyes sharing my life. And when the loneliness did crowd in, all I’d have to do is lie on the floor with my dog and I’d know I was not alone.
I lay on the couch Wednesday with her and decide to spend the night sleeping next to her here in the Living Room. She wakes me at 5am, panting, whimpering, and I know something has shifted. She is not seeing me. She is confused. I rush her to the ER, clearheaded, exhausted, alert. My friend accompanies me, the one who loves her the most, who takes care of her when I am away. He is solid, but worried and I appreciate having someone here next to me.
Eventually, the doctors tell me there is nothing more to do and I look into her eyes and see the weariness and I realize it is time.
It is Thursday. As if she heard me earlier in the week, planning. As if she set her own calendar alarm. She is letting me go right now, I can see it in her eyes that droop in pain. She is showing me pain so that I will let her go.
The only thing right now I know to do is keep looking her way, keep memorizing her fur, her eyes, her being. And to keep telling her she’s been the best dog I’ve ever had. And that I love her very much. And that I’ll see her on the other side.