This has been one of the hardest weeks, and I have not been able to bring myself to write at all until now.
Almost 11 years ago, in August of 2001 I brought home the cutest little chocolate lab puppy you have ever seen.
My Mother had died a few weeks prior. After a battle with cancer that had gone into remission for 5 years, she was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia on “Good Friday” and went into the hospital 2 weeks later for a very aggressive treatment. To make a very long and painful story short, she had a seizure from the treatment, went into a coma, and I had to make the ultimate decision to take her off of life support a week later. That was 4 short months later, on August 19, and it was the most difficult and painful decision I have ever had to make.
As a single devastated 31-year-old, a new puppy seemed like the perfect companion and emotional buffer. I named her Jean, which was my Mother’s middle name, but her exuberant personality quickly turned her into Jeannie because Jean was just all too pedestrian for this happy energetic ball of mischief.
Jeannie was my shadow. She was by my side when I was single, then she willingly accepted my husband, and both times I brought my new babies home from the hospital, she would lay at their sides and protect them as if they were her own. She was the kind of dog that my friends would actually bicker over who got to watch her when we went out-of-town. She was sweet and loyal and made of happiness.
For the past few weeks she had been acting really strange, just doing weird uncharacteristic things like wandering off around the neighborhood, begging at the table, and sleeping downstairs. I chalked these things up to old age. She has had Lyme’s Disease for years which lays dormant, then every spring it emerges, she sleeps, doesn’t eat, throws up, we take her to the Vet, give her antibiotics and in a few days she’s fine and back to her normal routine.
So last Wednesday I took her to the Vet, they asked if they could keep her for the day and run some blood work and tests. I returned home with my son, and an hour later I got a call saying that her liver enzymes were off the chart, literally, and that she was completely jaundiced and dehydrated so they were going to IV her fluids and do an ultrasound.
An hour later he called me back and told me that she had tumors all over her liver and spleen, and that she was in liver failure and there was nothing they could do. I was in shock, did they have the right dog? She was only 10, were they sure? He told me she had lost 15 pounds in the past 2 months and that due to the liver failure and tumors throughout her abdomen that she could not digest her food and was literally starving. He told me that labs in particular will not show signs until it is too late, and in this case, it was.
I was bawling on the phone, was he telling me that she was actually dying? He said unfortunately, yes and that it could be days or weeks or even a month. She was my firstborn, was she in pain? What was I supposed to do for her? He told me I could bring her home and to just love her and enjoy the time we had left with her and that we would know when it was time. My son saw me crying on the phone and knew that something was terribly wrong. I told him that Jeannie was really sick and that I had to go pick her up. I dropped him off at a friend’s house and cried like a baby the whole way to the vet.
When they brought her out to me it broke my heart. Looking at her and knowing we were on borrowed time. Did she know? Did she hurt? Would she die in her sleep or would I actually have to euthanize her? I hugged her and held her and cried sitting on the floor in the reception area for what felt like an eternity before I could get myself to take her to the car.
When I got her home, I started cooking like a lunatic. Beef stew, chicken and rice with vegetables, big fat steaks and juicy bones. She would get excited over the smells and take a few bites, then shortly thereafter go and throw it all up. I brought the kids back and they saw my puffy eyes and asked me if Jeannie was going to be ok? I told them that she was very sick and that she would probably not get better. My boys are 4 and 7 so this was tricky territory and I needed to think about what the best way to handle the situation was, knowing that this would be a very valuable albeit painful life lesson that could potentially shape their views on death and dying.
We are leaving tomorrow for the beach, and we were going to take Jeannie to Assateague Island and let her chase tennis balls and run on the beach and swim and chase the waves in and out all day. We had planned the trip before we knew she was sick, and then thought of it as her last hurrah.
Unfortunately this was not meant to be.
By friday night I knew my friend was not going to hang on for our beach trip. She had not kept any food down for almost 5 days. She just slept and looked so sad and couldn’t handle the stairs without help. Her beautiful brown velvety ears lay flat on her head, and she turned down even steak. Her eyes told me she was sad and scared and confused and tired. I knew I was going to be faced with the gut wrenching possibility of euthanizing.
I brought her up to my room and lay holding her on the floor all night, crying and talking to her and stroking her fur. I didn’t want her to suffer nor did I want her to go. On Saturday I knew we were going to say farewell to our best friend. I decided to try to take her for a last swim, and I will always be so glad that I did. When she saw the water it was as if all sickness and disease left her, and she ran and launched herself into the cool water and swam for about 20 minutes. She would break and just stand in the water, staring out motionless, smelling the wind as if filled with deep gratitude and preparing to say goodbye. After her swim I got her in the car and she was utterly exhausted and shivering so I got her home and lay with her in a sunny spot on the deck wrapped in warm towels from the dryer. I hand fed her a few bites of scrambled egg.
We sat the boys down to tell them. I told them that Jeannie was very sick, and that tonight she would go to heaven where she would chase balls and swim forever and that she would not be in pain anymore. My 7-year-old crumbled, crying so hard and he said it feels like I have a hole in my heart. My 4-year-old not fully understanding just kept bringing out stuffed animals and Lego’s and things to try to console his big brother. It broke my heart and we all sat and cried around her. I told them that the vet was going to come that night and give her a shot and that she would just go to sleep forever and that her spirit would fly away. I told him that he could say goodbye to her first, but he cried and cried and told my that he wanted to be there when she got the shot to go to heaven because he didn’t want her to be scared. It was so sweet and genuine and thoughtful and I decided that it was ok for them to be there for it.
We all just spent the day loving her, they wanted to be a part of the entire process and helped to pick a spot that we would bury her. We made an imprint of her paw in a concrete stone and decorated it with colored glass. We all painted rocks to place on her grave. We told stories about her and were grateful for the wonderful times that we shared with her. We talked about all of the fun things she would do in heaven.
Around 7pm we sat in the yard with her, it was a beautiful evening and I was falling apart knowing what was coming. At 8pm the vet arrived, and we all sat around her, petting her, telling her we loved her and that she was a good girl. He effortlessly slid the needle into her leg and just like that she drew her last breath. It was the first time I had ever seen such stillness in her tail.
It was undoubtedly another one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. Such bitter irony. I have to take my Mother off of life support and watch her die. I get a dog. 11 years later I have to make the same decision.
Jeannie taught me about commitment, responsibility, and most importantly unconditional love and unwavering loyalty. She is now free of her failing and well-worn body and her spirit lives with us forever.
Here is a little photo memorial of our last week.