I’m about to lose another pet—my fifth as an adult. Their pictures, two cats and two dogs, sit together on the fireplace mantel; the shot of Cleopatra sits at the other end, waiting to join the group. Cleo is snoring on the dog bed next to my desk. Her eyes are open, but she’s asleep. She is deaf but feels my footsteps on the floor beside her and looks at me with one eye, the other still rolled back. She’s fifteen. Her hair mats in painful lumps behind her ears and back legs, and she’s too fragile to brush, so we sometimes cut the pieces out. A pink skin tag peeks above the black fur between her eyes, which have a blotch of black in each. She’s stiff from arthritis, and a bad disc in her neck makes her walk on her toes. Sometimes her back legs slide out from under her, and sometimes she stands as if gathering strength to lie back down.
I didn’t think she’d make it through the summer. Last week, she didn’t go to the park two days in a row, but on the third, she had a bounce in her step. She hasn’t moved all day today until Marty’s voice boomed, “Cleo, want to go for a walk?” and she bolted upright. She took baby steps to the back door and followed him and Chance outside, went to the park, and walked up a hill.
Cleo wandered into our yard in March of 1996, fell instantly in love with Beowulf, and had five of his babies in August of 1997, while I was pregnant with Serena. (Buddha, the first born, stayed with us. He was hit by a car when Serena was five; before that, hardly a photo of her exists without all or part of Buddha in it.) Wulf, a.k.a. Dogfaceboy, died, shortly after the puppies were born, in Marty’s lap while Serena was a new-born infant.
We all like to think our pets are the smartest, most soulful beasts, but Cleo has always been spectacular, in that border-collie-meets-black-lab way. She chortled and purred and engaged us in incessant rounds of fetch; she caught flying discs and balls high in the air and from a long distance. She played tug of war with sticks, tricking other dogs into letting go of their toys and stealing them. If she wasn’t finished with your affections, she would paw you for continued rubbing or push the ball toward you with her nose, barking until you caved in and threw it. She was always our protector, too. When we went for walks, she wouldn’t follow until the last person had caught up. She liked to bring up the rear, to herd us. This is the last trait to go, though I can’t tell if she’s waiting or just too tired to go on.
Every night, Cleo has to be carried up the stairs, and every morning, she must be carried down. She has twice fallen down the stairs at four a.m. in an attempt to relieve herself on the beautiful rug. Now we have a makeshift gate made of a cork bulletin board, so she pees on the bathroom tile or the hall carpet. Sometimes she poops on my bedroom floor—several hard lumps scattered here and there, and I can’t avoid the late-night landmines as I drag my groggy self to the bathroom.
Cleo pants, but she doesn’t whine. She snores when she sleeps, but she grunts when you rub her right. It’s been ages since she’s wagged her tail or barked, even at the mailman. But she eats. She eats like a crazy old lady with Alzheimers, like Marty’s grandma Ginny, who would sit at the table and finish a large breakfast at 8:30, then come back and yell, “Well, golly, it’s almost 9:00! Isn’t anybody going to feed me?!” Every time I open the refrigerator, she stands in the way, looking and smelling.
Our vet, the one who put Beowulf to sleep when he was moaning and unable to move because of kidney failure, took the last and second best of Cleo’s puppies, named him Timber. I’m sure he would come to us to spare his doggy mommy the frightening drive. But how will I know when she is ready? Every time I think she’s done with the world, she walks up a hill; every time I think she’s improving, she falls down it.
Beowulf’s health declined during my pregnancy, and I sat with him every day, begging him to hang in there until the baby was born. He did it for me, but he didn’t last long after Serena was born. Wulf had never been too sick to snarl at the mailman until one cold February day. His body was limp, and he moaned in pain, so Marty took him outside to the picnic table and stroked his fur and comforted him until Dr. Andrew arrived—on the heels of close friends who loved our dog. The dog lay in Marty’s lap. Andrew took out the needle, and Wulf let out a howl—a long, piercing, pitiful lament. I don’t know if that howl said I love you or goodbye or thank you. I don’t know if it said take care of the little one. I just pray, whenever I think about it, that it didn’t say no, please don’t, I’m not ready to go.
I can’t make this decision for Cleopatra, Queen of Denial, no matter how sad she seems to me. Each night, I lie with her on the floor and tell her that we will all miss her so very much, but that it’s OK to stay asleep if she is ready to be done with this world. We will understand.
I whisper into her deaf, matted ear that she doesn’t have to wait for us to catch up anymore.
I feel your pain, you know I do. Love to you all. Big, gentle kisses and rubs on Cleo's beautiful self.
in tears over here …
xoxo for all of you, and especially dear Cleo.
I remember how tough it was when I had to put both my cats down, within half a year of each other, both of them aged 18+ and with incurable cancer lumps in their mouths. The daughter was born in my presence, the mother had come to me as a 9-month old pregnant kitten. In both cases they had stopped eating, which usually is a reliable sign that they have lost their will to live. They were in pain, they had seeping, gaping wounds in their cheeks and smelled of death. Yet I felt bad about being the one who decided to take their lives.
These decisions were almost as hard as when I had to decide whether to let the med staff put my mother on artificial nutrition after Alzheimer's had taken away most of her mental and motoric skills and she refused to eat any longer. With hindsight I wish I had denied the forced feeding, since the only thing we achieved by it was another year tied to the bed, most of it spent mentally absent and in unbelievable physical pain.
Choosing about life and death is never an easy decision, neither with beloved pets or family members. I wish you that you will take the decision that feels right for you and that you have the courage and strength to see it through and find peace with it.
I feel with you. Much love.
very moving Leslie. All of us who have been there with our own pets feel for you. It never gets any easier. I wish their lives weren't so very short….
My heart just breaks reading this. I feel your pain and understand just how difficult it is to make this kind of decision. I had to put my beloved Golden Retriever, Maggie, down in May. It was THE most difficult thing I've ever had to do. But when that time came, I knew. I felt it and I knew that it was time to let her go. Still, it's not easy.
I send you, your family, and Cleo all my love. Our pets mean the world to us. xoxo, Dorothy
I had 4 cats. My first cat, Benji, got sick suddenly. I had left him alone for the weekend and when I came home, he was obviously very sick. I took him to the hospital, but he died the next day. He was young and I felt that it was my fault because I had left him alone.
His sister,Mougie, got very sick with liver disease. I found a vet who was able to keep her alive for a long time…3 more years, but she got so thin and wouldn't eat, and everybody told me it was time to put her to sleep. But I was sure she wanted to live and I did wait much too long to euthanize her.
Then, my Dinah, my crazy cat…..well she just started losing weight and I ignored it because I didn't want to deal with her being sick, and I was afraid. When she wouldn't come out of the closet for a few days, we took her to be put to sleep.
And, last, Mougie. She was sick, lost weight, was throwing up. I didn't know what to do. We took her to the vet, and he wouldn't tell me what to do. He said I could take her home and maybe she'd be better for a while, but maybe not. Maybe I'd have to bring her back in a day or 2 to be put to sleep. I kept asking, "what should I do?" bit no one could tell me. I put her to sleep, but I'm afraid I did it to spare myself from watching her.
I'm sorry I went on about myself. I'm not giving you any help. It's a terrible choice to have to make. I miss having pets so much, but I don't think I can go through this end of life thing again. Not when the decision could be up to me.
I hope Cleo goes quietly in her sleep. I'm crying too.
“A dog doesn't care if you're rich or poor, big or small, young or old. He doesn't care if you're not smart, not popular, not a good joke-teller, not the best athlete, nor the best-looking person. To your dog, you are the greatest, the smartest, the nicest human being who was ever born. You are his friend and protector.”
Leslie, you are one helluva protector.
Tears running down my cheeks, I know how hard this is You are doing the right thing – love her as much as you can
Like Teena, I don't want to have to make an end-of-life decision again, so I'm so very hesitant about having pets. My last pet was Nick and we had him little more than a year before having to put him down. So, I can barely appreciate what it must be like to put down such an old friend.
also weeping here. we did it with harvey earlier this year, and smilla's on her way out. (we took harvey to the vet; never again. i'll scour the ends of the earth to find someone who'll come to the house.)
i can't talk about it.
I don't really have anything to add, except my own tears and understanding. And as always, you say what you say beautifully.
I must admit that your story of your beautiful dog brought tears to my eyes. The thought of loving an animal so much and having to deal with the end of its life and the grief that comes with that is what caused me to pause before adopting my rescued golden retriever, Finley (in my pic with the reindeer ears. I've since adopted another rescued golden that I had in foster care — I can't resist!)
Every time an animal of mine passes on, I'm reminded of Tennyson's quote "'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all." I guess we have to trust that the beautiful memories of our beloved will carry us through the grief process.
Your dog is fortunate to have had you and your family provide a loving home and caring for her during her time on this earth (a lot of dogs aren't as fortunate. As I am a volunteer with a golden retriever rescue organization, I know this to be true.) I wish you peace during the difficult days ahead.
warm comforts to you Leslie – thinking of you.
Aw, she's lovely. And what a lovely tribute. We are dogless for the first time in decades, and if I think of old Jack lying out there under the crabapple trees I still get choked up.
You are so close to her, you'll know when to do it. One day it will just hit you and you'll know. She'll send you that thought. And then she will be pain-free. But not you & your family. It heartbreaking.