the queen of denial, part two

In the summer, we thought it might be time. Cleo was sleeping 23 hours a day, snoring loudly because of a thickening in her throat. She was suffering from arthritis, maybe a disc or other neurological issue. She was deaf, sometimes disoriented, incontinent with increasing frequency. It was difficult to wake her sometimes, and she was having trouble keeping her footing on the slippery tile floor. Then she couldn’t get up the steps by herself. Then she started falling down the stairs. We got a barrier and kept her on the first floor at night, but she’d stand at the bottom step and scratch on the makeshift gate for an hour. We’d sometimes give in, depending on the strength of Marty’s back. But she grew more restless at night and wandered the hallway, panting and knocking over things. She seemed to suffer from dementia and would get herself stuck under chairs or in corners, unable to back up—she’d just stand in the corner and pant.

My living room is now full of barriers—big foam core walls—to danger. I feared she’d burn herself on a floor lamp or start a fire with electrical cords. She got her head stuck between the fridge and the wall, where we stored some folding chairs; they tipped a little and seemed to pin her head—gently, but she didn’t know the difference.

Still, she seemed to enjoy going to the park and would often perk up to see Chance and Marty getting ready. She was always hungry, too, and didn’t that mean she still wanted to live? So that made it hard for us to agree on the time. Perhaps my family felt that my fear of a second back surgery (the first a result of having to lift Cleopatra each day to put her in the truck for a walk at the park) made me more eager to be rid of this physical burden—pulling her out of corners and lifting her onto her feet. And who could blame them for their love?

From the moment this five-month-old puppy wandered into our back yard in April of 1996, Cleopatra Queen-of-Denial Miller has been a loyal and delightful companion. Where Beowulf King-of-the-Geats Miller was a favorite among certain menfolk in our lives, Cleo was one of the most beloved dogs at the park. This is no hyperbole. Our dogsitter never charged us to watch her. My sister, who is highly allergic, would often bury her face in Cleo’s fur. My brother-in-law would have taken Cleo for his own, despite his wife’s allergies. In fact, we got a lot of similar offers. People loved our dogs so much that when Cleo had Beowulf’s puppies, our vet took one. A neighbor took two. We kept Buddha.

Cleo’s always told us what she wanted or needed. She’d scratch at the back door to go out or come in; she’d fetch sticks and drop them at our feet or put balls in our lap. She didn’t take no for an answer, either, and would bark at us or paw us until we played. She spoke in a sweet little trill, slept on her back with all four paws in the air, licked our faces, played a mean game of tug-o-war (often snatching sticks from other dogs). She never bit us, not even by accident. She was only really sick once—with Lyme disease. And she took care of us, waiting for whomever was trailing behind.

In the last few weeks, it’s been clear to me in her pleading eyes. I’ve been waiting for my husband’s realization to catch up with my own. We’ve done this before—lost three dogs and two cats during our twenty-eight-year relationship, never mind those pets that came and went before we met. So it was never a question of whether it was the right thing to do.

When our daughter, Serena, was born, Beowulf was dying from kidney disease. We were waiting for the sign that he was done, and it came on a cold February morning. Marty took Wulf to the picnic table outside and covered him, spoke to him, kept him warm with hugs while we waited for the vet to come to the house. The shot that usually goes to work in a few short seconds took more than two minutes to work. Wulf let out a howl that is forever etched in our memories. I let it get to me sometimes, let myself believe that Wulf was trying to stop us instead of thanking us for his wonderful life and saying goodbye. His body had completely shut down; he couldn’t even metabolize the euthanasia agent. No question it was the right thing.

I had a feeling this final image was clouding my husband’s judgment, just as it haunted me. But Cleo’s decline over the last few days has been swift. She can no longer stand on her own and is often found trying to scramble away from her puddle of pee. When we stand her up and put her in the yard, she wanders around in crooked, slanted circles, stumbling. At least once every day, I am alone and having to wrap Cleo’s pee soaked body in my arms to move her. And she has finally lost her appetite. On Saturday, she refused her bone, and I called the vet.

It took that, I think—the indignity of lying in one’s own urine and excrement coupled with lack of a desire for food—to make her condition urgent. I have been crying, with small periods of clear speech (usually to yell at someone), since Saturday. Last night at midnight, I heard some furniture moving in the kitchen and rescued Cleo from what I hope and wish is her last puddle. I slept fitfully.

This morning, before he left for work, Marty stood in the kitchen and cried. If you think something is already a big pile sad, set a crying man on top. Serena left her homework in the dining room, so I took the opportunity at school to inform the staff that my people are fragile today. As if they couldn’t already tell.

The vet will come tonight, and we will bury Cleo in the morning. This is as right as our hearts are broken. Our dogs have always been beloved members of our family. They celebrate our joys and comfort us in times of grief. When they go, pieces of us go with them.

Their people will be fragile for a little while.

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  1. Kim Hosey December 13, 2010 at 4:40 pm #

    I'm heartbroken for all of you, truly. Those final moments always are etched in our memories, but the rest of their lives is, too. Cleo sounds absolutely wonderful. You're doing the right thing. Many hugs to you all.

  2. Keri December 13, 2010 at 4:45 pm #

    Heartbreaking. I'm so sorry, Leslie.

  3. jodi December 13, 2010 at 5:07 pm #

    oh, leslie, i am so very sorry. cleo is such a sweet girl. xoxoxoxo

  4. patrick December 13, 2010 at 5:33 pm #

    It's too hard to see to type… so long, Cleo.

  5. Lauren D. McKinney December 13, 2010 at 5:46 pm #

    Cleo sounds like a great dog. I'm really sorry you lost her.

  6. Esther December 13, 2010 at 6:16 pm #

    leslie, i am so sorry. sitting here in tears, and sending nothing but love, strength and hugs for you all and ms. cleo. xoxoxo

  7. Cybergabi December 13, 2010 at 6:51 pm #

    Goodbye, sweet Cleo. I am glad I got the chance to meet you. Much love to you, Leslie, and your family. I'm in tears now.

  8. MassTwingles December 13, 2010 at 7:55 pm #


    Please know that you and your family will be in my thoughts today. Soon your dear Cleo will be out of pain and will run free at the Rainbow Bridge. It is clear from your writing that she was truly loved and adored.


  9. An American in Rotterdam December 13, 2010 at 8:21 pm #

    as I read this, with tears, my cat Cody has hopped up on my lap and put his paw on my cheek. our furry friends crack our hearts open with love, I think that's what hurts so much, the depth of love. Take your rest Cleo. And may your loving family be comforted in knowing you are free from suffering.

  10. Aunt Teena December 13, 2010 at 10:34 pm #

    I, like everyone else who has read this, am crying. I know the pain of this decision and the sorrow of watching your animal suffer. This is a beautiful eulogy for her.

  11. leedav December 13, 2010 at 10:51 pm #

    Leslie, I am so sorry for your loss. I've only had to put one pet to sleep. I didn't have her very long but it broke my heart enough that it took me 9 more years to get cats again. I can only imagine how hard it is after years of companionship. I will be thinking of all of you…

  12. Miss Rossbach December 13, 2010 at 11:27 pm #

    I share tears with you and your family.

    I'm sorry Leslie for the pain you feel. I don't know why, but the pain of losing our pets is always so close to the surface.

    Thank you for sharing a beautiful set of words for your friend.

  13. Belinda December 14, 2010 at 12:50 am #

    a sad and heartfelt and lovely tribute. my thoughts are with you.

  14. Anonymous December 14, 2010 at 3:34 am #

    This is really sad. Maybe the fact that she lived her life around loving people could put a smile in your face. Hugs to you all.


  15. Blanche and Guy December 14, 2010 at 12:18 pm #

    oh lordy… goodnight darling Cleo. eyes filled with tears, here, too. xoxo

  16. Richard Gilbert December 14, 2010 at 12:56 pm #

    I'm sorry, Leslie, but what a great tribute. Love: "She spoke in a sweet little trill, slept on her back with all four paws in the air . . ." She does sound like such a sweetie, and the loss of such a friend brings such deep pain. The cure, I hear, is another dog, though I have not done that since losing our Jack last April.

  17. jo(e) December 15, 2010 at 12:44 pm #


  18. Leslie F. Miller December 16, 2010 at 2:35 am #

    I don't know if any of you will see my reply here, but I want you to know that I really appreciate all your comments and thoughts and messages and letters and sweet notes and phone calls. It's so much comfort, all these virtual hugs. It's so much love. Who could live without it? Who would want to?

  19. sazzy December 16, 2010 at 10:12 am #

    leslie…i hardly know you…only thru flickr…but this just makes me cry. I've been there more than a few times myself and can tell cleo was well loved and a treasured member of your family. the decision to let them go is always wrenching and it never seems like "the time"…but it is. when you love this much you just know in your heart it's time to let them pass.

    sending you and your family lots of hugs and love.


  20. Debi December 16, 2010 at 11:56 am #

    leslie thanks for sharing this with us. you have written beautifully and poignantly about your loss. keep writing. you are very gifted. xo
    i am so sorry for the loss of your cleo. what a girl!

  21. Penny December 17, 2010 at 10:27 pm #

    Hi Leslie…I know you don't know me, but I found this post through a series of Flickr links and just wanted to tell you how moved I am by what you've written here, and how much my heart aches for your loss. My husband and I are anticipating the imminent loss of a very old, beloved cat. Losing an animal companion is difficult regardless of the circumstances, but when it's one of those rare, truly special ones, the pain is indescribable.

    It's true, as another commenter noted, that they love us deeply, but the fact that we can love them so much in return, knowing they will leave this world before us and knowing the suffering this inevitably brings…well, that kind of love is magical and powerful. And it endures.

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