I’ve had many animals in my life—dogs, cats, ponies, fish, bunnies, gerbils, and even a newt or two. They’ve lived equally long and far too short lives, and while they all meant different things to me I’ll never forget any of them. Not the cat who used to run into the bathroom when you’d tell the dogs to stay there because someone was at the door. Nor the rescued wolf, the litter of Labrador puppies, the kitten with a broken leg and split lip; the flat as a pancake alley cat who liked to bring home Norwegian Wharf Rats; or the dumb-as-a-rock Peter Pan chocolate Lab who never wanted to grow up. Each one has filled my heart with the time I spent with them and left scars in their passing.
I was there for many of their deaths; from witnessing a car accident that still burns behind my retinas, to old age and sickness setting in and having to make the choice for them. I remember when I was younger and the time would come, watching my mom carrying them to the car and returning from the vet with just a collar and tear stains. As I grew older, I was there beside her, crying and holding them through their last moments. It’s agonizing. It’s like stabbing yourself repeatedly in the heart and knowing that nothing will ever be quite the same again. Even knowing it’s the right thing to do, it sneaks up and blindsides you, every time.
And now, I can feel that time drawing near again. My darling Labrador Ellie, Jello or Jelly Beans to the family, is fourteen. She’s as sassy, fat, spoiled, and bright eyed as the day we brought her home as a golden yellow English butterball. For fourteen years she’s defied any attempt of anyone to be the boss over her. She’s pushy, demanding, louder than all hell, shaped like a keg, and she barks so hard her whole body shakes like a bowl of jello. She’s never met a mud puddle she didn’t want to bathe in and she starts barking for her dinner at 4:30 p.m., scarfs it in 30 seconds, and like a Pooh-Bear licks every last drop clean and begs for another smackeral. She’s as lazy as the day is long, likes to pull your arm hair to get your attention, and is an outright whore for belly rubs. And she’s my best friend. She has been by my side since I was 14 years old, getting my friends and I in trouble, standing on the bed as a mouse ran by, and kicking my pro-soccer friends’ butts at the sport.
Age however, can curb even the mightiest of beasts. Cataracts makes her vision spotty at best, she’s deaf to all but the sound of food hitting her bowl, and senility has made her very insecure to be left alone in a room. If you leave even for a moment she starts barking and will not stop until she’s positive you’re back for good. Arthritis has crippled her walk to a slow and awkward shuffle in and out of the house, and once in she doesn’t go much farther than her bed and bowl. She’s still happy and herself, and we could have her with us for years more were it not for the strokes.
This past year she’s gone back and forth with epilepsy and strokes. Watching her shake and go rigid, lose control of her limbs and bladder, and seeing the panic in her bouncing eyes is agonizing. She remains cognizant of who we are throughout, and keeps a steady eye and nose on us to hold her through them. They’ve lasted anywhere from minutes to long sleepless nights staying constantly vigilant. Each time fear grips me as rigidly as the tremors do her, always wondering, “Is this it? Is this the end?” Yet she keeps pulling through with nary a head tilt nor impaired cognizance. They come in stages—some weeks we see two or three episodes and then we’ll go months with her being her usual self.
Those stretches of health and happiness are both blessings and cruelty. A few more days of her being her normal self, playing with her brother and demanding food give us precious hope that the worst has passed. Then another comes and we realize again that we’re on borrowed time. And when she looks me in the eye she’s telling me that while it may not be time yet, we’ve started on our shakey and ambling final walk to the end.
I don’t know how to say goodbye to her, my confidant and partner in crime through high school and college; my bitchiest friend and fiercest Pooh-Bear. Selfishly I want to cling to her, keep her past her time, unable to let go of my last connection to growing up and shutting that final door. I want to preserve her in time at her best to stay with me during this journey as an adult and have her be there when I start my own family for her to boss around.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from this, it’s that what I want doesn’t matter. All that does is that she knows how utterly adored and how very much she is loved. Her last days—whether they be weeks or months—need to be spent in comfort surrounded by what she has loved most in life—us, her dog friends, and food.
And most importantly of all is that when she tells me goodbye, I accept it and stay be her side, as she always has mine.[divider] [/divider]