Talking to friends this weekend, the first question asked has been "What happened?" I wanted to let you, my online friends, know too, especially since my miracle dog with almost nine lives looked so spry in his birthday video last month. He was doing great, bossing me around and continuing to discover new passions until the end, like delicata squash, which we had almost three times a week, every bite being the most exciting thing that ever happened to him judging from his are-you-tasting-what-I'm-tasting expression of ecstasy every time he ate it.
But I had been seeing changes too. He was having more accidents. He was never a long walker, but he barely wanted to walk at all. On Thursday, he started having shivers. I swaddled him, hoping he was just cold. I took him on errands with me and cranked up the heat in my car. I put him in his Sherpa to take him into some stores and when I checked on him he had had and accident. He had never done that. I took him home and gave him a bath. And called my sister. I knew I had to take him to the vet. I didn't want to. I wanted to go through a different door. One that is not an option to pet owners. One with no conversations about quality of life or sleep as a euphemism.
But I went, and there was a new, young vet on duty named Dr. Mario Dinucci. I had been sobbing since I arrived, but he still looked me in the eye and said straight out "They just don't live long enough." It was honest and I was grateful he was going to engage with me as a doctor and a person with empathy -- in my experience these skills are not always linked, often with brutal consequences.
Then, the two days of hope began. Darby didn't have a fever. He felt ok (I'm not sure what they feel when they feel your dog's tummy but that checked out -- no wincing.) He's old, though. So he must be in some pain. He also had a significant heart murmur and only one kidney. The other one was removed three years ago with a cancerous tumor. And last January he was peeing blood. At that time, they sent me home with a probable diagnosis of untreatable bladder cancer and small supply of painkillers to "make him as comfortable as possible." I thought that was the end then. But he recovered.
This time, Dr. Dinucci gave Darby an anti-inflammatory shot. I took him home and he improved. I dried my eyes and cooked him some squash. He was himself, underfoot, poking his nose too close to the hot stove, circling the kitchen for more until the last dish was washed and lights turned out.
We had a good night.
But by Friday afternoon something had changed. His breathing was ragged. Dr. Dinucci called with the results of his tests. Darby had a bladder infection and elevated white blood cells. Antibiotics should help, and a targeted culture that would take a few days to get back would help ensure that he get the right treatment. More hope. But I brought him in anyway.
Something had changed. They did an x-ray of his lungs and saw they were filled with fluid. But there was still hope. A shot of Lasix and nitroglycerin for the heart. He showed signs of improvement. He peed. The fluid was moving out of his system. If he could stabilize that would give the antibiotics time to work. His breathing seemed better. I took him home with six prescriptions and optimism.
After a few hours his breathing worsened again. I made him eggs and rice and squash. Dr. Dinucci's orders were to spoil him. He didn't eat a thing. He didn't pee. I called an emergency vet, an anonymous 24-hour line, someone who didn't know me or my dog, but who answered the phone in the middle of the night anyway. Increase the Lasix. That should help. Hope. He worsened. Another vet, hours later. Calculating the weight, the age, the pill dosage I had on hand. You can give him more Lasix. That should help. Hope. He worsened. His lips were cold. I called again. Another stranger. Is this it? Is my dog dying? It could just be the air passing over the lips. Hope.
By the early morning, I knew I needed to let him go. We don't have an all night vet here. The closest one is almost and hour away. I wasn't going to strap my dying dog into the car on a cold December night and drive into the dark to a unknown place. I could do this. I could get him to the morning. Then I could give him peace. The vet opened at 9am. I held him for hours, his little head on my shoulder.
I called my parents at 7am. Hysterical. Telling them it was time. But I still had to wait. I hung up. Swaddled him in his blue blanket and took him out to see the sun rise. He jerked in my arms. His head rolled strangely. I ran inside and put him in his bed. I called the emergency vets. I needed someone to tell me what to do. I was so afraid he was in pain. I called my sister. Could we call our friend who was a vet? I hovered over Darby. I put the phone down. His breathing changed. He peed. There was blood near his mouth. He's gone. I howled in the phone. He's gone.
I hugged him for a long time. Still not putting the full weight of my arm on him, because he never liked that. I held his little paw and inhaled his scent, desperately trying to imprint it, even though it is with me and gone forever. I cleaned him up and changed his blanket.
The vet opened. I called and discussed "remains." My sister picked me up and we brought his body in. It was not Darby. The waiting room was filled with the Saturday morning bustle of dog lover errands; vaccines, prescription food, grooming. The staff was very discreet, ushering me and my bundled dog to the back. My sister paid the invoice. I gave him one last kiss. Then another. And left him with the tech. She was very gentle. Then I tried to exit the front door to the parking lot with discretion too. No one wants to see this moment I thought, especially people with their dogs. But I was wrong. They didn't turn away. They didn't let me go. A tall woman in a beautifully tailored white trench coat grabbed me, yelled at me, "Come here." She pulled me to her. What she gave me was not just a hug. That word is not enough. I felt like I was inside her. She wouldn't let me go. I sobbed and sobbed on her beautiful coat. And she held on. And would have stayed there, it seemed, so I finally released. A man was waiting with a tissue. Another lady said something about angels. About my dog the angel. The whole staff came forward to the front desk. They could have hidden in the back or in their computer screens and paper work. They didn't. Thank you, I said. Tell Dr. Dinucci thank you. Darby did ok for a few hours, but then he got worse. He passed this morning. But Dr. Dinucci was great. Thank you all. You were all great.
It was a surreal acceptance speech.
My sister and I got in the car. She had warned me that leaving the vet without your dog is the worst feeling in the world. She was right. The only word I could manage was "Jesus."
We drove home in silence.
Later when she called to check on me, we talked about the vet's office. That was unbelievable, I said. I know, she said, people are awesome. And there, I realized, was another life lesson given to my by my dog Darby.
I wanted to let you know that your condolences have been a continuation of that massive waiting room hug. Sometimes you don't know if writing a few lines matters to people in their grief. I know I never know the right thing to say or if it is meaningless to the recipient. I am telling you that for me it has mattered. It is saving me. And I am so appreciative of your stories of loss and the names of pets you have shared and your prayers and your commiseration. Death is horrible. And shocking. I had never seen it before. Connecting to you who have experienced this and survived and can look back with sweetness at the life or your pet, not the loss, gives me hope that I will get through my own dark night. Thank you so much. Dog lovers are a very special breed and I am honored to be one of you. With deepest gratitude -- Moira