The First Goodbye

Nov 2, 2012 by

This house I live in, it’s not really mine or my husband’s.  It’s our dog’s house.  Sammy’s house.  In late 2001, just after the World Trade Towers fell, we began looking to buy our first home here in Los Angeles.  Now buying a first home is always equal parts terrifying and exciting, but when you live in a major metorpolitan area, like LA, it’s just plain disheartening.  Our budget could buy us a decent sized condo in an okay, but centrally located part of town, but we had one complicating factor – I HAD to have a dog.  And not some puntable pooch that could be carried around in a tote.  A REAL dog.  A big dog.  A Labrador.  The entirety of my life had been inhabited by animals; horses, dogs, cats and birds, and there was always a labrador padding around our home. Since moving out of my parents’ home in 1995, my access to my furry pals was limited to visits home, and that was nearly more than I could bear.  However, to fulfill my need for a K-9 companion we had to have a yard, not an easy task on our rather limited budget.  After a lot of searching throughout this huge metropolis, we got really lucky and found an honest-to-goodness-fixer-upper, in a “safe-enough” neighborhood with crappy schools (we’d move to that mansion on the hill before we had kids, right?) that would require a sizable commute to our respective places of employment.   All the sacrifices were worth it because a month after we moved in I had a new love in my life.  A chocolate labrador named Sammy.

I would drive home for lunch to spend time with her.  We avoided taking any trips because we didn’t want to leave her in a kennel.  She slept on our bed when we slept, snuggled with us on the couch as we watched TV, and traveled with us whenever we could bring her along.  I taught her “sit”, “stay”, “lay down”, “roll over” and if I pointed my finger at her like a gun and said “bang” she would lie on her side and not move (excluding the ever so slight wag of her tail) until I told her how good she did.  She was the dog I had dreamed of having for years, and I loved her as much as I had ever loved anything.  Then between 2004 and 2008 we had three new arrivals.  BoBo, a rescue dog my dad found in the New Mexico desert as he made his way across the country.  BoBo and Sammy instantly became best buddies and we knew separating them was not going to happen.  BoBo showed all the signs of an abused dog, and while he was very sweet there was an agressive streak that came out if he felt cornered.  I figured over time, in our loving home, he would feel safe and relax, but as our two children arrived in 2005 and 2008, I never felt comfortable with him being with them unsupervised, even for a moment.  So Bo-Bo and Sammy became sometimes inside dogs.  They always had shelter, but Sammy no longer slept on our bed or joined us on the couch.

As the kids got a little older the dogs gradually became inside dogs again.  But something had happened.  Sammy had gotten old, and I had missed half of her life while I focused on becoming a mother to my two beautiful children.  I found myself with so much guilt and sadness and regret with not a single good place to put it.  I still don’t know what better choices I could have made, and yet I’m angry at myself for the ones I did make.  And there’s no more time to make up the difference because few months ago I realized that Sammy’s health was seriously failing and  we had a few precious months left.   I thought of my childhood dogs Gasget, Gretchen, Dusty, Ginger & Jonathan, our horses Zinger, Clyde, Lady, Snipper & my most beloved, lifelong friend Sammy –  all who grew old under my parents’ care, and all who died with my father by their side.  I begged to be with them too, I didn’t want them to leave this earth wondering why I wasn’t there.  I didn’t want them to think I was too cowardly to be strong for them.  But he always said no.  I know his denials were an attempt to protect me as much as possible from the pain of seeing a loved one die, but even today I have pangs of regret that I wasn’t there with them.  By the time I was in college the dog who was most mine, Dusty, had to be put down.  My dad called and asked if I wanted to be there and I was grateful to him for asking.  She was so old and ready to go, and I was with her, and it was unbelievably hard.  The horses were harder though.  Except in very rare circumstances a horse will stay standing until their legs collapse under them.  They are meant to run.  More than anything else they are meant to run.   So the mere moments before the chemicals are pushed through their veins to end their suffering, they stand there serene and beautiful and as majestic as ever, until they drop to the ground never more.  There has been no more ultimate test in my life than standing by Snipper’s head.  Snipper, the beautiful sorrel mare whom I saw first when she was born in our barn and will be forever called “baby” by my family, as she stood there breathing her last breaths.  My heart screamed for a stop, that this couldn’t possibly be right.  My mind knew that keeping her alive any longer was cruel and tortuous and selfish, only for our own benefit in hoping that nature would relieve us of the duty we owed her.   But outwardly I had to maintain a calm, loving demeanor.   For her, so her last moments wouldn’t be surrounded by angst or fear, but by love and compassion.  As agonizing as that was, until now I have never been in the position of making a life ending decision myself.  The weight was always on my dad. Now would be my first time and I was terrified that I would get it wrong.  But this was another first as well.  This was going to be my children’s first experience saying good bye forever  to someone they love, and that was far more terrifying than everything else that had come before, because I realized I had no idea what I was going to do.

When Will was around 5 years old he began to comprehend the concept of death.  In the ensuing months there were many conversations, often occurring in the car on the way to or from school.  More often than not, he was worried that he, or his Daddy or I would die.  But I would explain that Daddy and I had long long lives ahead of us.  That between now and when we die, Will would grow up, go to college, have children of his own, those children would become grown ups, and then when Daddy and I were really, really, really, really, really old, our bodies would eventually stop working and we would die.  This naturally led to his concern over getting old, to which I would respond that getting old ain’t so bad when you’re filling it with adventures, and loved ones, and someday children and grandchildren.  I told him that if I had never gotten older then I wouldn’t have him, and having him was the best thing I’d ever done.  There were MANY versions of these conversations, often punctuated with his fearful tears.  At times it felt a bit like a polygraph might, testing my answers from every possible angle to see if I was hiding anything.  Well, of course I was, we all know too well that people die at all ages and from all sorts of terrifying things.  But my 5 year old didn’t need to know that, so I kept my story straight.  After a few months of surprise interrogations he finally began to believe me, and relaxed back into the natural state of a not-a-care-in-the-world five-year-old.  Two years later when Sammy stopped using her right rear leg (because the cancer had spread to create masses in her bones and joints), my now 7-year-old boy asked what was wrong with her and I gave him the only answer I could: she was very, very old and her body wasn’t working very good anymore.  He startled as though I had hit him.  Looking at me with tearful eyes a strained whisper snuck out of his little mouth, “Is she going to die?”

I lowered myself down next to him and said, “Yes.”  Again he blanched. I put my hands gently on him. “But not right now.  She’s just really, really old, and her body isn’t working very well any more, but we have some time left with her.  So if you need to be sad, that’s okay.  But when you’re ready let’s make sure we give her lots and lots of extra love and attention to make her feel as good as we can.”  In that moment I saw it in his eyes, I knew it instantly because he is my son and if there is nothing else he gets from me, I’m glad he got this.  He set aside his fear and pain just long enough to comfort his dog, and then he stepped away to his room to grieve.  I joined him, and while I could see Sammy’s death would be hard, I also felt sure he was ready to cope with these feelings and that with plenty of Mommy and Daddy love and guidance he was going to be okay.

Confronting Elsie was much scarier.  She was a few months from 4 and still didn’t know what death was.  To her being dead was falling on the ground and closing her eyes, waiting a few seconds and then getting back up to resume the game.  My anxiety spread the vast expanse between the four-year-old who becomes a six-year-old who barely remembers her dog dying, to the four-year-old who becomes a twenty-something who’s life was so shaped by her first experience with death that she lives in a self-imposed OCD prison attempting to gain control of the uncontrollable.  This fear could have been paralyzing, but I was emboldened by my son’s breathtaking compassion and strength.  I had trusted my instincts with him and knew I had to do the same with her and hope everything works out in the end.  And truly, isn’t that all we ever really have as parents?  Our instincts?

In the coming months I found opportunities to talk to Elsie about how very, very old Sammy was.  Sometimes I would bring it up, “Elsie, you need to be more gentle with Sammy, she’s very, very old and her body hurts a lot”.  Sometimes she would bring it up, wondering at Sammy’s limp, or simply parroting back what she had heard me say to her so many times, “Sammy is very, very old, right Mommy?”

And now we have arrived at the end.  Sammy hasn’t eaten a complete meal in more than a week and when she did eat, as often as not, she would vomit the entire meal.  I took her to the vet, who confirmed that we had very little time left.  She wanted to do it then, but I needed to give my children a chance to say their final goodbyes.  She gave me some pain killers to help Sammy be more comfortable and warned me against letting Sammy starve to death.  Some part of me did want to let Sammy die of natural causes in our home, but I knew she was right.  It wasn’t fair to make Sammy suffer for a few extra days of life just to relieve myself of the difficult task of choosing her end.  When I got home I cried.  A lot.  I hugged my dog and told her I loved her.  Then I got my kids from school and brought them home.  Chris and I sat them down and explained that Sammy was not going to live very much longer.  I explained about the food and told them that at some point, when it seemed like Sammy was in too much pain, we would take her to the vet.  The vet would give her some medicine to help her not be in pain anymore, and then her body would probably die.  There were a lot more tears, from all of us.

Every morning the kids were sure to say special good-byes to Sammy, and when the day finally came I knew we were all as ready as we’d ever be.  We didn’t tell the kids it was happening, though they knew it could happen any time.  So they said their morning good-byes, and I dropped them at school.   Chris and I gently moved Sammy to the car and took her to the vet, I could hardly breath.  We stood by her, petting her, telling her we loved her and that she ws such a good dog.  And then she was gone.

I have a box of ashes now and we will plant a tree in our yard above her ashes, and it’ll be Sammy’s tree.  That evening, when we told the children that Sammy had died, we all took our time to grieve and cry.  Since then Will has had a few moments of sadness missing his dog, but all in all he seems to have processed this experience as well as I could have ever hoped.  Elsie is still a bit of a question mark.  She frequently tells anyone who will listen that “Sammy is dead”, and that’s it.  I believe this is her way of comprehending the permanence of it, but there is a delicate balance to be made between keeping this issue open so she feels like she can discuss it, and not letting it fade if she’s moved on.  Time will tell I suppose, but my intuition is that she’s got an appropriate 4-year-old grasp on her loss.

So I must leave with this: Thank you Sammy.  Thank you for being such a good dog.  For loving us even when we cast you aside.  For being an unfailingly safe companion to my children.  And for your ultimate gift, giving my children the most gentle introduction to death.  I love you.  You are missed.

 

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