My son called the night before I drove to his house in Durham to stay with his three children while his wife had minor surgery. “I hate to have to tell you this, but we are putting Sallie down the morning after you get here. The vet is coming to the house to do it. I know that will be hard for you, but we need you.”
“I can do it, but you have to know I will cry like crazy.”
“We’ll all cry.” Kathryn and I took her to the vet this morning. The vet said she could do blood work, but she didn’t need to do any tests to tell she’s very sick. She had lost 1/3 of her body weight, had been having seizures, and bled from her nose the week before.
“But she doesn’t cry like she’s suffering,” my son said to the vet.
“She is a working dog. They’ve been bred and trained not to complain for generations. Just because she is not whimpering does not mean she is not suffering.”
We’ve always had dogs. Sallie was my son’s first dog as a grown up. He got her from the pound in Frisco, Colorado, near Breckenridge where he went with fraternity brothers for two years to work and ski after they graduated. The people at the pound thought she was a combination Border Collie and Australian Shepherd.
He told me he and Kathryn hugged and cried in the corner of the vet’s office for a bit before he asked, “Is it time?”
The vet said, “Some people give lots of pain drugs and go the Hospice route as long as they can, but it is not what I recommend. Almost no one does what I recommend.”
“That is not what I want. How will we do this? Do I bring each child over here to say goodbye?” he said.
“I can come to your house. I have done this all over the city,” she said.
He didn’t want to watch his wife and his dog in pain all weekend so he asked if she could come at 7:30 in the morning.
I arrived at the house before the family came back from celebrating Kathryn’s 8th birthday at Wet and Wild. After I had thought it through, I realized I wanted to spend time with Sallie alone. She and I had a relationship. I had dog sat many times over her 14 years. She could whine me into more food than the regulated amount. I slept in the basement bedroom with her when she stayed alone at my house so she wouldn’t cry. I thought she was a great contributor to my son’s maturing into the fine man he is. She aided his big steps into adulthood--jobs, marriage, graduate school, three children.
Soon after I heard the garage door go up, William, the six year old, ran up to me and said, “Sallie is going to die tomorrow.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
Dad and the two boys went in the backyard to dig a hole in the flowerbed at the end of the zip line. “When you come down the zip line you’ll be able to say, ‘Hi Sallie,’” Dad said.
Kathryn found a ragged rock about six by ten inches in the back yard and began to decorate it with markers. Green and red pictures were drawn, but I couldn’t tell exactly what they were, and I didn’t want to ask because I was trying to manage my heavy emotions when the children were still pretty light hearted about it. They didn’t understand yet exactly what was going to happen. When we were alone, I asked her mother, who is an exquisite gardener and landscaper as well as an RN, “How did that rock stay in your backyard?”
“I thought we were going to need it.”
Each child drew a picture on the rock and they saved the middle space for Dad to write Sallie’s name with a permanent black marker. Everyone chimed in, “Dad can do calligraphy.” Who knew?
While we ate Little Caesar’s pizza and bread sticks, I felt a need to warn the children that I might look like I was falling apart tomorrow. I was the one that would be taking care of them for the rest of day after their parents left. I wanted to reassure them that I would be ok even though I might not look like it. I was hoping it was true. When I visited the month before, Sallie had fallen over in a seizure so I had thought the end was near, but I didn’t think I’d be there when it happened. “I am going to cry,” I said. “It used to scare me when my parents cried. I don’t know why, but it did.”
George, IV, the 9 year old, said, “I don’t think it will scare me if you cry. I don’t know if I will cry.”
His dad said, “Some people do. Some people don’t. Not crying does not mean you don’t love.”
We went to bed and I amazed myself by sleeping.
Kathryn set her alarm for seven so she would have a half hour to hug Sallie, take pictures and offer her a spoon of peanut butter, her favorite treat. She asked me to take the pictures. Owning an iPhone had brought responsibilities I could not have anticipated. As I aimed the camera and took four shots, each one being checked for quality by Kathryn, I already had slow tears slipping over my eyelids.
I was strange combination of nervous and calm but questions were spinning in my head. Will the vet be on time? What is this going to be like? I’ve put two dogs down, but I handed them to the vet and left with heaving sobs.
The vet and her assistant arrived right at 7:30. We all went to the backyard. My son had put a blanket and three chairs by the dug grave. The vet kneeled down in front of the three children and looked only at them. “Sallie is very sick. She is not going to get better. We are going to help her not suffer anymore. I am going to shave some hair off her leg with this razor, put this catheter in her vein and tape it on. Then I’ll put this needle in the catheter. It will be very quick. Her eyes won’t close.”
The vet and assistant carefully held Sallie. My son and three children got behind her and each put a hand on her. And then we all cried as she got totally still. My son stood up and read three poems he had written—one about her, one about a friend’s dog who had died, and one about it’s time for some of us to go and some of us to stay.
When my husband picked up our one dog, who died at home, the dog slid out of his arms on the first try so I was praying that wouldn’t happen. My son gently picked Sallie up folding her into a round circle, nose touching tail, the way she often slept and placed her in the grave. He said, “Some families like to each put in some dirt.” The children and he did that and then I did—very unlike me. Then he filled the hole quickly using all his muscle strength to pull the rain soaked dirt in. Kathryn placed the rock on top.
We all sat and cried a few more minutes. Staring at the wet, raw dirt almost produced shock symptoms. We struggled to get up not wanting to believe she was really gone, but it was time for my son to take my daughter-in-law to the hospital. I noticed on the way into the house, that their mom had thought to put away Sallie’s beautiful ceramic dog dish made by Kathryn in a pottery class. I was glad. It would have made me cry harder, and I was trying to pull myself together.
My oldest grandson grabbed picture albums, took them to his room and pulled out pictures of Sallie to put on his wall. Kathryn wanted to frame the best two that we had taken. William went out front to play.
Kathryn and I sat at the kitchen table making bead bracelets and necklaces after we finished framing the pictures. I answered her questions all day long. “What do you think Sallie is doing in heaven?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you think she’s watching us?”
“I don’t know.” These life-after-death questions were making me continue to seep tears. I knew she could easily escalate into what happens to humans so I was trying to keep my answers short.
“What did Daddy mean when he said, ‘Sallie made me a better husband and father?’”
“She made him more responsible.”
“When you grow up, you can get a job, live on your own, and go where you want to. If you get a dog, you have to always think about feeding her, cleaning up her poop, making sure she has a safe place to stay. If you want to travel, you have to get someone else to take care of her. If she gets sick, you have to pay her vet bills. All of those duties are worth it, but they are a lot of work and you have to do it every day, not just sometimes. Being a husband and father requires all that and much more. She helped him get ready.”
Later in the day Kathryn said, “I bet Sallie’s thinking—they gave me peanut butter and then killed me. What’s up with that?”
That night after we got the children to bed, my son and I stared at cyclists in the Tour de France on his periodically muted TV while his wife slept deeply with the help of Percocet. We told stories about when I first met Sallie at the pound in Colorado, about how he got her the next week, took her to the park, told her to stay, took off the leash, walked back and then said, “Come.” He did 20 feet, then 50 feet, then 100 feet.
“She always came, jumped up on my chest and kissed me.” Through tears, he said, “Did I do the right thing?”
I looked at my son who shared my love of dogs, who had trusted me to witness the loss of his first dog. I knew the answer to that question. “Yes. She loved you the moment she met you. You did what she most needed now.”