Tuesday, September 20, 2016
Farewell to a Friend
Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge.
When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge. There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together. There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable.
It’s been a month since the Saturday that began with such great promise. I’d managed to get myself up early and got in a good run; 40 minutes, pouring sweat and feeling exhausted. Not the “I think I’m going to die,” exhausted. It was the kind of exhaustion that makes you feel great knowing it was damned good effort. Longest run in as far back as I could recall. It was going to be a good day. Changed into a dry shirt and headed for Starbuck’s for morning coffee. The Starbuck’s drill on a Saturday morning is to cruise by and peek inside. Yeah, lined up to the door. Never mind the coffee I needed to get home to see how our dog Rainey did overnight. When I walked in she was lying in the downstairs bedroom. She sensed that I was home and struggled to get up on her three legs to greet me; a good sign.
Then came the screams.
Something was causing her unbearable pain. She would try to stand and then something set off pains somewhere causing her to go into a writhing panic. With our help, she hopped over to the family room and I held her and eased her into a comfortable position. I noticed that her hind legs were splaying out to the side when she tried to get up. And so one of us supported her front end with a strap under her chest while the other stabilized her on her hind legs. Cora told me that Rainey had a similar episode while I was out running. After that early morning occurrence Cora gave Rainey ¾ of an Acepromazine tab; a sedative that normally would have her loopy. She was also wearing a fresh Fentanyl patch that should have kicked in the day before. She should have been completely pain free.
That patch was from a visit to the Sage Emergency Clinic two days earlier after a similar fit of pain. I didn’t even try to walk her to the car that evening so I gave her a sedative and when it kicked in Cora and I rolled Rainey onto one of the dog beds and used it as a stretcher. At the clinic the vet checked everything; the amputation site looked good; vital signs were all good; blood flow to the other limbs was normal. The only issue was a rapid heartbeat which didn’t alarm the doctor. He suggested that Rainey’s pain might be phantom pains of the leg she no longer had. Before we left I asked the vet if they could apply another Fentanyl patch and he obliged. We figured that this would get us through the few days until the following Thursday for the appointment to check the surgical site. Like every other hunch we’d had over the past few weeks this one went as badly as the others.
And so two days later there we were. Cora sitting at the kitchen table; me on the floor with our girl who was having excruciating pain that she couldn’t describe. That’s the way it is with pets isn’t it? Most of the times you’re kind of glad that they can’t talk because you figure that they’d be calling you out for your bad behavior and then telling you a moment later what a wonderful person you are. And then there are those times when you’d give anything for them to suddenly develop a gift of gab.
There are times when you feel an unrelenting and unwanted reality closing in and you can’t do a thing about it; boxed in, utterly helpless. We obviously couldn’t wait until the Thursday appointment. I considered calling Sage for an emergency appointment. But what were they going to tell us that they didn’t 2 days before? I considered calling Sage for advice. I considered driving there by myself just for advice. By then I was crying because down in my gut I knew that what I really wanted was for someone to tell me if it was time or not. Cora wasn’t going to help me with that. In the end she’d acquiesce but I’d be the one to make the decision. Two weeks prior, Dr. Richardson, one of the Sage veterinarians told me that it was time and so I’d made the appointment for Rainey to be put down, only to cancel when she started hopping around on her three good legs, looking playful and spry again – at least as spry as you could with one bad leg. It was then that we’d decided on the amputation of her front left leg and what would be a subsequent chemo regimen.
I pleaded to Cora that I didn’t know what to do. She responded that we had an appointment for Thursday and I reminded her that the appointment was to check the surgical site. “And what are we going to do about the pain for 5 days? I added. “The patch and sedative aren’t doing anything.”
“So are you going to euthanize her?”
“I don’t know, Cora. I just don’t know.”
And I didn’t. I didn’t know if it was phantom pains or if her hind legs were cramping or if she was simply panicking because she just couldn’t stand. All I knew was that I didn’t know. What I knew at that moment was the promise that I’d made to myself for Rainey years before when I vowed that if she would ever have to be put to sleep it would be in her home and not at a veterinary clinic. And so on this Saturday morning I knew that my window for making a decision was small. I was pretty certain that I could get someone there that day if I had to. I was equally certain that I wouldn’t get anyone for Sunday, meaning two more days of pain, panic and anxiety for Rainey until Monday. Stalling was only shrinking that day's window. The alternative was to wait out the day and if necessary have the euthanasia done at Sage in that little room with the “Quiet” sign on the door. It was furnished to look like a living room but it was still the vet. Dogs, even blind ones, know the difference between home and the vet.
I ran through every possibility that I could think of and realized that the path had played itself out with nowhere to go and no turning back; no money that I threw at this would buy a solution; no more hopes to float; no more prayers to send. Sometimes decisions make themselves. You mull through options and without realizing it you’ve discarded all but one; good or bad, right or wrong a decision transpires. Its at times like this that you put yourself on an unemotional autopilot and do what you have to do with or without the realization that when it’s done you’ll drown in a wave of hurt. I did that some 20 years ago when my mom suddenly died. Nobody but me to plan a funeral, keep my dad on some sort of even keel and tend to the visiting relatives. You just do and when it’s done you allow the collapse into exhaustion and grief.
I walked over to Cora who knew by now where this was all going and, she tried desperately to steer us away from the inevitable. Cora is that person that will spend hour upon hour scouring the internet and since Thursday night she’d done just that, hoping for an answer to jump off the computer screen at her. I sat down next to her and listened while she told me that she’d read articles explaining that sometimes it can take months for dogs to get used to three legs. “She’s still weak. She has to gain her strength.”
“Yeah but she has to start chemo for the cancer,” I reminded.
Cora responded, “Rainey can’t do the chemo until she’s strong.”
“Then the cancer takes over.”
And that’s when even Cora who’d tried to hold out for that further out end was coming to a realization. She just stared blankly ahead; a thousand yard stare focusing on the gameboard with no moves left – checkmate.
I placed a call to the man who was supposed to have euthanized Rainey two weeks before. Voicemail. I left a message but continued to look for a vet who did euthanasia at homes. I finally found one nearby and checked reviews realizing that if Yelp was ever going to be worth a damn then this was that time. I checked the website carefully and it all looked acceptable.
I called, a woman answered and I blubbered. Nonsense followed by a questioning voice on the other end. I tried mightily to remain calm and coherent and then I handed the phone to my daughter who turned out to be the rock of the family that day. Jessica would be my strength during the times when I would stumble.
“What time do you want her to come over?”
Oh God what a question. I wanted now, NOW so that there can’t be a moment of weakness. I wanted never – ever. I went to check with Cora who had gone outside to water the garden. She was in her coping mode – keeping herself busy to keep from losing it all. Her sister and our nephew wanted to come to say goodbye. Carrie and Carl had often watched Rainey when Cora and I went on trips. They were members of Rainey’s pack. Our neighbor Sandy also wanted to come and say goodbye. Sandy also helped out during our vacations. I went back in, “One o’clock” I blurted. That gave us about 3 and half hours.
Rainey always loved the upstairs particularly during the day when the rooms were less bright than the downstairs and her day blindness wasn’t so much of a handicap for her. When she didn't curl up in her crate that she considered her little apartment, or wasn't with her family downstairs she would go upstairs and sleep in our bedroom or perch at the top of the stairs. After her foot surgery she was banned from the upstairs until we relented and helped her get to her favorite place. After her amputation there could be no way to get her upstairs. Still there were times when she went to the gate at the bottom of the stairs and stood on wobbly legs as if pleading to be allowed up. She seemed desperate and a few days after Rainey was gone my son Matt offered that maybe our Rainey knew that she was dying and needed to be in her special place.
And so, on this day I decided that Rainey’s last moments would be in her cherished upstairs. Jessica and I gently got Rainey on the dog bed and carried her upstairs. And there I lay down next to her, where I would be for the entire time, talking to her, petting her; rubbing her head and smoothing those floppy ears. Lying beside her I could tell that she was weary; but not so much so that she couldn’t manage to tap her tail slowly on the floor; a languid thump, thump, thump. I occasionally looked at my watch to see time slipping away. At times Rainey’s breathing grew shallow and I thought that she might be dying. “Stay with me girl,” I would say even as I harbored a hope that she would slip away on her own. In one of her visits upstairs Cora offered the same thought; “I don’t want that injection,” she said.
Rainey tried to get up and I tried gently to keep her still and coax her out of it but she was having none of that and then whatever pain or panic that was afflicting her struck again; she screamed and writhed and I eased her into a comfortable position on my pillow with my left arm around her. I embraced her with my left arm, stroked her head with my right hand and talked quietly to her. We stayed there and I held her in that position for some time. Half hour; forty-five minutes? I don’t know. I held her until Sandy came to pay her respects.
Sandy calmly stroked Rainey’s head and spoke in quiet tones reassuring her, and I suppose all of us, that one day we would all be together again. Cora showed Sandy to the door and the two talked on the front porch, of what I’m not certain but likely it was Sandy trying to reassure Cora that what we were doing was the right thing.
Once again Rainey tried to move and once again she was hit with pain and once again I eased her into a comfortable position and calmed her down again. Cora came back with some dog treats and fed them to her one by one. After the last of the treats she soaked a paper towel with water and let the water run into Rainey’s mouth. She repeated this devotion several times until Rainey’s thirst was satisfied. This was only one instance of the reverent attention that Cora had given over the past few weeks. She had iced the amputation site, applied warm compresses, fed Rainey by hand and I imagine had prayed a thousand rosaries on Rainey’s behalf. For my part, I slept on the floor by Rainey’s side every night and sat outside on the back patio with her in the cool evenings. I was the pill dispenser. We tried all sorts of vehicles to get Rainey to take meds and when sticking a pill in a dog treat or plastering it with peanut butter and jam didn’t work I had to pry open the jaws and put the pills on her tongue. Sometimes I would return to find a pill sitting next to her and the process was repeated.
Another of the endless glances at my watch; 12:45 and it was all closing in. Carrie and Carl arrived to pay their respects. One o’clock was impending and I retrieved some strips of bacon that I’d cooked earlier. I fed them to Rainey in small pieces and my sister in law asked, “She likes bacon?” In the only light moment of the day my wife and I looked at her somewhat incredulously and said as one, “Everybody likes bacon.”
One o’clock and there was an almost inaudible knock on the door. Doctor Ivey entered with a small bag and a gigantic heart. She spoke in quiet tones as I led her upstairs to our bedroom. She knelt down and petted Rainey and remarked that she looked tired and yes it was her time. I saved the doctor that awkward moment and asked her, “Shall we do the paperwork first?”
I’d earlier downloaded and filled out all the forms and all that was left to do was the payment. Then there was nothing more but to proceed. Cora refused to be there and she left to busy herself with something – anything. As so it was me, Dr. Ivey, my nephew Carl, sister in law Carrie and my daughter Jessica all seated on the floor. Dr. Ivey started to explain the procedure. I was at the point where I wanted to get it done and I was about to tell her that I’d already read about it but I realized that the others in the room had not. And so she described the 3 injections. The first would be a mild sedative administered gently under the skin. The second would be a stronger sedative to induce a deep sleep and then the third would be an overdose of anesthetic to stop the breathing and the heart. She instructed that she would pause after each step and ask me when I wanted to proceed to the next.
I asked for the door to the bedroom to be locked so that the grandchildren wouldn’t enter. I also instructed cell phones to be silenced and then told Dr. Ivey that she could start. Rainey lay with her head on my lap. Even before the first injection she was almost asleep; likely the work of the Fentanyl and the oral sedative.
Some minutes after the first injection the doctor asked if she should proceed to the next. “Yes.”
She administered the second and I moved around to lie in front of Rainey with my face in front of hers and spoke in soft tones. I wanted her to know that I was there; that I would be her last sight and her last scent. Her eyes were open and pointed at me but I don’t know even know if she was seeing me.
I told Dr. Ivey that she could give the third injection. It couldn’t have been a minute when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw her take out a stethoscope. “She’s at peace now.” I never saw a last breath; never saw a twitch. Her eyes never closed. She was there one second and in the blink that never happened - gone. I hope that in the end she saw me and that she went away with the understanding of my love for her.
I don’t even know what happened after that except that I was lost in sobbing. At some point everyone except my daughter had left and I only knew she was there because I felt her hand on my shoulder. She asked if I wanted to be alone and I spent some final moments with my best friend. I imagined for a moment that I saw her chest rise – still alive? I put my hand in front of her nose – nothing. I closed her eyes and left the room. Cora entered and was inconsolable. "Rainey, I would have taken care of you."
The rest of the day was more or less a gray fog. At some time in the evening I drove down to the bayside and took a walk and looked longingly at people with their dogs. It was a short walk. I suppose that in years past I would have stopped at the bottle shop and picked up a bottle of bourbon to jump into. I had the wherewithal to realize that my doctor had put the skids to that behavior. And so I stopped at CVS on the way home for something to binge on. I got home and finished off two bags of licorice and a fair portion of a carton of chocolate ice cream.
Yeah it was done. That afternoon’s wave of grief had started to lap against me long before that day. It wasn’t weeks old or months old. It didn’t begin when her paw became infected or when the vet told us of Rainey’s heart murmur. The crash of pain that I would feel on that last day was once a mere ripple months before when I noticed her activity slowing and her muzzle graying and I realized that her clock was ticking inexorably to an end that I knew was closing in. It’s the end that never crosses your mind when your puppy chews up your socks and pees on the carpet.
Even as I write this I have my doubts. Did I do the right thing? I know that question will always return. And I know that I’ll always return to that played out path with no way out. And I realize that I’ll never really know the answer. Cora was quiet the next day as she watered the plants. I asked her if she was mad at me and she said no, “I just don’t like the injection.” In the end it was my decision and she acquiesced and that’s okay because in the end we didn’t argue. It would have been a perversion to argue over our dog’s life. I know that she will continue to turn the moves over in her mind and she’ll always come to the same checkmate.
There is a poem called Rainbow Bridge that tells us that our pets are in a better place waiting to greet us when our own time comes. I hope that this is true. I want so much to see my big girl, sighted and whole again.
But if that’s not to be I want to believe, I have to believe, that when she passed, Rainey went to that place and was met by her mother Piper and our long passed dog Phantom. I can almost see Phanton run up to her, “Hi Rainey. Look at these fields. There are birds everywhere. You can run and chase them all day long. And when you get tired you can drink from this stream and rest under these trees. And when you look deep into the waters you can see your people. They love you and miss you.” If there’s anything, any one thing that’s right with the universe it’s that these loving, magnificent creatures live on in spirit in a beautiful happy place.
It’s a month later. We received her ashes in a little cedar box engraved, Rainey, Chasing birds in heaven. I don’t cry so much now but I’m saddened almost every day when I’m reminded that my friend of so many years is gone. It might be looking down when I get out of bed to make sure I’m not stepping on her. It might be going up the stairs to bed and expecting her to be waiting at the top, nose off the edge of the landing and tail thumping. I don’t ever want the hurt to go completely away and relegating her to another of life’s events. She was my faithful friend for a fifth of my life. Rainey became a part of the family when my daughter was a senior in high school and lived to see my daughter blow out the candles on her 30th birthday cake and know Jessica’s own children.
But, as I told my friend Scott, I think I have one more dog in me. It’s lonely on those sunrise walks now. I know that this coming winter’s fireplace will be incomplete without a dog curled by the bricks. There is nothing that can match an exuberant tail that knocks a drink off the coffee table; the surprise of a cold nose on the back of your neck or a sloppy dog kiss on your cheek. Dogs enrich our lives; so much so that the pain of parting is made worthwhile by the love and companionship they give us in their too short time.
All the animals who had been ill and old are restored to health and vigor. Those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by. The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing; they each miss someone very special to them, who had to be left behind.
They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent. His eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster.
You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart.
Then you cross Rainbow Bridge together....
The Rainbow Bridge Poem ~ author unknown