I’d always said that as long as he had an appetite he wasn't ready. As long as he could totter around outside. Inside, not so much; the floors were a skating rink, and for the last few months it’s just been habit to whisk a rug from the counter by the sink to the place where he takes dinner, so he can have purchase while he eats. But he still sinks and thumps on his haunches, and sometimes just rolls to his side and looks off into the distance: ahh, this. Such is my lot.
The other night he got restless, as always happens after midnight. The imperatives assert themselves, I guess. Oh, it’s one thing to loose your stream in the middle of a dream of forests and squirrels, but for the last few months he’s been active just when everyone is asleep, and some sort of disquiet strikes. I hoist him up and take him out and he stands in the small pool of light. If he has to pee he pees. If he has to deliver a package I stand behind him and brace him, because he can’t assume the posture sometimes. Then it’s inside, and he checks the bowl for food. If he’s done he totters off to the bed, and if that seems hard I carry him there. It’s been like that for a while but it got worse. I made the appointment.
Google for the administrators of a decent humane quietus, and the ad follows you around the net wherever you go. Happy page for a future vacation? EUTHANASIA IN MN. Favorite blog with wry political links? EUTHANASIA IN MN.
Mass incineration, sir, or individual?
It’s been such a long slow decline; normal gets redefined every month or so. But two weeks ago his bladder mastery began to escape him. I worked at home so I could hear the clank of his dog tags when he decided to get up and head for the door, as the old instincts rose up and required the civilized response. Didn’t always make it in time. Lots of swabbing the deck. Sponge baths. Spraying the carpet, washing his bed. But you don’t think “this is annoying. Let’s put him down.” If anything you just make sure he gets outside.
Last Thursday: a day and a week before the appointed time, he went out at 12:45 AM as is his wont, miserable wind whipping the temps down to minus 10. Snout to the wind to check the news. He decides to walk into the yard to do what needed to be done - I watched from the door, expecting him to get stuck. Last year there were dog prints in the snow all around the gazebo, but close; the year before, the orbit was further out. This year it’s back and forth by the stairs, like an old man who shuttles between desk and bed.
He headed to the back gate, a new objective in recent weeks. Last week he found an open gate and traversed the long march from back gate to front, alone in the snow. This week he stops and turns back. He heads into the snow, heads north, and I realize this means going downstairs for the boots because he’s going to get hopelessly becalmed in the drifts. Bring him inside. Hug. I know, I know. Think: one week. Too soon. Think: overdue. Guilt. Make the usual excuses as I carried him back in. That must be cold. Let’s get you warm. I listen for a grunt of discomfort when I pick him up, a soft whine if I’ve pressed a tender spot. Nothing. I lay him back on the bed and when I check a while later, he looks up with the same expression of patience and forbearance.
Whatever you have asked him to bear, he bears it.
You’re surprised to realize that’s what you’ve done. You’ve been waiting for a signal. He’s been waiting for permission.
Or not. Or not; don’t anthropomorphize. I read a story, a heartbreaking story about an old dog, how it just stopped during a walk and looked up, as if to say “I’m done, if that’s okay.”
As if to say. There’s the phrase that lends an alibi to your decision. If I’d taken that cue the first time his legs got crossed and he toppled, he would have missed over 700 meals, including 50 servings of his beloved Friday Night Pizza. I put him on painkillers and he spent long lazy days drowsing and snoring. He took walks again, all the way around the block. Last month we took a walk and when we got back to the house he kept going, wanting to go up the hill to the Tower where the view is grand. Not that he could see much. But I imagine that a fine-tuned nose hears a symphony up there.
So we waited for the day the bowl lost its appeal. In the morning he looks at his food, and he is always disappointed; he turns away - and laps up the sweet delicious cereal on the bowl my wife puts down before she heads off. In the evening he deigns to eat the crunky nodules as a prelude to the scraps that follow from our dinner table; unbelieving that the boon has ended, he will walk around for half an hour, testing the bowl as if expecting a miracle. You can read what he wants: MORE.
Which seems inconsistent with ENOUGH.
It’s 12:28 on Friday; a week before the appointed time. I just gave him two pieces of good smelly cheese. I’m writing this with the object of the eulogy right around the corner. I can hear him smacking his chops over that cheese. That was capital stuff, boss. Didn’t expect that. Curb service, too.
It’ll be harder for my wife. She will feel the loss more keenly, I think, because Jasper came before Daughter, and was the vessel into which maternal affections were first poured. (Something that seems like watered-down Kool-Aid into a Dixie Cup compared to actual parenthood, which is full-strength Burgundy into an exquisite delicate goblet.) For men dogs are different. Companions. Pals. Comrades. We used to go walking in the woods on weekends in the midnight hour before Natalie came along, on the hunt for things in the brush, following the glint of the moon on the creek. I know that’s what he loved the most. I know he loved to sit on the warm slab of the radiator and look out on the world. Or run up the stairs and bound up on the bed and pounce in play. I know that some sort of mercy has wiped from his mind the idea that such things were ever possible; I hope that the same sort of mercy lets him revisit those days in dreams.
I need to make this clear, with as little sentiment as possible: Jasper is not a sloppy love-mop. He wasn’t the sort of dog who was always at your feet in silent devotion, and regarded you as the Most Awesome Thing Ever and looked at you with big eyes of awe and giddy-idiot worship. He’s always been self-possessed. He knows his rank; he never fought me for Alpha - not after the moment in puppy training where I put the hammer down and he received the message that would last for almost two decades. He struck a unique balance: peer with all, but never dominant. When anyone had to exert discipline, he always seemed ashamed that the true power balance was revealed.
Or not. Or not; don’t anthropomorphize.
But how can you not? When my wife would be working outside on the yard on the hill, sometimes he would stand on the cliff and whine, as if worried about her. He worried about Natalie when other kids were around. He was, to be honest, a horrible worrier when there many kids around. It unnerved him and he couldn't quite see why we didn’t understand. He paced and panted and barked - not at them, but the situation, which was fluid and dangerous, somehow.
If I had to cast it in human terms, she was the sibling who came along around ruined everything, but was beloved nonetheless if you had to drill down to the truth. But casting it in human terms is the thing that keeps us from understanding dogs, and does them a disservice. Got it. Understood. Heart + brain get it and are in full agreement.
But I will never forget his reaction when we brought Natalie home. He wept. There’s no other way to describe it. I’d never heard him make those sounds before, and I’ve never heard him make them since.
Tolerant Big Brother was the attitude going forward. He never asserted himself to her detriment, but there was an understanding. Just so this doesn’t change our deal.
“I can’t remember him like that,” Natalie said when she watched the movie above. It’s normal. It’s ordinary. It’s heartbreaking, if you think about it: the moment in time when Mom and Dad are vital, the dog can run up the stairs, the children are happy toddlers - and the only one in the group who’ll make it out alive decades hence is incapable of remembering the simple joys of that day when the dog jumped on the bed and the tot laughed and said JABBER and gave him a hug, and the dog had the usual look: yes, well, this again. As far as she remembers he’s always been the silent presence on the periphery.
But somewhere in her memories there’s the buried fact of the wolf associate, the observer, the ally, the constant companion, the one who endured the dress-up sessions, considered taking her hot dog but thought better of it, went into her room now and then to see what was up, lived a confident life and suffered the hugs of crazy human love. The eyes, while dim, ever bright; the ears, having failed, still up and alert. A beautiful dog. An absolute individual. An indisputable soul in a humble container who gave her the necessary lessons in life: love, compassion, kindness in hard times, and the necessity of remembrance.
As I said, he’s alive as I write this. I’m going to give him more cheese now. He loves that stuff. I hate to wake him, but look at it from his perspective: all of a sudden, this? Cheese? Cheese is good. This. The smell. Taste. Joy.
Any more? No?
That’s how it is, then. That’s how it is.
That was what I wrote before he died.
Jasper passed at 3:10 Friday afternoon on the last day of the first month. I say “passed” not because euphemisms are necessary to put the bad words behind a sugared fence, but because that was what it was. Someone leaves a house, they don’t disappear. Someone turns the corner, they don’t evaporate. Something slides away and you can’t tell quite what it is, only that it passed as it left.
What it left was dead, but that’s not the same.
The night before was like they’d been for the last few weeks - trips outside before I went to bed to make sure he was drained. He walked back and forth a bit, didn’t venture deep into the drifts, and eventually turned to the great light streaming from the back door. I’d pick him up and take him back to his mat. He’d want to get up again. We went through this for about 45 minutes before he settled down. I laid with him for a while until he was off to sleep. Went to bed around 2 AM.
The next day I got a call from Daughter at school - she’d awoken with a crippling neck ache, of all things, and it hadn’t gotten better. She’s not a faker or a complainer about these things, so when she said she wanted to come home I got in the car and went to school to get her. On the way back I said this was the day, and she said she’d been expecting it for some time.
Home. Eleven. The vet was coming at 2:30.
If you’ve ever been in this situation with anyone, you know it’s the waiting. The suspension. The pretense of normality and the ache of what’s to come. I took him outside every half hour, if he seemed to need it; I fed him cheese and salami. Carried him upstairs and went in every room and put him down on the floor of my office while I worked for a while. Then back to the mat in the dining room where he’s laid all these years. Daughter spent some time by his side, feeding him salami.
I washed all of his food bowls and put away his grooming tools in a closet.
Wife got home at two. A half an hour later I looked towards the front door and saw the vet. She had just appeared as I looked towards the door, an apparition that never knocked. She was as kind and sympathetic as you could possibly imagine, and we sat on the floor for half an hour, the whole family, talking about the dog, discussing his decline and what he probably had - everything, really; at 19, it’s just everything. And then somehow in the course of the conversation we began. When the bag came out Daughter leaned over and hugged him and said goodbye, and when she rose she was fighting it back and her voice was falling apart -
- and you find yourself in the bathroom around the corner pulling the tissues out of the dispenser, and there are only four, and of all the days to run short, you didn’t think to check it before -
It’s necessary to write this so it doesn’t all float off in a fog of sentiment, to let you know it was right and good, and to assure anyone who will face the same some day. He got a shot to put him in a fog; he winced a bit, but shrugged it off. He was quiet before she came and he was quiet now, and nothing perturbed him. We let it work.
Then she shaved a patch on his leg and cuffed the limb and administered the serious mixture, which was bright pink. Right away she caught the problem - old leaky veins. Not a good spot. She found another vein and the pink went in.
He twitched a bit; instincts fought the verdict, but only for a moment or two. I had my hand on his chest and my hand cupped around his muzzle so he could fade off with the scent of the pack mingling with his last inhalation. The moment he passed was almost imperceptible. He was here; he was gone. Not an atom’s breadth between the two states.
I took off his collar and went in the kitchen and opened the door where his bowls sat on a sliding drawer, and put it in his dish.
The vet made a paw print in a divot of clay.
In death he was the same as he had been before; the posture, the sprawl, the old dog on the mat. I wanted to see nothing more and would have been content if we’d been spared the rest, but no, you have to bite down on the hard part.
I had written out the check but not signed it. Went to the kitchen to get the pen and scribble my name. When I came back he had been moved from his mat to a bin, swaddled in a blanket, and my wife was saying the last heart-breaking goodbye. She stood and I took the blanket and folded it over his head and that was the last time we would ever see Jasper.
Carried the bin down the stairs to the car.
A lady was walking down the sidewalk with a dog on a leash. The dog was delighted to be out. The dog couldn’t have been more thrilled with the world.
And then I went to work. Had a meeting. Could have begged off, but I needed cold water. Daughter had a piano lesson at 4:30; wife took her. Cold water. Life goes on, as people say after life has just stopped.
Numb most of the way into the city. Turned on the radio to the classical station; it was the end of Beethoven’s 6th, the Pastoral, and I turned it up to deafening levels and imagined, of all things, that Fantasia arcadia of romping creatures and barely made it to the parking lot through the scrim of tears. I could see him running and jumping again.
That was the worst. That was the best.
When I came back home I walked up the stairs and felt the absence right away. There’s no one else here, no clink of the ID tags to indicate he’s heard the door slam. Be a good dog, I always said when I left.
And he always was a very good dog.
It’s almost one AM now. Wife and Daughter are asleep. I’m alone in the kitchen; no clink of the tags in the dining room to indicate it’s time to hoist the pup outside. I pass by the doorway and look where he was, and know there will be a time when the instinct fades and I don’t check anymore.
But that is not this night. I wish he was on the mat, adrift in sleep, and would suffer for a moment a hug, a face buried in his fur, a ridiculous kiss on the fuzz of his muzzle. He would snort and sigh and burrow his face down into the nap of the mat, sigh, and get back to practicing the long song of silent slumber.
It was around 6:30 PM when I heard it. Wife and daughter were out. House was silent. I heard the sound of metal tags. I stopped and froze and waited and I heard it again.
Water in the pipes, nothing more. Glass in a window contracting. The normal sounds of an old house. I’m listening now and there’s nothing to hear.
Because he is gone.