In March, I wrote a piece about one of my dogs, Millie. It was in the days after our vet told us that she had cancer and he predicted she would not be long for this world. I wrote of my sadness concerning the prospect of losing my beloved father and beloved dog in such close succession. At the time of the writing, Millie’s stamina and spirits appeared to be on an upswing. The piece was a prayer of sorts to and for my father and Millie and Eric and our other dog Ricky too. I closed the blog saying that whenever her end came, we would say that we had longer together than we feared, but not as much time as we hoped.
I have hesitated writing about Millie because, I am as nervous on the page as I am in real life. I won’t, can’t, say this without knocking on wood, but Millie is as Millie as ever. Whatever is going on inside her body has not slowed her down much, if at all. Her appetite is unfazed, her brother-sister wrestling matches have not waned. There is one notable change, and I don’t hate it, I hope it goes on forever and only becomes more pronounced: she is even more spoiled than before. There is always roast chicken in the refrigerator. When she sits on the couch, she paws Eric or me to demand that someone pet her. If she could have someone at home 24/7 to adhere to her petting needs, she would not say no. And for all of this good, we acknowledge, we give thanks. But also with each other or to ourselves, Eric and I are always looking for a wood surface to tap our knuckles against and say again, “Knock wood.”
Two weeks ago, because she was doing so well, we brought her in to see the vet and to get a sense of how she was doing. He felt the same areas of her stomach/abdomen/organs. With hope, he said, “I don’t feel the mass at all, this is great.” We weren’t shocked by the news, simply because she seems so healthy these days. He suggested an ultrasound to see what they might find. “Maybe Millie is a wonder dog,” he offered to us. We scheduled it for the next day and for 24 hours, Eric and I went about our days with a cautious optimism.
A few hours after the ultrasound, the doctor told Eric that Millie was ready to be picked up and that the mass was actually still there, in fact, had grown a bit more. Eric called to tell me and I hurried him off the phone. I rushed to pick her up from the vet’s office and I brought her home. She was unfazed by all of it, but I was heartbroken. I went home and poured myself an early afternoon cocktail. (Mint vodka limeade, if you must know.) And I sat on the couch, my drink in my hand, the dogs flanking me and I called my Mom. I started to tell her about Millie’s vet visit and the hope offered and then the second diagnosis, that the mass was still there.
I started to cry and then I cried harder and my Mom listened. At one point, Millie jumped off the couch and ran into the bedroom to her secret spot under the bed. A dam had burst and my tears could not stop, in fact, they needed to flow. My Mom, listened and quietly assured me, “I know, I know.” And I wailed, not just about Millie but for my Dad too, how I felt that the last doctors Dad saw all, in their way, let him down. They led him to believe that he was getting better while he felt worse every day. They stopped looking him in the eye, taking him in. They did not compassionately say, “Your time is winding down, what are the things you want or need to do or say in these last weeks or months?” And my Mom and I, we cried to each other on the phone, not only that Dad was gone, but that he did not get to go in a less painful, less distressing, more life affirming way. (And let me say, I suspect that life affirming deaths might be a rarity.)
The vodka had started to act as both salve and fuel. For 20 minutes we cried into our phones. Not only about the sad parts of his death, but the happy parts of his life, how he beat cancer three times before. That he was truly surrounded by people who loved him at the end, and he knew, I hope, how much we loved him too.
Those last twelve hours, they stay with me. My Mom, my brother, my sister-in-law, my nephew, and my Dad’s best friend, we all sat in our living room looking at each other, wondering what we could possibly do to calm his spirit and ease his pain. We begged the hospice nurses for help, but help did not come until around 10:00 am Wednesday morning. The nurse gave us new pills for him. We crushed them and, diluted with water, poured the solutiuon into his feeding tube. By 10:20 he was gone. Almost immediately, the pained countenance left his body, but for the rest of us, it remained, and while I expect it will ebb and flow, the memory of those hours will never completely go away.
I am ashamed to admit that among the bounty of emotions I felt on that day and in the days after, woven into the sadness and the anxiety and anger and vulnerabilty, there was also a relief. And then a little guilt.
I might be taking a risk to share that, but I have a feeling that relief and guilt are a part of it for many of us.
But getting back to that Monday a couple of weeks ago, when I cried those mint vodka lemonade tears and my Mom soothed my broken spirit with her own grieving heart. When it was over, I think we both felt better. I had cried like her baby boy that I will always be. And she was there for me, she made it better. We each needed what we gave to and took from each other that day.
So now, like so many nights before, my Millie is sleeping on our bed, buried under blankets. In the spot on my side where my feet would go. After I finish these last couple sentences, and tumble into bed, I will have to crawl into a fetal position. I will do it happily, one baby making a place for another baby.
Before I drift into slumber, I will pray that tomorrow will be another good day for both Millie and Ricky, full of treats and massages and walks and chicken and naps and cuddles and love. And then I’ll tap the headboard two times. Knock wood.