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Finding healing after putting your dog to sleep

Adam Zoulkarneni

Feb. 15, 2020

Before you get a dog, you can’t quite imagine what living with one might be like; afterward, you can’t imagine living any other way.” — Caroline Knapp
I’m hurting because I just had my dog put to sleep. Jenti was around ten years old, and only middle aged for a rat terrier. Before Christmas, we’d called Flo, our septuagenarian traveling vet, to check Jenti out for a skin condition common to slick coated terriers. She always checks our pets out from head to toe when she comes. When she checked out the dog’s jowels and neck, she said, “Oh, no. No, no no no.” and sat down on the couch.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“She’s got lymphoma.”
After a back and forth discussion on probable other causes, possible treatments, and prognosis, she left us with the skin medication, instructions to monitor her weight, appetite, and activity level.
“ If it is lymphoma,” she said in protest to our search for other causes for the marble-sized glands on either side of her throat, “treatment is the same as for humans, but remission is short-lived. She’ll lose weight, sleep more and more, and lose her appetite,” Flo explained. “Call me when you need me.”
Flo has been doing this since the Seventies, and has seen enough of lymphoma over the years to be confident in her diagnosis. My wife and I, however, were in denial. It has to be a mistake. Jenti will get better, certainly, we told each other.
Not only do dogs have a way of finding the people who need them and filling a space in their hearts, I think it is true that we are better people because of them. Maybe it’s an ongoing litmus test — a daily examination of conscience — of whether our hearts are in the right place.
We were wrong. As the weeks progressed, my furry friend began losing weight, gradually at first, and then at a more extreme pace. She lost her energy, and would sleep all day so she’d have enough energy to greet me at the door like a puppy when I came home from work. Then she was back on the couch, curled up under her woobie like terriers do.
The pressure from the enlarged lymph glands back in her haunches made it more and more difficult for her to eliminate when we took her to the dog park, but she never whimpered, panted, or showed any other signs of pain. The only tell tale we had to go by was that once she’d shed most of her body fat, she’d shiver after we brought her back inside after using the doggy facilities.
Then her eyes began to cloud over, and we began to see blood in the white of one of them. Soon after, she stopped eating.
I called Flo on a Friday, two months after the diagnosis and left a message with her answering service, asking for an appointment sometime over the weekend. She called back and said she’d be there on Sunday at 3 p.m.
That morning, we got up and made breakfast, ensuring that Jenti got all the bacon she wanted. She loved bacon and peanut butter, and would dance around and trill like dolphin until you gave her what she wanted. After coming back from church, we stopped to get her a hamburger, which we always did when we took her on a long journey. This journey would be no different.
After lunch, we asked her if she wanted to go for a walk, and her tail thumped on the armrest of the loveseat. We walked into the woods, down the hill to the creek she loved to splash in the previous summer, and up onto the bridge at the corner of the lake. She got tired, so I wrapped her up in her blanket and carried her back up the hill. When we got back to the parking lot, she asked to be let back down, and walked the rest of the way back to the apartment.
Flo arrived right at 3 p.m. I won’t describe the intricacies of the procedure except to say that it consists of two shots. The first is a sedative, the second stops the heart. Flo said the sedative takes hold somewhere between five and fifteen minutes. In that state of deep sleep, she would administer the second shot to stop the heart. My Jenti snuggled with me on the love seat and fought that sedative for twenty minutes before finally letting the waves of sleep wash over her.
I cupped my hand under her neck to feel her pulse as Flo slipped the needle into her blood vessel and had only counted to three when her heart stopped. The darkness of grief and loss squeezed my heart. My wife, my oldest daughter and I cried freely as we wrapped Jenti in her woobie that Flo carefully covered with a plastic cat-sized black bag. She was crying, too.
“That’s okay, Jenti thought she was a cat for about half of her life” I said and we all sat there laughing and crying at the same time. Flo zip-tied the bag shut, and I carried Jenti’s remains down to Flo’s SUV, letting the dissipating warmth radiate into my chest, belly, and arms.
It would be an honorable goal to become the people our dogs think we are. Even when we are good, our dogs give us more credit than we are due. That’s is the message a dog sends out into the world, that we should correspond to their idea of us.
From the depths of my grief, an hour after Flo left with Jenti’s remains, I took a walk around Lake Fairfax and the thought that came to me was that death is the tax we pay on love . I loved her in a way that only good dog owners can know. It made parting painful, so painful.
But I’ll take the love and the pain. Some people complain that the love we invest in our pets could be better spent on people, and the grief of our loss shouldn’t be as great as when a person we love dies. My heart doesn’t work that way. Everything is interconnected, in my mind, and everything was created out of love. The bond that was forged between that goofy little terrier’s soul and my own deserves the same space for grief and healing as any other when the bond has been severed and we register the loss.
As a rat terrier with a playful and mischievous personality and no sense of regret, Jenti’s temparament complemented mine. Often, it was only her needs and antics that could draw me out of my introverted self. There will always be a place in my home and my heart for her kind.
I don’t subscribe to the “rainbow bridge” sentimentality that says dogs go to heaven but I deeply understand those who want to keep enjoying that something else/something more that death yanks from us. Mark Twain suggested that when he died, he’d rather go dog heaven. We dog lovers probably all feel that way, and while it sounds good, I believe that both a dog’s body and soul are natural. That doesn’t bother me. Everything on earth is a physical representation of a higher truth, and what is truer than a dog? Dogs are truer to their nature than a lot of people I know.
On the flip side, who can tell me that there isn’t some joyful twist in nature that remains hidden from us? Every creature exists because God loved it into existence, and God doesn’t love with partiality. Only we do that, and it is our greatest flaw.
Dogs return love by their very existence and nature. When the first dog approached man’s campfires and begged for a treat, establishing the possibility of partnership, did he sense the deeper spark of the divine that exists in us? Was it that something deeper that emboldened him?
I don’t know. What I do know is that my partnership with Jenti was deeper than the sum of our interactions over the past eight years. It was a blessed and joyful uniting of two souls. Yes, the love was worth the pain, and your love, Jenti, made my heart bigger. I am grateful.
The day after we put Jenti down, I went through all of my photos of her and chose my favorites, printed them and put them in a frame. I hung her collar from the corner of the frame, which now hangs on the wall beside my bed. In the moments when my lingering grief has been thickest, standing in front of this little memorial to Jenti’s life, I bask in grateful amazement and feel the first tender shoots of healing.
If you have lost a pet recently or if you’re still healing, leave me a note here and tell me your story. Do you have a picture of a favorite memory together? Please post it!
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