One crisp, spring morning, our 14-year-old Cocker Spaniel-King Cavalier mix raised his leg at the Bradford Pear tree, and I turned into a teary mess. I didn’t care what passersby might think. They couldn’t see how Pevo’s back legs trembled, that he couldn’t balance himself and almost toppled over. They didn’t know when our short jaunt was over, we’d drive him to the vet and put him to sleep.
They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but can an old dog teach its owners something new about being human? It’s hard to know what people want and don’t want at the end of their life when they can’t communicate. With Pevo, this challenge was particularly confounding. As we stumbled to understand the burdens and borders of his suffering, our beliefs about compassion were put to the test. The etymological roots of the word compassion are “to suffer with” or “to pity.” Balancing his suffering with our hope was disorienting.
An instrument doesn’t exist that takes a measure of hope, marks when it becomes selfish and unrealistic. As an emergency physician, I thought I’d know whether we were acting too soon or holding on too long, but I was lost.
As an emergency physician, I thought I’d know whether we were acting too soon or holding on too long, but I was lost.
We thought the fateful time had come a year earlier. Pevo’s arthritis made standing a chore. He’d first push up with his front legs, then prop his hindquarters underneath. Soon, we were carrying him up and down the stairs. At first, he growled at being picked up. The indignity of such assistance, we thought, or perhaps the pain we were causing in the name of help. His body was riddled with sores and lumps. But over time, he’d settle into our arms, even position his body so we could comfortably lift and carry him. Later, we’d wonder if his acquiescence was a signal that we misinterpreted as gratitude.
He still negotiated the hardwood stairs on his own. He’d slip down a few steps before catching his fall. Our hearts would plummet with him. For years, Pevo sprung up and down these stairs with astonishing grace. This disconnect between what he desired and what his body allowed, we feared, only foreshadowed future disaster.
There were more moments when we thought, “It’s time. He’s had enough.” Not eating, losing weight, deaf, weak, breathless, unsteady. But there was always something else to try. A new dog food. A new medication. Maybe his sluggishness was a side effect of the gabapentin the vet prescribed for his pain?
Then we’d catch him cautiously scuffling around the other dogs, barking like a puppy, wagging his tail. These flashes of spunk erased all the concerns that had accumulated to that point. Surely, he must be experiencing some pleasure if his tail still wags. But were we ascribing too much meaning to a wagging tail?
“It’s a dog’s life” is a common expression. But what is a dog’s life? And how would we know an unacceptable dog’s life? How much easier it would be if he could tell us, “I’m ready.”
Suffering is a personal experience that’s often difficult to penetrate, appreciate and respond to. This understanding becomes thornier when we consider that the perception and purpose of suffering differ across cultures, religions and groups around the globe — not to mention the leap between species.
For instance, suffering isn’t always an experience to be avoided, but something to be embraced. This transcendent dimension is echoed in Victor Frankl’s work, drawn from his experience as a Holocaust survivor. Frankl wrote, “if there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering.” Suffering, in these terms, is framed as an opportunity for achievement.
Despite his shakiness, Pevo still relieved himself with abandon, marking familiar trees, bushes and telephone poles like greeting old friends. Was this habit a source of meaning to his life, or was he just emptying his bladder?
We visited the vet several times for her wisdom. We didn’t want him to suffer, but we weren’t ready to lose him. With each visit, we knew the inevitable was moving nearer. We’d ask her how we’d know when it was time. “You’ll know,” she said.
We fed him his favorite foods — including ham and tuna fish — in a failed attempt to put weight on him. He spent more of the day sprawled on his belly, his legs twitching. The ledger of suffering and debilitation were adding up and, yet, we blindly turned that page.
Until the day he tumbled down the stairs, bouncing and sliding on his back, fighting gravity until he struck the floor. He popped up quickly, too quickly, almost as if making a statement about his toughness. But the depth of his panting told us that this was different.
Balancing his suffering with our hope was disorienting.
Of course, there was no way to know what was racing through this old dog’s mind. But these fears were flying through ours. What if he had been severely injured? What if we weren’t home, and he endured hours of terrible pain? What if he died afraid and alone?
The vet was right. We’d know when the time came. Suffering was one factor in this decision, but so was the preservation of his dignity. This was going to be hard, but waiting wouldn’t make it easier. He would die soon, regardless of whether we were ready to let him go.
Pevo counted on us for food, grooming, play and endless belly rubs. These were expressions of our love. As the vet pushed the barbiturate through the intravenous taped securely in his leg, I hoped he understood that this was an act of love, too. He died with our arms around him. His eyes closed and we lowered him to his dog bed, where we often found him, his head perched, his tail wagging. Only this time, his tail went still.
I can’t remember crying this much as a grown man. And I had witnessed the death of many people in my career. I never thought mercy could be so hard. The distress wasn’t entirely the result of bidding farewell to a trembling, stumbling, lumpy Yoda-like member of our family, but that perhaps we had waited too long.