It’s amazing how seven years can pass by, and then all of a sudden, you find yourself in the same situation, and all the emotions, all the anxieties, all the pain, comes back. And it’s as if no time at all has passed.
I felt this way the past two weeks, and especially beginning on Friday afternoon, October 12th, through Saturday night, October 13th, and on into today.
Today is October 14th, and if Lizzie had lived just one more day, she would have made it to the 7-month anniversary of the day we almost put her to sleep…but didn’t.
For a 16-year old purebred puppy mill rescue pug, that is probably unheard of, I would guess. At the very least it is miraculous.
7 months in a senior dog’s life is like 7 years in the life of an elderly human, in terms of lifespan…and survival.
We honestly did not think we’d have more than 7 days with Lizzie, back in mid-March, after she cheated death for the 5th…or 6th…or 7th time…
And she lived 7 more months.
Not just lived…she lived with a quality of life that surpassed reason, or medical science.
Up until September 27th, there were no signs that she would not make it to Thanksgiving, if not Christmas, at least.
But, I learned, back in 2011, that it happens that way with dogs. They age differently than humans do, as most of us know. You probably have heard that one year in a dog’s life is equivalent to 7 years in a person’s, biologically speaking.
And because of that, our dogs can be doing very well: happy, vivacious, and medically stable, much like people can be – with medication and good health care, even while living with a chronic illness…or 2…or…3.
But suddenly, overnight, everything changes. A dog that is seemingly fine goes downhill very quickly. And you find yourself living with a perpetual pit in your stomach from the anxiety of seeing them begin to slip away from you…and what’s even worse, is the anxiety of the big question, the one we dread, the one that as mere mortals, we should not have to ask:
When do I let my dog go?
When do I play God and make the decision to put my dog to sleep?
This can go on for weeks, but for me, with Toby, and this past week, with Lizzie, it went on for just 5 or 6 days.
In fact, it was eerily exactly the same. In 2011, I brought Toby to the vet on Monday, the 8th of the month, and his internist, Dr. Ford, said he was stable on the medications and injections. By Friday, he was in such distress that I brought him back for an urgent care appointment…and still I was uncertain if Toby would rally and make it through yet another crisis.
He’d survived many in the previous 3 years.
On Monday, the 8th of October, of this year, Dr. Clifton diagnosed Lizzie with pneumonia and a collapsed trachea, and I had to make the difficult decision to authorize Lizzie to take Prednisone again, just for a week…to open up her airway.
Friday afternoon, the 12th, I brought Lizzie back to the vet, for a previously scheduled recheck, not urgent care. Now, she’d been eating all week, and taking her antibiotics and cough medicine and steroid and bronchial dilator…but she still had a terrible cough, and her inhalation was labored.
Dr. Clifton found fluid in her abdomen in Lizzie’s X-rays.
Probable early heart failure.
Even though Lizzie’s lungs looked better, and her airway was opening up, she now faced a new medical threat, and I knew – there was not much time.
Still, I was able to take her home…but this would be the last time.
Friday night, Lizzie suffered greatly, all night, and I called the vet at 8 am sharp,
Saturday morning, October 13th.
I didn’t even need to tell Leah, the front desk manager, why I was coming, just that I was bringing Lizzie back right away.
So, 7 years later, on a Saturday the 13th, I went through all the feelings, all the grief, all the questions (Did I do enough? Could I have done more? Is there any hope?) all over again.
This time, my second time around, I was more at peace with it. For many reasons. Mostly because of conversations with multiple people the day before: they asked me to think about whether or not I wanted to risk Lizzie suffering to the point of having to put her to sleep in an emergency situation, or worse…not making it in time… and watching her suffer at home.
Those conversations made it easier, though not easy…there is nothing easy, at all, about letting go of your dog – in my case, Lizzie was my whole world, especially the past year, along with her mate, Reggie, my 13-year old French Bulldog/pug mix.
There were other reasons, owing to the fact that Hope Animal Medical Center, and everyone there, feel more like family, or at least, close friends.
I was traumatized by how callously I was treated at the emergency hospital in San Diego in 2011. I was there for over 8 hours, that day, grappling with the excruciating war of words, and head-butting disagreements, I was thrown into with a doctor who was fired a week later…such that, to this day, I still doubt whether or not I made the right decision that day to let Toby go.
Dr. Fincham would not even let me call Toby’s internist, Dr. Ford, who happened to be the director of the hospital, mind you. Would not let me talk to her, i.e. would not dial her cell phone number and put me on the phone. Much less get on the phone herself to talk to Dr. Ford about Toby’s condition.
I can’t tell you how much of a burden it is to carry the weight of that doubt: Could I have saved Toby if I’d insisted on admitting him into the hospital instead of taking him home? But, at least I decided to wait one more night, and…at least…the vet hospital arranged the appointment for Dr. Vollaire to come to my apartment to put him to sleep early Sunday morning.
Dr. Stoppe, and Anna and Leah, treated me with such compassion yesterday. They were kind, they were patient. They let me and Reggie and Audie have 2 hours with her, before saying goodbye, and then let us stay another 35 minutes or so, until they had to lock up, sparing me that walk, that walk I feared, through the lobby of rubberneckers, staring, watching me sob, as I slinked through the room, and out the door, into the new normal of life without my beloved dog.
When we left at ~1:20 pm, only the staff were there. I was spared my dreaded, worst fear – I am so grateful for that.
I brought Reggie with me because I had read that with a bonded pair, like Reggie and Lizzie were, it makes a difference if the surviving dog is present when his or her mate passes away. And, that they know the dog is gone if they can smell the dog after the dog has died. It sounds morbid, I’m sure, but I can attest to the fact that allowing Reggie to do that, has helped him to understand that Lizzie is not coming back.
I did not do that with Toby, and Reggie searched for him for a week – even though they were not a bonded pair, Reggie missed him. Reggie grieved for him.
There is that moment, once the doctor tells you, “I’m giving her the injection now,” that you want to scream out and shout, “No! Stop!” But you don’t do it. You brace yourself, and hold your breath, and pet her head, and talk to her, and tell her you love her – and she knows you are there with her at the end.
I told Lizzie all these things, and that she would see Toby soon across the Rainbow Bridge – I knew Toby would be waiting for her. I believe that there truly is a Rainbow Bridge. I need to believe it’s a true legend, so I do.
But when her labored breathing suddenly stopped, and she was still, the tears I’d held back for hours, for days, came without inhibition.
“Is she gone?” I asked amid my sobs.
Dr. Stoppe put the stethoscope to Lizzie’s abdomen and softly replied, “Yes, she’s gone.”
There is a numbness, a strange void, where emotion cannot live, in the first moments after saying goodbye. There is also a peace, knowing Lizzie is not suffering any more pain, and that she left this world surrounded by everyone she loved: Reggie, Audie, and me…and by compassionate professionals who made sure she was safe, and felt no pain.
But, driving down Atlanta Highway, by myself, with Reggie in the front seat, the numbness, and the peace, changed…into a fog, a sense of confusion, a feeling that I was lost, and had no idea where I was going.
I drove around for a while, and I ended up in a Chik-Fil-A drive thru. I suddenly noticed I felt light-headed. My stomach was rumbling, but I felt no hunger. I hadn’t eaten all day, and my stomach clearly wanted me to know that. But I honestly couldn’t feel it – the brain is so mysterious in the throes of new grief.
The only significance to where I ended up is that in the almost 7 years I’ve lived here, I have never, ever eaten at Chik-Fil-A because I disagree with their owner’s religious and political beliefs, to the point I have boycotted them – economically – as a sign of my protest.
Yesterday, I didn’t care. That was the extent of my brokenness and disassociation from all I’d just experienced.
At 3 pm, I was scheduled to read my story, “Mistaken Identity,” at Normal Books, as part of a 6-part progressive story I’d written with my 5 writing colleagues. I was very proud of my story, and had been looking forward to reading it aloud in front of an audience for a few weeks.
Each of my writing friends had already texted or emailed me, “Don’t worry. If you can’t make it, we understand. We can print out your story and one of us can read it aloud for you.”
I didn’t even consider it. I was determined to keep going, to push forward, as planned.
When I returned home to drop off Reggie before rushing off to Normal Books…it all hit me – and the fog left, the safety of the numbness left – the pain filled me up from the bottom of my feet, up my legs, into my gut, the center of my chest, and it loitered there, refusing to leave. It grabbed onto my heart muscle, my diaphragm, so tightly, I struggled to breathe. It was suffocating.
Everything was there waiting for me: Lizzie’s beanbag, her crate, her dog bed, her favorite blue Nyla bone chew toy, her dog food, her food bowl, her pills, her eye medications, the spot at the open doorway between the dining room and kitchen where she loved to sit, for hours…the empty stroller she loved to ride in, as I took her on walks, and out and about in Athens, everywhere I could take her with me, for the past month.
And, also waiting there for us, was the undeniable quiet. The silence.
It was deafening. Like a tomb.
Only then, with Lizzie gone forever, did I realize how much space in the house my little 15-pound dog had filled. All 2,024 square feet of the house felt like the void at the center of a black hole.
Suddenly, it also hit me, like a gut punch, that when Audie and I were living in San Diego, there were 3.
Once, there were 3 dogs: Lizzie, Reggie, and Toby.
We had a professional photographer take beautiful photographs of our family of 5 in a photo shoot at the famous landmark: Balboa Park, in July 2011.
They were the last pictures taken of us all together as a family before Toby died later that summer.
Late last night, I opened up the file and looked at the photographs of Audie, Lizzie, Reggie, Toby, and me, sitting side by side on the grass on that overcast day.
And it hit me even harder: only 2 of us were left in the house, in our family, now…
And out of our 3 beloved dogs, only one was left…Reggie.
Today, Sunday, October 14th, when I woke up, I remembered, right away, that Lizzie was gone. The bedroom was a mess, the bathroom was the same…Lizzie’s uneaten food was still in her stainless steel bowl from yesterday morning when I tried to get her to eat, but she wouldn’t, for the first time…she wouldn’t eat (that’s the sign we look for above all else when we are not sure what to do). Pill bottles were strewn on the counter. Dirty dishes of mine were left untouched (If you know me, you know that is my biggest pet peeve). It seemed like the whole house was in disarray.
I do know that Reggie and I will eventually learn to live in our new normal, but for now, neither of us seems to want to stay in the house.
Reggie went straight to the red couch in the den after he ate this morning, to the place where he likes to sit now, in his daddy’s favorite spot. I called out and asked him if he wanted to go “bye bye car.” At first, he did not come, but the third time I asked, he jumped off the couch and trotted toward me, waiting for him, with his leash in my hands.
We are hanging out at Jittery Joe’s in Five Points today, where we can escape from the reminders, from the empty space, for a little while. But, we know that we can’t really hide from it – we can take breaks from the heaviness of our loss, but the only way out of the pain, is through it…
This blog post is dedicated to Lizzie “Lizzie Bear” Roberts, to Toby, to Reggie, to Dr. Jeni, Dr. Stoppe, Dr. Clifton, Leah, Anna, Katie, Tristan, Katherine, Jaritza, Terry, Morgan…I’m sure I’m forgetting someone at Hope…and to Dr. Sara Ford, who took such good care of Toby, and gave me 2 years and 10 more months with him in San Diego.
And…to Audie Roberts…if it weren’t for Audie…Lizzie, and Reggie, would never have been a part of my life.
Lizzie was the joy of my life every day. She taught me about the will to live in a way no living being ever has, and maybe never will again.
She was not just a great dog.
She was the perfect dog.
I love you, forever, and I will never forget you, Lizzie Bear.