On the last day of Reggie Roberts’s life, Friday, February 1, 2019, the sun was shining and the temperature was warm. When I woke up, he was sleeping in Lizzie’s dog bed, snuggled in the blankets, breathing air in and out, as he had every other day of his life with us, living in the moment, without worry, without fear – except, this morning, would be the last time. I’m glad he didn’t know…I’m glad that as he rested in the bed where his beloved Lizzie used to sleep, peaceful and fearless, he didn’t know that it would be for the last time.
I sat by the bed and watched him for several minutes – I did not disturb him as I went through my daily morning cleanup of the bathroom floor – but he stirred and woke up on his own and resettled on top of the plastic trash bags protecting the carpet, as he did every morning, with his head between his paws, watching me with that guilty look in his eyes. I wish he did not feel guilty – he had nothing to feel guilty about – it wasn’t his fault.
It was cancer.
If there is any fault, it is the fault of the cancer. But that doesn’t make anyone feel better, nor does it bring him back.
Downstairs, as I did every other morning, even though it wouldn’t matter now, I gave Reggie his medications and his canned food – he ate it the same as he did every day. And that killed me – he was still eating, he still looked at me the same way he did on any other day, he walked like any other day, wagged his tail when I put on his brown coat and his harness, ready to get into the car and drive wherever I would take him.
He was alive, and I was making the decision to end his life.
I don’t know how, or why, I’ve had to do this twice in the past few months, once for Lizzie in October, and once for Reggie at the end of last month, but I know, I’m not alone. My next-door neighbor, Pennie, has become a good friend in the past year, but even before we got to know each other better, we talked about our dogs all the time. I remember she told me the painful story of losing her rescue boxers all in one year many years ago, and recently, in the spring and summer of 2017, she lost two of her three dogs, Suzie and Daisy. She told me the story of losing one of her dogs at home, without warning, in detail, and it pained me to hear about what they went through. I have a friend I met through dog rescue circles in San Diego, named Lorri, and a few years ago she lost two of her beagles and one of her other rescue cats all in one year, just a few months apart.
This happens all the time. And yet like anything else in life, that happens to a lot of people, if not to everyone, until it happens to you, there is no way to know exactly how hard it is.
Even though I treated that Friday morning like any other day in front of Reggie, nothing around me looked the same – not the house, not the car, not the road in front of me, or the familiar buildings we drove by – every car around us seemed unreal. Walking into Jittery Joe’s felt like an out-of-body experience with Reggie in the stroller, looking around him. Every time someone looked at him in the stroller and smiled, I felt a deep ache in my chest, literally. When I ordered a latte, and asked for water for Reggie, I tried not to think about how he would not be back – I did not want to waste a single minute thinking about how many hours I had left with him before 1:30 pm.
It was about 9 am.
There was a man, maybe my age, with glasses on the end of his nose, short dark hair, wearing casual sports clothes sitting by the window across from the long glass table where I sat down and parked Reggie’s stroller next to me. I pulled it as close to me as possible. When I looked toward the window, the man looked as if he recognized us, but when he smiled and then returned his attention back to his laptop, I realized I was probably imagining that because I had gotten so used to people admiring Reggie, I usually never thought about whether or not I knew people or if they were simply other regular customers.
But today felt so different, like I had to take in every little detail with such attention and care. It all seemed much more important to not forget.
I leaned my head down on Reggie’s head and pet him and kissed him. I hope no one saw that tears started to fall, but I had to stop, I had to for Reggie. I did. I had brought my laptop but I didn’t feel like I could write. I lifted him up out of the stroller and put him in my lap and just held him, hugged him, kissed him, breathed in his scent, rubbed my cheek against his fur, and slowly rocked him back and forth. I may have even hummed the lullaby I hummed for Toby, and for Lizzie, the night before I put them to sleep, in 2011 and 2018, respectively. My voice was so hoarse from crying for so many days, so many months, I could not hear much of anything coming out of my throat. After a long while, with Reggie still in my lap, I opened the laptop. Somehow I found the strength to write…for Reggie.
Before I knew it, two hours went by. It’s all a blur now, but eventually I realized that I’d been sitting there with Reggie in my lap, sipping my latte, for a long time. With a heavy heart, I lifted him from my lap and returned him to the stroller and wheeled him out of Epps Bridge Jittery Joes for the last time.
From there, I drove Reggie to Bishop Park, where Audie and I used to walk both dogs often on days like this. I didn’t leave him in the stroller. I lifted him out and let him walk on the path for as long as he could manage, at his own pace. I took video of him walking, as I had many times in the past month on our trips to state parks. I knew from experience how much it would mean to me over the years to be able to watch him – alive and moving.
He took his time, sometimes trotting, sometimes walking slowly. He marked a lot, he pooped a lot. He stopped to smell trees and leaves and grass. Sometimes he sat, upright, to pause and rest. We did two loops around the park before he started breathing more heavily and I decided he’d had enough on his own – I wanted him to have energy for the next two hours, before the vet came to the house.
For the third and last loop, I returned him to the stroller and he lay down as we walked the path of Bishop Park for the last time.
It was ten after 12, less than 2 hours until we had to be back home to wait for Dr. Stoppe.
Time for Reggie’s last meal.
I’d been pondering all morning where to take him. Neither Toby nor Lizzie got to have a last meal, not the kind I wanted Reggie to have, the kind they all tell you to give your dog – ice cream, pizza, hot dogs, hamburgers, French fries…”the kitchen sink.” With Toby, I tried, but he was so weak, he could barely move, much less eat. With Lizzie, there was no time to think. She did not want to eat anything on the morning of October 13, 2018 and left the salmon and tuna in her food bowl untouched as I raced to get her to Hope as fast as I could to end her suffering.
With Reggie, he was calm, and there was time, not much, but this was my last chance to give one of my dogs that gift of a “last supper” so to speak.
When I thought about it, I realized that Reggie deserved the best, and the best was my favorite place in Athens – the Heirloom Cafe. No fast food, Five Guys Burger was not good enough for Reggie – he deserved grass-fed beef, the good stuff.
There were only a few other customers inside when I told the hostess I had Reggie with me in the stroller. We had the patio to ourselves. Henry, one of my favorite people, was working the lunch shift but he was not our server. John, who is a very nice person, works the bar on weekdays, I believe, I never have seen him there on a weekend in all the years I was a brunch customer. He had never met Reggie, and I didn’t tell him what was going on, just that we only had about 45 minutes and so he took our order right away – a grass fed burger with fries for Reggie – no toppings and the same for me without the bun and the cheese.
I took Reggie out of the stroller and placed him in my lap again, wanting to hold him for every single minute possible in this last hour and a half of his life. Before the food came, we had a surprise visitor – my friend, Mary, whom I met at the Heirloom brunch bar a couple of years ago, exited the cafe with a work friend. She came over to hug me and I did tell her that I was putting Reggie to sleep. She hugged me tighter. Mary is a dog and cat lover and a pet sitter – I didn’t need to explain to her how I was feeling.
I asked Mary to take a photo of Reggie and me at the table, she took several, and when our food came she watched as Reggie gobbled up a few bites of hamburger and about 8 French fries. It made me so happy to see him eating and enjoying the people food.
After Mary left, Reggie had more trouble eating, meaning he didn’t eat anything. I kept trying to feed him smaller bits of French fries and smaller pieces of the burger but he turned his head away, or sniffed the pieces and refused the food. I suppose the rich, heavy food hurt his stomach – it’s not as if the colon cancer or the massive, ulcerated tumor cared that he deserved to enjoy this kind of treat that would be his last. Eventually I stopped trying, and just picked at my own food. I didn’t have much of an appetite, either. As 1:00 approached, I asked John for a check and a box for all the leftovers and headed home.
When we got there, Audie’s car was parked on the street (I was confused as to why he didn’t park in the driveway, but no matter). He was sitting in the driver’s seat texting or doing something on his phone when I pulled into the garage, head-in (I usually back in, I didn’t bother to worry about it that day). Dr. Stoppe wasn’t there yet, and I told Audie I wanted to take Reggie on a last walk around his neighborhood. He agreed and I let him take the leash. Audie commented on how weak Reggie looked, which he had told me he’d noticed the day before when he was walking him during some of the visits I’d granted him with Reggie in the last several weeks before he died.
Reggie didn’t make it very far, and we walked at a snail’s pace. I couldn’t help but think about all the walks over the years when I could barely keep up with Reggie, as he pulled Lizzie behind, with the dog leashes that Audie tied together into one to keep the two of them together – Reggie pulling Lizzie along so she didn’t fall behind.
And now we were awkwardly, almost silently, taking Reggie on his very last walk, and with that ending the era of our life with our dogs, altogether.
When we saw the car driving down the street, I said to Audie, “that must be Dr. Stoppe.”
It was, the car pulled up the driveway, and Dr. Stoppe and Tristan, one of the head vet techs, exited the Subaru and flipped the trunk, removing the supplies they needed for the euthanasia.
I apologized for the mess and the odor when they entered the house. I showed them upstairs to my sitting room, where Toby’s dog bed waited for Reggie to say goodbye as he did at home, on the same bed, back in 2011. It was serendipity, in a sad way, that my first dog, and my last dog, would go to sleep in the same way, and in the same place, albeit in a different home.
I had hoped Reggie would feel more comfortable at home, and he was, but he recognized Dr. Stoppe and Tristan and was very aware something was going on that affected him, and he began to shake. It was very hard, but I knew it would have been worse at the clinic. At least here he was home, and Audie and I were there with him.
Dr. Stoppe had brought the clay to make paw prints for Reggie and we watched as a nervous Reggie allowed Tristan to press his paw in each circle of clay, one paw print for each of us. What was touching was that they’d already carved his name, “Reggie,” into the clay before they came.
We pet Reggie, while Dr. Stoppe prepped him for the procedure, though he panted and shook, and it was heartbreaking, but the worst part, and the best part, for me, was watching as Reggie walked over to Audie, his original human, and cuddled up next to him for protection. Reggie looked over at me, and at the vets, and back at me, as he huddled in Audie’s arms, and I knew, no matter what happened, or had happened, I did the right thing by bringing Audie home to be with Reggie when it was time to say goodbye. I knew it would be what Reggie needed, and what Reggie deserved, and I was right. I could not bear the thought of Reggie not saying goodbye to his daddy, and I knew that if our roles were reversed, I’d want to be with my dog when he died.
As I have often said, years from now, all that will matter to me is that I behaved in a way where I will look myself in the mirror, and know that when Reggie, and Lizzie, died, I did what was right.
For some reason, I felt much more stoic, or more resigned, or stronger, or more something this time. With Lizzie, I cried as I said goodbye, but this time, I did not. Neither did Audie. It happened much more quickly, there was less time, because Dr. Stoppe and Tristan had to return to the clinic. The whole process of sedating Reggie, which made him sleep, with his eyes open, happened quickly, although it was difficult to get the catheter in originally, which was why it was hard to see him so scared and aware – Dr. Stoppe assured us he’d be okay, once he was sedated, everything would be fine.
She was right, his breathing calmed down and he rested, although it was unnerving to see his eyes open as he slept. Lizzie’s and Toby’s eyes had been closed.
“Are you ready?” she asked us. I didn’t look at Audie but we both nodded and said, “Yes.”
I can’t speak for Audie, but I was never going to be ready, it was just that I knew there was no other choice but to resign to be ready to let Reggie go.
As Dr. Stoppe gave him the drug, Audie being the scientist asked them what drug they were giving him. It started with a “B,” I think, or a “P.” I don’t remember the name).
“It’s okay, Reggie. You’re going to see Lizzie and Toby soon. It’s okay, Reggie.” I pet him and reassured him as she administered the drug.
I knew when he was gone, even before she put the stethoscope to his chest and eerily, the same way she did for Lizzie on October 13th, said aloud, “He’s gone.”
His eyes had gone glassy, his chest had stopped moving, before I heard the words.
Last time, I cried with my head on Lizzie’s. This time, no tears came. The numbness came immediately. And suddenly I was thinking to myself it would be okay, that he was with Lizzie and Toby, and at peace, and I kissed him, and all I could say was, “He feels so warm.”
“It takes a while,” the doctor told me (meaning for the body temperature to change).
Audie kept saying to me we’d done the right thing in a very matter-of-fact way. It was strange. It was not that I didn’t know that, and yet, I think he needed to hear himself say it aloud. We all grieve in our own way. He seemed calmer than he did last time, too, and we only had a few minutes before Dr. Stoppe asked us again, “Are you ready for me to take him?”
I didn’t fight it, and I reminded her Loran Myers from Memory Garden would be picking him up at the vet later to take him for the after-death procedures. I told Dr. Stoppe I wanted to be able to pick out an urn this time (with Lizzie we did not get to do that, though the wooden box is very pretty).
Tristan wrapped Reggie’s behind in a giant gauze pad and put him in Dr. Stoppe’s arms – two-handed, they carried him downstairs and Audie and I followed. We watched them put Reggie’s still body in the trunk of the car, and the last thing the doctor said to me was to let them know if I needed anything.
Audie turned to me again to tell me that I had done the right thing, that Reggie was suffering, or that we couldn’t let him suffer, same difference. Audie did not hug me, he did not offer to stay and talk, he just said he had a faculty meeting and then a retirement party that night.
“Take care of yourself,” he said flatly as he walked down the driveway to his car.
I watched his car pull away and drive down the street, to the stop sign, right turn signal on, and then he turned right, and was gone.
I stood, standing there, for a long time, staring at the street. I couldn’t even move. My body had gone into shock, or my brain, or both. I didn’t cry. I felt as if I was in a dream, watching myself stand there. I heard the sounds of cars, the sounds of my next-door neighbor’s daughter, S.J. and her friend talking in their driveway, the sounds of Doug, across the street, getting in and out of his car, and opening and closing the garage door.
Eventually, maybe half an hour later, my feet hurt, and my legs were hurting so I sat down, right there in the driveway, not talking, not crying, not even thinking. I just sat, the rest of the day, with the sun on my face and the wind blowing now and then, and did not move, except to reposition myself from the pain of sitting on concrete, but I could almost not feel that, either. Eventually my neighbor, Pennie, pulled up into her driveway in her white car, into her garage, but she did not come over. I knew she knew I needed to be alone.
As it grew later, I could tell it would be dark within an hour or so. I stood up and stared at the sliding glass door and I realized why I probably had stayed in the driveway so long:
I did not want to walk back into that house. I’d be alone, without Reggie, without Lizzie, without Audie, without anyone.
I did not want to walk inside – I’d known for weeks every time I pulled up the driveway and saw Reggie waiting for me on the other side of the glass that this day would come, and I’d be dreading it, and now it was here. I wasn’t ready, I’d never be ready, so I stayed, in shock, avoiding it, for as long as I could, until I couldn’t anymore. My body hurt too much from the concrete – everywhere – and it was never going to get easier. The dogs, Lizzie and Reggie, filled that house up, still, in every way that mattered, except they were not there, and never would be.
And then, there were none.
Two weeks have passed, and Audie and I have each ordered our urns and paw prints from Mr. Myers. We have not received them yet, and unlike the day we ordered my gravestone and golden cast paw print for Toby, along with a digitized version in a silver charm, Audie and I will be going alone, separately, to pick up our respective urns and paw prints.
When Lizzie died, it took many weeks for me to touch her things, and for some reason, this time, I needed to collect Reggie’s things immediately to donate to Hope. The day after he died, that Saturday, February 2nd, I spent most of the day doing that, and then robotically cleaning all the surfaces of the house in shifts, of one hour at a time, since it hurt my body too much to do it all at once. When I went to bed that night, my body hurt all over from exerting more physical activity than I’m supposed to, but I didn’t care.
It was better than the emotional pain I felt. The grief hit me so quickly, so hard – and I needed to push it away, push it down, quickly.
On Valentine’s Day, I hired Certified Clean Care to take care of the caked on and hardened feces and blood left behind from Reggie’s cancer, along with the years of buildup of dirt and red clay and urine and feces accidents that had occurred when one, or both of us, didn’t get home in time to take the dogs out, or when we were on a trip and came home to find the pet sitter had not cleaned it up – which didn’t matter anymore, and didn’t matter much then. When you have rescue dogs, especially dogs with medical issues, these things happen. I knew there’d be a day, this day, to clean it all up, as if it never happened. And it worked, the floors and carpets look practically new, especially the hardwood floors and all the kitchen and bathroom tiles. The carpets look fairly new, and the air is clean to breathe.
I would have done it anyway, myself, because I promised Audie I would, and I always keep my word, but it also felt like a gift to myself, when it was done, for all the months and months of taking care of both Reggie and Lizzie at the end of their respective lives. I felt I had earned this fresh start, with fresh carpet, fresh floors, fresh air and a clearer mind. Or as close to that as possible.
A few days earlier, I had finally decided it was time to clean the bedding – my blankets and sheets that Reggie had soiled in the last few days of his life when he’d been on the bed with me. For some reason, this was hard – you’d think it would be the first thing I’d want to clean, even before the floors and the carpets, but for whatever reason, it was the hardest thing to let go of – I couldn’t smell anything anyway, but visually, you would think I wouldn’t want to see it – the spots and stains the tumor left behind. Or, more likely, I was just too exhausted – that’s probably it, mostly. My same friend, pet sitter Mary, had told me about a wash and fold on Prince Avenue that was willing to wash pet-related stains – a dry cleaners wouldn’t do it, she said. It took a couple of bags to fit in all the bedding – sheets and blankets and comforter. (Thankfully, there was no damage to the mattress or mattress cover. My tiny throw pillow – I just threw it away).
The lady who works at the laundry, Michelle, was incredibly empathetic and a dog lover. She told me she’d been through something like this once, too. Her kindness made a world of difference – I felt embarrassed walking in, thinking of how to explain what happened – and she took care of all that right away. When I picked up the bedding on Valentine’s Day, while the other guys were taking care of the floors, Michelle showed me the bedding and it was as if nothing had happened – there were no stains, no spots, as if the cancer – and Reggie – had never happened, either.
Many friends have sent kind messages and texts. Hope Animal Medical Center sent me a sympathy card, as they had done with Lizzie, with signatures and notes from Dr. Clifton, Dr. Jeni, Dr. Stoppe, Leah, Cheyenne and Nicole.
That was when the tears came the hardest.
It was not the first time they came. It took about 4-5 days, but one morning I woke up and Reggie’s brown coat was there, beside me, on the bed. I picked it up and cradled it, and put my nose to the material. I could still smell his scent, and then it came out, the grief, the screaming of his name, the anger, the loss, the emptiness of all the multiple losses: Audie, Toby, Lizzie, Reggie, my marriage, the life I had sacrificed everything for when I left San Diego to come to Athens, and everything in between.
And then, I got in the shower, brushed my teeth, got dressed, and it was over, for the time being. Until it happened off and on, the past two weeks, sometimes while driving, sometimes sitting in the car in the garage, sometimes in the bathtub, sometimes when I look at the photos sent by my friend, Suzanne, of Lizzie and Reggie, with their paw prints and Lizzie’s urn, waiting for Reggie’s to join it – and then I can’t stop crying. I look around the room, my favorite room in the house, the dogs’ favorite room, too, and all I see are paw prints and photographs and pictures and – nothing – nothing but memories of the most beautiful, most loving, most amazing three dogs this world has ever seen.
I know they are together, across the Rainbow Bridge, the way they used to be, since the day they came together as a family, with Audie and me, on December 22, 2009.
I believe in the poem, the legend, and I know someday, somehow, I will find my way back to them, as I cross the bridge myself. There they will be in the valley of dogs long past, and they will see me, our eyes will meet, their ears will perk up, their tails will wag, and suddenly, they will start running toward me. And pain free, like I once was, myself, long ago, I will run to meet them, and I will fall to my knees, opening my arms, as they jump into my lap, put their paws on my chest and lick my face until we stand up, together, and they follow behind me, as I walk into the valley to be with the creatures that I love most in this whole world…and always will.