A Letter to You, My Dog, on the Day I Had to Put You to Sleep
Editor's Note: Julie Wright is a writer and photographer who lives in Tampa with her goofy Collie-Lab mix, Logan. She keeps a blog here and posts photographs on Flickr. This story first ran on Julie's blog, but we're rerunning it with her permission because it broke our hearts. You may want to grab a tissue.
When the doctor called and explained the bad news, he had one question for me. There was one decision I needed to make about you. For us.
“Should we wake her up?” Because, he said, you would never walk again.
I want to shout at someone, or at something. I am angry -- not at you, never at you, but because this should not have happened to you; because you shouldn’t be gone. It’s too soon. It’s all wrong. It’s wrong and it will never be right, never again.
I remember rubbing your neck where the pain was, and I told you: if I could take the pain out of your body and feel it myself, I would. I suppose I have, because whatever or wherever you are now, you’re not hurting, and I am nothing but pain.
It’s so strange that the tumor hid in your spinal cord. If the tumor had been in any other part of your body, I would have found it. I knew your body better than my own: I knew how many spots were on your skin underneath the white fur on your chest. I knew where the scars were on your belly from that mysterious puncture wound. I knew exactly how your snub face fit against mine when I kissed your forehead. I knew all of this because that was my job, that was one of my parts of our partnership, to take care of you.
I don’t know if I made the right decision, but I didn’t want our last memories of each other to be you watching me watching you as they wheeled you away into the back. I think you knew it was the end. I didn’t.
When I sat down in that kennel with you and I called your name, you glanced up at me. You still knew me, I think; you knew enough to respond to me. I don’t know if that makes things better or worse.
You were breathing heavily. You had a catheter in you, and an IV in your right foreleg; you were covered with a ballooning hot-air blanket to keep you warm. You had a shaved square on your lower back. I had to look under the hot blanket to see these things; I had to reach down into darkness to pet your side, your belly, your back. Your tongue, which usually hung out of the left side of your mouth, hung out the right instead. There were no kisses.
It feels like there’s an empty space inside me, like I left a piece of myself on the floor of that kennel with your body. I hope you kept it with you, wherever you’ve gone. It’s yours. That part of me is for you. It is you.
You weren’t my first dog, but you were my first puppy, and my first purebred dog; my first pup chosen from a litter. My first Boxer. I’d always wanted one, and what I got was better than I ever could have imagined. You were the first dog who was entirely mine.
I sat down on the floor of that kennel with you and I pulled your unresisting head onto my leg. That’s what you always did, you’d press your head on my leg for comfort. That gesture was uniquely yours, and I wanted it one last time, the weight of your head on my leg. It was the last time you’d slobber on me, and I knew it, and I regretted every time I’d told you not to.
I had to tell them to do it, to kill you. They didn’t put it that way, of course; there are words like euthanasia and putting to sleep to make it sound easier, to make it sound humane. To make it sound like a good thing. Maybe it is, or was, for you. But the truth is that you were alive and would have stayed alive, a hurting, motionless life, until I told them to do it. I didn’t give you the shot, but I told them to kill you. I can only take comfort in the knowledge that I did everything else that possibly could be done to keep from having to do that to you.
I counted it up, the last week of your life. If you count the halves of pills individually, I was cramming 17 objects down your throat every day. You never nipped or bit, never even chanced it, because I’d taught you how to be careful with your teeth. I could pop your undershot jaw open with one hand, then tip the pills past your tongue and into your throat. I wrote it all down, the meds and times, so I wouldn’t forget. I wrote them all down every day for two months.
I’m not quite sure what to do with myself now that you don’t need me anymore.
I don’t remember what the last night was that I slept with you pressed against my leg, shoving me for space as always. I wish I knew; I don’t wish I knew. I remember you waking me up, so many times: As soon as I made a sound, as soon as my breathing changed, you knew I was awake and there was no time to lose, because there was an Outside outside, and territorial peeing to do, and squirrels to chase, and food to eat. You’d roll onto me, with your noisy snorting face in my face, or pressed into my ear, madly licking my neck or my eyes or my hair, until I got up. You always were a dog of happy motion. “Incoming!” I’d shout.
For the last week, when you couldn’t walk, when you could barely lift your head, I would feed you in handfuls, one at a time until you ate it all. I would lift you and brace you against me so that you could drink from the bowl. I would press your bladder to get you to urinate, catching it in a plastic coffee tin. I’d change out the pee-pads under you, and collect the feces you tried not to leave, and swab you with baby wipes. Every time you were cleaned up you looked like you felt better, and I’d pet you and talk to you, sing sometimes, encourage you.
I don’t regret missing the meetings and appointments I canceled; the people and things I didn’t see. You had been there every time I needed you for your whole life, and I could do no less than to be there when you needed me.
They kept asking if I was ready yet. They told me to take as long as I needed. What they were asking was if I was ready for them to kill you. I kept saying no. I needed much more time. I needed years. You were only eight years old.
When I finally told them to go ahead, to do it, to kill you, I wasn’t ready for it. It was clear that I never would be ready, but you were. You looked up at me when I called your name, your eyes met mine. I pressed my face against yours and told the vet to go ahead. I didn’t want to see the needles empty. I didn’t want to anticipate the stilling of your body. I wanted to share the suddenness with you.
“She can still hear you,” said the woman who brought me water and tissues, who told me to take as much time as I needed. “Keep talking to her, she can still hear you.” I did, until you were gone.
After it was done, and the vet apologized and left, I stayed and kept petting you, because I knew I never would again, and my hands feared the emptiness that was coming.
The tech got a piece of clay, and we pressed your lifeless paw into it so that I would have your pawprint. I asked for the right paw, because the left was the first sign of trouble, when it knuckled while you walked. I didn’t want to remember you by that paw.
People keep telling me, as though to comfort me, that now you’re not in pain anymore. Of course not, because now you’re dead. It must have been so bad, the pain you felt from that monstrous tumor inside the swollen cord of nerves in your spine, because you were such a stoic dog. It must have been so very bad to leave you incapable of walking, of lifting your head.
I told them to do it, and now there is no more pain for you, and so much pain for me. So I kept my word, I suppose; I took the pain from your body into what is left of my self, whatever that is without the pieces that were you.
I’m so sorry, Riley. I love you. Come back someday. I love you. I’m sorry. I love you.
Riley's Dogster profile can be found here.