The Love You Can Afford: 15 Observations for when Your Dog Must Sleep Forever

(Note: This was originally written in May of 2012, but people frequently request it so I’m putting it here for easy access. Dedicated to Bouncer, the best Boston Terrier ever.)

The backseat windows of all the cars at the vet’s office are glazed with the dust of paw prints and dry saliva. I’m a man. I should rejoice at not having to clean the inside of my backseat windows again. I do not. This makes me more man than I thought.

Bouncer’s condition is ultimately unknown. We were given the best possible guess based on his symptoms, and received them from a fine neurologist and a couple of vets. We have no reason to doubt their estimations of Bouncer’s condition or the likely end result of that determination. We simply could not afford the testing it would take to be 100% sure of what the problem was. All we knew for sure was that he was dying.

The part that you agonize over at that stage is not having the means to finance an answer. It cost $800 just to keep him overnight to get initial tests. MRIs and more would have cost thousands, and even in the best circumstance (which was not Bouncer’s circumstance due to his breed and condition) he might have been able to live another year or two. Maybe. Yet on the regimen that we could actually afford – prescriptions and such – we were looking at a couple of months. Maybe.

My dog filled my house every day with unconditional love for eight years and all I could give him now was the care I could afford, not the care he deserved. At the same time, the only thing keeping me from ripping out my chest with guilt is knowing that no matter how much money I had I could not have significantly extended his life anyway. So the love we showered him with the last few days was the care he deserved considering the outcome.

So there is that.

One of my supervisors hugs me the day before the decision has to be made. She’s lost a dog, so she knows the deal. I like her very much anyway, but this act genuinely endeared her to me. Now I will feel obligated to check my personal email 50% less for at least a week.

God, it’s fast.

One syringe and in seconds you have your dog back, though quiet and still, like any other time he slept on you or nuzzled into a nest of blankets. Another syringe – administered so fast you don’t even know the change has happened – and in a minute or so you have to be told his heart has stopped beating.

Bouncer just kept looking, eyes open, until the end. All the way to eternity.

I spun the dial on my iPod – my generous and massive iPod, my 80 Gigs of Doom iPod, the manifestation of Scott’s Groove Locker wrought small, the oracle for every mood and situation – and found myself at a loss. Eventually I settled on the catalogue of Tom Waits. If anybody could know what to say when your dog has to go, it’s Tom Waits. Or maybe he’s speaking on behalf of the dog, in which case I have to tell you Tom Waits remains a sterling avatar (though my dog’s voice sounds nothing like that).

I’ve coughed a lot – a niggling, fake allergy type cough – to keep my eyes from welling up in mixed company. Sometimes I’ve done this in the past to hide a growling stomach. Today I’m doing it to hide a growling heart.

The only thing worse than watching your beloved pet slip into terminal illness is to watch your family respond to it. These twenty-one words are the only ones I could come up with about that.

I should not have come to work afterwards. The people who know make me want to cry and the people who don’t I want to eviscerate. “Don’t you realize what I’m dealing with?” I want to shout, but I can’t because no amount of grief makes it right to verbally dismantle someone who didn’t even know the deal, and I like being right too much. Besides, people don’t walk around expecting that every stranger they might meet is grieving. They assume that everyone else is fine, that they at least got out of bed and prepared in some way to meet the world that day. You don’t feel them out to see how sensitive or morose they are before you make a joke. Statistically speaking, a joke is a perfect way to start a conversation with someone you don’t know, or someone you haven’t seen in a week who doesn’t know you just watched life leave a thing that morning.

So there’ll be no eviscerating today.

The deal is this: You get a pet, you become the steward for that pet. You have to take care of it and feed it and bathe it and play with it and teach it and otherwise develop a relationship with it. In exchange, if you have done this with care and wisdom, you will be rewarded with kisses anytime you want them and warmth anytime you need it. Done right, you are not caring for a pet per se…you are creating a companion. And that companion will be nothing but love and play and funny faces until your arms get tired from hugging and rubbing and throwing things. Unless it’s a cat. Then you’ve got a fifty/fifty shot at love or indifference.

Of course the backswing of the pet pendulum demands that at some point you recognize that you will more than likely outlive your pet, that they operate on a completely different biological time table than we do. It is the reason why, when asked if there might be side effects to radiation treatment for lesions or tumors on a dog’s brain, the response from a storied veterinarian will be “no, but that’s because the payout of their life after treatment isn’t as long as ours so we treat it less aggressively. Most times they seem pretty okay until one day, they aren’t again.”

That sounds like the worst deal ever. When you put it that way, it sounds almost like you’re raising a rechargeable battery. But that’s when the person you ARE comes into play. You have to ask yourself – knowing that there will come a day when your love battery burns out – will I be able to balance the good times with the inevitable bad ones at the end? Will I give and receive so many moments of love and affection that it will make the burden of watching my companion waste away worth the journey? Know that about yourself first because pets are all about the journey. Know what you can afford in this affair. The taking is easy, but love like that always comes at a cost.

Know how much love you can afford.

Question: Is there a magic number of pictures you can take of a beloved pet that will ensure that you’ve captured all of them in their glory, joy and complete animal abandon, that taken collectively would convey the sum total of your pet’s personality and being?

Answer: No.

When they say, “A dog is a man’s best friend,” what they mean is, “Nothing will love you more consistently than a dog.” As clichés go, it’s longer, but it’s equally true.

A part of me thinks about how this must look, all this emoting over a dog. A day doesn’t pass when a person isn’t killed, or many people, and not slow or with care. There is likely someone reading this that is thinking, “Dude didn’t write this much when Trayvon Martin was killed” or “What’s he going to write when one of his family members dies?”

PETA has this much right: A dog isn’t an accessory. Anything you let live in your house that comforts you, that you must take care of, that brings a smile a day to your life is worth grieving. Trayvon Martin never kissed my face when I was lonely or made my house feel safe or grimaced when we put funny costumes on him for Halloween. Though his death saddened me, I did not know Trayvon Martin.

As far as what I’d write when a member of my family dies, you’re reading it.

The Boston Terrier is also known as the “American Gentleman” due to the tuxedo-like display of hair: a little suit, maybe a little tie, usually some type of spats about the ankles. And their demeanor: they are largely a quiet dog, playful but mannered, obedient and loving above normal dog levels. It’s the perfect dog for a man prone to surprise Frasier marathons on the couch.

Bouncer was not a loud or large dog. He did not bark at every sound and being a Boston Terrier, he did not take up much space or make much noise when he moved about the house. Just the same, I note immediately upon returning from his final visit to the vet that there was no rumbling from another room at the turn of the key in the lock, no toenails tapping across the kitchen floor to greet me. There is no errant bone that was not where it was before, no displaced rubber ball. There is only refrigerator hum and the swish of the ceiling fan in the next room, and the silence of a foot-tall void of anticipation, a doorman that never got tired of greeting you, no matter how many times you walked in and out of the kitchen door, who has apparently called off that day, and word in the building is that he won’t be back tomorrow either. It’s too bad. I rather liked that doorman’s tuxedo.

Eight years is a long time to express one’s love selflessly and constantly without fail every day. No human being does that, no matter what their songs or letters or poems say. At some point you just need some alone time, perhaps to go write a song or a letter or a poem about all the other time you spend being irrepressibly in love.

But not a dog. A dog just wakes up ready to love, waits all day carbing up the love it will express when you get home, then spends as much time as you are willing to allow it showing that love until one of you gives. It isn’t love like we know love, with its conditions and its pride and its know-it-all brain. It is an inhuman love. I imagine, given enough time in front of a typewriter, my dog could have written a better poem about it than I. Alas, I spent all of our time together letting him love me, so I‘ll never know.


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