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Loss Deconstructed

November 25, 2012

Last Wednesday I said goodbye to my almost thirteen year-old Pom/American Eskimo doggie named Einstein. He was old — he hated the kids, although he tolerated them, and for the past month had taken to spending the entire day out in the rain, refusing to come inside until I came home from work. He peed on every rug we owned; he had kidney and liver problems. And yet, I thought, he’s old, yes — but we have years left with this member of our family. Years.

So, on Tuesday evening when I popped him in the bath, my boys flanking my side, armed with shampoo and eagerness, I was aghast as I realized that it was not mud coating his thick fur, but blood. I ran water over his white coat and rusty red blood seeped into the bath water, turning everything a soft pink. I then noticed the blood on his mouth. He was bleeding and when I tried to see what was happening in that mouth of his, he whined at me and pulled me away. He was in pain. And I panicked. I scooped up Einstein, wet and stinky, with one hand and Isaac in the other and popped them in the car. I yelled at Elliott to find his shoes, while hunting for the diaper bag. Elliott, sensing my fear and stress, collapsed to the floor and started sobbing, “But I don’t know where I put them!” he cried looking up at me with understanding: Don’t yell at me mom. I’m scared too.

I called the veterinarian on the way. We have an appointment right now they said. Hurry. And I hurried. Elliott without shoes. Me without a diaper bag. No collar and so subsequently, no leash.

In a swaggering parenting maneuver, I had built up the doggie bath as a joyously exciting moment. “Aren’t you excited to pour the shampoo?” I squealed in my best positive-Polly-impersonation. Both boys seemed to still be reeling from the abrupt shift of it all. When we arrived, a young twenty-something receptionist looked at me — I had a dog in one arm, a baby in the other, my red sweater soaked with wet dog and blood. “Did you have an appointment?” she asked.

“I just called,” I answered in one breath while using my foot to barricade Elliott from tearing around the room. “A doggie,” he said. “A kitty! Look mom, toys for Einstein!”

Another receptionist leaned over. “I thought we’d put her in the open spot,” she whispered. Clearly this was the woman I had spoken to on the phone — who sensing my panic, accommodated me without a second-thought.

The first girl rolled her eyes. I looked at her caked on make-up, her ill-fitting scrubs. She shook her head at me. “She didn’t book you in and now we’re full. Sit and maybe we can see you.” My temper roared like an ocean between my ears. If I had available hands, I might have leaned across the desk and shook her. This girl — barely out of high school — was ignorant of my plight. Ignorant and unsympathetic. I steeled myself up, retreated to the hard benches, clutched Einstein and sat my kids beside me. We read pilfered books from the car — Goodnight Moon and Berenstain Bears Go to Camp — like a mantra.

When they finally saw me, my kids were hungry and they had depleted their good behavior reserves. Inside the exam room, they wanted to look at every brochure; Elliott played “vet” and took notes on the different animals. “This animal is sick. He has a tummy ache. This kitty needs a hug.”

But I just looked at Einstein. His dark eyes pleading with me — he was afraid. I put my hand out and he feebly licked it. I could not be a good mom to everyone in that moment. When the vet arrived and gave me the grim news, I could not process. Elliott was flailing on the floor, angry that I was not allowing him any more brochures. Isaac was hungry and kept asking for milk and crackers. He screamed and hit me, giant tears streaming down his face.

“Einstein is mostly blind,” the vet said. I hadn’t known that. I started to cry. “And he has a massive infection in his mouth. It could be simple. But it might be cancer. That’s where the blood is coming from — the mass is just open and bleeding. He needs major oral surgery. Remove all his teeth, take a biopsy of the mass. But the kidneys and liver function are challenging.  ”

Elliott bawled about dinner. Isaac sobbed into my shoulder.

I made an appointment for a week later for surgery. The doctor shoved expensive antibiotics into my hands and clapped my shoulder sympathetically. “Do you need some help?” she asked. I shook my head. But that was a lie. I needed help. I needed to feed my kids and put them to bed; I needed to clean the blood out of my bathtub. I needed to call my husband and discuss what would happen next. I needed to hug my dog. The dog we purchased in the middle of a Fred Meyer parking lot — a woman who scammed us by peddling “full bred Pomeranians” and said she’d come back with papers, but never did. But I didn’t care. I had never owned a dog before and didn’t know anything about training him — he ate all my leather shoes and peed everywhere; but I took him to my college classes. He’d sit on my lap and I’d pet him while I discussed the importance of Virginia Woolf.

Years later, I ran into a girl who had been in my Russian Literature class. I forgot her name. She forgot mine. But she lit-up when she saw me, “Hey! I know you! How’s Einstein? That was one cute dog,” she said.

Later that night, I sobbed into my pillow.

Everyone I talked to said the same thing: Einstein was old. Blind. Deaf. Probably had a cancer. He’s definitely in pain. He’s going to lose all his teeth. He has kidney problems. Liver problems. He doesn’t like the boys being loud — his quality of life has decreased. It’s his time. Let him go.

To punctuate the news, that night Einstein didn’t move from his spot on our rug — refused to eat and drink and pooped and peed himself. He couldn’t even open his mouth to give me a lick. I left for school that morning knowing that when I came home, I was taking him to the vet for the last time. I know that there is judgment there — I judge myself. Why not spend every penny in the world for one more year? Why not?

Because ultimately that one more year would’ve been for me. It would have been selfish. I was not ready to say goodbye. I wished I didn’t have to. All I wanted was for Einstein to talk. To say, “I’m ready” or “Fight for me.” And I’d have done anything he wanted. But not knowing his language, I only had life clues — the refusal to eat, the pained movements, the cast of unknown health problems in front of us.

I cried the entire way to work — my eyes puffy. Everyone asked, “Hey, how are you?” in their chipper way and I broke down each time. I mustered up enough courage to discuss the state of my life with my newspaper staff. Each of them had a story to tell of loss and grief — their parents telling them about a beloved pet; the moment they realized that death meant you don’t come back. Several of them suggested books for Elliott. These teens were my support-net; bringing me coffee and hugs as condolences — telling me they understood, to go home. So I did.

When I got home, I half-expected Einstein to have passed on his own. In many ways that would have been easier for me. Because when I walked in the door and he greeted me with a kiss and a nuzzle, I felt guiltier. We drove to the vet and they put me in a nice room, with low lights. He bled all over their floor. All over me.

“He’s beautiful,” the nurse said as I filled out paperwork.

I could only cry.

Ten minutes later, I held Einstein, stroked his hair, told him I was sorry over and over, as the drug cocktail slowed his heart and took his life.

I wailed. And in an unsurprising cinematic twist, the rain poured down and thunder and lightning whipped through the sky.

I am not a stranger to loss — my cats Claude and Sammy (oh dear Sammy, a blog for another day), three grandparents, my cousin, my father-in-law, a pregnancy, a sister — but this one wrecked me because it was a decision I made. Because another life put his trust in me to take care of him and I feel like I let him down. I felt like I failed him. My mother said I was very brave. I had never felt so cowardly in my entire life.

At home, I had to wash Einstein’s blood off my floor. He had dragged himself to the water dish and there were blood smears from his bed to the kitchen. He bled on my rug.  As I leaned over to wash it off, sobbing, I was reminded of Joan Didion in “The Year of Magical Thinking” — where she comes home from the hospital after her husband suddenly passed away and cleans up his blood off the floor. Which helped add to some perspective to my loss. Perspective, while in the throes of grief, is not reasonable to expect, but it is valuable. Husband and dog are not equitable. I understood that.

Then I remembered “The Dogs of Babel” by Carolyn Parkhurst — where a man is trying desperately to get his dog to talk so the dog can shed some light on his wife’s death. He believes his wife did not die accidentally and the dog was the lone witness.

“The Art of Racing in the Rain” by Garth Stein — a book crafted on the premise that a dog is remembering his life on the eve of his death. There is comfort here because it is a dog who speaks.

This is what we really want. To know that the animals we care for are cognizant of our love. Dogs are not man’s best friend arbitrarily — they are historically and literarily powerful in our lives. We love them and they love us. And their deaths, inevitably to occur before us, are a gut-wrenching testament to that love. When we pass before our dogs — those dogs mourn us. Hachiko waiting at the train station, that picture that went viral of the dog beside his soldier-owner’s coffin. These images speak to us because they remind us that as much as we love our animals, they love us back.

The only people to belittle the mourning one feels after losing a beloved pet, is someone who hasn’t had one. Or hasn’t lost one.

My mother killed her dog on her sixteenth birthday. The day she got her license, she backed over her family dog — who loved to crawl up and rest in the wheel-well of their car. I loved to tell this story. It was such a great piece of family lore — a tale that signified teenage stupidity and such a juxtaposition of excitement and grief for her. But I’d tell the story flippantly. Using it, as daughters are wont to do, as a small dig, with an imbedded eye-roll.

One time, after regaling a group with this tale, I found my mom in her room, crying.

“What’s wrong?” I asked and sat down.

“Please stop telling that story,” she sobbed. “Forty years later, I still haven’t recovered. It’s not just a little anecdote about my life. That was my friend. I killed my friend. It was awful and traumatic and I wish I would’ve never told you.”

Her words crippled me — struck me. Oh, how many times I had told it — how many times I had belittled her pain. I hadn’t lost a pet then. Einstein was still alive, licking my hand. I didn’t understand. To lose a pet is to lose a piece of yourself.

One friend told me that she feels we have animals in our life to remind ourselves that life is short and precious — to value the connections we have with people. I don’t know why our hearts are wired to love this way. All I know is that I’m brokenhearted. Pondering how to deal with this type of grief and process this loss.

If there is any indication of how things impact us, we only have to look to literature. We write about our relationships with our animals often. There are amazing books about the love of a dog. Memoirs. Fiction. It’s all there and it’s all indicative of how dogs wiggle into our hearts.

The stand-outs:

A Dog Year by John Katz

Pack of Two by Caroline Knapp

Until Tuesday by Luis Carlos Montalvan and Bret Witter

Call of the Wild and White Fang by Jack London

Old Yeller by Fred Gipson

A Dog’s Life by Ann M. Martin

Huck by Janet Elder

You Had Me at Woof by Julie Klam

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst

Dog Years by Mark Doty

A Dog’s Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

I miss Einstein. It’s been four days. I will miss him for a long time. I resisted to urge to fill our house immediately with canine love — God forbid I think that my darling puppy could be replaced. Losing an animal teaches us a lot about grief and loss. In many ways it prepares our hearts. When my son asked if Santa could deliver Einstein’s Christmas gift to heaven (“Does Jesus have a chimney?” he so aptly asked), I am not just dealing with my own grief when I answer him: “Yes sweetie. That can happen.” I’m speaking for all of us when we reflect on what we’ve lost and we wrap ourselves in the comfort that there is a chance for reunion someday.

While I lived in Japan, my Grandpa Cohn adopted Einstein. When I came back, he refused to give him back to me. Not meanly, he just loved him.  My grandpa and Einstein had a strong and unique bond. Right out of a movie, Einstein didn’t leave my grandpa’s side the night he died. And he could not be moved from the hospital bed, even after my grandpa’s body was gone. Even when Einstein came back to me, for a few years after that, I always thought that Einstein tolerated me because I was his first owner, but that he really just missed my grandpa.

So, there is comfort in this thought: I can see Einstein and my grandpa up there now — reunited and loving a life without pain and affliction — whole again.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jill permalink
    November 25, 2012 11:38 am

    Oh sweetie – what a lovely tribute to dear Einstein. He taught me like dogs and that is no small thing. I am so thankful he was in our life.

  2. November 25, 2012 1:29 pm

    I had to cry a bit upon reading this… I felt like it could have been my own words ( although I don’t quite have the lovely vocabulary that you do lol) I know that fire of rage for vet workers who seem so unimpressed with our ailing pets far too well. The day that my beloved Jack Russell Terrier, whom my husband and I had gotten before we even had kids.. ions ago lol, died I remember the pain and pure rage of taking her to the vet ( it was down the street from us and I was so terrified upon waking to find her in a very bad state so I carried her, walking barefoot out of shock and horror, to the vet as her paralyzed body flopped like a ragdoll in my arms.) The woman at he vet looked at her, not really giving much concern to the fact that she couldn’t hold herself up in my arms, and informed me that they were unable to help me. She didn’t even bother to call a tech or seem to care that my dog was dying in my arms. I think I will remember the pain of having to walk back out of the vet with her, having accomplished nothing, for nearly as long as I feel the pain of ultimately losing her. My family and I were overseas with the military and so we had to go to a Japanese vet upon being turned away by the only American vet on the small island we lived. Needless to say she never did return from the vet, she had been sedated for MRI and never came back out of it. I remember the sadness of that slowing of her heart too. In all I do believe that night was one of the hardest things I have ever been through… so long story short I feel your pain on so many levels. Einstein looked like he was an ( adorable and) awesome little guy and very much loved. Don’t beat yourself up too much. I know that is a lot easier said than done too though 🙂

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