This week we will euthanize our dog of 15 years. He is Wookie, a white and gray Shih Tzu, and we will miss him. He has helped raise four sons; our oldest was already out of the home without the benefit of his presence.
Anyone who has had to put their pet to sleep knows what our family is going through. There is the doubting that we should do it at all, or there is the urge that old age would sweep him away without a visit to a vet.
Knowing that someday this decision had to be made, it was not known in any form how difficult it would be. Now we cannot talk about it without tearing up, which makes it tough for further conversation.
Once the call was made to the vet and the appointment scheduled, there is the waiting. We look for supporting evidence that we are doing the right thing. We report to each other the struggles he is having seeing, hearing or walking. We look at him in his increasing sleep and check his breathing, half hoping that the chest would stop gently on its own.
We started to clean out the multiple artifacts of his existence. We stack the remaining food in a box in the garage. There are the leashes, the pads, the winter sweaters, the toys and even the plastic cones he had to wear while healing from a surgery or infection.
We are more tolerant of his body habits knowing that the messes will end and the cleanup will be over forever.
We want to pet him more, but with age he has become more jittery. On walks he startles as if there is something terrifying before him, all the while walking less and slower.
But then there will be a day when he jogs home, and we wonder if we are cutting short his life too soon. Then we remember he couldn’t balance, he nearly fell and almost didn’t make it up the steps to the front door.
He barks more in the morning in spite of plenty of water and food. When he sees us at the top of the stairs he stops the noise and turns to walk back to his bed. It is as if he just wanted us to know he was still alive.
I already miss him coming into the study to just be with me. He falls asleep at my feet now, but that will end soon.
It is as if with the day and time set I am the guard on death row. I check on him constantly, keeping him in my sights and think about his final moments.
We have decided to carry him to the animal hospital and have the drugs administered there. Then we will bring his body back to the house wrapped in his bed to be buried in our backyard by the forsythia.
I still have to dig the grave, and I know that it must be deeper than two feet. Like the pharaoh tombs of old, I want to include his bed, a package of food and dish as if he will need those artifacts as he journeys to the after-world.
Our neighbors had a dog but now keep his ashes and collar nearby so when they pass they can send a greeting. I want Wookie to be safe underground.
With five boys, we made an effort to expose them to caring for animals. We have had two cats, a gerbil, a hamster, a rabbit, a fish and a lizard. They have all died except the two cats; they ran away.
Teaching children about loving animals must involve also the lessons of death and mourning. I don’t know if our sons learned those lessons, but I am experiencing them now.
They say dogs go to heaven. I just don’t want him to leave to get there.
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, a practicing pediatrician for 30 years and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.