Monday, February 2, 2009

Playing God With Dog

"Listen, Jeff, you did the right thing," the good doctor said. "I can promise you I wouldn't have let you do it if it wasn't time."

Dr. Judkins' words brought a trace of comfort as I sat on the floor of the darkened, sterile room, gazing in disbelief at my suddenly lifeless dog. I guess he could tell I was in a bit of shock, struggling with the choice I had just made. 

I knew we were in trouble in the early hours of Friday morning. Otis climbed out of Sam's bed a number of times to alert me from the front door that he needed to go out. He would take a few seconds to relieve himself then retreat back to Sam's room and the comfort of his bed. Then I heard rustling downstairs at about 6am and found Sam and Otis were already up. Sam was eating some cereal and Otis was panting heavily down below, indicating the tumor was shooting off histamines again.

"He's been panting off and on like that all night," Sam said. "I couldn't sleep so we got up."

I grabbed Otis a Benadryl from the crowded shelf of meds and hid it in some leftover pasta, which he managed to swallow.

I got Sam ready for school and made sure he gave Otis some love on our way out. I didn't make a big deal of it because I didn't want Sam to freak out or be overcome with grief. I just had a feeling this was going to be the day and I didn't want Sam to be able to say he didn't get to say goodbye. The dying process has been so taxing on him. He's already had to say goodbye to him three times only to watch Otis make these noble comebacks.

I dropped Sam at school and went downstairs to the Kindergarden where his mom teaches. I needed to let her know I was going to call the vet for an appointment to put Otis down. She had previously indicated to me that she would like to be there when it happened. Alice was Otis's mom before the divorce. I got him in our settlement, but she stayed in his life and was helpful when I went on the road for work. I understood why she wanted to be there but I warned her of the overwhelming sadness that comes in those final moments. She listened, but it didn't change her mind. I told her it would depend on Dr. J's availability and/or whether Otis' conditioned worsened throughout the morning. When I called, Dr. J said we could take the last appointment of the day - 5pm. This worked for Alice, and it also allowed me a full day to spend with my guy, should he hang in there.

I returned home to find Otis still panting. He wasn't swelling up as much as before, but I could tell he was in some discomfort. Soon the Benadryl kicked in and made him sleepy. I built a fire and placed his bed in front of it. I made some tea, grabbed my copy of Tuesdays With Morrie, and laid down beside him.

"Here's how my emotions go," Morrie told Koppel. "When I have people and friends here, I am very up. The loving relationships maintain me."

Morrie and Otis were not so unalike. Morrie understood the important things in life. He wasn't afraid to love or accept love. To display affection. To say the things that we humans have such a hard time saying, like "I love you." If Otis could speak he would be a broken record of I love yous. But as he lay there taking one deep labored breath after another I couldn't help but whisper it to him over and over again. His loving relationship has maintained me.

The clock moved at a rapid pace and before I knew it, it was 2pm already. I went up to take a shower, leaving Otis by the fire. The water washed over me and I began to cry. It was hitting me all of the little things that won't be there anymore. In this case, I was thinking about how Otis would never fail to be waiting for me to step out of the shower so that he could lick my lower legs dry. Such a strange tradition, I admit. But he loved it and I obliged. The water washed over me and I opened my eyes to find him standing there one more time. Somehow he made it up the stairs. I cried a little more, you know, for the effort. Then I turned off the shower and let him have his day. Luckily, he was a short dog and could never extend above my knees.

I got dressed and Otis managed to follow me back downstairs. In fact, I was surprised at how well he was getting around. Maybe I got the Benadryl into his system early enough to prevent major swelling and discomfort. At about 3pm I decided to see if Otis wanted to take a walk around the block. Sure enough, he followed. He even had a little pep in his step, although the tumor was bouncing only inches above the ground. Still, Otis managed to mark just about every damn tree around the entire block. I imagined he was reminding everyone just whose territory this really was. It was his. As it had been his for a long, long time.

When we returned home I grabbed my camera and his tennis ball, offering it up to see if he might grant me one more photo-op. I rolled the ball down the sidewalk and sure enough he went after it. Not with a sprint or even a trot, but a slow, dignified walk. He picked it up and returned to the spot where he goes when he's no longer interested in retrieving. Never has it been only one throw before he went to this spot. But he stood there for me, ball in mouth and allowed me my final shots. The one I posted on Friday was the very last shot I took of him with my Nikon camera. As soon as I snapped it I knew it was my final shot. Through my viewfinder I could feel that I had captured his essence.

We went back inside to find Nicole crying in the kitchen. Nicole wasn't ever the biggest dog lover in the world, and she tried her best not to fall into Otis's lovetrap, but she couldn't help it in the end. His grunts and snores and constant dragging of his nails across the hardwoods as he followed us around the house all day could fray the nerves. His breath and disdain for any form of hygiene could make you shake your head in wonder. But you had to hand it to him for his constancy. He was always there.

It was appropriate that we found our way down to the kitchen floor that Otis had kept so spotless for so many years. He picked up every scrap and crumb that ever fell from above. We sat there for awhile and just cried. He gave Nicole a little kiss, which kind of blew me away. Otis could win the heart of even the staunchest of cat people.

Alice came to pick me up and Nicole handed me a sandwich bag full of peanut butter filled pretzels.

"Take these with you," she advised.

Otis has always dreaded trips to the vet. He'd take a ride in the car anywhere in the world, but he always seemed to know when it was a ride to the vet. The peanut butter pretzels would be a welcome distraction.

On the way we drove past Grant Park and its expanse of green. Otis could spot a park from a mile away, and whenever we drew near his eyes would widen with expectation that surely this was our destination. This time however, his ears merely perked up a bit, obviously assuming this wasn't our destination. I began to cry once again, thinking to myself that I certainly didn't stop at the parks as often as he deserved. Regret is such an easy trap in the days of dying.

Alice asked if we had time to stop by the gas station. We were about ten minutes ahead of schedule so I said yes. She pulled in and once again Otie's eyes perked up. Throughout his life gas attendants have always been good to him. When the man came to Alice's window she ordered her gas and asked if he happened to have a dog treat.

"We're on our way to put our dog down," she confessed.

The attendant compassionately peered in at Otis then reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out the mother of all Milkbone treats. It was so large it reminded me of that magic trick when the magician pulls the handkerchief out of the hat and it just keeps coming and coming. This attendant must have had a trick pocket. I laid out a little towel across my lap and Otis devoured the Milkbone on top of it. All his life we never saw a milkbone that big. It was always the little ones they handed out. I cried a little more at the irony of it.

We left the station and made our way into southeast Portland. As we drove I recalled the story of the very first time we rode in a car with Otis. Alice picked me up from the airport after a work trip I'd made to LA. While I was down there I received a call from Otis's breeder letting me know he had a dog available if I was interested. I'll leave that entire story for another entry, but the short version is that I was interested and that the timing was perfect because I was in LA and Otis was born in Long Beach, which was a short distance from LAX.

I picked him up on my way to the airport and was able to smuggle him onto my Alaska Airlines flight inside a compartment of my carry on bag. He was a tiny little pup and these were the days before 9/11 when it wasn't so hard to smuggle more than three ounces of shampoo on board, let alone living creatures. The compartment had a flap that I could unzip that allowed enough air for Otis as we flew. The flight was pretty uneventful as Otis managed to sleep the entire way. It might have helped that he had gotten car sick on our way to LAX and wiped himself out. I should note that it was the first and only time that Otis ever tossed his cookies in a car.

We touched down in Portland and there was Alice waiting for us in our new used Land Cruiser. I jumped into the passenger seat and put Otis on my lap just as he was right now. I introduced the two of them and we made our way towards home. About three blocks from home I said to Alice, "Wow, it's amazing he hasn't gone to bathroom one time since we left Long Beach. And right at that moment I felt that unmistakable warmth seeping through my jeans. Yes, I remember the feeling of peeing my pants. Only this time it was Otis. And he peed a river, even filling that plastic pocket on the passenger side door.

We had indeed come full circle. Here we were pulling up to the vet where our long, unforgettable journey would end. But before it did I instructed Alice to go back a few blocks to another park we had passed on our way. I needed to give him one more jaunt. One more inhale for the road. One more chance to mark just a little more territory out of all the ground he had covered along the way.

We got out of the car and Otis trudged up a grassy knoll. He turned to us expecting to see his tennis ball raised high overhead ready for launch. His eyes widened in anticipation. Alice let it fly and off Otis went. He returned it with all the energy he could muster and set it down at my feet ready for another toss. That was the thing about Otis, there was nothing that could stop him when it came to throwing a ball in a park. I've always contended that he would have fetched until he expired had we not had the good sense to put limits on his heart. 

But on this day, in this moment, I couldn't help but to feel guilty. How could I be only minutes away from ending the life of this dog who was obviously still so full of life?

"That's Otis," I reminded myself. 

It didn't matter that he had a giant tumor impeding his way. Through sheer force of will, Otis would find his way around it. And I had to believe this, because otherwise I wouldn't be able to got through with letting him go.

I used my iphone to take a few final pictures of Otis in action. In them, he looks like a puppy again, the tumor blurred or obscured. Again, making it hard to justify the inevitable. Alice took my phone and snapped a couple shots of Otis and me together. I love them, but the miles are there on both of us.

It was time to enter the vet clinic now. I carried Otis in. He clung to me as if he knew something. We were directed to a room that had three or four blankets laid out on the floor for maximum comfort. I set Otis down and before I knew it he was staring at my coat pocket. That's where I had stuffed the pretzels full of peanut butter. Nicole's idea was ingenious. Otis was completely distracted from the reality of the situation.

I fed him one pretzel then another. Then another. And then another. His distraction was good for him, but it wasn't allowing either of us to say goodbye. He just wanted to eat, which again, made me question whether I was doing the right thing here.

"Just give him the whole bag," suggested Alice.

"Really," I questioned, as if that might be bad for him. Talk about irony.

So I set the bag down on the floor in front of him. He looked at me with the funniest face, part confusion and part disbelief. I couldn't tell if he was saying, "For real?" Or, "Ah, you big jerk. NOW? FINALLY?"

Otis devoured the pretzels and part of me hoped he would die of salmonella right there on the spot. But it wasn't to be. Dr. Judkins entered and looked down at Otis.

"Man, he looks pretty good," he observed.

"I knew you were going to say that," I replied.

"Oh, but look at the size of that tumor," he added, "I can't believe how fast it has grown."

We talked about realities. He listened as I talked of the life he had displayed in the last two hours. And I could hear myself, too. My answer was in my own words. What a way to go out. Dr. Judkins confirmed my words with his own. He told me that we could wait another week or two and eek out a few more good moments, maybe. But one more week or two more weeks at the end of such an epic life weren't going to mean so much to Otis, especially as the tumor continues to grow at such a rapid pace and cause who knows how much discomfort. In a week or two I could be bringing in a dog who had no dignity left. As it was, I was sending him out on top.

Then, before I could waver, Dr. Judkins pulled out a tranquilizer at administered a shot.

"This will make him real sleepy. I'll come back in about ten minutes," he said.

And with that, the hardest ten minutes of my life began. So many memories come flooding in. 13 years of memories to be exact. That's been my experience with pets. They represent a timeline. In this case, Otis represented my life's highest highs and lowest lows. My marriage to Alice. The loss of my mom. The birth of my son. A 17,000 mile journey through 48 states with my best friend, Seamus, sharing shotgun with Otis. The loss of my other best friend, Hawthorne. Divorce. Bachelorhood. Another marriage. Another baby. All of those things come flooding back. They race through your mind as though it is you yourself who is facing the "needle of oblivion". How could all of that happen in such a short period? Maybe that's why our dog's life spans or so short. Maybe they see too much, especially when you think of their capacity for compassion and love. When we are high, they are higher. And when we are low, they are lower. They take it all on. And that's gotta wear them out.

He lay there feeling the effects. Alice and I took turns whispering in his ear and stroking his head.

I thanked him for everything. Alice thanked him for being such a great big brother to Sam. I apologized for being neglectful and lazy. Alice told him she loved him. I told him he had a lot of friends waiting for him and to give them hell like he used to.

About five minutes into the tranquilizer Otis got up one more time and walked a wobbly circle around the room. "You can take the dog out of the fight, but you can't take the fight out of the dog," I remembered. He lay back down and we sobbed.

A few minutes later Dr. Judkins entered right on cue. He wrapped a thick black rubber band around Otie's hind leg and tightened it. Then came the juice. Otis raised and turned his head to look back at his leg. Then he lowered it back down on his front paws, resting in the same position he had his entire life. And then, all of the sudden, he was gone.

"Oh, fuck," I wailed.

It is absolutely palpable that moment a life ends. There is nothing more powerful or definitive. 

Alice dropped me off at home and I went inside where I collapsed into the arms of Nicole. We cried it out for awhile until I couldn't cry anymore. It was then that I looked up and felt such an enormous void. This house was no longer the same. But it wasn't something I could only see. It was something I could feel. Rather, what I couldn't feel. I couldn't feel his energy anymore. It was his life force. It was gone. With him. And it's an energy that will never be replaced.

Alice called to ask if Sam could come spend some time with me. He, of course, was distraught. She dropped him off and he ran straight into my arms.

"I didn't get to say goodbye," he sobbed.

"Oh, but you did, Sam. You did," I replied.

I let him cry it out, too. And then we set out for a Root Beer float.