Nico was fifteen years old and people STILL frequently asked if she was a puppy — so pretty and smaller than people expect Siberian Huskies to be (even though she was normal-size for a female husky). But if they watched her walking from the hind end they’d understand she was an old girl. She started to look like an elderly woman hobbling doggedly with a walker, dragging her hind legs stiffly forward one at a time after reaching forward to brace herself with her two front legs.
There *was* a choice of whether or not now was the right time to put her to sleep. I’m aware that there are people who would’ve put her down a lot sooner and others who would have let this stretch out forever with doggy diapers and thousands of dollars in vet bills. I’m aware that we might have made this decision for ourselves as much as for her and that I’ve been able to absolve myself of any guilt because she was really Delia’s dog and her decision to make based on twice as many years with her and a lot more love. I’m also aware that Delia gave her a good life and that she’s a HUSKY, and she couldn’t do her husky things anymore – there hadn’t been ululations for a year or more and her sickle tail was permanently drooped into brush-mode. She was confused (at times heartbreakingly comically so, like when she would stand at the hinge of the door waiting to be let out of the bedroom when the door was already open INCHES away from where she’d fixed her gaze – it WAS funny, though sad) and her mobility profoundly decreased. She’d been losing her balance (or her legs just gave out) while she pooped and would often fall over then finish pooping while lying on her side.
Anyway, there was a lot of stuff and seeing blood in her gelatinous-with-mucous diarrhea Saturday night was the clarifying symptom that it was TIME even though it hadn’t been that many days since she ran through the house as much as she could, yipping both in pain and excitement, not able to NOT force herself to go as fast as possible even after wiping out twice trying to navigate the corner between one hallway and another. If it were any other kind of dog you’d think I was describing a very fit and healthy animal, but huskies are just that awesomely driven to RUN and defy every limitation imposed on them.
So we decided to make her last two days full of good things, like her last walk in the woods. It was very very slow and the smallest hills were like giant mountains to her. She even looked at one incline so wearily that she turned around, like “just take me back to the car because I’m DONE”.
During and after making the decision I’ve felt a variety of emotions: excitement looking forward to freedom and possibilities, relief, uncertainty, guilt, confusion, sadness, loss, worry . . .
Two women came to our house to do it after Nico had two days of walks and lots of her favorite soft peanut-butter treats and lots of love and attention lavished on her. The vet and her assistant were loving and gentle and pleasant and thoughtful and smooth and patient and respectful.
The hardest part was the hour before they got here when we were waiting. Everything was ready, Nico was totally worn out, and there was nothing to do except know that she was about to be gone and didn’t even know what was coming (I think Delia felt more confident that Nico did actually know and was fully prepared and welcoming – either way is actually pretty sweet). I wouldn’t trade that hour of waiting for rushing around or not experiencing that weird duality of tranquility on the outside and guts churning on the inside, though.
During the process I felt a fast cycling of emotions of calm, euphoria, gratitude and resignation sort of like when I was in a car crash and had a few seconds to emotionally prepare myself to die and then was elated when I survived. But with this there were also overwhelmingly intense guts-in-the-throat needing to bawl emotions like when I was with my dad during his death.
How beautiful and floppy and light her dead body looked wrapped in a blanket with her gorgeous face exposed and then her front legs tumbling out. The looseness and complete lack of worry. The weird exciting sense of potential like you could reanimate her, so fresh and ready with all of the soreness and stiffness she’d been suffering from magically erased. She really did look like new life (and none of these pictures are communicating the reality of any of this, or at least my perceptions and experiences of these days). She was so so so beautiful.
Helping Nico die and being present for it helped me with my dad’s death, to process it more and remember it and grieve more freely and more fast. It’s been eight years, but I really didn’t know a lot about how to be with his death and my feelings about it so it’s been a very long and protracted experience. Watching Nico die — feeling her die, touching her dying and dead — I feel spiritually more at ease than I did when confronted with my dad’s final moments. Maybe my idea of peace is wider and simpler than I must have wished for back then. Maybe my expectations for myself are lower than they were then. I don’t know, but I’m glad for it.
I am an imperfect witness, not a bumbling guide stuck with the horrible responsibility of having taken someone I loved on a journey to a brick wall on a dead end. Maybe I’m getting to be okay with nothing being perfect and not being in control and just appreciating the long moments I’ve had to absorb the profoundly ordinary in all of its individual rarity and treasure it and bask in my blessings. My dad is one of a few people I’ve had telepathic experiences with (even if they were probably more accurately described as intuitive communication or whatever) so maybe I thought I failed by not knowing what he was trying to tell me at the end or that I failed by crying and possibly making him sad or worried during his last minutes of life. There’s a lot less pressure with a dog and it was more okay with me that we were all together but alone at the same time.
Like with my dad it took a number of minutes for her to stop all the way. “She’s not breathing anymore but she still has a very faint heartbeat”. For like four minutes. When we were kids Daddy bought us lots of National Geographic books. One of my favorites that may have impacted my worldview more than any other was “The Incredible Machine” about how humans are all electrical and mechanical and stuff. I never absorbed facts and information the way my sister could (it’s amazing how we had the same books at home and the body of knowledge her brain constructed out of them is so vastly different — and more vast in general — than mine) so what I retained from it is just a philosophy that I might not find in it if I were to read it today, but that might have been the first book I ever read to give me a celebratory nontheistic way of looking at life that was deliciously SPACE AGE eighties-style, like 3-2-1 Contact and synthesizers and stuff.
While Nico was dying it started raining and we were glad it waited until then, not starting until after her last three walks and other quiet time outside. That night the smell of the evergreens after the rain was magnified to supernatural proportions and for a minute I enjoyed imagining that Nico bestowed an enriched sense of smell on us as a parting gift.
Then I stopped wasting brain juice on that and just focused on vacuuming up as much scent as I could with each inhalation, tasting wet green dogless walks in the future moonlight, just me and my girlfriend.
Delia and I have been living together for almost eight years (the first time she told me she loved me was the day my dad died). It’s a significant chunk of time as far as human measurements go but also . . . brief. Losing Nico is another transition for our relationship and maybe I have the feeling like I will contribute more as a partner now. Nico was rooted in so many years of history and two other serious relationships for Delia so she was never really “my” dog; I don’t mean that in a bitter or unloving or detached way . . . it was my way of copping out of taking care of her fully so that I didn’t clean up as much poop or let her in and out as often or get her food ready. I’m excited that we’re entering another stage together and that it’s happening now.
I can’t complain . . . I really can’t complain or regret this loss or wish for any of it to be different. I can’t say that I wish we didn’t have to go through this or that she could have lived forever. Of all the ways of dying and lives and chunks of years of experiences out there to be had, I’d say this death and these years and our lives have been blessed, relatively comfortable with relatively little pain, and filled with pleasure. Am I still bursting into tears? Yeah, but I can’t complain.
I totally have spring fever. We can go anywhere! Do anything! The light in our house looks different. The pretending-to-be-a-grownup feeling is back when I go into my office. Maybe just because everything is intensified after so many intense days? I don’t know, but this is the first time in all these years we can leave the doors wide open and not be afraid that Nico will run away. It’s not that a husky doesn’t love her people, SHE’S JUST PROGRAMMED TO RUN AWAY FROM YOU!!
Check out Delia’s post with more pictures of Nico and background. Contrasting pics of her in her younger days really shows how much she changed physically over the years, plus it’s really interesting to read/see more about Delia!
Note: I feel EXTREMELY fortunate we had a way to pay for her to be ushered out so gently with at-home euthanasia; not everybody is so lucky. Humanely ending an animal’s life is really expensive for most people and doing it yourself is something most people aren’t equipped for (and legally/socially is a prime example of some really interesting double-standards, misunderstandings and class differences in our country). Anyhoo, if you love your pet and can afford to do it this way when the time comes, I’d recommend it as being well worth the extra money (if you can swing it) to have that special time at home and is worth finding out in advance what vets (or other people?) can help you with this when the time comes. I also feel extremely fortunate that my dad died in hospice which is much more like dying at home than like dying in a hospital, but better than dying at home maybe. I loved it, and think it’s hugely important to be able to spend time with your dead loved one for hours, if you’re lucky enough to have that option and the kind of death you get to see coming.