Everyone always told me “You’ll know when it’s time” in regards to losing a beloved dog. To which I always mentally noted “That’s such a crock of shit.” In my mind, I was never going to know when it was time to say goodbye to them earth side. The thought honestly seemed so incomprehensible that I consistently found myself taking those “End of Life” surveys that Lap of Love has on their website for knowing when it’s time throughout Bill’s journey with cancer, as if an automated quiz was going to determine the fate of my family member.
Ten days ago, I woke up like I normally do to the sound of pitter patter on hardwood outside my bedroom door. It’s a telltale sign that 1. I need to cut my dogs’ nails and 2. I had two hungry Labradors ready to inhale their food. It was a Friday morning and Bill had just seen his oncologist that Tuesday. “He looks great!” she told us. My whole body had exhaled as I heard those words. We were set to leave for 15 days in Kenya the following week. But when I opened the door to my bedroom that morning, only Judy greeted me. Immediate panic.
From the opening of our guest room door, I saw Bill’s eyes glint in the hallway light. “Hey buddy, you OK?” It was an immediate red flag he wasn’t with his sister. But when he saw me, he mustered some strength to hop down and follow us to the kitchen. Whew. Only he didn’t eat the food I put down. Instead, he looked at the bowl, looked at me and turned back around to go back to bed.
He must be cold. Maybe it’s stress of seeing our packing piles. He just got a great report, it’s not cancer.
The thoughts raced in my mind like an out-of-control circus ride, and I texted his oncologist: Can you see Bill today? Without hesitation she agreed and we were on the way. He enjoyed his head out the window the entire time and even smiled when we got to the parking lot. This is a great time to point out that Bill loved his oncologists and care team and whenever we pulled into the parking lot, no matter how he felt, it was like an internal switch was flipped and he rallied. We jokingly called him the mayor of VCA Southpaws.
“He looks great, all his lymph nodes palpate normally, but something is definitely off,” I remember his doctor saying as Bill, normally bouncing off the walls of the exam room, rested his head on my feet. “Can I just keep him for the day to run some tests?”
Sure, no problem, of course. I mentally began tabulating hours until we had to leave for Kenya and for the first time, I allowed a feeling of dread to cloak my heart.
“We’ll see you in a couple hours pal, have a good day at camp!” we told Bill as we walked out of the clinic for the day. Throughout Friday, Bill had every test imaginable done: blood work, ultrasound, scans, etc. My phone rang at 2PM.
“He doesn’t have a single enlarged lymph node anywhere in his body and his organs all look normal,” Bill’s doctor told us. Immediate relief washed over me. “But his kidney levels are slightly elevated.”
This was new for Bill, but we all agreed that signs didn’t point to lymphoma and we would treat it like some sort of infection and hope he perked up. By the end of the day, Bill was eating (yes!) and wagging his tail (yes!) and ready to come home. Dane and I drove together to pick him up and Bill was waiting for us in the exam room. I remember thinking we had skated by the worst and felt so grateful to be packing up a happy and healthy dog to go home. That night, we defrosted celebratory crab cakes we had purchased this summer and ate them all together in the living room. Bill, in true form, tried to steal them off our plates.
At 4AM, I woke up to the sound of Dane talking. Something wasn’t right. He told me Bill hadn’t slept and seemed restless. I flipped on the overhead light and one look into his eyes told me this wasn’t the same dog who was attempting to eat dinner off a plate last night. We checked his gums and they were sticky and pink. I palpated his lymph nodes and they all seemed normal. I pressed his stomach and legs, no signs of discomfort. “Bud, just tell me what’s wrong,” I whispered into his velvety floppy ears as the morning light began to creep into our windows.
Dane and I administered fluids into Bill like we’d learned to do from his care team, hoping to perk him up, but it was no use. Bill needed to be seen again by a doctor. It was a beautiful fall Saturday – the kind that’s perfect for watching football all day with the windows open, not taking your dog to the emergency vet. I need to take a minute here to say that Bill’s oncologist met us that morning at the hospital to oversee his care with the emergency/ICU doctor and that level of veterinary care is something I still struggle to comprehend. It’s above and beyond and we are grateful beyond words I can type here.
After another thorough physical examination where Bill presented normally, we all agreed it would be in his best interest to get some supportive care in the hospital (fluids, IV antibiotics). It was a painful decision, because leaving Bill alone with doctors and nurses he didn’t know wasn’t my first choice, but I think in my heart I knew it was what he needed. We walked out of the hospital that morning with his collar and leash and for me it symbolized a reality I wasn’t ready or willing to accept yet. I broke down in the parking lot as we walked to the car and sobbed asking the universe to please be gentle with my baby…and my heart.
I waited by the phone all day for a call from a nurse or doctor that never came. By 4PM I was ready for something so I called the hospital myself to get an update. “He’s been resting all day, but he still isn’t eating.” My heart sank. I think it was at this point that I knew something was really off and we drove to the hospital to visit him. In true Bill fashion, as soon as he saw Dane, he sprinted into the exam room and smothered him with kisses. We were advised that he could turn a corner overnight and keeping him in the hospital was the smartest choice, which hurt my heart, but I agreed. Bill’s energy was electric that night and I think in some way, he knew his transition had already begun and wanted to spend every single second with us. As the nurse tried to take him back, he whimpered at us and my heart shattered under the glow of fluorescent hospital lights.
“He was stable overnight, but he still isn’t eating. I also need to let you know that his white blood cell counts and platelets are tanking,” the doctor told me on the phone the next morning. This is the part of the story where I’m pretty sure my brain went into self-preservation mode. The rest of the day is a blur. By Sunday night, we knew Bill had cancer in his bones and we waved the white flag on traveling. The dog we picked up from the hospital that night wasn’t our son, but a shell. His bright pink hospital bandage glowed against his dark brown fur and I snapped a photo to send to my parents. Two green orbs appeared on each front leg and a wave of nausea washed over my body.
That night, all four of us got in bed together for what would be the last time and I think in some way, each of us knew it. When morning light began to creep in through our curtains, a feeling of dread nestled into my stomach. Like other mornings, Dane opened the curtains and told Bill about the squirrels, chipmunks, and rabbits outside, telling him it was going to require at least a half day’s worth of work to police all those animals in our yard. I half hoped my lethargic best friend would do a 180 overnight and I rubbed his back with a twinge of hope. Instead, he looked at us and inched to the edge of the bed in an attempt to escape our cuddle smothering.
“His eyes are a different color,” I said to Dane.
And I knew. In that moment, I knew what everyone had tried to explain to me for so long. I knew what no online test could tell me or veterinarian could prepare me for. I knew my best friend was leaving and the last gift I could give to him was a gentle and peaceful goodbye.