I slept in one fall Sunday morning, which is a rarity for me. Usually, my body alarm clock doesn’t know the difference between weekend time to arise (variable depending on sports and church) and weekday rude awakening (anywhere between 5 a.m. and 5:45 a.m. depending on work and school schedules and sometimes our elderly dog Gracie’s harrumphing next to my side of the bed or her click-click- clicking toenails as she pads down the hall, which would cause my husband or me to bolt out of bed to make sure we opened the door for her to go outside in time. I nicknamed her “Cling-cling” because she used to shake her collar and wake us up with the tags jingling — until I took her collar off — but the nickname stuck).
We didn’t have the kids that weekend so I made sure to shut off all my alarms the night before and I didn’t even hear the text reminder for my youngest’s hockey game that came in at 5:30 a.m.
It was already light out when I woke up and staggered to the bathroom. In my fog, I remembered to be careful not to step on Gracie. Then, in my fog, I remembered that Gracie is no longer with us. The fog lifted as I relived the events of the morning before.
I didn’t get much sleep Friday night because as I lay in bed, Gracie was wheezing and gasping nearby. We knew she was nearing the end of her life and, in fact, thought Thursday night would be her last night. We were hoping she would pass peacefully at home so we just tried to make her as comfortable as possible. She had spent most of Friday trying to hide under my office chair. I conducted conference calls with her snorting and panting underneath me. I reported to my husband throughout the day.
“She hasn’t moved in the last two hours.”
“Does she seem alert?”
And so on.
When my husband came home he sat on the floor with her for a long time, tears tricking down his cheeks. She was his “baby” and he’d had her a long time before we met. If I remember right, he was at a cookout at someone’s house and they had Gracie in a crate and when he learned that she was crated most of the 24 hours of the day, he said something along the lines of, “If you don’t have time for a dog, I’ll take her.” And he did.
Eventually we decided to call it a night and Gracie followed us down the hallway to our bedroom. (The other dogs were in a crate and on the couch.) Each time her gasping slowed down, I thought, she’s slipping away, but then she’d pant and rattle again.
Resigned, my husband said that morning, “We have to call the vet.” I watched the time until 9:00 a.m. when the office opened. As much as I didn’t want to do that, I absolutely couldn’t bear another day of listening to her die, which is essentially what I knew was happening.
I told the vet we’d be there by 10:00. My husband carried Gracie outside where she went potty for the first time in 24 hours and got a long drink, most of which she coughed and sputtered out. When it was time to go, my husband had to go find her (she was hiding under the porch) and carry her to the car where I had laid a blanket across the back seat. He cried all the way to the vet’s office while I drove. I went in first and took care of all the paperwork. He carried her in to the exam table, which was readied with a soft blanket, and we stayed with her, talking to her and stroking hear velvety ears, as the vet tried to find a vein to insert the IV (Gracie had almost non-existent blood pressure). Once the vet administered the medicine, Gracie simply went to sleep, with the assistant and us petting her and talking to her and telling her what a good dog she was, and the vet listening to her heart, until she informed us that it had stopped. My husband left the room right away but I stayed and talked with the vet for some time. She had warned us ahead of time that there might be some physiological responses, such as vocalizations, but that did not mean she was in any pain. Nothing happened. Gracie just lay there for 10 minutes or so while we talked, and I continued to pet her, which was obviously more for my own benefit than hers, at that point. On the way home, I told my husband everything that transpired, and said that I knew she was at peace because when I’d had a recent medical procedure, I had undergone anesthesia and it is extremely relaxing and even somewhat euphoric, before and after. I couldn’t even conjure up any fear in the final moments before I fell asleep about the anesthesiologist administering too much medication because he told me there would be a specific nurse monitoring that aspect the entire time. I woke up laughing.
When we got home, the other dogs were confused. They looked everywhere for Gracie and nosed through all the blankets I was carrying. My husband mowed the lawn, (which he says is his therapy), I called the crematorium to make the final arrangements, and we went about our day.
That Sunday morning, when I came back from the bathroom, I told my husband, “I miss Gracie.” This could have been a dangerous thing to say, since the day before and the two days preceding that were especially hard for him. But just because I had to be the “strong one” doesn’t mean I don’t have any feelings about it.
My husband and I reiterated to each other that we knew it was time and that Gracie was better off. There was no more suffering and we were with her as she transitioned peacefully. We knew she was ready because of the hiding and that even though she was trying so hard to please us by wagging her tail and perking up her ears, she was in pain. She had quit eating. She couldn’t navigate the stairs and had trouble walking. During the summer, I usually took her and another of our dogs together for a short loop, then dropped her off as she panted and wheezed, before I took the other out for a “real” walk. (Our third dog is a homebody and doesn’t like to leave the property unless it’s for a ride in the car). The last walk I took her on was three days before she passed. She was supposed to just go with my husband as he wheeled the trash barrels to the end of our long driveway, but she ignored him and galloped down the street after me and the other dog. We did one of our short loops together: down the block, through a path in the woods, and around to our back yard, where I delivered her back to my husband. I had no way of knowing at the time that would be her last walk.
Then, I commented to my husband, “Imagine how it felt to have to make the decision to take my mother off life support?”
“I can’t,” he replied.
“It was awful. I don’t talk about it much with people because I don’t want to be judged for ‘playing God.’ Like maybe there was going to be some kind of miracle. Maybe if I had stronger faith or prayed harder, the outcome would have been different.”
I told him about how once my brother and I had made the decision and agreed, we had to wait for several hours before the respiratory therapist could come and un-hook the machine that was breathing for our mother, and how after that her heart just stopped and all the other machines went quiet. Then a tear slowly coursed down one of her cheeks. Everyone in the room gasped. I, and I imagine others in the room, attached emotional meaning to that tear. For a long time I thought it was gratitude, that my mom was relieved that we had finally let her go, since her body was falling apart and no longer in any condition to hold her soul. Other times I tortured myself with the idea that she was sad that we gave up on her. After talking to the vet yesterday, I am relieved to think it was just physiological (my mom’s circulatory system was failing and her body had been pumped full of IV fluids for three days).
I probably cried more tears that Sunday morning with my husband than I had during the actual time my mother passed, when I also had to be the “strong one,” a role I continue to play since I had then become the matriarch of the family.
After my husband got up to go finish up something for work, I went back to sleep. I had not been getting enough sleep with our back-to-school / fall sports schedule and all the driving, managing homework, lunch preparation, and open houses, and while I know you can’t catch up on lost sleep in one day, it is good to have a day of rest – where you don’t have to set the alarm clock – once in a while.