The Day We Conquered Death

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My neighbors’ dog died on Friday.

My husband and I had plans to visit them for dinner. We were going to have dinner, drink wine/beer and have a nice, relaxing evening. We’d bring our dog, Tess, and she’d play with their dog, Sophie, like she always did.

But when we got there, Sophie was not herself.

She didn’t greet us at the door. She didn’t flinch when Tess jumped on top of her in a doggie invitation to play. She just laid there, quiet and panting.

“Is she okay?” I asked my friend, who was busy salting tomatoes and marinating pork chops.

“I don’t know. She’s been like this all day. She hasn’t been eating, either.”

I felt this undeniable summons in my stomach, this foreboding twinge.

Uh oh. She’s lethargic. She’s isn’t eating. This isn’t good.

We went outside and sat at the picnic table while my friend’s husband readied the grill and talked to my husband.

“She was sick last week, too,” they told us. “The vet said to give her boiled hamburger and rice. I guess he thought she was constipated or something. So we boiled it up and she pooped within minutes of eating it. She bounced right back to her normal self.”

Ah, okay. What a relief! That was clearly what this was. Sophie the dog was constipated. The vet had said so herself.

Constipation can be one of the most unpleasant and downright treacherous experiences known amongst members of the animal kingdom. It is what unites us all, our common enemy. It’s enough to make anyone fall on their side panting and not want to eat.

“Why don’t I run to the market and get some hamburger. Let’s try it again. I bet that will work.”

They agreed and off I went.

We boiled it in a pot of water – which I didn’t even know you could do. I just stared as the bright red flesh boiled into gray and dissolved effortlessly while it rolled around in the water, leaving streaks of oil floating on the surface. The whole time I watched it I just kept thinking, Five dollars for raw hamburger is so worth the peace of mind you get when you know your dog is okay, when you know your neighbor’s dog is okay.

By the time we got outside, Sophie was laying in the grass on her side. She looked like the triceratops in Jurassic Park, breathing lethargically while her belly grew and shrank, grew and shrank.

I brought the bowl of boiled hamburger and rice over to her and put a few pieces in my hand. I put my burger-filled hand near her mouth, right under her nose where she could really smell the hot meat.

Nothing.

She didn’t even move.

Shit. This was bad.

I told my friend and a quiet panic began to set in us all at that point.

The burger was our cure all. This was our quick fix. She would be up and running in no time.

But the fact that she didn’t even look at it, couldn’t even lift her head to smell it properly, sent off buzzers in all of our minds.

Dogs don’t not eat hamburger. It’s a rule in canine scripture. Thou shalt not refuse hamburger.

We decided it was best to drive her to the emergency clinic two towns over. My friend asked if I could drive, so that she could sit in the back with Sophie. Our husbands would stay back and get dinner ready for us. They had already threw back a few beers and it was probably best if we took the bull by the horns this time.

It was no big deal, anyway. We’d be back soon, within the hour, probably. We’d eat then.

So off we went.

When it was time to get Sophie out of the car and into the clinic, we could barely entice her to life her head. She just lay there in the back seat, heavy with sickness and tired, so tired. We coaxed her out and eventually she waddled, falling over herself as she made it to the side walk. As soon as she reached the vet tech waiting for her beyond the clinic’s doors, she collapsed back onto her side and lay there, quietly.

It wasn’t until a half hour later that we saw her again.

They ferried her quickly to the back room and did all sorts of scans and tests. They popped a catheter in and gave her an IV with fluids. She was more stable than when she arrived, the vet told us.

Actually, when she arrived, she was at death’s door. He also told us.

They weren’t entirely sure what was going on or the extent of the problem, he said. But what he could tell us was that her belly was swollen. And when they took a syringe of liquid from her swollen belly they found the worst thing you can possibly find in a part of the body that’s supposed to be swollen with water and other clear fluids.

Blood.

Sophie was bleeding internally.

She had a tumor and it had ruptured.

After running more tests, he delivered his final report. We had three options, he said. He kept looking at me as if I was the dog’s owner, too. It didn’t help that I kept nodding, eagerly, desperate to know that Sophie would be okay and this would all end perfectly well. It didn’t occur to me that I wasn’t Sophie’s owner.

First, we could send her into surgery to remove the ruptured tumor. In order to do that, though, we’d have to wait until she was stabilized. Which she wasn’t. Not even close. He said there was a chance by morning she’d be ready, but also a chance she wouldn’t. He then told us that even if she was ready for surgery, the tumor was likely to be cancerous, and even more likely to be attached to some vital organs, rendering it far more difficult to remove. But if they removed it and it wasn’t cancerous and it wasn’t attached to vital organs like it most definitely seemed to be, she’d be fine.

This was the option for the valiant. For the haters of death, whose hardened wills were unable to even conceive of giving up the fight against mortality.

The second option was that we could let it go. We could metaphorically fold our hands and see what happened. He could try to shrink the tumor with steroids and we could wait until Sophie stabilized enough to be taken home. Then we’d just have to hope to God it didn’t happen again: that the tumor wouldn’t regrow or rupture or be cancerous. That was the option for optimists. Or really, really stupid people. Or the cheap. Or the uncaring.

The third option was the hardest, he said, but at times it was the kindest.

We could put her down.

The mere mention of that phrase, “Put her down” send shivers down our spines and pulled the tears right out of our eyes. We gasped. We moaned. We put our hands over our mouths and we cried. Cried because life was cruel and unfair, and because death didn’t play by the rules. It was supposed to give a warning before it came. Give us time to prepare ourselves. This was wrong, all wrong. I felt suddenly inspired to write a scathing letter of complaint. But who would I send it to? The vet? The cancer? The universe?

There was no one to blame and no vindication to gain. So we just cried. And cried and cried and cried.

My friend phoned her grown sons and asked their advice; I called her husband when she was too worked up to deliver the news to him. They all agreed, they all said the same thing.

“Put her down. Put her down.”

Each time I heard the words my heart winced again. I never got comfortable with the words. It was just as painful to hear it the fourth time as it was the first.

Put her down.

We went in to say our goodbyes to Sophie. She was lying in a kennel in the back room.

There were other animals in other crates, including one dog whose plaintive moans stirred me deep within.

God that dog must be suffering so much, I kept thinking. His cries and mournful howls just rang right through my bones. I wanted to hug him. To comfort him. To make it stop. To put him down.

But that wasn’t the priority. The priority was Sophie. And here she was. On her side, belly breathing deeply again. I could see where the IV was attached to her leg, and where the catheter strung out.

She didn’t look scared. She didn’t look sad. She didn’t look like anything except okay.

We hugged her and hugged her and soaked her with our tears. She didn’t mind. She didn’t fidget. She didn’t cry. She just let us do this. It was like she understood that this is just what humans need to do when they face death. They need to hug, and cry and wet the earth with their tears. So she let us.

After a while we started to forget what we came back here to do. Everything would be fine if we just stayed here and hugged her again and again. We wouldn’t need to give the nod to the vet to do the unthinkable.

To put her down.

But then her breathing quickened. She started to gasp for air. The vet handed us a thin plastic tube that ferried oxygen to her and said if we held it to her nose, she’d be more comfortable.

But we couldn’t do that. We couldn’t see her suffer. I asked my friend if it was time and she said, Yes. It’s time.

I nodded to the vet and he gave the injection.

And that was it. She went quiet and still. Her belly stopped breathing deep but her fur was still soaked with our tears. She was gone.

We wailed over our lost friend, still. Completely unembarrassed at what some might think of as an overreaction to the death of “Just a dog” because we knew this wasn’t just a dog. She would never be just a dog. She was our family.

We blew our noses and gathered ourselves together enough to say our last goodbyes.

As my friend stooped to say farewell once more, I couldn’t help but notice the moaning dog, still at it. I hadn’t realized he was still lowing over in his cage, depressed and ready to die any moment.

Suddenly it was all too much. Everything. All of the death and pain and sadness, trapped together in this sterile room. Life suddenly felt cheap, flimsy and stupid. How would we move on? How would we ever conquer death again? The answer seemed wildly unoptimistic while I listened to the baying of the hound in the corner.

It was time to go. We grabbed our things and wiped our eyes one last time.

We were two steps away from the door when my friend stopped and looked at the vet. Her face was red with crying and wet with tears. Everything seemed to freeze in time as she spoke.

“I’m sorry, I know this is a strange thing to ask, but I just have to know. That dog over there, the one whose been crying this whole time, is he okay? Is he dying?”

The vet smiled.

“No. Actually, he’s getting better. I think he’s just lonely.”

And that was it. All we needed to know.

 

We drank enough to kill several Christian villages that night. We just sat around the table and talked about Sophie: how much we’d miss her and how good she was and how there’d never be another dog quite like her.

We talked, too, about how much she taught Tess. How Tess was such a strange, alien creature when we first adopted her. How she almost didn’t know how to be a dog, how to interact with other dogs, or how to play without fear. We acknowledged the fact that it wasn’t until meeting Sophie that Tess really became strong, confident, playful.

While we talked about all of these things, Tess was lying at our feet under the table on her side just like Sophie was before she passed. I was rubbing her belly with my foot, calmly but terrified I’d find swelling, another ruptured tumor, another sign that death was laughing at us.

But she was fine. Strong, healthy. At least for now.

That night, while we sat around the table talking and drinking and crying, we unknowingly acknowledged the fact that not one of us will ever really conquer death, that it will take us all, each and every one of us, and perhaps when we least expect it.

But still, here we are. We are alive.

We’ve already conquered death.

ImageRIP Sophie. We love you.

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