In the morning we drew back the curtains and saw a blanket of fresh snow. It was our first time in the Berkshires. In the afternoon the innkeeper, a big burly, bearded man, read his poetry in the sitting room. It was a piece about how one minute his little girl was calling, “Daddy?” from the top of the stairs and the next minute she was standing there in her wedding gown. On our way back to Boston we made one stop to pick-up my new puppy, an eight-week old American Eskimo. I named him Bodhi. This was nearly thirteen years ago.
Bodhi grew from a little white puff into a talented trickster. He could walk on his hind-legs for stints of twenty feet or more. He could high-jump legs, poles and fences. He would whisper-bark for treats. He had an uncanny way of using his front paws like boxing gloves. We got a big kick out of getting him to dive under our bed, bark wildly and engage in a manic game of peek-a-boo. Lively as he was Mr. B was always up for a cuddle. He loved to be carried even though he was bigger than a lap dog.
The vet said we should watch for these signs: sleeping all day, incontinence, total loss of appetite, unresponsiveness. I already felt like a failure. We stopped brushing his teeth long ago and now his mouth was ravaged by gum disease. It was irresponsible of us. She gave us antibiotics to clear up the infection and told me there was a massive tumor in his stomach. Bodhi’s fluff disguises the fact that his body has been reduced to nothing more than skin and bones. He eats and eats, but he doesn’t gain any weight. All of his energy goes to growing the cancer. “We have to focus on his quality of life. We have the power to ensure his comfort or put an end to his pain.”
“But he’s not in pain,” I said. “When I touch him he’s fine.” She told me he’s putting on a brave face because he doesn’t want to let us down.
From the time I was eight until twenty-two the love of my life was a dog named Bosco, a huge Newfoundland/Lab mix. He became my only friend when we moved to town. His devotion was salve for my adolescence. When I went away to college he visited me, so well-behaved he was allowed to sit in class. By the time Bosco had reached old age he was wobbly on his feet. We piled in for his final ride to the vet, but when we got there he lept from the car and bounded across the grass like a gazelle! A miracle! Elated, we took him home to celebrate. A few months later I was overcome by a strange feeling in my sleep. I woke to find him standing in my doorway, weak and tired, blood trickling from his mouth. There was no choice but to stand tall. I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t. I didn’t want him to be scared when he went to sleep. So I convinced him that it was ok, stayed steady and true, and held him in my arms as he drifted away. Since nobody’s ever asked me to donate bone marrow or a kidney putting Bosco to sleep is one of only three of the most selfless thing I’ve ever done in my life.
Bodhi barks at 2am, 3, 4, 5, and goes out each time, but it’s never enough. He prefers to sleep outside now. It’s been a week. The night air must make his bones ache. He lies in the grass, exhausted. Each day he responds brightly to us. He always perks up for treats. We can check-off only two of the four signs we’re supposed to be watching for. The vet said everyone wishes their aging pets would die peacefully in their sleep, but it never happens that way. There is always pain and the key is exiting before the pain strikes. I don’t want to wait until Bodhi is past go. I want him to hold onto what’s left of his dignity. But I don’t think I have the wisdom nor the clarity to recognize the end this time.
He can’t be dying – he still wags his tail.