When I was a teenager and living with my dad in Kansas, my mom welcomed two dogs into her home: A Dachshund named Jack and a Cocker/Japanese Spaniel named Bailey. They were never “my” dogs (that distinction would go to my youngest sister), but during summer breaks and when I moved back home in 2004, I had the opportunity to live with them. The years went by, I left home, got married, bought my own house, started a family, and had pets of my own. However, the one constant going over to my mom’s house were those two dogs. Unfortunately, things changed this year, when Jack went from being completely normal to rapidly deteriorating over the course of two days. Not wanting to see him suffer, my mom opted to have him euthanized. When I received the news, I was sad, but not shocked: He was well over ten years old and in poor health; I would have made the same decision if he was my pet. I knew that Bailey was getting up in years and suffering from the natural effects of old age, so I told my mom that should she have to make that same decision with her, I’d take her in to be euthanized. Our family recently had to put down our beloved Boxador Dakota in July due to an aggressive form of cancer. To me, being there for their final breath was the right thing to do.
The glow from my phone pierced the darkness of the bedroom. It was 7:02am on this past Monday, and the morning was still and calm, quite the change from the chaos of the previous morning. I lazily fumbled for my glasses and picking up my phone from the nightstand, noticed I received a text from my mom. Call me at home when you get this please. My mom isn’t one to typically text me first thing, so after taking about 15 minutes to wake up and brew coffee, I called her back. Bailey was not doing well. For the last six months, she’s been half-blind, half-deaf, covered in lipomas, and semi-incontinent. Yet, those were all conditions that my mom could handle and that her vet deemed manageable. However, the past couple of days, Bailey stopped eating and became more lethargic. We talked for a few minutes and we agreed that it was probably “the time.” She was going to call the vet at 7:30am when they opened to make the appointment.
I pulled up to the vet clinic a little before 10:30am. It was mostly empty, save for one customer checking out. My mom hadn’t arrived yet, but I told the receptionist I was here for Bailey and she nodded knowingly. I waited no more than five minutes when my mom pulled up. Gingerly taking Bailey out of the front passenger seat, she gently handed her to me. Bailey was shaking, but I couldn’t tell if it was from the cold or from nerves. My mom signed the paperwork, paid the bill, and lovingly patted Bailey on her head. She gave me a tearful side hug, told me “thank you”, and walked out the door. Now, I hold no judgement for people who cannot be there for the final journey for their pet. In my mom’s case, I think she wanted to remember the happier times and didn’t want her last memory to be the procedure. Having gone through the process five months ago, I know how heart-wrenching it can be in that room when your pet goes. For me though, there was no other option.
The receptionist led us back to an exam room. I sat down with Bailey on a bench and we waited for a vet tech. I lazily scratched her ears and reminisced on the good times we shared together. After a few minutes, a vet tech knocked on the door and came in. She was going to take her back to place a catheter line in. Afterwards, she would bring her back, and I could have as much time with her before the vet would come in to complete the procedure. I delicately handed Bailey to the vet tech and sat there, mindlessly thumbing through my phone while I waited.
Only ten minutes passed before the vet tech knocked again, although it felt like an eternity. Bailey was wrapped in a Toy Story blanket, and the blue gauze that held her catheter in place poked out like a sore thumb from behind Woody’s head. The vet tech set Bailey down in my lap and reminded me again to take as much time as I needed. Knowing Bailey’s history of not enjoying vet visits and also not wanting to prolong the inevitable, I told her that I was ready. The vet tech left and the vet came in. She was thin, blonde and probably in her early 50’s. She offered her condolences and we spoke for a few minutes. I shared our family’s recent experience with Dakota. I told her about Bailey’s lack of appetite and how after her long and well-loved life, now it was time to say goodbye. She lovingly pet Bailey on her head and asked me if I was ready. I nodded my head, and she inserted a syringe filled with clear liquid into the IV line. As she applied pressure, she told me that this drug was to make her fall asleep. Within seconds, Bailey’s head tenderly fell on my left forearm. I took a deep breath and lightly placed my right hand on her back. The vet advised that the next syringe contained the drug that would stop her heart. She placed the syringe in the IV line and began to depress the plunger. As the neon pink liquid slowly disappeared from view, Bailey remained motionless. After approximately 3o seconds, the vet felt around her body with a stethoscope. “She’s gone”, she said calmly and with a hint of sadness in her voice. “I’m sorry for your loss. Take as much time as you need and I’ll be right outside the door.” With that, she rose to her feet and left the room.
I haven’t lived with Bailey in almost 13 years, but after the vet left, grief collapsed on me like a rogue wave. I cradled her in my arms and wept. She wasn’t even “my” dog and I haven’t lived with her in over a decade, so why the sudden outburst of emotion? I think that regardless of her status as a pet to me, at the end of the day, death is sad. Saying goodbye, even on the best of terms (i.e. in old age after a long and fulfilling life), is still sad. This is the shitty reality of pet ownership that everyone knows but no one wants think or talk about: There is a 99.99% chance that you will outlive your pet. Every one of us will go through this grief someday. I currently have a dog and cat of my own. The dog sleeps with my son every single night. God willing, I won’t have to go through this process again for a long time from now, but no amount of “sweeping under the rug” will change what is inevitable.
After taking a few minutes to be with Bailey, I set her carefully down on the exam table. Before the procedure, the vet advised I could either leave her in the room or could come out and hand her off to her; the second option seemed a little morbid, so I opted for the former. She met my gaze on my way out. I mumbled a tearful “thank you” and she softly apologized again. Head down, I quietly walked out of the clinic. There was a chill in the air, but the sun was shining brilliantly in the cloudless sky above. I got in my car and drove away.