Well, I’m back, and I guess I owe an explanation for my absence the last couple of months. The photo above is of my daughter, Johnna, with my nine-year old chocolate lab, Bella. It was taken on the last day of Bella’s life. Born on February 14, 2004, she died on June 28, 2013. She had a really aggressive mammary cancer (breast cancer). From the time I first noticed it until the time she died was perhaps a month. It grew like wildfire and spread to her lungs. The hardest part was watching her suffer, not even really knowing the depth of it. Finally, though, she became unable to breathe. She negotiated the length of the living room and my daughter and I helped her up onto the couch, and she was panicking because she couldn’t catch her breath. She pointed her nose up towards the window, which was closed because it was an oppressively hot day. Johnna and I took turns fanning in front of her face so she would feel the air, because that seemed to help her. We piled up blankets for her to lean against, because she was exhausted but couldn’t lie down, whether because it was painful or because it made it more difficult to breathe.
I’d spoken previously about Bella to a dear and wonderful person whose name and praises I’d like to shout to the sky. I am not going to do that because I have to respect her privacy and I don’t want her to be receiving requests from others to do this. She is licensed to perform euthanasia, and she had said that when the time came she would come to our house to put Bella to sleep. I am so grateful for that. On that day when Bella was no longer able to breathe, I told her it was time. All of Bella’s family gathered in my living room that evening. Bella was sitting upright. Johnna was on one side of her and I was on the other, and we each held her. I’d been told by several people how fast euthanasia is, but I don’t think anything could have prepared me for it. I will forever remember the feeling of Bella literally collapsing in my arms. Just that fast, her suffering was ended. But just that fast, she was gone. Gone from our lives, but gone from her own life as well.
One of my all-time favorite books is “The Art of Racing in the Rain” by Garth Stein. This is the story of a family told by its dog on the last day of his life. He keeps saying that when a dog dies he gets to come back as a person. In the last week or so of Bella’s life, I kept telling her this. She’d had a number of struggles in life. She was a shy dog, which is a term for fearful and untrusting. It’s my suspicion that she had some abusive experiences before she came to live with us at eight weeks of age. She remained shy for her entire life, but at home, with our family, with people she knew, she was the sweetest, most loving dog you could ever meet. I told her that she had the best, strongest, sweetest heart in the world, and that in her next life she would be rewarded for overcoming her fears and learning to love. (Funny, I’d never thought about it before, but as I write this, I am realizing that this is a direct reflection of one of the key themes of my own life.)
But I don’t know, and that’s the sad thing. To make the decision to end the life of a living being is a terrible, terrible thing. Anybody who knows me that I really really hate ever killing anything. I try to catch and release whenever possible. Mind you, I’m a germophobe also, so the presence of some of these things in my house is really disturbing. But when I close my window on a day that is growing hot and I see a fly caught in between the window and the screen, I always shoo it out so it won’t fry in the heat of the sun, even though I know that it will crawl on my food later in the day if it gets a chance. I catch spiders and take them outside. If I see an ant on the counter, I actually put it in the garbage. If a line of ants wants to come to my garbage can, I don’t care. Only if they start parading on my counters do I take lethal action. Most people would say I anthropomorphize, but I attribute all sorts of feelings to these little creatures. I envision their expectation of life, and I cannot take it upon myself to end it.
I couldn’t watch Bella suffer anymore. Being unable to breathe is a terrible thing. But ending life is a terrible, terrible thing. I have always said that I am not afraid of dying itself. I don’t believe in heaven and hell. I figure either I will go on or I will not, and if I don’t then I won’t care. It’s really for the people left behind that I fear my own death, because I don’t want them to suffer. But to have a hand in taking life from another, especially another that I love so much, breaks my own heart regardless of the good reasons for doing it.
And of course, every experience of loss contains within it every other experience of loss. I don’t think it is possible to experience a new grief without every grief you have ever felt rising up to join in. We suppress grief eventually, so that we can go on with life, but it isn’t something that really heals. You know, for Michaela I know this is true as well, if she is alive. However long it has been, however much has changed, however deeply entrenched she may have become in the new life she has been subject to, I know that underneath it all lies a vein of loss. Only this loss can be healed.
With the loss of Bella, there is another little heart that is broken. Bella was a 90-pound Lab, and I have an 8-pound Miniature Pinscher who loved her. I had him in his crate during the actual euthanasia, but afterwards I let him out. He came and sniffed Bella’s mouth, perhaps wondering why she wasn’t breathing. She had a blanket around her, and he crawled inside the blanket. Since then, he has been okay when someone is with him, but when he is alone, he howls with grief. Because of the difference in size, it didn’t seem that Spike and Bella spent a lot of time together, but I am recalling now that whenever I left for work, if I came back in the house to get something, Bella would be on the couch, where Spike’s blanket is (he has to have something to burrow in). It had never before occurred to me that what she was doing was keeping him company. Perhaps he has always been sad, or scared, when left alone, and Bella knew that. At any rate, when Bella was here, he didn’t howl like he does now. Often there is someone else here, my daughter asleep in her room, my husband downstairs in the garage. (This is how I know about the howling.) It had been my plan to keep Spike as an only dog, but now I think I will have to get a friend for him.
|Bella and Spike, on Bella’s last day.
Who knows what they were saying to each other in this moment.
Well, one day I hope to be able to write a happy blog. In the meantime, thank you for bearing with me and sharing my heart.
Bella, I hope that you are running free in a meadow somewhere, with that beautiful smile on your face, your tail high in the air, no fear of anything anywhere, only happiness, and the knowledge that were and always will be loved.
And Michaela, I love you forever.