Ralph’s beloved 17 year-old lab died last Monday. It was time. But getting Ralph to realize it was time proved a challenge.
For the last eight weeks Zeus had been on a steady decline. When we returned from the family beach vacation in early August, our regular dog sitter admitted she had worried the whole week that Zeus might die on her watch. He had been so much frailer than in the past and was having what she thought were mini-seizures.
Our vet explained they were not seizures but neurological problems that affected controlling his back legs. Acupuncture would help but not solve the problem. About the same time a gaping wound appeared on Zeus’s hip. It turned out to be a bed sore. The vet, whose own lab had succumbed not that long ago to a similar combination of ailments, warned us that the bed sore was going to be very hard if not impossible to treat, not only because it was an internal infection but because how do you stop a dog from lying down, especially one who can barely stand up. Zeus began weeks of intensive treatment—lasers, oral and topical antibiotics, acupuncture, and a huge bubble bandage that could only be changed by a professional. I was administering his various doses at home and taking Zeus to the vet office several days a week, no small task since he had to be carried into the car. Ralph helped with the lifting but he couldn’t really keep up with the dog-nursing.
At first Zeus seemed to hold his own, more or less. But the hurricane evacuation took its toll. The bandage fell off. The wound festered. The legs gave out. And by the time we returned, Zeus was basically unable to stand without being righted by human hands.
We did another round of laser/acupuncture/antibiotics/band aids. I could tell Zeus was not getting better, and when the vet warned that if Zeus did not improve this go round we would have to discuss “quality of life” I was ready. In truth, I am not a dog person by nature and my patience was strained. Not to mention that poor Zeus was increasingly incontinent, shedding profusely and smelly.
I reported back the vet’s remarks to Ralph.
“I am not killing my dog.”
“No one is talking about killing.”
“Would you kill me?”
When I next took Zeus back to the vet, I brought Ralph with me. Covid era vet visits take place in the parking lot. Ralph was chatty with the vet until she said there was no improvement and used the dreaded phrase “quality of life.” Ralph went dead silent.
“I am not killing my dog,” he repeated once we were back in the car and throughout the evening.
I scheduled another appointment. This time inside the vet’s office for THE TALK. Ralph listened as the vet described how hard it was for him to put his own dog down. Ralph nodded and seemed to hear the vet’s explanation that Zeus was not getting better.
But as soon as we were alone, Ralph asked, “So is Zeus getting better?”
“No, he is not going to get better.”
“Well, I am not killing my dog.”
We reached a compromise: We’d revisit the situation in two weeks. That was a Thursday afternoon.
The process so far had been grueling. I was constantly on edge, expecting Ralph to explode in fury and fear. I also resented that I was caring not only for Ralph but his dog. And I was aware that Ralph saw the parallels between his own infirmities and his dog’s every time he asked “Are you going to kill me?”
On Friday, Zeus was definitely weaker and even Ralph noticed the way he whimpered at times. By Saturday, Zeus was unable to untwist his back legs.
Ralph struggled with Zeus, let him lie down and turned to me.
“Ok, as long as I don’t have to be there.”
With his blessing, I called the vet and made an appointment for Monday morning.
For the 36 hours Ralph was as weepy as a man who doesn’t know how to cry can be, frequently wiping the edge of his eye with one finger.
But on Monday he was surprisingly calm when he carried the dog like a child to the car for his final trip to the vet. Then he went back inside the house as I backed out the driveway. When I got home, alone, he asked for the details. I described Zeus’s calm comfort at the end.
Since then Ralph occasionally says he can’t get used to Zeus being gone. He asks me if I think we did the right thing. He asks me to remind him “What was wrong with Zeus again?” and “How old was Zeus when he died?” I tell him.
“Oh, you know 17 is very old for a big dog,” he always explains to me then, as if I’m the one who needed convincing.
And I nod, thankful I gave Ralph the time to come to the choice on his own.