...is what I wanted to give my dog. As his health has declined over the past few years, the promise I made—to him, to myself—was that I wouldn’t selfishly hold on when the time came.
Well, on Tuesday, March 22nd, time came knocking. It was considerate enough to call ahead; on Sunday I knew things were looking grim, and I made the call to our vet on Monday afternoon. My vet, who is easily the kindest, gentlest woman I have the privilege of knowing, assured us that his was one of the easiest passings she’s had in her long career. He was ready. We were not, but I know no matter what the situation, we would never have been ready.
Schnapsie was six months shy of his 12th birthday. As our vet stroked his head today, she gently told him that he was obviously part cat, as he had continually surprised her with his 9 lives. He had many more years than anyone thought he would (given that there cannot possibly be many other dogs on the earth with his propensity for illness and drama.) He was the centerpoint of our household, and we are heartbroken.
I’ve had dogs my whole life; both my parents grew up with pets, and I was no different. Scruffy was the little mutt with whom I would ride down my little slide in the front drive. Patches was a beagle who was hit by a car. Marmelade was the kitten I loved. But Scooter, a dachshund/beagle mix that my uncle bought for my brother at a flea market, where he was tied to the bumper of a car with his litter mates, was my first “My dog” dog. I assumed ownership of Scooter when I returned home after school. He was cranky and cantankerous, and was utterly devoted to me. When he died at the old age of 14, I was devastated. It was the first time I had been completely responsible for a pet of my own, the first time I had to make the judgement call to end an animal’s life, the first time my son (who was a young elementary-schooler) experienced the loss of a pet. Three months later, as I held a wriggling little ball of fluff who had sunk his needle-like puppy teeth into the sherpa sleeve of my denim jacket (and into my heart,) I found myself wondering if I was ready for another dog so soon. “When will he be old enough to be adopted?” I had asked..later this week, once he turns 3 months, on Christmas. September 25th. Schnapsie was born the same day my Scooter had died. He came home with us that week.
He was, throughout his life, the most micheivious, vocal dog I have ever known. Super smart—he knew how to push my rolling desk chair across the room so he could jump up on the desk and push buttons on the keyboard (he was trying to send email, obviously.) He would tattle on his brothers in a distinctive sound that wasn’t quite a bark or a whine, when Schnitzel or Max knocked over the garbage or had an accident in the kitchen. If my brother or son yelled at him, I would hear about it the second I came home from work. He loved being held, and would twist around in your arms to stare up at the face of whoever was holding him. Sometime I wondered if he would spend the whole day staring up at me if I were to let him.
Schnapsie had a taste for expensive veterinary care from day one. It turns out he had kennel cough when we brought him home, and we weren’t sure if he was going to make it. It would be the first in a very long list of “oh no’s” in his eleven and a half years. There was the pinched esophagus. The propensity for chewing—and eating—string, causing a bowel instruction when he was four. There were various bumps and bruises. Then there was intervertebral disk disease. The IVVD left him paralyzed in his hind quarters, and was a game changing moment for him and us. The specialist I took him to urged us to put him down then, and spare ourselves the trouble of caring for a disabled dog. At that point, at five years old, he was deeply entrenched in my heart, and I found the notion inconceivable. Laughable! It was as though the doctor was suggesting I cut off my own limb-utterly preposterous. So we became the caretakers of a bossy, paralyzed dog, and my regular vet remarked that she was amazed how quickly “Schnapsie was being Schnapsie again.”
The paralysis didn’t phase him at all. He became mayor of the street, spending his days while I was at work perched on an armchair by the window. He would bark at squirrels and passers-by, and nap with his brothers until I came home. He enlisted his youngest brother to do his bidding—once I came home to find a bag of Halloween candy had been pilfered from the dining room table, and wrappers were everywhere—including on the cushioned armchair. (The consensus was that Schnapsie had told Otto to jump up and bring him some candy...and maaaybe he would share it.) He was a bossy and demanding, and ruled his three brothers and the humans in the house from his cushioned throne.
That first year I was too worried about leaving him with a dog sitter, so he came to the beach with us for vacation, riding in a little buggy down the boardwalk every day, eating hot dogs and barking at sea gulls. He sat in the sand and dipped his paws into the ocean.
“Schnapsie being Schnapsie” had become a running joke with our vet at that point. Every minor ailment that would be nothing on any other dog had always seemed like a life or death situation with him, and it got to the point that my vet’s standard course of treatment “wait a day or so, and let’s see if this is just Schnapsie being Schnapsie.” Last week when all four dogs were stricken with vomiting and diarrhea, we gave them modified meals of bland chicken and rice until they were better. Three of them bounced back after a day or so. Schnapsie being Schnapsie, did not.
One of the many things that make my vet so wonderful is that she is (like milkmen and finned cadillacs) a relic of a bygone era. She makes home visits. All four of our boys have had their check-ups, shots, and other minor procedures right in our living room, and I’ve always known, that when the time comes, their lives would end in the living room as well.
Death isn’t pretty, and it’s not easy. This was not a neat, sanitized situation. I hear friends and strangers talk about dropping their pets at the vet’s office, and it’s very sad as they sit in the waiting room, and sometimes they stay with the animal, and sometimes not. It would not be so with Schnapsie. It was death, and we got up close and personal with it, for every step of the way. I will be forever grateful that we got this last day with him, as difficult as it was. My son & I took turns holding him all day; we did our best to keep him comfortable. He stopped eating on Sunday, and wouldn’t drink on his own. On Monday my son was able to coax him into taking some water off a tablespoon. Today, his breathing was more labored, and his tongue had begun to turn black—either from lack of oxygen or lack of hydration. We were able to get him to open his mouth for a spray bottle, and when that stopped working, we used a syringe to get water in his mouth and down his throat. Our vet had hopefully mentioned that he might slip away in his sleep. Schnapsie did not get that memo, and even though the rest of his little body was broken and done, his heart was still beating strong. By mid-afternoon, he had a fit of sorts, in my arms—his prone back legs began to kick erratically, his bladder and bowels released, and his breathing became intensely labored. This is it, I thought, and willed him to stop fighting. The fit passed, and he turned his head back to stare in my eyes in that unnerving, searching way he had.
My vet came over several hours later. My son held him, I sat beside cradling his head. My mother and brother were both there, and kissed their goodbyes. In the end, he passed quickly and peacefully. My son held his body close and sobbed. My vet said to let the other dogs in the room, let them see him and smell him, they needed to know he was gone so they would not search for him. Otto, our youngest, sniffed around his body and jumped away, frightened, while Max cowered in his bed. Schnitzel, ever the very best brother, together since they were puppies, sniffed and sat down next to Schnapsie, nosing his still head and whining.
We bundled him in a towel and drove him to the crematorium ourselves. This was our death, up close and personal, and we would see it him through to the end. My son held his body in the backseat; we both wept hard tears the whole way there. We laid him on a medical paper-covered cart at the crematorium, and while I filled out the final paperwork, my son stroked his head. I never cleaned his ears, I head him say, choking out a sob. I’m sorry Schnapsie, I never cleaned your ears. I began to cry again, because I still didn’t know if we had given him a good death. Leaving him there, looking so small and still on the table was maybe the hardest part of the day. I was final. It was done.
My son has taken this extremely hard—far harder than I thought. I suppose Schanpsie was his first “My dog” dog, the way Scooter was mine. He was in 3rd or 4th grade when my grandmother died, so this has been the first “real” death he’s experienced as an adult.
When we got home, the other dogs were subdued. Schnitzel was laying in his dead brother’s bed; Otto was whimpering by the door. The house is a little too quiet, and our hearts are just a little more empty. Our dogs are almost all of an age with each other, with various infirmities. It is likely we will be doing this again, maybe twice more in the next year or so. I hope we are ready. I hope we can come to terms with letting go. I hope we can give them good deaths.