On Sunday night, J and I put down Michael Angelo Dog, our 13-year-old yellow Lab whom we called MAD. Over the past six months, MAD had gradually become less mobile due to arthritis and degenerative myelopathy, and on Friday night he took a sudden and dramatic turn for the worse, his hindquarters becoming completely paralyzed after an otherwise normal trip to our backyard dog pen.
MAD spent Friday night at the Angell Animal Medical Center, where we visited him on Saturday. He’d stabilized overnight: when we first brought him in, his heart was racing, his pulse was weak, and he had a fever. We eventually learned he had pneumonia, presumably caused by his impaired mobility, but you wouldn’t know it from how he acted on Saturday, as he was alert and sweet-tempered: still a “happy lab,” as the emergency vet described him, albeit one who couldn’t stand up, walk, or wag his tail.
J and I had decided long ago that being able to walk would be the final factor in deciding when it was time to put MAD down. Whereas I could (and did) carry Reggie in his final months, I can’t carry a hundred-plus pound dog. On Saturday, we decided to give MAD one more night in the Intensive Care Unit to see if he would improve, but in the absence of a miracle cure, we both knew the end was near.
On Saturday and Sunday I cried on and off: anticipatory grieving. I knew what I was in for, as both J and I have walked this road before. On Friday night, Rocco the cat, who had always enjoyed cuddling with MAD and was his “best bud” among our pets, slept by himself on MAD’s dog bed, as if waiting for his return. The emergency vet said it might be possible to get MAD well enough to come home for a few days before the end, but ultimately J and I decided that begging for more days isn’t worth it if they aren’t good days.
On Sunday, we went to Angell during the midday visiting hours, and MAD was moderately better, able to stagger to a wobbly standing position as we left, as if to prove he still could. I’m glad my final “happy” memory of MAD was one where he was being simultaneously goofy and valiant, refusing to let something as silly as paralysis daunt his boisterous spirit. But a dog who can (barely) stand but not walk is prone to all sorts of ailments—including pneumonia, urinary tract infections, and the humiliation of not being able to eliminate properly—so we made arrangements to return to Angell in the evening, when it would be quiet, to put MAD to sleep.
In the end, MAD had to be wheeled out of the ICU on a low stretcher, his head up but his tail and legs motionless as he was maneuvered into the same euphemistically termed “meditation room” where we had said goodbye to Reggie: a quiet room where dim lighting, a couch, coffee table, and several boxes of tissues create a home-like environment for final goodbyes. If nothing else, the sight of MAD lying motionless on a stretcher confirmed we were making the right decision, as a dog as energetic and athletic as a Lab doesn’t deserve to be carted around, immobile.
MAD was a big, lovable lug until the end. My final memory of him is twofold: the sheer determination it took him to struggle to stand during our final visit, and the heavy, exhausted body they wheeled into the meditation room that night. If hearts were coupled with the bodies they deserve, MAD would live on in a youthful and exuberant frame; instead, the body they wheeled into the meditation room was thick, tired, and covered with the lipomas and benign warty growths MAD had acquired as he aged into a lumpy and lumbering old man.
In the end we gave MAD all anyone could ask for: a peaceful passing with his loved ones present, and with it a long-deserved cessation of suffering. How much energy and effort had it taken to keep such a big body moving? Until the end, MAD remained both game and goofy, as if the force of sheer rambunctiousness could muscle him through any medical challenge. In the end, we had to help MAD die because his heart was too damn big to give up and die on its own.
I remember when we put Reggie down—I was so relieved to know he was finally at rest—no longer struggling or suffering. Say what you might about not going gentle into that good night: there comes a time when raging against the dying of the light seems worse than futile and even cruel.
Having sat by MAD’s side as he breathed his last, stroking his face and telling him again and again how good a boy he was, I feel the same sense of comfort (even while my eyes blur with tears) that I felt when Reggie died. In the end, MAD is comfortable at last: a well-deserved rest for a body that tolerated so much. After his spirit left it, MAD’s body looked like it had been through a war: along with those aforementioned lumps and bumps, MAD’s body was marred with scars from surgeries to excise a tumorous spleen, remove a growth on his back, and fix a torn tendon in his leg. MAD bounced back from each of those procedures: at times, it seemed like he’d never stop bouncing. But arthritis, hypothyroidism, degenerative myelopathy, and who knows what other unknown, lurking ailments each made their irrevocable claim.
The most painful part of putting a dog down is the point where you walk away and leave him, a body bereft of spirit. At Angell you settle up your paperwork before the procedure, so you don’t have to endure the humiliation of walking teary-eyed and alone through a lobby where other people are waiting and pacing with leashed dogs and cat carriers. Instead, you exit through a door next to the meditation room—a door J and I have dubbed the Death Door—and you walk back to your car feeling alien and alone, a new arrival on the shore of the newly bereaved. As you pass outside the hospital lobby where strangers arrive to check in or out their beloved animals, you realize with a start that you are the only one in the entire place whose beloved animal is dead.
Once you settle into the comforting privacy of your car, however, the journey has just begun. Having helped yet another beloved pet to a calm and distant shore, now all you know to do with yourself is steer your way back home down a dark road you’ve taken too many times before.