September 10th, 2023
By Savannah Verdon, Development and Engagement Coordinator II
Content warning: this story includes reference to suicide.
September 10th is National Pet Memorial Day, and I hope you will keep the pets you’ve loved and lost in your mind and in your heart, and a loving hand on the ones still with us, while reading this.
When I wrote last year about the dark and painful road I walked (crawled) toward being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, what I hoped to convey was that therapy and the proper medication would have only gotten me so far without my grumpy, perfect little angel – my dog, Macy – there to offer the strongest argument against suicide. I was her third family, and in her final years as liver disease stole more and more of the wild spark behind her eyes, I couldn’t stomach the thought of her being abandoned once again by a person she had grown to love and trust. To do so would mean every awful thing I’d ever thought about myself was right, with my head screwed on so crooked. I’d ended my essay speculating on whether or not she would make it to her 15th birthday in December, as I could no longer doubt that I would lose her soon, and if I would be able to hold it together without her.
My little girl made it six days past her 15th birthday, or a few days short, depending on the paperwork. You know how you hardly notice your hair growing because you see it every day? And then when someone points out how much your hair has grown, and it’s like seeing yourself for the first time. I didn’t notice her fragility becoming more and more unmistakable until suddenly it was screaming at me: her back was arched in pain, she was rail thin and unsteady on her dainty little feet. She was often confused, she refused her medication, she hardly ate any food. Then on a Sunday, after all the scares I’d had with her in the preceding months, I knew it was happening – she was dying.
I’d wanted to do an at-home euthanasia because I’d been robbed of that opportunity with every dog that had gone before Macy. I tried multiple veterinarians and got a sooner appointment than the first attempt, but that was still days away on Thursday evening when, while I watched over her and cried to my dad on the phone, she soiled herself. Macy had always been such a dignified, independent old gal. For that to happen I knew she was no longer in control.
Earlier that day, I’d noticed a smell emanating from her mouth that wasn’t her usual bad teeth smell. I leaned in close to her face, something she would never have let me get away with otherwise, and I know now that what I smelled was death. After I’d cleaned her up and got us ready for bed, I set her dog bed on top of mine, right next to my pillows so I could face her – awful smell be damned – and keep one hand on her all night. If she went while we were sleeping, I wanted her to go knowing I was there for her. Somehow I did manage to sleep, but late in the night, I was woken up by the saddest sound I’d ever heard Macy make in the years she was mine. It wasn’t her dying breath, but I think it was her body and soul waving the white flag. It broke my heart in the way that only knowing someone you love is suffering, and you can’t do anything about it, can.
I was already supposed to have the day off of work on Friday for an appointment, but I had rescheduled that the day before, because of course I couldn’t be away from her. I set up her bed right at the mouth of the hallway where she would be able to see me wherever I went, and then I made my coffee and started going through my contacts to see who in the local Sacramento animal welfare scene could help me find a veterinarian to come as soon as possible. I’d finally secured an appointment for later that morning when it happened. I was lying right beside her, and I kicked my coffee over while scrambling to get up, hold her head in my hands and beg her not to go, but I was too late. I told her that I was sorry, that I would miss her always, that she was the best girl, and that I’d been so lucky to know her. I watched life leave her eyes before I closed them and held my forehead against hers, staying that way until my sister arrived to take us to the veterinarian.
I’d been grieving for many months at that point, and so at that moment I could clean her up for the last time, gently tuck her into her blanket, and hold her body in my lap on the drive to the vet without falling apart. Even now it feels strange to say I was relieved, but in many ways I was. But I also felt tremendously guilty. Guilty for not making the appointment sooner, guilty for letting her suffer, guilty for not doing more for her, whatever it would have taken to give her more time. It seemed like the one and only stage of grief for me. It took the people I love telling me over and over again that I loved her like no other and she passed while knowing I was there with her, just like I wanted, to see beyond my guilt for even a second. When I came home later that day, after having spent hours with my sister running errands to keep busy, I felt as empty inside as my condo now felt without her constant, sweetly lurking presence.
That emptiness was the hardest part at first. For months, I’d been looking forward to being able to do absolutely whatever I wanted with my time now that I was free of responsibility. I was going to go to more concerts, more events, more dates, more life. All I ever did was go on hours-long walks in the cold, only to come home and find my place still empty. The day after she passed, I bought more picture frames and printed my favorite photos of her so she’d be with me in every room, one of many ways I memorialized her. I’d gotten a tattoo of her on my forearm a couple of months earlier, and there were times where I’d sit silently on the couch with both arms crossed over my chest and my opposite hand wrapped around the tattoo, anything to feel close to her again. But with so much quiet and so little I wanted to do, I just bounced back and forth between feeling nothing and feeling all-consuming guilt.
Reading books has always been a useful distraction, and that’s how I spent the majority of my time throughout the holiday season – my worst yet. At the very least, there would be another voice in my head besides mine punishing me. I read one about Zen Buddhism, and naturally the concept of “dharma” was discussed often. I’d told myself after Macy passed that I would wait one full year before adopting another dog because I wanted to see what living life on my terms only was like. But that didn’t stop the idea of future dogs running and jumping and barking from taking root in my head. As I read that book, I kept thinking how great it would be to name a dog Dharma. I could easily hear myself sing-songing Dhaaaaaaaarmaaaa, cooking up nicknames like Dharmi, Dharmo, Dharmito, Dharm, having to tell people repeatedly it’s not from the TV show Dharma & Greg.
Because in my heart I knew I would not actually be waiting a full year before bringing another dog home, I started checking Petfinder every few days, first using very broad searches and then very, very specific searches. Consciously or not, Macy had formed the new standard for what I wanted in a dog: small enough to pick up, wire-haired, older, and independent. And so one day in March, I found her. The local SPCA had put her picture up that morning, moments before. Ten years old with white wire hair, one brown ear and a brown patch above her eye. Patches was her name. Sometimes without a reason you know that another being is supposed to be in your life, and that’s how I felt that morning. It’s the same way I’d felt a little over five years ago when I first saw Macy.
Patches was at our local SPCA, where I had adopted Macy too. And just like Macy, she was an older pup with health issues who had come to the shelter after being part of a family helmed by an older man. Whereas Macy’s old man had gone into hospice care and his family brought her to the shelter, Patches’ owner had passed away at home and she was taken by animal control. They didn’t know how long ago the owner had passed, only that Patches was very thin. The shelter veterinarian diagnosed her with a Grade III heart murmur, early stage congestive heart failure, and kidney disease. I didn’t know she was sick until I visited her, but that’s what sold me. A senior dog with chronic illnesses? Sign me up immediately.
I never asked if Patches was the name she’d come in with or if that’s what they decided to call her at the shelter, but she didn’t respond to it anyway, so she became my Dharma (she doesn’t respond to that either, but we’re working on it). Now that she and I have been family for six months and her illness is managed, she’s comfortable being herself: a nut, a goober, a weirdo, a goofball, and the right decision. She does a lot of strange things, my favorite being the way she lifts her eyes instead of her head to look at me and the complete lack of a pattern for what gets her into a tizzy. The similarities to Macy are remarkable, and I swear that wasn’t intentional, but they are still unique individuals. One thing I am especially grateful for is that, unlike Queen Grump Macy, I can put my face right up in Dharma’s and kiss her all over her precious head. Most of those kisses are for her, but some are making up for the kisses I could never give Macy.
It’s been very tempting to conceive of Dharma as a chance for me to right all the wrongs I believe I had with Macy because of their similarities. A do-over, if you will. But that’s my guilt thinking for me. Instead, Dharma will have the benefit of the things I was still learning and struggling with while Macy was here earthside, and that might be the best and only way I have of honoring them both. Still, there’s one thing I would change. In retrospect, I waited too long to make the decision to have Macy put to sleep comfortably at home. A part of me believed and still believes that it wasn’t my place to choose for her, even as her guardian. She had always had such a fiercely animated spirit and a strong will to live. You don’t euthanize your family, so who was I to decide for her? It felt like the last act of our mutual respect to simply be there for her as she left this world. I don’t know if I would have felt this way had I not made her my reason to live, had my own needs not blinded me to her suffering. Regardless, I won’t do the same for Dharma. When she succumbs to her illnesses, I want it to be with the grace and dignity that I should have afforded Macy. I will still be right beside her, but she will not suffer.
It took some time, but I eventually began to replace some photos of Macy with photos of Dharma. It was a huge hurdle for my guilt, like I was betraying her and would soon forget her. But my emptiness was filling day by day with delight every time a new aspect of Dharma’s personality was revealed and with peace as I came to embrace that I hadn’t failed Macy, and soon there was no room for guilt. Now my girls are equally represented in the framed photos on the wall and those taped to my fridge. Dharma is, understandably, dominating my phone’s camera roll. I’ve learned that I can survive the loss of someone so special and close to me, and so I will not start grieving for Dharma before she has left me because I want to be present in her life and my own every day. Dharma will not have to face the responsibility, unwittingly but still, of being the anchor that keeps me alive. I want to live for her, not because of her – for Macy’s memory, for myself, and for any future wire-haired, sick old pup who will become my whole world.