It was a Friday. Hot. Sunny. An otherwise nondescript August day. I decided to work from home on a whim. And I saw the first symptoms in the morning while I worked on my laptop. Old Man Simon had asked to get on the bed. I’d picked him up like football and put him down next to me while I typed away. But he couldn’t stay still. He panted. He stretched. He shifted. I smiled, even giggled a little, called him a dork. Because Simon–you may well remember, was so unpredictable and odd, nothing out-of-the-ordinary was alarming.
You were downstairs with nana and mom. And like almost every day of your life, you woke up a little after Simon did; ate your breakfast in front of the TV, not long after Simon loudly snarfed down his food in the kitchen; sat and enjoyed your show while Simon snored next to you on the couch, or tick-ticked from one side of the room to the other. You probably held your nose because he farted that morning and said “Oh Simon! That’s nasty!”
And then at one point in the early afternoon…I already forget when, we all began to notice his behavior was not normal. Stretching. Pacing. Panting. Unable to lie still for even five seconds. First we thought he was hot. We put some water on his back to see if that would help. No change. And then we observed him more carefully. The stretching looked funny–half a downward-facing-dog stretch that came on fast, and seemed involuntary.
Nana was visiting and she wondered if maybe it was his back, or his stomach, but I know mom and I were thinking about his brain–something about the spasmodic nature of each stretch, the panting and pacing that followed. A tortured conversation ensued about whether or not you should go to camp, and if so, how we might pick you up if things looked bad.
Several minutes later, nana and papa were taking you to camp and mom and I were at the vet. They really weren’t sure what it was, and to rule out a back problem, they gave Simon a shot for pain, and some steroids–and in a weird way, to me, it felt like that was when Simon’s life was over. Simon stopped being Simon from that moment on. The pain medication made him loopy and drunk-legged for 30 minutes or so, but the steroids–those made him a thousand times more restless, hungry, panting, edgy.
And the stretching continued when we came home. His paws began to curl. A sure sign he was having seizures.
While nana and papa were retrieving you early from camp, mom and I were speeding down I-94 on our way to the emergency vet in Buffalo Grove. Simon was in the the back seat with me, seizures following on top of each other with the regularity of contractions…though for a spell, he almost seemed relaxed…his last moments of relaxation.
I was mostly convinced that he had developed a chronic condition because of his Cushings disease, and that it would be treatable…until I saw the look on the vet tech’s face when I told her he was having seizures. Then I knew. They took him in immediately, an IV went into him and we waited.
You arrived with a headache and car sickness from the ride with nana and papa, and shortly after, you threw up in the waiting room bathroom. Mom bought us some food and we ate what we could while we waited. Nana and papa went home. You were hopeful, I’m sure, because you’re not a negative person, and you’re always ready to try, never inclined to give up.
This is one reason we had you leave the room while we discussed options with the vet. This is also why we tried the IV of antiepileptic medication, and why we were willing to take pills home with us and see if we could treat him with those. But when he came back from the IV treatment and immediately had another seizure, when they became more and more frequent, when he urinated during one…hope was lost.
Mom was a rock. (This is something about us you may have noticed. You’ll never know which will be the strong one, but one of us always manages to hold it together. Today it was mom’s turn.) I was a wreck. I choked up in front of the doctor. I cried when you came back in and we told you what was happening. You shouted “no!!!” and you and I clung to each other and wept.
Mom was stoic, resolved–a calm came over her that was clinical, practical and in some ways resembled relief. His long, tortured decline would come to an end, and he would be at peace. You and I were immediately in the thick of grief, and could only seem to console each other.
We were ushered into a small room that was carefully designed to help families let go of their pets. The lights were dim (which was good because your head was still pounding.) There were pictures of families with pets that had passed. A large, comfy dog mattress that could have fit a German shepherd, and a shelf full of picture frames and bric-a-brack. Our job was to love on our dog and find enough peace to say goodbye. And with the steroids that coursed through Simon, this was a challenging mission. He paced away from our hugs. He sniffed low when tried to kiss his head, and climbed the shelves and knocked over the bric-a-brack when we tried to keep him still. Your thoughtful mother gave Simon her Red Robbin sweet potato fries and we giggled while he inhaled them from their cardboard container. He was still hungry.
How do you know when you’re ready to kill your dog? This is an impossible question, but at some point we seemed to have an answer without trying and we pressed a little button that summoned a vet. We knelt down next to him, and listened to the doctor’s careful, soft-spoken explanation. We saw him drift off into sleep and we hugged him, kissed him, dripped tears on his jowls while we watched his tiny black and white belly rise and fall, rise and fall in a medicated sleep. And then again we were asked if we were ready for the final injection. We nodded, held hands, petted our Simon, and watched his belly go still.
I can still hear your tears. A tiny being with such an outsize personality, an expulsive, snorty, smelly, loud, ridiculous little animal, suddenly as still as a stone, as lifeless and invisible as end of a deep woods winter breeze. Gone. Just like that.
She carried Simon gingerly up and out of the room. We packed up our things, and left the hospital. While making our way through the waiting room, we were a walking tableau–two parents on either side of their 10-year-old daughter, her face tear stained, the family’s faces ashen. In the little girl’s hands, she held a dogless leash and collar. The story told itself. One empathetic owner’s gaze after another met ours as we made the slow walk to the car. We said little during the long drive home. You and I left the car and were headed out of the garage when we noticed Mom wasn’t with us. She was bent over the steering wheel, crying. Now it was her turn.
Zoe greeted us from the couch, her head hung low, almost submissive, but she seemed to read our sadness and enter a state of mourning–not knowing why, but joining us nonetheless.
We talked that night about your feelings. While we were still in the hospital you described the peculiar mix of emotions you were having, and we told you it was “grief.” “What’s that?” you replied. We had a lot of interesting talks over the next few days about what grief is and how you have to welcome it or else it overwhelms you.
What I’ll never forget is that you were as much a comfort to me as mom was. It’s the first time we ever went through something like this together, as equals. You didn’t become so inconsolable that we had to shift our attention to caring for you before mourning ourselves. Instead, you mourned with us. We all needed and leaned on each other. Through all this pain, that was something kind of beautiful.