I put my dog to sleep this weekend. I’ve written about her before in these (virtual) pages because she was such a comical little creature. Though she was a chihuahua, a breed with a reputation for being yappy and selfish, Hannah was shy, sweet and generous with her love. With an overlong muzzle and too-high ears, she didn’t match the breed standard—but then, neither do I. We liked each other fine.
She was 12 and had cancer, which are the best circumstances one could ask for when charged with killing their own dog. Yes, she was a senior. Yes, she was ill. Yes, to extend her life would have caused her suffering. All true. And all completely irrelevant when I look at her favorite spot on the sofa and she isn’t in it.
A few years ago, I read a book by journalist Jon Katz whose philosophy of dog euthanasia impressed me. Katz said he wanted his dogs to go out on top. He wanted to grab hold of them at the best moment of their lives, right before the decline into illness, and help them slip away just then, so the entirety of their lives would have been happy.
After I read that, I pledged to do my best for Hannah, and I did come pretty close. Hannah did have one or two unnecessary outpatient chest taps, which I’m sorry for, but she wasn’t in great discomfort and was able to spend three months being treated like the little queen she was. The last three months of her life were probably the most meaningful time she and I ever spent together. I was lucky to have it, and even luckier that I had good veterinary counsel and Katz’s book on my night stand so I was able to say no when it was the right word to use. Saying yes would have been all about forestalling my own suffering.
In the days before her death, she had visitors. One fed her more noodles than she ever knew existed. Another cried over her while she sat, staring obliviously, as she did nearly 20 hours a day. For her last meal, we made her beef stew and gave her disgusting dog treats that I typically reserved only for slipping pills into. I even let her roll in the grass at the park as much as she wanted, even though I strongly suspected that whatever she was rolling in was repulsive.
She was a happy little dog in those last weeks—though a dog whose chest was filling with fluid—and I’m glad I could make her life a good one at the end, even though I’d been unworthy of her adoration years until then. Not because I was a bad owner, but because all humans are unworthy of that worship.
I asked the vet to give Hannah some mild sedation prior to the event itself because she hated to have her paws touched. I didn’t want the placement of the IV to upset her right as she was dying. So when they brought her to me, wrapped in a pink towel, her tongue was sticking out of her mouth a little. “She’s lost tongue control,” I was told, as a result of the sedation. I held her like a baby in her towel, that little pink tongue sticking out, and looked into her eyes. I spoke quietly to her and bounced her in my arms. She stared back at me. I told her she was a good dog, over and over. She mustered some tongue control and licked my face.
When her heart stopped, that was it. Game over. Time to give the vet the body and leave. But I got all Rick Santorum about it, and couldn’t let her go. I would have held her for hours if the vet hadn’t taken her away.
I will always remember that last lick, and the last minutes of her life. I will always remember the last weeks, and know that I did what I could—and then I didn’t do what I could, and that was more important.