Knowing your dog could die at any time

When your vet tells you that your dog could die at any time, that her heart could just stop breathing and, you live with that knowledge for almost three months, part of you knows that it can happen. At. Any. Time.  And, so you do what you’ve always done in the past when one of your dogs is dying from something: cancer or kidney failure usually. Whatever the illness is, you watch for any kind of change in that dog’s physical behavior – because even a subtle change like a slight stumble going down the three steps leading out of the kitchen out into the backyard signals a new weakness. Or a setback. Something.

When your vet tells you that your dog could die at any time because there’s a leak in her heart and that the grade three heart murmur seems to be a four or a five, that not enough oxygen is getting where it’s supposed to go but, that heart disease isn’t painful – not this kind anyway – that if she did die at home, it would (most likely) be quick.

Three or four days before she died, she’d stopped eating except for what I could hand feed her.

Sunday night, my son was out with Josephine in the back yard and without any warning, she fell on her side and (he said) started twitching. By the time I got to her, she was laying, quietly, on her side, looking up at me with her beautiful, dark brown eyes. Scooping her up and carrying her back inside, I placed her towards the front of the Great Dane sized crate in the kitchen. We piled all of the animals into the kitchen, found places for ourselves and hunkered down – there was a ball game on the radio that we listened to.

Later, when it was just Josephine and me in the kitchen, I silently asked her not to die that night. No way would we take her to an emergency vet clinic that night, not with a policy that required a staff attendant to take her off to a part of the clinic where we wouldn’t be allowed to go.  As long as she wasn’t in any pain, we’d wait until the next morning to take her to our own vet one last time.

I slept downstairs that night. Started off in the kitchen but decided that if the goal was to keep things as normal as possible, Josephine would be fine sleeping in that crate without me being in the kitchen with her. I camped out in the sun room. Close enough if she needed to go outside. Which, it turns out, she wanted to do at 6AM the next morning. She could get up and stand in the kitchen all by herself. Getting down those three steps and out the door was going to be the challenge.

I picked her up and carried her outside. As she peed, I looked up into a still-dark sky at the sliver of moon anchored by one bright star.

Back in the kitchen not five minutes later, Josephine ambled into the crate and settled into the back of it, on her side. I could watch the bellows action of her chest as she breathed in … and out. Alex and I got the other two dogs outside, fed the cats and started food preparations for feeding the dogs. I kept looking over my shoulder, watching Josephine breathe …. she took one very deep inhale that filled her chest cavity. I must have turned away for a second because when I looked back at her, she was gone.

I walked around Gracie, her eyes intently tracking the dog food as Tessa jumped straight up in the air reaching my son’s shoulder, knelt down in front of the crate and reaching my hand inside, placed it on Josephine’s side. No movement. “Alex,”  I said and then paused. “She’s gone.”

“You’re kidding,” he said.

I let her be and went back to help get both dogs fed. Standing in front of that crate, looking at her, I felt and saw the energy that was Josephine’s life force leave her body.  It felt like a shiver, a jolt of awareness that catches you up – sparkly light that kind of whooshed upward – a soaring motion that follows the same kind of arc that happens when someone shakes a freshly laundered sheet over a bed causing that sheet to billow up and then slowly settle, except that this tingly light was all soaring upward, joyously free.  I felt a bit envious about where she was going.

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