Annie on My Mind
When the doctor walks in, I am lying on the exam room floor. He looks down at me and says, “Not again.”
I’m too tired to answer him, so I just nod. A moment later, he kneels down beside me. I am on my side, my arm around my mother’s Golden Retriever, Annie, as I rub her belly. Annie thumps her tail happily and snuggles into me.
In a few minutes, she will be dead.
This dog is not quite nine. But, as an x-ray taken an hour earlier has revealed, she has cancer. Osteosarcoma. It has eaten away parts of her leg bones, which explains why she’s been limping for several weeks. Thinking it was a muscle tear or sprain, we had been treating her with pain medication. But the limp got worse, so I brought her in for another look. The verdict: she is in intense pain that no medication will alleviate. Also, the fast-growing cancer has spread to her organs.
In typical dog fashion, she has not complained once during the past few weeks, accompanying me while I tend to the horses, enthusiastically greeting the UPS truck and waiting for the bone the driver always gives her. Even now, she attempts to get up and greet the man who has come to end her life.
I feel my heart break again. This is the second time in a week I have had to do this. The first time, it was my elderly dog Andy, who failed suddenly. It’s unbelievable that it’s happening again.
The vet administers a sedative, then leaves me alone with Annie while it takes effect. I have about 10 minutes with her before he will come back to give her the final injection. I sit up and put her head in my lap, rubbing her ears and telling her what a good dog she is. Again, her tail thumps against the floor, but not as forcefully.
As I wait for the vet to come back, I tell myself that I am doing the right thing. And I know I am. I saw the x-ray. I listened to the vet who examined her, the same one who helped me make the decision about Andy, tell me that the only available option (amputation and chemotherapy) would, at best, give Annie another few months, and that she would never be free of pain. Still, I insisted on taking her home so that she could lie in the grass one more time, and so that my sister and the other dogs could say goodbye to her.
While I’m doing this, my mother is at her first visit to the daycare program we enrolled her in to give us a break from the relentless pressures of being her caretakers. Not that she would understand what’s happening anyway. She doesn’t remember Annie’s name, or that she’s her dog. She’s also forgotten the name of her husband, who rescued Annie after seeing her locked in a cage at a farmhouse where he’d stopped to buy firewood. That husband is also now dead, but my mother doesn’t remember that, either.
The minutes tick away, and the door opens again. Although she’s groggy, Annie is still awake, and she licks my hand as the vet shaves a spot on her leg, secures a tourniquet, and looks for a vein. “Ready?” he asks, and for moment I think he’s waiting for Annie to answer him, as if she has a choice in any of this. But it’s up to me to make this decision. I nod.
I rub her ears and keep my hand on her chest, feeling her heartbeat slow, then stop. It’s all as peaceful as it can be. But it’s still death. I sit for a minute, the weight of Annie’s head in my lap, as the vet presses his stethoscope to her body and confirms what I already know.
When I get home, my mother has returned from daycare. She is all smiles and oblivious cheerfulness. My sister, who picked her up, tells me that our mother didn’t recognize her, and that within minutes of getting in the car had completely forgotten she’d been anywhere else. We speak wearily, as if even discussing our mother’s illness is exhausting. The hours at daycare are supposed to be breaks from all of this, but I can tell that we’re both realizing that this is something we can’t ever really escape, even for a few hours.
Later, when it’s time to feed the dogs, I lay out only five bowls: three for my dogs, one for my sister’s dog, and one for my mother’s remaining dog. I can’t help wondering if we’ll lose any more of them before my mother succumbs to her own illness. Three of them are elderly, although not physically sickly, much as she is. Will they one by one leave us, even as she continues to sit on the couch, disappearing bit by bit until there’s nothing left? I have become a guardian of aging souls, both canine and human, responsible for seeing all of them out of this world and into whatever comes next.
As I watch the dogs eat, I can’t help but think about Annie. Only that morning, she enthusiastically devoured her breakfast. Now she’s gone. And later, when I feed my mother her dinner, I watch her pick at her food as my sister and I coach her through how to eat it. When her time comes, I wonder, will it arrive suddenly and be over quickly? Or will she linger, forgetting how to eat and slowly starving to death, as often happens with her disease? There’s a measure of comfort in knowing that I was able to help both Andy and Annie transition as peacefully as possible. That we don’t, in most cases, provide humans with the same courtesy is something I think about more and more.
I am thankful that my mother doesn’t have to experience the loss of her beloved dog. But the price of that mercy is a great one, and one I’m sure she would rather not be paying. Andy’s death has been enormously difficult for me, but along with the sadness, I am also left with the wonderful memories and the lessons learned from spending 14 years with him. Those far outweigh the pain of his absence. To have them forcibly removed from me by illness is something I can’t even imagine, even as I see it happen to my mother.
My mother smiles.
“Did you have a good day today, Kathleen?” I ask her.
“Oh, yes,” she says. “It was wonderful. Did you?”
I hesitate a moment, thinking of all the things I’m feeling, all the things I want to say. “It was very nice,” I tell her.
She smiles. “Wonderful,” she says again. “That’s wonderful.”
Michael Thomas Ford is the author of a lot of books, some of which are actually pretty good. He promises that his next column won’t be as depressing. Visit him at michaelthomasford.com.