“We who choose to surround ourselves
with lives even more temporary than our
own, live within a fragile circle;
easily and often breached.
Unable to accept its awful gaps,
we would still live no other way.
We cherish memory as the only
certain immortality, never fully
understanding the necessary plan.”
~ Irving Townsend
And so it seems that for the next installment in my Wednesday series on death and dying that I shall be writing about something very raw and close to home…
On Sunday January 15 at 4am Ben and I made one of the hardest decisions we have yet made for our little family. We chose to euthanise our darling dog, Bert.
It was an entirely unexpected place to find ourselves in. Although, if you have read last Monday’s post, you will see that I was in fact forewarned, after having chosen the oracle card for the week ahead earlier on Saturday morning. A card that I discounted and put down, so that later I might choose another, better card.
That card was such a portend; a heartbroken woman, tears running down her face, cradling in her arms her dead dog – the little ginger pup with the red collar.
Who would have thought on a sunshiny Saturday morning, with our two dogs Harry and Bert well and happy and flourishing, that by Saturday evening it would all be going horribly downhill for one of them?
Dear readers, this is so often the way death finds us and our loved ones. This is the way the world is. One moment life is fine and normal. The next moment everything is different. Changed forever.
Our Saturday started as Ben and I grabbed a coffee and the weekend papers in town then headed home to sit on the veranda. We did some writing together before the heat of the day while Bert and Harry sat at our feet, went off for a little wander, and then came back to the shade again.
The farm is in the grip of a heatwave. As I sat down mid-morning to do a little prep work and then start a day of skype readings with clients the boys all retreated to our air-conditioned bedroom – the one cool room in the house. Bert stayed there all day, happy on the bed. Harry and Ben did a little farm work and then came back to the bedroom. It was just too hot for anything!
When I finished work just before 6pm we all headed up to the pool. While Ben and I swam Harry and Bert ran around the edges, following us. Eventually Bert tired of the game and lay down. He’d only been lying there a few minutes when he stood up suddenly. He was violently ill. After which he pooed everywhere and began to shake. Bert looked at me and our eyes locked. I got a terrible cold feeling and a sense of certainty that he was going to die. He collapsed in front of me.
It all happened in seconds. But even now those seconds feel like hours. I called to Ben that something was wrong and we jumped out of the pool and hurried to Bert’s side. Ben thought he might have eaten something. I was sure it was more urgent than that.
I ran back to the house, my heart pounding, and began to ring the local vets. Frantically I called vet after vet. Most were on holidays. No-one answered the phone. Finally, on the sixth call a vet in Lismore, a thirty minute drive away, picked up. If we came straight away she would meet us at the clinic. By this time Ben had brought Bert down to the house. Our beloved dog was lying on our bedroom floor, his gums pale, his breathing laboured, his heart beat erratic, his body twisted with pain.
I was sure it was a snake bite.
Leaving Harry in our room, Ben carried Bert to the ute and placed him in the back seat, where I climbed in beside him to cradle his head and comfort him as Ben drove us to get help.
Our poor dog. He was in a bad way, and as I felt his heart race and slow and flutter beneath my fingers it was all I could do to stay calm. I poured every ounce of love I had into him, and told Bert stories to keep him quiet and listening to my voice.
While our world spun, life went on as normal for most everyone else. Families came to the dinner table, or sat in front of television. People went about their lives. This is how it is when your world is falling apart. Other people’s lives are progressing as they always have. The only sky that falls is yours. It’s as if you move into a parallel dimension.
The vet was young and inexperienced. She was not sure what to do. She kept walking out of the surgery room, leaving us alone for long periods of time. It did not instill us with confidence.
It took several goes for her to find a vein. She did a coagulation test, and told us it wasn’t a snake bite. She thought our sick dog might have eaten something. Meanwhile Bert was increasingly distraught, and then began to poo an acrid foaming mess of faeces and blood. The vet thought she might give Bert a drip and then leave him alone in the clinic overnight, after which the senior vets could assess him and give him some scans the next morning.
Our dog was shaking and moaning and the vet wanted to leave him alone and unattended in a cage all night.
Ben asked for other options. The vet suggested an emergency vet hospital on the Gold Coast. But less than an hour further up the road and we could be back in Brisbane, with a place to sleep, and close to our trusted family vet come Monday morning. As soon as the drip was in place we paid the bill and Ben carried Bert out to the car, our plan already decided.
I sat in the back with Bert’s head on my lap, wads of towels under him to catch the stinking bloody waste that kept oozing from him. We strapped the drip to the door frame and raced away.
Ben hugged the speed limit as he drove us home to the farm. The familiar country roads went by in a blur. Night fell. It was still stinking hot, and I was grateful that the car was cool and quiet.
At home one of us stayed with Bert while we took turns picking up Harry Dog and locking the house and sheds. I grabbed a bottle of essential oil and my computer. There was no time for anything else.
We were soon on our way again. Ben concentrated on the road, and Harry Dog sat in the front seat, twisted around so that he could see Bert and I, his eyes worried and fretful.
I rubbed Peace and Calming Oil (the same one I used when I helped my friend Angela to pass) on my hands and then let Bert breathe it in. I rubbed it along his spine. It took away his agitation and helped him to settle. It helped me too.
I noticed everything. The velvety feel of Bert’s muzzle, the raggedness of his breathing, Harry’s gentle and frequent sighs, the steady drip of the saline from the bag into the tube that was bandaged to Bert’s leg.
As we drove I patted Bert, and talked to him. I breathed in his pain, and breathed out love. I thought about the fact that here we suddenly were, pushing ourselves on this frantic journey to get help for our loved one – enroute to an excellent animal medical facility. I was monitoring Bert’s drip, we were safe, and yet there were so many people in the world in that same moment who did not have the care, attention or even the rudimentary treatments afforded our dog.
Bert settled under my touch and rested. But his eyes tracked our movements and he did not sleep. If I stopped patting him or talking to him he nudged me until I began again. He seemed unaware of the smells and the ooze. He became peaceful. Almost content. I filled the car with gentle talk about burgers and walks and adventures and lots of food stories. Bert loved his food, and burgers most of all.
When we arrived at the veterinary hospital it was just before midnight. Ben went ahead to get help and soon orderlies came with a stretcher. They carried Bert away, Ben following, while Harry and I stayed with the car.
As soon as the heavy doors shut and we could no longer see them, Harry began to whimper. I could not quieten him. He did not want me to put essential oil on him. I understood. He wanted to feel his feelings. He did not want to be pacified. Eventually the whimper became a howl. I crawled onto the front seat beside him and held him in my arms. I couldn’t cry, so Harry did for us. Nothing I did gave him any comfort. It was awful.
Ben took forever. Enough time for me to wipe up most of the shit and the blood from myself and the car. Enough time for me to use the remains of a bottle of water to clean things as best I could and to dump all the filthy towels into a vet waste bin.
Finally Ben returned and beckoned us to come inside. The vets had suggested that we bring Harry too, so we clipped him onto a leash and he trotted in beside us.
Reception was similar to a hospital waiting room. While Bert was being attended to by the vet team a nurse brought me a cup of tea. Ben couldn’t stomach one. We sat in uncomfortable chairs and waited, Harry lying pressed against our feet. Above us the minutes ticked by on a gigantic clock.
Then they brought me Bert’s big red leather collar, which I stuffed into my bag.
Ben kept one hand on me, and one hand on Harry. Somehow his hands steadied us enough that we could breathe again and be calm.
The night dragged on.
The emergency vet came and talked to us. The young country vet in Lismore had not forwarded Bert’s test results and records like she had promised us. They were running new tests but it was clear that Bert was a very, very ill boy. I asked if she could run the snake venom panel again, and the vet told us that the first test in Lismore would have been done too soon, and therefore was possibly unreliable. The best way to test would be with urine, but they’d need to insert a catheter. Bert was dangerously dehydrated so they were currently pumping him full of fluid. The vet agreed that it looked like snakebite, but the tests would take at least an hour. She was quietly reassuring. They were getting things under control.
I still felt cold to my core. It didn’t seem real and at the same time every detail was seared into my memory. I was certain we were losing him.
The vet went back into the surgery to do her work and a nurse took us to another room where we began filling in forms and giving our credit card details.
Finally we were asked to come through into the big, airy treatment room. There were several dogs in crates, most of them sleeping. There was medical equipment everywhere, and teams of people in scrubs working at lab stations.
It was three in the morning and Bert was now resting on a comfy bed in a large open cage on floor level. The nurses had given him a pillow for his head and a stuffed toy to keep him company. The vet was sitting beside him on the floor.
Harry went over and licked his face and cried a little. Bert rallied and licked him back. Suddenly Harry pulled away and went and sat on his own with his back to us, near the door. Ben and I gave Bert cuddles and hugs, and told him what a good boy he was and how much we loved him.
The vet staff urged us to go home. Bert was stable, they had given him pain meds and he was getting dopey. Soon he would sleep. They would call us as soon as they had any results. We could come back and see him in the morning.
One final round of cuddles and we did go home. We scrubbed ourselves clean under long hot showers and then slid into bed, worried and exhausted.
We’d only just gotten to sleep when the phone rang. It was 4am. The vet had news. She had decided to do an ultrasound of Bert’s belly while they waited for the snakebite kit. She’d found a large mass on his spleen that was bleeding heavily into his abdomen. Then the snakebite test had come back positive. Bert needed urgent surgery for the mass, but his blood wasn’t clotting because of the snakebite. If she attempted surgery in his current state he’d bleed out.
He was bleeding out anyway.
On top of that it was likely he had damage from the snake venom. Heart damage. Nerve damage.
The vet was distraught but professional. She began talking surgeries, transfusions, risks, medications. Chemotherapy. Radiation. Months. Pain management.
Everything was risk. Everything was a gamble. All of it would mean more suffering for our beautiful boy. But she could try.
Meanwhile Bert was resting comfortably, finally asleep from the pain meds and a sedative.
So, Ben and I told her we’d call her back.
We sat on the bed with Harry beside us and we didn’t even need to talk. We just looked at each other and both of us shook our heads, tears running down our faces. It was enough. We couldn’t let him suffer.
So we called her straight back and asked her to euthanise him. We didn’t want for him to have to wait for us to travel to see him one more time (although we wanted to, but that was about our needs, not Bert’s), or to wake him up when he was finally calm and asleep. The vet explained that it was easy for her to do. She just needed to add a little extra medication to his drip. The vet promised us that she would hold him and stay with him until he passed. She had been unable to be with one of her own animals a few weeks before when her elderly pet had taken ill and had needed to be put to sleep. It was something she wanted to do now for Bert. I knew she would help Bert to feel loved, and one more time Nurse Bert got to comfort and support someone in need.
Because that’s what our beautiful dog always did. He loved you and stayed with you and looked after you until he was sure you were okay again.
It’s been ten days now.
Our home feels emptier.
Harry Dog is pining and clingy.
There’s too much room on the bed.
If I drop food on the floor it stays there.
Even though we are grieving our hearts are full, because this goofy dog who came into our lives when I found him abandoned and near death one hot summer afternoon – in a cardboard box at a suburban shopping centre – turned out to be one of the greatest friends we’ve even known.
We’d had him nine years almost to the day.
Nurse Bert. Our dog. Our friend. <3