THIS IS THE PART no one tells you about.
Before the sun is up, I have cleaned a night’s worth of feces from the dog’s bed. I have given her a bath, thrown the bed into the washing machine, and carried her up from the basement to feed her. I carry her outdoors to pee, wash and sanitize my hands, and deposit her in her daybed in the kitchen. Every two hours, I will repeat part of this ritual, as I have done for going on two years now. My 12-year-old dachshund is blind, crippled, and bowel incontinent — the curse of a disk disease that struck when she was 4.
The question I face daily is how much longer I will be lucky enough to do this. Friends whose dogs were too large to carry in senescence have long since made the tough decision. Compassionate adults are forced to put their animals down every day, and I honor them for their heartbreaking courage. But it is something I can’t bring myself even to consider.
Recently, I found myself in a conversation with a dog walker, who also works as a veterinarian’s assistant. She sees the torment of owners every day. “It’s so hard,” she told me with professional cheer. “The dogs come striding in with their tails wagging. They have no idea what’s about to happen to them.”
For days, I was haunted by this — to me unimaginable — image of little tails held high, trotting down the hall toward the machinations of their oblivion.
Call me weak, a coward. Or call it part of the bargain.
Few marriages are so good. For a decade, we greeted each other before the rest of the house was up and spent 45 minutes of quality time together in the park. Her little legs kept up the pace over ice, in snow, in the heat of August, and if I talked to her, it was of the universe we shared, of sniffs and sights, of hawks and shrews. Back home, she sat patiently as I worked at my desk, watched me try out recipes, fold laundry, occupy tired children. At night, she lay at the foot of the bed. She has licked my tears, warned off sketchy canvassers, alerted me to smoking casseroles.
And now, her frail, damaged body is like a bell, reminding me of our interdependence with other beings among whom we dwell. It’s impossible to delude myself that ours is a human-centric universe. The minute I start to imagine that it’s all about us, she barks to be taken out, or turns her eyes toward me, and I remember what I can’t imagine living without.
Fortunately, I’m not alone. A friend’s wife used to make him walk their arthritic beagle in a baby carriage up Commonwealth Avenue. Another camped out in a hospital cage with her dying Corgi. In this context, I consider myself a moderate. I haven’t dusted off the stroller or purchased “wheels” that would make her more mobile around the house.
Months ago a neighbor assured me, “She’ll tell you when she’s ready.” It hasn’t yet happened.
As her annual physical was wrapping up last month, I told the vet that I wasn’t even close to putting her down. She looked at me, appraising. “If her bladder goes, you may want to reconsider. That’s no quality of life for a dog.”
But I don’t want to even think about that happening. Not if I can help it. I just smiled. At this, the vet did something remarkable, something as unorthodox as it was, in the moment, natural. She leaned in and kissed my cheek.
And I knew just what she meant.