(Author’s Note: I started this piece in July of 2012. I finished it in September 2012, well after Alex passed away. It took this long to post, because I had gotten extremely ill myself just after finishing this piece. Those of you who are pet lovers and feel deeply, get your hankies ready. [03 March 2013])
Preparing to Lose a Friend
I’ve been preparing myself for almost a year now. A friend I have known for many years is getting ready to die. He’s getting old. I know it. Hell, I’ve known it was coming for some time.
My friend is also a pet. His name is Alex. He was rescued by my wife, a little over thirteen years ago from a shelter called: PAWS. His fate wouldn’t have been to be killed if he wasn’t adopted, but the woman running the place, according to my wife, was truly overwhelmed as it was. So Alex came home.
Alex was maybe five months old when he came home. He’d been abused by his previous owner, who was a dog breeder. You see, Alex is a Chinese Hairless, a relatively expensive breed of dog. Alex is the first pedigree-able dog I’ve ever had. His fate, though, was not that of the others in his litter. One out of every four Chinese Hairless pups is born too hairy. Alex was that one.
He’s so cute, though. Always has been. He’s got these eyes that look at you with such hope for love and affection. You can see it in the set and hold of his body as he wags his tail and looks at you.
Except Alex was abused. The first four or five months he lived with us, going through a door was cause for him to stop, shiver and stand there with fear etched on his face. It didn’t matter if it was a car door, a sliding patio door or a regular house door. It didn’t matter if he was going in or out.
I can’t tell you how angry it made me to see how scared he was. You don’t need a degree in psychology to understand that he was, in all likelihood, kicked out through a door more than once. The unwanted pup of a pedigree breeder, merely because he didn’t have the good grace to be born like his littermates – with cute puffballs of hair only around his tail, ears and shoulders – was a target for abuse. There were times when I saw this behavior and I’d go grab the phone book and start looking for dog breeders to find these inhumane monsters and maybe give them a few too many kicks in their asses out their door.
I got over it. So did Alex. It took time for us both and during that time, we bonded.
My wife complains about the pets in our house. Not that there are too many of them, or that I am indiscriminate in bringing them home. No. She gets upset, because she brings them home and, even when I was working as many, if not more, hours in a week than she was, all the pets cozied up to me, not her.
“I bring them home and you take them away from me,” she’d mock complain. My only response is, “I can’t help it. I love animals and they just love me right back. It’s a shamanic thing.” Maybe it really is a sort of Beast Master and Shaman calling I have with animals? I honestly don’t know. I digress. Such information is grist for another tale another time.
Alex is such a loving little guy. He follows me all over the house and sits right under my feet whenever possible. And while I adore this expression of his link to me, it’s also incredibly frustrating. Too many times in the past thirteen years of his too short life, he’s almost been stepped on, has been stepped on, almost tripped me and has tripped me in my desire to avoid stepping on him as I got up.
He wants to go with me everywhere I go. I go outside, he wants to come. I go inside, he has to come in with me. I sit at the couch, he’s there. I go into the kitchen, he’s there lickity split.
Of course, when it comes to the kitchen, his expectation of a treat is my wife’s fault. In order for her to get in good with our pets, she’d taken the “treats” route of bonding with the pets. So, what they really got out of the deal was that anyone going into the kitchen was the source of a potential snack. On occasions, I must confess, I reinforced that notion.
In earlier times, I wouldn’t do it at all. As Alex, and his buddy, Alvin got older, I would engage in it more often. Not out of an attempt to bond or train them, just because I knew that the little treats they got were so special to them and no real effort on my part. Alvin died a few years back, a victim of poisoning by one of my less enlightened neighbors.
When we first got Alex, he was one of our then four dogs and four cats. Our pet population has always fluctuated over time. At one point we were five dogs and six cats and every time one would disappear or die from something, another would seemingly take its place. We have consciously cut back on our impulsive pet acquisitions (read: my wife hasn’t scooped up abandoned kittens or gone to the shelter recently.) Currently we are at one cat and one dog. A dog who, I am certain, isn’t going to live much more than another week or so.
I noticed his cataracts building up over six years ago. I noted his lack of attention when I called him about three years ago. Since then I watched his sight deteriorate and noticed his hearing fade. I have no idea personally what it must be like to be going deaf and blind, but the idea is clear enough in my mind to understand that Alex’ world is getting darker and quieter. It does so on a slow spiral of fading sensory input.
A year ago, Alex and I would go for two and three mile walks where, by the time we got back, he was just starting to get tired. Since then, I have watched his ability to walk and keep going steadily decline. Now he can barely walk from the kitchen to the living room without having to stop and rest halfway.
I’d be an idiot if I said I didn’t see this coming from a mile away. This doesn’t lessen the sorrow I feel for him. I know he’s suffering to some degree. I also know, though, that he still finds joy in our company and he still seeks to be near me as much as he can. So I accede to that and spend more time with him.
I have never had a pet die of old age. I’ve had pets almost my entire life. Cats and dogs, both to an equal degree. Not one of them lived to a ripe old age and died in my presence. Dogs and cats have been run over by passing cars, poisoned by neighbors who don’t understand that poison, as often as not, kills pets as well as pests, had others die of infections from wounds in fights with other animals and some, quite simply, have just disappeared.
So this is a first for me, in over forty-five years of pets. I will be present for his death. I am prepared. I have been for some time now. I honestly don’t know what keeps him hanging on. I think maybe he still wants to be around us.
I worked at a zoo for nearly seven years and to say that I am familiar with animals passing away would be a mild understatement. Along with my lifelong affection for animals in general, I have had I-cannot-tell-you-how-many pets, some of which I have also had to take to have euthanized for various mortal conditions. So to see an animal die is not something I am unfamiliar with in my life.
This doesn’t change my sorrow. This doesn’t lessen the desire to see them not suffer. It in no way creates in me a sense of fatalism (hah, such a word is wholly apropos) or lack of concern over the situation.
As long as I can make Alex as comfortable as possible; and as long as he seems to be happy to see me, feel me, or be near me, I am happy to be his touchstone to existence in this plane. Until he decides to let go of his body, I will be there for him. I don’t think it’s going to be that much longer – he’s basically stopped eating and can barely walk. So even though I am ready, I am sort of anxious for it to be over – for his sake, not mine.
In the meantime, I continue to prepare myself for the day – the moment – when I check on him and find him no longer breathing. I say I am prepared, but the truth is really that I am as prepared as I can be and hope that each day I am more prepared than I was before.
Alex (1998 --2012)
I wrote the above on Friday, the 06th of July. Less than eighteen hours later, while we were waiting to be seen at the vet to put Alex to sleep, he died of his own accord. He was in the company of his family. He was comforted to the very last and he was not alone when he passed. He was a great little guy and will be missed. I buried him when we got home, never having seen the vet. He was greatly loved and will be deeply missed.