A few months have passed since a vet gave my sweet Sally, a German Shepherd mix of A Certain Age, the diagnosis: a fast-growing malignant tumor on her front left elbow. Since deciding on palliative care, I’ve been keeping her as comfortable as I can, without knowing how many months she has left.
I’ve been trying to keep the people in my life comfortable, too.
“She knows she has cancer,” I try to joke, to set at ease the friends who notice Sally’s tumor. “I told her. You can talk about it in front of her.”
“Sally’s bad at a cancer,” my youngest son says when she’ll still chase a squirrel, as he seeks the language for discussing her illness.
Mostly, Sally’s been of good appetite and energy but occasionally she falters. When she does, I hover for a moment, she steadies herself and we both get on with our days.
This morning’s walk, though, was different. Returning from the woods adjacent to my home, Sally took her usual 50-yard sprint home. As she rounded the path to our front door, though, she stumbled. Leaning on her front legs, she dragged her hind quarters in a short, horrific circle before tumbling forward. I sprinted over to her and cradled her head in my lap. Her breathing was shallow and her eyes half shut.
Squatting in the morning dew, I panicked. Was this it? Should I call my son outside to say goodbye? But what if I left Sally for even a moment and wasn’t there when she died? And what should I do about my 9:30 meeting?
Sally weighs north of 70 pounds. How would I cope with her body? I could wrap her in a blanket to take her to my vet, but I couldn’t carry her to my car. I couldn’t drag her, though! Are there services that help carry deceased pets?
“Siri, look up ‘help with dead dogs’.”
Is this beyond the help I could seek from a neighbor?
In a matter of minutes, Sally’s breathing returned to normal and she stood and walked to the house. I heard her clump up my stairs, followed by the familiar thumping sounds of her wedging herself in her favorite refuge, the space under my bed.
Again, we each went on with our days.
This evening is clear, cool and dry. I made Sally a special dinner and took her for a leisurely stroll around my block. She sniffed, wagged and in general behaved as a happy dog would. Back from our walk, as ever, she’s lying by my feet as I type.
A dress rehearsal? A chance to learn how to get this right?
In terms of my beliefs, I guess I’m what’s known as ‘spiritual but not religious’. Today, tonight, tomorrow, though, I pray to any god available – and to all those who are not – to please, please let me know what to do, how to cope, how to make us all as comfortable as I can, when Sally’s time really does arrive.
This article first appeared in Dogs Today (UK) in June, 2017