#155 Making Death Personal (2006)

All Rights Reserved © 2006 Thomas W. Day

This month death got personal.  On the scale of suffering that people experience, I admit my experience may be trivial.  My dog died.  I didn't lose a child, my wife, a sibling, a parent, or a dear friend.  Just a dog. 

I've suffered losses before, more substantial losses, but not more personal ones. 

When I was a kid, my mother died; after a year of suffering the failures of the American medical system that were typical of 1957.  Not long after that, my father's father, my grandfather, died.  During the Vietnam years, two close friends died in the rice paddies of Southeast Asia.  A decade later, a young dear friend died of massive heart failure, thanks to a short life of tobacco abuse and poor diet and genetics, less than a year after I'd moved to California.   My youngest daughter was nearly killed in a terrible car accident and my wife and I clung to each other for support for four awful, long days, until we had some assurance that she would survive and we could imagine our lives restarting again.  I've survived death and near death of those close to me and it was painful, heartbreaking, and bits of me left with those spirits.

I've hunted and killed animals.  I've witnessed strangers' deaths so first hand that they took their last breath within sight; once, within range of my touch.  Death isn't something I fear, particularly.  I'm not religious, superstitious, or inclined to believe that a painless death is a bad thing at the end of a well-lived life. 

My dog died within minutes of my coming home at the end of a work day.  He, Puck, had been sick for a few weeks, noticeably.  I don't think he suffered much, except for loss of mobility in his last couple of days of life.

Puck was a pound dog.  He came into our lives at a pet store, a few weeks after our first dog had been killed when she escaped our yard and found her way into traffic.  I had no intention of replacing her, but my wife somehow thought we needed to fill that hole in our lives with another life.  Puck looked like a wild dog, we have no idea what breeds he came from, but he was the gentlest of souls ever to grace the earth.  His only fault was that he loved children uncontrollably.  Any excuse, any tiny sound of children laughing, and Puck would find a way to escape his leash, his fenced yard, or just slip away when we weren't looking to find the source of child-sound and be loved by a kid.  Kids all loved him, too. 

Adults were sometimes afraid of his wild eyes, his huge teeth, and his giant grin, but kids figured him out instantly.  My baby grand daughter's first word was "Puck" and that is still her favorite word for "dog."  She lavished love and abuse on him for a year of his life.  Not that she would even think about hurting him, but she loved him so much she leapt to hug him when he'd come into the house and, sometimes, she'd practically crush him to the floor. 

There were a few, quite a few, times when I was less than a big admirer of that dog.  Puck would take off, any time we weren't paying perfect attention, chasing down the sound of kids or other dogs.  I spent too many afternoons and evenings stalking our neighborhood looking for "that damned dog" and I vowed, more than once, to beat him into a pulp when I found him.  I always found him playing with kids and he'd be so happy to see me that my anger would dissolve into something closer to disappointment.  Disappointment that he wasn't satisfied with our company, that he so desperately need to be around children, that two old people who cared for him weren't enough to keep him happy.  It wasn't his fault. He just wasn't our dog.  He was a kid's dog.

So, finally, we saw the light and my daughter's family adopted him.  He flourished, only running away a couple of times in the year he lived with them, with two in-house kids to love.  In the last couple of months, he developed a urinary problem.  My wife and daughter took him to a vet, who gave him antibiotics and said it was either an infection or something much more serious.  The bleeding cleared up and he did well, except for slowly dropping weight while appearing to have a good appetite, in the next month and a half.    Suddenly, one morning, my daughter discovered that Puck couldn't stand and was dragging his hind legs around the yard. 

She called us, my wife and I, for advice.  We aren't particularly wise about sickness, death, or doctors.  We both lost our mothers to cancer and we're fatalistic about death.  Still, I didn't want the kids to watch their pet die, so I offered to bring him back to our home, to what we still called "Puck's yard," to see if a change in place might help. 

For a day, it seemed to.  Puck couldn't walk down the porch steps, but he did take some tentative steps in his old yard and found his way up to the deck in his yard, where his dog house used to be and where he'd spent many hours listening for the sound of neighborhood children playing.  He was with us for two days and, the morning he died, my wife had spent a few moments with him before going to work.  She thought he seemed tired, but he didn't show any signs of being in pain.  I left for a department meeting that morning and didn't get out of the house in time to look in on him before I left for work. 

When I came home, about noon, I went out to see if he'd eaten.  It was starting to rain a little and Puck hated being in the rain.  If he was not in his dog house, I planned to carry him into our sun porch, where we had a mat and some blankets laid out for him.  I found him, slightly warm but stiffening, at the edge of the deck. He was probably trying to crawl under the deck, where he'd spent a lot of warm or rainy days when he lived with us.  His wild eyes were still open, his huge tongue was out, but cold and unmoving, and his constant grin was replaced by something lifeless, something not at all like the dog I'd known for almost eight years. 

Puck and I had something different than "love" between us.  He frustrated the hell out of me, running away and being the most incredibly "lazy" dog I've known.  He didn't chase balls, catch Frisbees, or play tug-a-war.  Puck didn't particularly like going for a walk and wouldn't run if you chased him with a pitchfork.  He hated water and cowered like he was being beaten when we took him to the lake to swim with the family.  He just wanted to lay in the shade and be played with by children.  Not a bad life's goal, obviously. 

Some folks will probably say we abused him by not taking him back to a vet to be prodded, probed, poked, x-rayed, hacked open, and experimented on.  Maybe.  He might have lived longer if we had.  He might have died miserably in a vet's cage or on an operating table.  Puck hated his visits to the vet, even when he was there for a few days while we traveled.  The women who cared for him on those occasions said he was "the best dog" and gushed over him like he was a baby, but he desperately wanted out of that place and acted as if we'd abandoned him for few days after he got back home. I'd have to carry him into the vet's office for his annual shots.  He was passive, didn't try to escape, bite me, or struggle, but he wouldn't walk into that building on his own power. 

I know how he feels.  I worked in medical devices for a couple of centuries, one decade.  I met lots of greedy, careless, arrogant, uninformed, unskilled doctors.  I also met a few dedicated, incredibly skilled rare exceptions.  I found that hospitals are soulless, heartless, unhealthy places to die, even though a wonderful facility (Denver General Hospital) and its amazing surgeons gave my daughter's life back to her and my family.

All I want from the medical business, when I'm dying, is whatever it takes to live as comfortably as possible for however long I have to live.  No chemotherapy, no radical surgery, no radiation, no messed-up pharmaceutical experiments, no funky plastic replacement organs or bone parts, no electronic cardio-stimulation crap, and no time wasted in a hospital bed.  Tell me how long I have to live, give me whatever I need to squash the pain, and get the hell out of my way while I finish up the days of my life. 

That's how I hope to finish this mortal coil (whatever that means).  I may fail.  I may lose courage and wallow in false hope while I make my family miserable caring for my gutless butt, but I hope to do better than that.  Besides, I'm a lousy patient. 

Puck died well.  I can only hope to die as untroubled. 

When I found him in the yard, I sat with him for a few moments, remembering how vital and loving he'd been.  Just the night before, I'd sat in the yard and talked to him while he rested his head on my leg.  We made some kind of peace with each other and I couldn't find any sign that he was in pain.  I rubbed his neck, he licked my hand, and we watched the geese in the lake and the trees waving in the wind.  Leaves were budding on the trees, it was a warm, sunny day.  I left him outside that night, thinking he'd be more comfortable in his yard, in his dog house, than on the tile floor of the sun porch. 

Now, he is dead. 

I closed his eyes, wrapped him in a sheet, carried him down by our lake, and buried him in the rain.  While I dug the hole, I put a tarp over him, to keep him dry.  Puck hated the rain and I stupidly thought he'd be "more comfortable" under a tarp than getting wet under a sheet.  When I put him into the hole, I was amazed at how small he was.  He'd lost a lot of weight, but that wasn't all.  He seemed so much larger in life than he was in death. 

Today, I'm working in the attic and it's raining again.  When I took a break and looked out the window, I had a perfect view of "Puck's yard."  I remembered him wandering the yard, looking up to see if someone was watching him, hoping someone would let him out to go look for kids to play with. Then that recollection vanished and was replaced with the memory of that dead, furry shell he'd left for me to bury.  I don't think I've yet shed tears for Puck.  Maybe I didn't love him as much as he deserved.  Maybe I'm old enough that a dog's death won't make me cry.  Maybe I'm an asshole who doesn't care about my own pet's life and death. 

What I did think about, looking out that window, was all the people who've lost more this year, this month.  Parents who've lost sons and daughters to war, terrorists, criminals, disease, and accidents.  Those who have lost a spouse, a friend, or someone or something dear to them through no fault of their own.   I thought about the people who had to bury or burn the bodies of their loved ones, because there was no one there to do it for them.  I compared that to my shallow experience burying my grandkids' dog. 

I thought about those pampered assholes in Washington and Wall Street who are so immune to human feeling; greedy rationalizing men and women who callously bomb innocents who had the gall to get between the oil coveted by the Texas Mafia.  I pictured myself as one of my fellow Americans trapped inside of nature's fires, hurricanes and floodwaters, ignored by those soul-dead bastards.  My dog's death didn't compare.  Nothing I've ever experienced compares.

What can it feel like to be treated that badly?  How much can you hate someone who causes that kind of misery?  How far would you go to "get back" at someone who dropped a bomb, carelessly and viciously, on someone you loved?  I think I feel a little of how far I'd go and it scares the hell out of me.  It scares me that this government is making that kind of enemies for my family and my country.

April 2006

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