Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Saying Goodbye


I didn't grow up with pets. My parents never felt the need to get us pets (minus my little sister's two Beta fish that came and went) and I don't remember ever really begging for a pet. It wasn't that I didn't like dogs and cats; I had no real feelings one way or the other. My maternal grandparents had big German Shepherds for the first 16 years of my life, and while they loved their big beautiful dogs, they were so big and I was so unused to dogs that they actually scared me and my sisters.

But I married a dog lover. My husband has had a dog since the day he was born. My in-laws have had three different dogs in the 18 years that I have known my husband. Lucky for my husband, for the eight weeks that I spent student teaching in Denver I lived with a couple who had two dogs. They had both decided to surprise each other with puppies one Christmas and so they ended up with two dogs at once: a German Shepherd and a Cocker Spaniel. Those six weeks with both of those dogs taught me the benefit of having a dog as part of our family. So when we bought our first house a year and a half after getting married, it was a given that dog would be joining us in our new home.

The discussion was short. I wanted a Siberian Husky. I wanted a beautiful, furry, blue-eyed beast. And so we looked for a breeder and found one that was only a couple hours away. We were the last family to get on the list and because there were more girls than had been requested, we got the last puppy in the litter. Our little furball was the runt of the litter, but because she was so fluffy, she actually looked bigger than her brothers. I spent my summer vacation training her, taking her outside on a regular basis, walking her in our downtown park, and falling in love with our dogter.

To even begin telling the life story of our Sierra would take days. She was in many ways the anti-Husky. She never tried to run away, she was terrified of house guests (especially when we weren't around), and in later years she had no desire to stay outside in the cold snow. She endured many life changes. She lost her best friend when she was one (and my in-laws dog suddenly died), she experienced an unfortunate grooming incident that led to her enter back end being shaved (let's just say I now have a very difficult time visiting a certain pet store), she was joined by a human sister and brother (in that order), and she survived two moves and three houses.

We loved her, but she had struggled the last several years. Shortly before our son was born I heard a horrible cry of pain from our dog while she was in the backyard. An eventual trip to the vet confirmed that she had blown out her knee. The day before I was set to be induced, we had to sit down and discuss what we were going to do about our dog. The vet hadn't indicated that this would be a "put down" situation, but we also knew that we couldn't afford the surgery, especially since at her age there was little chance that she would have a full recovery. We decided to wait it out and over the past three and a half years she has regained mobility, but it was never the same as before. We spent almost three years trying to convince ourselves that she had recovered from the injury. In the last six months, as we watched her struggle to climb stairs and get up and down from the floor, it became clear that she was in a lot more pain than she was letting on.

Adjusting to the births of her human siblings was also difficult, although she fell in love with her little "brother" as soon as we brought our son home. When our daughter was born her passive aggressive behavior led her to suddenly having "accidents" on the carpet in the hallway and in our daughter's bedroom. When we brought our son home she wanted to be near him at all times, protecting him from any threat, including his big sister. Perhaps that is why it is painfully ironic that it was her biting the little boy that she had worked so hard to protect when he was born that led to the most painful decision of my life.

Sierra looking out for our son when he was a baby.
Last Tuesday night my daughter was dutifully doing her homework while my son ran in circles waiting for his sister to finish so they could go to bed. The kids had always been good about not getting too close to Sierra when they were energetically playing. We always told them that she was a grouchy old lady and she needed her space. They would pet her and occasionally try to get her to play with them, but she was rarely interested. On my son's last round of running he got too close. No growl, no bark, just my son in hysterical tears in the kitchen. Sierra had bitten him hard enough to break the skin through his flannel PJs. I carried him upstairs to check on him and comfort him and from there we got ready for bed. I sent my husband a picture of the bite so that he would know what had happened while he was gone.

When my husband got home, we had a decision to make. I didn't want to talk about it. I wanted to believe it was a one time thing, but in my heart and head I knew that what had happened was fulfillment of some of my worst fears. Sierra, through her physical pain and discomfort (and I am convinced her growing dementia), had finally lashed out at the kids. We needed to protect our kids. We needed to protect our nieces and nephews. We needed to protect our kids' friends. But she was our first baby. How could we decide that she needed to die? We didn't want to punish her. We wanted to protect everyone, including her, from further potential harm.

And yes, I felt like a failure. I hadn't done enough to take care of her. I hadn't done enough to make sure she was comfortable. And I hadn't done enough to make her feel like she was still an important member of our family.

Last Wednesday was hell. As my student teacher took over three class periods and my other three class periods worked on things I had already planned for them to do, I remained in a sea of indecision. Knowing what people will tell you that you should do and actually doing it are two different things. I called the vet's office and made an appointment for later in the afternoon. After picking up my daughter from school I met my husband at home. As I walked into the kitchen to drop off the things I had taken out of the car I saw my dog eating peanut butter out of Kong. I don't know when we had last given her peanut butter in her Kong. I had been holding back tears all day. I turned and left the room, unable to watch her have a treat. I couldn't do it. How could we even consider it? How could we take her to the vet and never bring her home again? She belonged on our living room floor. She belonged with her Kong. And we needed to make sure that she got peanut butter on a regular basis from that point on.

But as I told our vet what had happened, and as I showed her the picture of our son's leg, I knew that she wasn't coming home. We had made that unspoken decision as we talked late into the night, watching Tuesday become Wednesday. Our vet gave us options. She said we could quarantine Sierra. We could try to keep her away from family. We could try to give her medicine that would make her more comfortable and perhaps less grouchy. But it didn't matter. It wasn't going to change the fact that she bit one of the kids without provocation. And it wasn't going to change the fact that I had been worrying about that possibility for the last year as she got increasingly irritable and her behavior more erratic.

We told the kids to say goodbye. They didn't get it. They thought she was still coming home. We told them Sierra was never coming home again. So they hugged her and played a couple games while we went into the operating room to be with Sierra until the end. I couldn't have them in the room with us. I couldn't let them watch as their dog slipped away and I couldn't deal with the questions that were going to accompany them being there. We needed to grieve together, just the three of us. We needed to say goodbye. I needed to face my failures as a mother and caretaker of the beautiful animal who had entered our life 12 years before. And I couldn't do any of that with my children present.

When we got back to the examination room my daughter asked me if the doctor had given Sierra the medicine yet.

Me: Yes.
Lydia: But I wanted to see the doctor give her the medicine.
Me: No you didn't, honey.
Lydia: Is Sierra asleep?
Me: Yes.
Lydia: Is she breathing?
Me: No.
Lydia: But you have to breathe to be alive.

I watched the light go out of my little girl's beautiful, blue eyes as she realized that Sierra wasn't just not coming home. She would never be able to come home again. It has been one of my most painful moments as a parent, watching her experience death for the first time. She immediately insisted on seeing her dog. I couldn't say no. Sierra was gone. Nothing was going to change that. The least we could do, for our children, was to let them say a final goodbye.

Our daughter and dogter had lived an uneasy coexistence for nearly six years, but Sierra was all that she knew. She collapsed into a ball and sobbed. We weren't prepared. We thought she would be sad, but her emotions were raw and they were real. I held her as she cried. And then my husband picked her up and held her as she cried some more. That night I had to let my little girl crawl into our bed, snuggled up with my stuffed rhino, so that she could fall asleep. She was still crying when I finally closed the door to our bedroom and went downstairs.

The next morning, as she was putting on her boots, she said "When Sierra was here it was just perfect. Why did we have to kill our dog?" It was one more knife into my heart. I felt guilty enough about having Sierra put to sleep. To have our daughter voice it so clearly without euphemism was  more than I could handle. I was glad that I had a snow day and my kids still had school. I could work in my classroom and hide from the world. I could just be Sarah. I didn't have to wear my teacher mask. It allowed me to grieve in peace.

I hope that someday our daughter will understand. I hope that someday I will be able to forgive myself for not being a better parent to Sierra when our human children arrived. That I will be able to look at the good years we had together as a family and remember that she was once a very happy, healthy girl. Right now that is difficult. As we add new canine children to our family I will probably work very hard to do penance for the mistakes I made with my first canine child. But I hope that she knew how much she was loved by her parents and siblings, because she is certainly missed.

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