Though most of us have reconciled to the fact that we will not live forever, we cannot imagine that a day will come when our animal companion is no longer with us.
More difficult is facing the evidence that – while our frosty-faced baby’s vital organs sputter along – his quality of life has ended.
We may very well know the “right” thing to do, yet we wrestle with the question that dogs us from the moment we first hear that painful yelp or see that stumble on normally stable ground:
How do we know when it's time to end our beloved companion’s life when his own heart does not know when to stop beating? How long do we conscionably preserve our living testament to unconditional love? Can’t we just squeeze out one more day together?
These were the questions facing my brother, Scott, and his wife, Ellen, last week.
“Franklin,” their 13-year-old Weimaraner, had been beside them through thick – and thicker. “He was our transitional family member,” my brother mused. When they first got him, Franklin was truly the baby of the family. Soon thereafter, he moved along with his human parents and four human siblings, from Deerfield, Illinois, to a 27-acre spread in Waupun, Wisconsin, where he had the run of the place. No more tunneling under the backyard fence of their old home to romp in the neighborhood playground.
On the farm, Franklin assumed new roles. He became the family’s tall, grey and handsome farmhand, rooting out rodents and chasing deer beyond the property’s perimeter. He “herded” the power mower as my brother drew freeform patterns on the sprawling lawn.
Then, about three years ago, Franklin suddenly stopped coming into the den to share family time. He would pad right up to the room’s outer limits, but would not broach the boundary that was off limits to him years earlier as the house was being built. Over time, the signs and symptoms of dementia increased along with evidence of hip dysplasia, a scourge affliction among larger dog breeds.
The once bounding Franklin wound down to a lumber, a scoot and, finally, a plop down to the ground whenever his backend gave way. Scott or Ellen would gently lift his backside and coax him forward from his frozen stance only to see him plop down more and more often.
Two months ago, Scott was offering Franklin gentle assistance when he accidentally rubbed a sore spot. In response, the normally docile Franklin whipped around and nipped my brother in the face.
Scott took it in stride, the way any of us would with an aging loved one whose marbles were slowly leaking out – and rolling away. A few weeks later, it happened again. Only this time, it looked like someone took a hole-punch to my brother’s cheek.
By this time, Franklin was barely moving. Memories of his streaking across the homestead were probably as distant in Scott and Ellen’s minds as their memory of their first child, Betsy’s, first steps – distant, yet palpable in an instant. But so, too, was the thought that Franklin could again lash out in agony towards one who may touch him, however loving the intentions.
Scott told me that when they made that final trip to the vet’s office he “cried like a little girl.” Still, he second-guessed his choice to not euthanize Franklin after that first bite.
We all want to choose the “right” time, especially when it comes to euthanizing our loved one – to somehow gain control in a situation when we may be feeling very out of control and helpless. During this time, it would serve us well to remember one of the most important lessons our pets teach us.
From the first day they disarm us with that coy look or cock of the head, our fur-babies teach us to relinquish control, to leave our minds for a while and just “be.” Over the years, their presence evokes more of who we are and wish to become. Ironically, this release of control fosters an increased sense of security within us.
Later, as their end draws near, we may feel seized by this unrelenting need to regain “control.” In the face of approaching death, we flail for an answer that lies right in front of us.
One look in Franklin’s weary eyes told Scott and Ellen everything they needed to know.