One night last summer, I opened the door after work to find my dog dying on my kitchen floor.
This was my dog, Desi.
My husband and I had Desi for five wonderful years. We rescued her from a family who got new hardwood floors and didn’t want to risk her nails ruining it. She was missing half of all her canine teeth from chewing on a cage they kept her in.
I’m so thankful that they got those floors.
Before us, Desi had a tough life and she was, in response, a tough girl: intense with a nervous disposition. She was so tough, in fact, that we didn’t know she had a tumor growing on her spleen for quite some time. Up until the day it burst, she ate, drank and acted pretty much as if nothing was wrong.
On that July evening – a Wednesday that my husband and I both had to work unexpectedly late – I drove home thinking about how I would give her some dinner and then walk her around the neighborhood. It was getting dark already and I was tired, but she had been alone all day and I owed her a walk.
She lived for her walks.
And truth be told, we lived for them too.
That afternoon was a long and painful one for Desi. She bled out for over three hours, crawling to all the doors in the house, onto all the furniture, and finally settling in the entryway of the kitchen, sides heaving, struggling for air. We know all this because we could trace her movements from the blood. We also know this because our security camera captured every minute of it.
My husband watched some of the footage to see what time she began to struggle. I couldn’t watch any, but made him promise not to delete it. I’m not sure I’ll ever watch it, but I still need it to be there.
Sometimes when I used to lay in bed with Desi, I would think of how I would do anything to keep her safe. I imagined snatching her leash back just in time in front of an oncoming car. Turning the hose on a strange dog running to attack her. Helping her veterinarian identify and treat a rare disease that I happened to know all about.
In my fantasies, I was her hero and protector.
That night, I was not exactly a hero. I stood there, frozen, my purse over my shoulder, clutching a handful of mail. She looked up at me, eyes bulging, struggling for air as her insides flooded with blood.
I said, “OK, baby. OK.” I thought about calling hospitals, calling my husband, calling a friend – but everyone was so far away and my phone seemed useless. The closest emergency vet was eight miles away, through heavy traffic. I was losing time with all this thinking.
I tried to comfort her, but there was no comforting that would help. She was struggling to breathe, absolutely terrified. I tried to lift her, but she was too heavy. I was afraid of hurting her even more.
“Ok baby. Ok,” I ran around the house, grabbing things I thought I needed. My phone. A blanket. Her eyes followed me. I came back to her, wrapped her up and ran out the front door.
“Hold on!” I yelled back. I didn’t want her to think I was leaving her.
For the longest time, Desi would throw up any time we took her in the car. We had our theories as to why: she feared car trips because she thought we were taking her somewhere else to live and she’d have to get used to a new family all over again. Or she had car sickness due to her “German Shepherd belly,” a very sensitive digestive system common to the breed that couldn’t handle strange foods and acted up with motion sickness.
But one day, we threw caution to the wind and took her to the beach in Point Reyes. We knew we were taking a big chance because the road there is so curvy and the trip is long. We opened all the windows and let the ocean air rush through the car. We piled blankets underneath her just in case and petted her, which sometimes distracted her from the nausea.
Desi stuck her head out of the window and sniffed. The strong ocean breeze blew her ears flat against her head. She had to close her eyes, the wind was so strong. She kept her head out of the window the entire trip, sniffing and squinting away.
I swear, she was smiling.
From that day on, just like that, car rides became one of her favorite things. Just when you thought you had her figured out, Desi could surprise you like that.
Tearing down the sidewalk, I saw a man parking his car on the corner. I waved at him as I ran, practically opening his door for him.
“My dog is hurt. I need you to help me get her in the car.”
“Ok,” he said. I have no idea what my face looked like in that moment, but he didn’t even hesitate.
We ran together back to my house, scooped Desi up and put her in the back seat of my car.
The next half hour was spent breaking every traffic violation I could break, chanting to Desi from the front seat.
“I know, sweetie. Hold on. We’re almost there. Hold on.”
My husband called the hospital while I was on the road. Two techs met me in the parking lot and carried her in on a gurney. I was told to wait in the waiting room. I sat next to a family with their puppy and their little girl looked at me with curiosity. I smiled but I was tearing up, so I moved to an abandoned corner. Shortly after, my husband arrived in his work clothes, looking freaked out. He sat in the corner next to me.
I cried for the first time, telling him, “It’s bad. It’s bad.”
And it was bad. They could do an emergency, $8000 surgery, support her with blood transfusions all night, but the prognosis wasn’t good. I didn’t want my girl spending her last days in a hospital, alone again, in pain again. My husband and I agreed we had to help her go.
We held her while the needle went in and her heart stopped. We held each other after.
The next few days played out like a bunch of pictures in a photo album I wish I could throw away. Kissing Desi’s still, grey muzzle for the last time. Driving home, tears making a smear of the road, thinking, “I shouldn’t be driving.”. Sitting on the chair in my blood-soaked living room. Saying to my husband over and over again, “is she really gone?”
“Did this really happen?”
An hour and a half had passed since I put my key in the side door, entering my kitchen after work, thinking of taking my dog on a walk.
This picture was taken the Sunday before she died. She hung out with me all afternoon in the backyard while I read. I stare at it a lot, wondering how big the tumor was in her stomach on that day. It had a few more days to grow – a 3-day ticking time bomb. I imagine its trajectory as it moved and got read to explode, on its way to changing not only my plans for one Wednesday night, but my life.
I’ve had many dogs and I’ve lost many dogs. In theory, I’ve gotten better at accepting that they are temporary, that I should love them as much as I can because they will always be gone sooner than I want them to.
It makes me think of my mom, who is in her seventies now. I visit her a lot and try to ask her all the questions I’ll think of later, when I can’t ask. I tell her I love her every time I see her.
It makes me think of my husband, and how I can’t imagine living without him. The pain I felt from Desi was so bad, it makes me wonder how people survive losing a spouse, or losing a child. It seems un-survivable.
Desi knows what lies beyond this life. I wish I could ask her what to expect. I hope her answer would be something magical, something more than I ever imagined.
I think of all the pain she endured in this life, with owners who didn’t take good care of her, locked her up in a cage when she was inconvenient for them, built a dog who sized strangers up as if asking, “are you going to do bad things to me?”
I think of our time with Desi, us teaching her to relax, we got you. Her teaching us that even if people hurt you in your past, you can still get ridiculously excited at the sight of a squirrel in a tree. (And we did!)
Even though, between those bouts of joy and excitement, her everyday moments were shadowed with ghosts from her past. I think about her last moments on this earth, where her body betrayed her and the people she loved and trusted most weren’t there. I hate that she had to be afraid once again,alone.
And then we were there, and we took her to a place where we paid someone to give her a pain injection that brought her relief, and then paid them some more to give her a shot that took her away, to somewhere else we’re not even sure of.
Because, ultimately, that was the best we could do.
Having dogs has taught me a lot. To get up on some mornings when I don’t feel like doing anything until I see that little face, telling me, “come on, come on. There’s lots of fun stuff out there. Come with me and I’ll show you.”
And I go, and there is, and I wonder, “what was I so sad about?”
But I think the biggest lesson comes when they leave. And you’re left alone to wonder, “what happened? Are they really gone? Did that really happen?”
Because dogs live such a short life. And with each one we get, then lose, we remember that everything, and everyone, is temporary. That they should be savored and hugged and loved to within an inch of their life every waking moment of yours.
Because, even though there is so much to be sad about, there’s really not enough time to waste being sad.
Dogs can surprise you like that sometimes.