Alice’s illness the last few months and then decline and death in the last couple of weeks, brought a lot of difficult (and also beautiful) feelings to the front. It illuminated some progress I’ve made and also lack thereof. Alice was not an easy dog. She was an anxious mess anywhere outside of her house and yard. At the vet she was labeled “dog aggressive” and trying to meet other dogs was a trial of sorts throughout her life. She would have a complete meltdown any time I tried to take her for a walk anywhere. Eventually I learned if she was going to go for walks, I would have to not care that my dog was making horrible noises and foaming at the mouth.
Alice was also extremely affectionate and loyal. She wanted to cuddle all the time, but was also likely to give you a black eye while doing it. She was very smart and learned tricks quickly. She didn’t tear things up around the house and she didn’t steal food off the counters or from my plate. I never had to worry about her escaping out of the yard, all she wanted was to be near me and have my attention. She had a big heart, but an anxious mind.
This beautiful (mess of a) dog taught me so much, especially in the areas of patience, compassion, and acceptance. Although I already had role-models of all three areas in various people, with Alice I lived it on a nearly daily basis. For the first half of her life, I attended training classes and tried to strictly enforce the training at home. It stressed us both out, especially when I became responsible for four pets on my own. I would never have the time for the kind of training she would need to become the dog I thought I wanted. One that I could take to the bar, out on the town, or to a sleep-over with me. I didn’t think I could be her “good dog owner” with the resources I had (time and money mostly, I’ve always had plenty of heart for my furry companions). I tried to re-home her. I’m glad that didn’t work out because the real growth for us both didn’t come until after that point. I began to accept her for the dog she was and quit wishing for a different dog and situation. Compassion for her endless anxiety; I imagine it was a difficult enough world trapped in that mind of her’s without adding my shit on top of it. Patience for her quirks: difficult walks, hyper-active feeding times, freaking out LOUDLY during car rides, anxiety induced excitement bordering on aggression at times. She never became perfect, but she did become an incredibly loving companion and we found creative compromises that worked for us both. Born to Blossom. It’s written on her collar and I think that is exactly what she did. She saw me in all states of feeling, and she was excellent at reading my emotions and responding in ways that suggest empathy. She was my buddy.
In December the first signs that something was very wrong started making themselves known. First diagnosis was fairly harmless: idiosyncratic vestibular disorder. The vet sent me home with the recommendation to pick up Meclizine for her dizziness and said it would improve on its own. It never did and by January I had a very sick dog on my hands. We tried antibiotics going on the assumption that it was a deep inner-ear infection. The drugs helped a lot and bought her another three months of a good quality life. Almost three weeks ago the symptoms started appearing again. We tried the same antibiotic. We tried other antibiotics. I opted out of the $1800 brain scan that could have confirmed whether it was a brain tumor. In the end it didn’t matter what was the cause, the treatments I could afford weren’t helping and it had become hospice care: pain meds, calming biscuits and Rescue Remedy to combat the anxiety, and continued use of Meclizine to help with the nausea and vertigo. Friday morning she was having a better day and I was tempted to change my mind about taking her in to be put to sleep. My heart wanted to keep her here, but I also knew that the best I could offer her was continued pain-management. It was no longer a quality life for her or for me.
We went for a long walk together before I brought her in to the vet on Friday morning. It was the easiest walk we ever took together. No anxiety. No horrible noises. No leash-tugging. No freaking out. She just walked with me, leash slack, doped up on meds. I let her take her time and sniff what she wanted to. We explored the woods a bit when she showed an interest. At the vet’s office they let me stay with her. I was there petting her head and hugging on her when she made her final stretch and exhaled. It was one of the harder things I’ve had to see and be a part of, but I’m glad I was there for it. It really was quick and painless, as so many have told me. When she was gone she looked more at peace than I’d seen her in a couple of weeks. She looked just like one of the last photos I took of her and posted when she was having a good day a couple of weeks ago.
I went home to Dharma after and we sat out in the sunshine for hours. I felt disconnected for most of the day. I didn’t want to talk to anyone because I wasn’t ready to feel the loss yet. It was cozy sitting in silence in the sun with Dharma. It didn’t feel real; I didn’t feel real. At dusk when it was time to feed Dharma I let myself start to feel it and I had an epic ugly cry. I started to feel better.
My therapist has said I need to speak my truth. It’s not that I don’t speak about what’s on my mind, but when I do, it usually comes from a place of slight detachment. I have a difficult time speaking my emotions, in general, all the more so when they are particularly raw. As long as they stay in my head and heart without a voice I am able to keep it together and function in the world. Only a handful of people who know me well (perhaps too well) are able to pick up that I am really struggling. However, when I speak my emotions I feel them, deeply, and that wall built over the years crumbles and I can descend into a real beautiful mess of a human being. There is not a lot of balance between the two states of being. Real vulnerability isn’t easy for anyone. Even with those closest to me I don’t like showing it. I’ve been working on this for a couple of years now, but it’s difficult to deconstruct so many years of well-crafted defense-mechanisms, even when I know they often lead to self-sabotage.
Only a handful of people got a heads-up about what was going on with Alice and what I was going through the last couple of weeks. When I made the decision to have her put to sleep, even fewer were notified. Sadness, guilt, and anger were the primary three emotions I struggled with in the last week. Sadness because I loved Alice and would miss her. Dharma loved her and would miss her. Guilt because I know I have regained mobility and options I didn’t have when I had Alice. Guilt because I felt like I had failed her. She trusted me completely, but there was nothing more I could do to fix it and make it better. Anger because I felt I was left to carry this burden and choice at the end alone.
I know I didn’t have to do it alone, but I was solely responsible for her the last four years. In the end it didn’t feel right to have anyone else there with me for it. It was my choices that lead me to this moment in time. To euthanize her was my decision to make and carry out. It’s where I still need work: it’s hard for me to accept help, and even more difficult to ask for it. To open up enough to let someone in (to help, to comfort, to support) when I was hurting, I felt like I would break apart. How would I make it through those last few days and see this through? Sometimes choosing to do a difficult thing alone lends a strength of its own, because you are all you have and all you can depend on. I wasn’t ready to accept help with this, but I hope one day I will learn to cope differently.
I received so much love and support this weekend from my family and friends. Thank you to each of you. After feeling so alone in this for the last week, it was like finally getting to exhale, relax, and feel the weight of this start to lift, and I found myself surrounded by those who care about me when I finally opened the doors again. I am thankful I got to have Alice in my life for almost seven years. She brought so much joy, comfort, and love into my life. Her life and death taught me much about myself and challenged me to grow. I couldn’t have asked for anything more. Rest well, dear sweet Alice.