"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Monday, February 24, 2020

The Gift of a Long Goodbye

It’s a dark wet February morning. I’m the only one awake. Toby, in what has become a new normal, came into the bedroom at 3:00 a.m. and woke me up.  In this new routine I pet him and talk to him and try to convince him to lie back down, but he isn’t having it. He needs to go out. Exhausted as I am, I soak up the warmth of his coat, the sweetness of his face, the special toasty smell that has always been his. I get up and let him out, feed him, let him back in. He goes back to sleep, along with the cats. I am wide awake. 

As I have so many times this winter, I consciously accept the gift of his presence and of this early morning time with him. 

At the end of November, just a month after he turned 12, Toby sneezed himself into a nosebleed. A week later we knew for certain he had a mass in his nasal cavity that was cancerous. After a lot of research and a long conversation with our vet, we decided not to pursue treatment, but instead to take him home and enjoy our remaining time together. Three months was the number I found: the time after diagnosis without treatment that we might expect to have with him. 

We cancelled the February trip to Hawaii with friends that we’d been planning for two years. I gave up tentative March plans, unwilling to commit to an assumption that he might be gone by then. For a while after the diagnosis, I cancelled a number of outings because I needed time and space to absorb this new reality of our lives. 

An accounting of sorts began the day we heard the news – a daily quality of life inventory. We knew that at some point the balance would tip and we would be making the decision to end Toby’s suffering. Our vet agreed to come to us when that day arrives, and the relief of that has helped make this journey more bearable. The question of how we will know when that day arrives is how I start every day now. It’s a terrible question to face. The weight of it threatens to crush. But I refuse that. So that our remaining time can be as joyful as possible, I cannot dwell in the darkness. So far no day has been that day. Today is not that day. And I am trusting that Toby will let me know when that day finally does arrive. 

What Toby could do in December far outweighed what he couldn’t. His symptoms, mostly sneezing that resulted in sprays of blood or drops on the carpet as he slept, were spaced so that we could go fairly long stretches without focusing on his illness. There were days when I could almost forget the diagnosis, and when I could almost believe Toby might live forever. Cleaning up after him felt purposeful and meaningful, like I was somehow in control. Every successful walk and meal eaten felt like a small battle won.

Slowly, inexorably, the disease consumes more and more of our old life. If this is a war, I won't win. The only control I really have is how I choose to walk this path. 

On what turned out to be my final walk with Toby a week ago, he stopped more than a dozen times and leaned on me to rest and be reassured. He refused to turn back then, but didn’t protest when we cut the walk in half. Often now when he hears the telltale sounds of me getting ready to walk, he doesn’t move from the floor. When he came with me eagerly to start our walk a few days ago, he stopped on the road and leaned on me before we’d even gotten out of sight of home. We turned back and he trotted  a few steps toward the house.

Sometime in January he stopped eating the kibble that he’d inhaled for his whole life. I bought canned food to add to the kibble and that got him cleaning his dish again for a bit. When that stopped working, I added chicken to the mix, and the bowl would be cupboard clean in a matter of minutes. Now it takes him all day to finish breakfast, and he usually finishes dinner just before bedtime. Even with the extra food and lack of movement, he’s losing weight.

He only goes upstairs now if we’re both up there with him. He has slept in his bed at the top of the stairs for most of his life.  With his failing eyesight and balance, he fell coming downstairs a couple of times early on. So I started escorting him up and down. I would go upstairs when I got up in the morning to bring him down to start the day. Now he sleeps at the foot of the stairs, and his bed is in the living room.

With every new loss, we regroup and adjust and keep going. 

The daily quality of life inventory has turned out to be an amazing teacher. I am a planner and an organizer. I like knowing what’s coming. And while I do know the end of this story, I don’t know the path or the timing that will get us there. This time demands being fully in the moment.  Looking backward at what no longer is, or forward at what is inevitable, are equally painful. Now is the only bearable place. Opportunities to choose gratitude and seek joy are boundless, and it’s up to me to find them. 

I look for evidence of joy in Toby’s life. It’s all little things now: a wagging tail, a meal consumed with gusto, a walk around the yard. His head rested against my lap so I can pet him. His eyes lighting up at the prospect of a treat. He’s not in pain, his breathing is still open enough, and he greets me happily when I’ve been away for a bit. 

Because I want him to feel loved and not upset, I’m choosing to be upbeat with him as much as I can. I laugh at his sneezes, hug him when he has a hard time standing up, talk to him endlessly. He gets treats often, and for no other reason than being so damned cute. Every time I walk past him lying in the hall I reach down to pet him, the contact as much for me as it is for him. There will be abundant time later to be carried on the currents of sadness that are there just below the surface. 

As hard as this time is, I am truly grateful for our long goodbye. Every day I am reminded what a magnificent companion he’s been. Our long decade together has been the best time of my life, in large part because of our relationship and the inspiration of his spirit. He has taught me lessons in loving and living, and finally dying - all done with a particular grace only dogs seem to possess. Now I get to give him the ending his life deserves, and while my heart aches, it also swells with love.  

The eastern sky is beginning to brighten. It is perfectly still outside. I hear Toby snoring in the other room. I breathe this moment in with gratitude. 


Midlife Roadtripper said...

Aw, my heart breaks for you reading this. What a fine life Toby has had with you -- and a loving companion to you through a great deal as well. I will be thinking of you as you go through these last days with him. Love to you.

Janna Leadbetter said...

Oh, Deb. I'm crying because of Toby, and because of your beautiful, heartfelt words about Toby.

Sometimes I wonder if we deserve animals as amazing as dogs, and then something like your tribute reminds me we do. This element of life we give each other, our pets and us, is incredible.

Sending love. <3

Starting Over, Accepting Changes - Maybe said...

Your words resonate and touch so many of us.

DJan said...

There is nothing as wonderful as the love between our four-legged companions in life and ourselves. You have written a truly inspirational post for me, for all of us. Blessings to you, and to Toby.

Linda Reeder said...

Your writing is always so beautiful and this is another small masterpiece. If evokes memories of monitoring a precious cat who was battling cancer and having to decide when to let her go. Other pets gave us less time to prepare. Your time with Toby is precious.

Linda Myers said...

Such love you are giving to this beloved companion.

#1Nana said...

Beautiful writing...as always. Your journey with Toby is the ending we all hope for ourselves. You are traveling forward with grace and gratitude. Sending cyber hugs to you and Toby.

BECKY said...

Oh Deb, your pure love for Toby, and his for you shines through in this beautiful piece of writing. Thank you for sharing it with us. Hugs to you and Toby.

Tracey said...

These two pieces about Toby are perfect and powerful. And Toby, well he is certainly a Very Good Boy.

T. Powell Coltrin said...

Heartbreaking, but how blessed he is to have you.