There are a lot of things I’m horrible at. I can’t keep my closet clean for the life of me. I’m not a good cook. I can’t grow a single thing in my yard…I could go on for hours on all the things I can’t do. Do you know what I can do? I can help people die with dignity.
I did it with Isabella and I was good at it. I refused to let hospice in after a certain point because I was in control. I knew what drugs to give and I knew by looking at her what she needed. I knew to keep things quiet and dark and how to touch her in a way that didn’t bother her. I think I did all this because she was my daughter and I had to do it. It was the last gift I could give her to make the process of dying as painless and fearless as it could be. It would be how I wanted to die so that is what I would do for her.
Once it was over, I put my hospice days behind me and made sure to tell my parents, “Look, not to toot my own horn here but when it’s your time, put someone else in charge of paperwork. You want me next to your bed.” It’s not really the thing I set out to be good at in my life, but here it was. I assumed my hospice days were over, until they weren’t.
I got Bailey when I was 22. I had graduated college and had a cat. I walked into PetSmart to get food for the cat and walked out with a dog. He wasn’t a great dog initially. Actually he was horrible, but I married the Dog Whisperer and Stuart turned Bailey into a dog that was possibly the best dog on the planet. He was never on a leash and he never left our yard. He would just sit in the driveway and watch people go by. People swore we had some electric fence but it was just that he was that good.
He was my shadow during pregnancies and he was the one that got up with me for midnight feedings. I would rock the kids as I fed them with him at my feet. The kids could take anything from his mouth or ride him like a horse. He greeted us each time we came home from the hospital as if we had been gone for years and was always so excited to just be with us. He loved us to pieces and we loved him.
After Isabella died it seemed he got older over night. He never came upstairs anymore and made our living room his resting ground. The hair around his face turned grey and his back legs became an issue. Occasionally he would collapse or have a seizure but the doctors would tell us that other than painful hips, he was healthy as a horse. We began having to help him get up and it became hard to watch as he tried to go down the stairs to use the bathroom. He would whine in pain at night as if telling us he was ready to go.
I was so afraid that something was going to happen when Stuart was traveling and I wasn’t sure if I could handle it by myself. Some nights I found myself just curling up next to him on the floor and speaking softly to him about how good he was. I knew the time was coming but I just couldn’t get myself to make the hard decision.
I finally made the call and settled it. I was going to let this dog that has been alongside us for everything die with dignity. I wasn’t taking him into the vet and putting him on a cold table. He was going to die in the house that raised him and I would be with him every step of the way. I settled on a date and started to get my mind right with this.
I brought him ice cream all week and took him on walks behind the house so he could think about chasing the squirrels. His mind wanted to chase them, but his body had other plans. That morning I made him warm cookies and sat with him on the floor as he ate them. I curled up beside him just as I did with Isabella and just kept whispering how sorry I was. He was just thrilled to have me on the floor with him and just panted and licked my hand until it was raw.
When the vet arrived, the first thing he did was call him by the wrong name. It took everything in my body to not show him to the door and tell him to improve his bedside manor. Stuart took over the paperwork and the vet walked us through the process. I laid Bailey’s bed on the floor at the bottom of the stairs and called him over. It felt like I was leading him to his death and he knew it. But he came to me as he always did. He refused to lie on the bed and just stood in front of me. The vet gave him a shot to relax him. Slowly but surely he began to relax. Instead of choosing to lie down, he pressed his weight against me as if to lean on me for support. I finally had to help him get comfortable and shift his weight off me.
Once he let his body settle, I just took his head in my hands and cried. I pet him and rubbed his ears softly as I whispered to him how much I loved him. By this point his head was completely weightless in my hands and I was laying on the floor in front of him looking into his eyes. His breathing finally slowed down and he fell asleep so soundly in front of me. I carefully let go of his sweet face and curled up beside him one last time. I knew that he was okay because of my comfort and I know that he felt safe with me next to him.
I sobbed like a baby wrapped around him.
The vet returned with what looked like an enormous white gift box. I looked at Stuart and he just said, “Why don’t you go outside.” I knew they were going to put him in this disrespectful box and I couldn’t watch it. “Erin, we all end up in a box at some point,” Stuart told me. I got up from him and left the house. I couldn’t watch them take another thing I loved out of my house. I didn’t want another memory of that.
Our house seems to be becoming emptier these days. There is no new baby in the house to replace her and no new puppy running around that replaces him. Instead his ashes sit in our living room just as he did all these years. I tell myself that if there is a heaven, she is riding on his back and laughing. He is right at her feet just as he was mine, protecting her. Two people to whom I have given the best gift ever in the end: safety, love and a death with dignity. How is this the thing I am best at in my life?