The End of the Journey
It’s seven a.m., and I am awakened by warm breath on my cheek and loud breathing in my ear. I turn toward the warmth, open one eye, and am inches away from a black nose, white muzzle, and whiskers close enough to tickle me. Holly’s mouth is open, with her pink tongue protruding. She is panting into my face, without as much as a whimper or bark, for the morning hello. Standing next to my bed, she is the exact height to rest her chin on the edge of my mattress. We are eyeball to eyeball. She stares at me. This translates to “get up.” She continues to watch me until I stir from under the covers. I delay this delicious moment by petting her and feeling the softness of her silken ears that are still honey-colored.
I tell her, good morning, ‘”seis kindt,” which is the only Yiddish I remember from my childhood. On days she liked me, my mother called me her sweet child.
I continue to stay submerged to the neck under my warm down comforter. Holly stares. She is relentless. This is our basic communication system, no barking, just eye contact. I am not annoyed that she has wakened me earlier than my usual 9:00 a.m. schedule. In the past she sensed when I was ready to get up. I never needed an alarm clock. She doesn’t sleep in anymore. And no matter how early she appears at my bedside, I say, “Thank you, god, for another day with Holly.” This is an amazing statement for someone who says, “I don’t do god.” But this is a time of crisis and I need all the help I can get– so I’ll take my chances with god.
I roll out of bed to be with Holly. My bare feet and her soft paws pad across the wood floor into the kitchen for breakfast. She gets kibble laced with two tablespoons of heated up canned pumpkin. I was told by a holistic veterinarian that yellow vegetables are good for managing diarrhea. She has had chronic inflammatory bowel disease since she was five months old. I have always believed it was triggered by the stress of repeated dog bites as my too-friendly young puppy gaily approached strange adult dogs on the street. I didn’t have a clue that I should be protecting her. She was corrected severely for her trust and my ignorance. Nothing in the books I read on raising a puppy warned me to keep her away from older dogs. There would be serious repercussions of those early attacks that would change the course of our lives together. We both learned some hard lessons.
I eat my oat bran flakes with a banana and rice milk. Later I will eat my yellow vegetables too, and for the same reason. Her stressors have become mine. We manifest the same reaction to stress and I too have developed g.i. issues. We both have diarrhea.
She follows me back to the bedroom, and stands in the doorway watching while I slip into the gray sweats lying on the wicker hamper. No time for make-up or hair. I cover up my face with oversized sun glasses and my uncombed hair with a wide brimmed hat. Down the stairs we go. I lace up my tennis shoes in the entry way, and grab her red lead hanging on a hook near the front door. I hold the lead open as she presents her neck to me, walking into the loop. Good girl!
I open the front door as she waits respectfully for me to exit and follows at my heels. By now we have both learned the order of things, the status of our relationship. I lead, she follows. It took us awhile to get this straight in our minds– years, in fact. Still, there are moments of hesitation or weakness on my part, and then she leads me. I have to know where I’m going. This may be the mantra for my life. When I’m confident, we’re in sync. That’s the way it is.
Today we are out for our morning walk around West L.A. College. The sun is shining brightly in a clear blue sky and another glorious day with Holly has begun. I am grateful for it.
The tennis ball bulges out of the pocket of my sweat-pants. I will toss it for her to retrieve when we reach the top of the dirt fire road across from the college. Her tail swings as she walks at my side. Her keen sense of smell alerts her to the treasure in my pocket and heightens her excitement. Sometimes I let her carry it in her mouth. She will chase that ball even if she has to limp after it. With the early onset of arthritis, the vet suggested no more running, just walks. I said that Holly would not understand and would despair without the joy of chasing her tennis ball. She would think she was being punished if I withheld her daily play time. I had to weigh the progression of the disease with the quality of her life. She lived to retrieve. It’s who she was. I could never take that away from her. I never did.
When we reach the summit, I unhook her lead and stand facing her with the ball poised over my head. She backs up in a ready pose, alert, waiting, legs astride, mouth open, eyes fixed on the ball. I yell. “Get it!” and toss the ball as far as I can with the limited range of motion in my right arm. She scrambles after it, hobbling but determined, scoops it into her mouth and trots back to me, dropping it into my waiting hand. She backs up into the same stance and is ready to retrieve again. We have played this game at least once a day for nine years.
And then one morning there is no warm breath on my cheek. There is no sweet white face leaning on the edge of my mattress and no pleading eyes riveted on me. She is too stiff to stumble over to greet me. These days she sleeps on her own comforter, preferring to keep her vigil on the floor at the foot of my bed.
I get up without her bedside invitation, and gaze at her gorgeous, still golden body, sprawled diagonally over her crumpled green bedding. She looks up into my eyes, tail thumping the floor and mouth open panting. “Let’s get up, sweetheart.” I gently pull her onto her feet. She flops over on her side. She can’t stand. Her legs, arthritic since she was five, finally have given out at the age of nine. My dog is lame.
I wonder how I will get her down the stairs of my condo and out onto the grass to relieve herself. Standing on the top step and throwing a cookie down the stairs used to motivate her to scurry after it while she ignored the pain in her legs. She wanted the cookie and being a retriever would chase anything. But today I must coax and push and pull and lift her all the way to the stairs. She holds one front leg up in a bent position, and the other paw barely touches down. She hops on her back legs as I assist her. It’s not the first time she can’t walk.
Landing in the wrong position, or on uneven ground as she jumped to catch her obsession, the yellow tennis ball, often caused her to twist a leg, tear a ligament, or injure a tendon, but they always healed after a time of rest. This is different. This is degeneration due to advanced arthritis. This is not temporary and not a sports injury. It is the decline of old age–a premature old age. I learned to handle those injuries by wrapping a large bath towel or my sweat shirt around her middle, tying it at her waist and then pulling up on it to take the weight off her front legs. So I know what to do today.
We get to the stairs; she hops down the first two with me pulling up on the towel. But the pain stops her dead on the third step. I gently smack her rear the way you encourage a horse to move. I hate myself for this but I say emphatically, “You have to walk.” At 65 pounds she is too heavy for me to carry down the stairs. She hops down two more steps, then freezes.
“I can’t do it,” I imagine her saying. My heart sinks. I lower myself onto the stair. She flops down next to me. We sit there together quietly for a moment. Holly’s face turns toward me and she looks at me the way she does when she wants something: her tennis ball, a cookie, to lick the last trace of ice cream off my plate, or eat the crust of my pizza, or to go outside in a rain shower. I always know what she wants. This time the look in her forlorn eyes tells me she wants me to stop the pain.
I try to massage away the ache in those long golden legs with their swollen joints, the same legs that carried her in freedom and joy across parks, fields, beaches, and any open space, soft velvet ears lifted and open as if to propel the whole body and spirit in the poetic motion of life, flying with no limits, no boundaries, no endings, mouth laughing.
I bring her into the veterinary offices the next day to have her legs x-rayed. I already know that she has arthritis as she often limps after her ball. But the surgeon insists on x- raying her legs and also her abdomen. “Golden Retrievers often have spleen tumors,” she says. “It’s very common.” I decide she is overly conscientious. How foolish I think. It’s just that she’s not able to walk, nothing more.
I wait in the examining room for them to bring her back. But the surgeon reports something suspicious in the abdominal x- ray and orders an ultra-sound. I think she is a little bit crazy, but agree to it. Dr. Farber, her holistic vet, carries her back after the ultra-sound. The look on his face scares me. He is death white. I say, “Something’s wrong?’ not believing for a second that this surgeon’s wild ideas have any validity.
“She has cancer of the spleen” he begins, but before he can tell me the rest, I feel my feet giving way from under me .My blood sugar has dropped and I feel as if I will hit the floor.”I gotta sit down.” I tell him. I slump into a chair.
He says, “Sometimes tumors in the spleen rupture and the dog can bleed to death.” He schedules her surgery immediately.
When they cut her open and remove the large tumor in her spleen, they discover two more cancers in her colon just in case the first one isn’t enough to kill her. Is that what they mean by over-kill? They cut her open on the last Thursday in February. I feel cut open the same day. And I bleed. And I bleed.
Malignancy: comes from the root mal, meaning ‘bad’; malpractice, malnutrition, malformation, maligned, maladjusted, the bad kid in Harry Potter, Malfoy. Bad, bad, bad. When I leave any of my pets in the hospital, it is a bad omen. Sometimes I never see them again.
After her surgery, I don’t want to leave her in the hospital. I sit in the car alone, crying. I am afraid to go home without her.
I drive home terrified that something awful is happening to my precious girl. I have forgotten the cats who have been alone without me. The minute I walk into the living room I smell something foul. Stormy, my diabetic cat, has soiled himself and is a mess. He needs an emergency bath. I bend over Holly’s tub to wash Stormy in warm water, and hear the crack. Ouch. I can’t straighten up. My back has bent me in half on the same day of the mal-surgery. I live the metaphor. I cannot stand because I cannot stand it. I am broken. I manage to towel wrap the cat and let him go. Then, unable to stand up straight, I stagger slowly, bent in half, to my bed and lie down. I feel that I will never get up again.
The following day I arrange for my pet sitter to bring Holly home from the hospital. My back is in spasm. I feel helpless. Meryl has cared for Holly for nine years. I know that she is grieving too.
When they arrive at home, I am lying in bed unable to get up. Holly plops down in her bed and stays there. It feels like death in my bedroom. Meryl stands in the doorway and says the wrong words. She tells me to “prepare myself.” I have never been upset with Meryl until this moment. I say, “I’m not ready.” She says ,”Well, you better get ready.” This sounds so cruel to me. I am too angry to tell her that I am well beyond prepared. My life will end with this loss of all losses. Doesn’t she know that I will die without Holly? Prepare yourself?
I struggle to understand why this is happening to my nine year old dog. We are not finished. I did my research on Goldens; nowhere did I find splenetic tumor. I read all the books, went to the best breeders, did all the training, and gained all I could know about this very first dog in my life. I wanted a healthy dog. She became sick. I wanted an obedient dog. She didn’t listen to me. All my unresolved issues in life were played out with her. I was never assertive. I wanted to please her. I waited on her. I worshipped her. I thought you were supposed to give them choices. Do you want to go out and play now? What would you like? What do you need? Let me take care of you. Why is she being taken away from me? Have I failed? Am I still the bad child, the defective child who never did anything right? Is this my punishment?
At night, I sleep on the floor with her. We are in hospice together lying on her comforter at the foot of my bed. I put her head in my lap, massage her shaven abdomen with the deep dark gashes that go from one end to the other, and I tell her how beautiful she is. She sleeps peacefully. I don’t sleep at all. And never will again.
I thought we would grow old together. But time has fast forwarded her into old age. She is leaving me.
Unable to walk the distance from the UCLA parking through the long corridors of the Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital, where for the last eight years Holly has proudly announced her arrival, greeting everyone in her path, tail wagging merrily, lifting a paw for a hand-shake and what can only be described as the golden smile. I face the cruel reality. She has been the quintessential therapy dog, the first canine allowed in the hospital and the demo dog for new volunteer teams. I retire her quietly and simply with a phone call to notify the PAC office, and then the call to the adolescent unit where we have worked for eight years. We will not be in this week.
These have been the most fulfilling years of my life. Holly and I are connected to these teenagers. They give a luncheon in our honor and cook it themselves. It is the only time I am there without her.
The kids from 2 South, NPI’sAdolescent Psychiatry unit personally serve my lunch to me: macaroni and cheese, a green salad and chocolate cake. I am the guest of honor. It is the most elegant luncheon I have ever attended. I sit with a group of adolescent boys and girls on long wooden benches with our knees touching under the table. I relish the homemade food they created, and we talk about Holly. Each child has a story to tell about how Holly helped them with their problems. I am amazed that they know her stories as well as I do. For years I kept a journal and documented all the dramatic anecdotes. I wrote about all the kids she helped to recover; about all her healing work. Now it’s over. All we can do is remember.
Today, these are not psychiatric patients, they are just “our kids” remembering “our” dog. I am ceremoniously presented with a plaque in Holly’s honor. They have decorated the frame with paper flowers surrounding her picture featured in the center. It is the photo taken on our last day at Malibu Beach, her last day playing in the surf, hobbling on three legs on the muddy shore chasing after her tennis ball. She posed for the picture, standing with her front paws on a rock formation, with the shoreline and the sea behind her, like a picture post-card saying,“Greetings from Malibu.” Like many of the patients photographed for the last time with a therapy dog on their beds, this is the last picture taken of her. The plaque with this picture hangs in the Neuro-Psychiatric hospital in honor and memory of the healing work she did there.
Even though she couldn’t attend it, the luncheon is for Holly. There are tears and laughter. I am losing my working partner, my companion, my golden girl. These children will never forget her. I will never forget them.
At home, Holly entertains those that come to honor her, and to say goodbye. Her beloved Auntie Kc, the director of the PAC program at UCLA who trained us to be the first therapy team comes to visit her. She lays on the floor with her arms around Holly, just as she has always done when we invaded her office in the hospital. Holly would roll over on her back and the professional director of a prestigious program would get on the floor and give her a bear hug. Today she does the same. And Holly purrs and hums softly from pleasure at the touch of Kc’s hands on her body.
Other devoted friends come to the house when I notify them that the time is short. Her “Auntie Meryl,” the extraordinary pet sitter, comes to say goodbye. She and I have resolved the argument about “prepare yourself.” We both know it is now. And it is all about Holly. Kisses and hugging go on all day. Holly has done well and is being rewarded. She devours the affection and forgets about the pain as canines do so well. She smiles her famous golden retriever smile and gazes at her friends with those eyes that entrance us all. Meryl says, “She is my best friend; she got me through some tough times.” I didn’t know this.
That night I keep a dim light in the room so that I can see if the nose bleeds start again. She has had cortisone injections in the knotty joints in her legs, codeine pills for pain, and morphine packs that slowly release pain killers, but still she pants, and doesn’t sleep. Panting is the way that dogs express their pain. I hold her in my arms, and massage her legs. She will need a new morphine pack tomorrow, Friday. She had nose bleeds a few days ago that would not stop. I carried her to the car at 7 a.m. with blood covered towels wrapped around her face. Applying pressure did not stop the bleeding. My bedroom walls and carpeting are covered with rust colored stains.
She was hospitalized for two days until the bleeding was cauterized. They don’t know what caused the nose bleeds; maybe it was the pain medication. We are treating advanced degeneration in the joints of her legs. The surgeon is amazed she can stand at all.
A new ultra-sound reveals that the cancer has returned. It was removed with her spleen. Now it is in her abdominal area. She weighs 65 pounds and I cannot carry her anymore. My back is in spasm. We are both in pain. I have not slept more than a few hours in weeks.
At 4 a.m. she seems to be quieter, so I crawl into my own bed; exhausted and sleep deprived. I drop into a numbness for about an hour. The sound of loud breathing close to my face jolts me awake. I open my eyes. She is staring at me. She somehow managed to get up and drag herself over to the edge of my bed, to the place she used to waken me quietly every morning breathing into my face.
Today when she looks into my eyes, I know exactly what she wants. She continues to stare. Holly has learned to make eye contact for everything she wants. I am the key to fulfilling all of her needs. I look into those brown soulful eyes, and I have no doubt of what she is asking for. I say out loud, “Okay, I will help you.”
I get dressed, and wait for 7 a.m. to call the veterinary offices. All the doctors are busy with their morning rounds. It is after 9 a.m. when I get a call back. “Is she going to get better?” I ask her internist. “No,” he says. I take a deep breath and am quiet for I know the next answer before I ask. “Am I prolonging the agony?”
I leave a message for Dr. Farber to call me when he comes in. Dr. Farber has given her acupuncture and positive energy for a year. She follows him everywhere, without a lead, even into the dreaded surgery room, so deep is her trust. She will die in his hands. I will not let anyone else touch her. He calls at 11a.m. He is reticent to help me with this decision. He says, “Maybe there is something the surgeon can do for her legs. The cancer has not invaded any organs yet, she might have a few more months.” Now I am totally confused. I suspect he’s having trouble letting her go. I tell him I’ll speak to the surgeon.
She calls me at 1p.m. I say, “She’s still eating, she still responds to me, she’s still alert, the cancer hasn’t attacked any organs yet.” She tells me, “The constant pain in her bent and swollen joints is more than arthritis, since she has not responded to any of the anti-inflammatory meds. It may be bone cancer to be causing this much pain. And as far as eating, she’s a Golden Retriever. I have seen them eating and still wagging their tails down to their last breath. We would have to biopsy her legs to see if it’s bone cancer.”
“No, we will not do that,” I say. “Please tell Dr. Farber I am coming in.”. I will keep my word. No crying, no sympathy. No pity. I must seem normal. It is just another day, another trip in the car to see Dr. Farber.
I look in the mirror at my blank face, eyes puffy without sleep, without make-up and notice my half eyebrows. I take an eyebrow pencil to draw in the missing brow line and put on some cologne. I’ll smell normal to her when we go out.
It’s just another day. I help her hop on her back legs by tying a large sweatshirt around her middle and pulling up on it to keep the weight off her front legs. We go down the stairs one at a time. I have to lift her into the back seat of the car. My friend Nina, who always comes through when my dog is in trouble, has offered to go with us. We drive up to her house as she is returning from walking her pack of five West-Highland White Terriers. She is a slim young woman wearing light blue denim jeans and a tee shirt. Her curly blonde hair bounces as she leads the Westies on their little legs down the street toward us, with light leads in both her hands. It’s a Westie parade as the sun lights up the pure whiteness of their fur and cars slow down to take another look at this pretty girl with the five cute dogs.
Miki, the oldest, has been Holly’s best friend from the first day they wrestled in the park and bonded as puppies of four months old. As they matured, Holly tolerated all the hi-jinx that she would never allow with any other dog. Miki still acts like a puppy, full of playfulness and although the same age, Holly hasn’t played with Miki for years, though she still enjoys her company.
When Nina sees us in the car, she brings the dogs into the house; all but one. She comes right back with Miki, opens the back door of my car and Miki jumps in next to Holly. They have traveled together many times, smashed up against each other and the other dogs, crammed into the back seat with Holly perfectly content to have Miki sitting on top of her.
Today is different. Maybe they know. Maybe there is the smell of illness, or medication, or the smell of pain. They greet and lick each other’s faces as we watch with tears in our eyes. It is a final farewell of good friends.
We change cars silently. Nina puts Miki in the house and drives us to VCA Animal Hospital. I call for a tech to come down and carry Holly upstairs. I ask him to place her on the floor, and the three of us are led down the hall into the “grief” room. I don’t want her carried in. I want her to feel as normal as possible. Just another day. .Nothing to be afraid of or anxious about. Holly hops on her back legs while I pull up on the sweatshirt wrapped around her middle. She stops to greet the staff as she passes them in the hallway. Laura, a vet tech, smiles over her glasses at me and glances at the Golden Retriever she knows so well. I tell her quietly “Today is the day.” And that’s all I say. I am not crying. I don’t want Holly to think something terrible is going to happen to her. We are simply here as we have been many times. But the staff has been alerted, and they all know. They stop to pet her. I smile and say hello to each one.
Laura tells me days later that she has never seen anyone bring in their beloved pet for euthanization with the calmness and normalcy that she witnessed that day. She remembered that I had only said, “Today’s the day.” She remembered that I had smiled and said hello to everyone. And she tells me she was stunned. She says women come in clutching their dogs or cats in their arms crying hysterically. I tell her, “I could never do that to Holly.” I didn’t feel brave, just determined that she not be stressed or afraid. It’s the least I could do for her.
The grief room, so aptly named, is carpeted and dimly lit. There is a small love seat and two arm chairs; two lamps with soft pink bulbs and an end table with a box of Kleenex. I have said goodbye to Charlie, Lorelie, Lancelot, and held friends in my arms while they held their dying animals. I have been in this room too many times.
When Dr. Farber comes in, Holly tries to get up to greet him. For the first time, he is not smiling. He does not kiss her on the nose as he usually does. I feel his grief and say, “Aren’t you going to kiss her on the nose?”
“Of course I am,” he answers. And I say what I always say, “Oh, if you knew where that nose has been.” And he answers, “I do know.” And kisses her squarely on her black nose.
I act cheerful, smiling and joke with him. He is morose. I had not realized how hard this is for the doctors who get attached, until I see his long face and watery eyes. I feel as if I want to help him through this. He inserts the catheter in her leg and leaves us, saying to let him know when I am ready. Is he kidding? I want to say, “Never.” I will never be ready. Instead I say okay, I’ll call him.
My daughter arrives. We all sit around and visit with Holly. Nina goes to the candy machine and buys her a chocolate covered peanut butter bar. I say, “Oh, I should have brought her rice cakes. She can’t eat that.” Nina says, “Marian, she won’t have diarrhea.” Holly has lived on rice cakes for treats all of her life because of her bowel disease. She never has cookies or candy. I don’t really get it, that she will not have diarrhea ever again. Her auntie Nina gives her two candy bars. Holly cannot believe her good fortune and wolves them down happily.
One by one, members of the staff come into this room to pet her and say goodbye. She has been coming here for nine years, and the staff know and adore her. Holly has a relationship with everyone. She is lying on her stomach on the sheepskin pad I brought in from the car, with her head up, looking around, alert and interested in watching the parade of visitors. She thinks she’s at a social event, which is just what I intended . The staff members kneel down on the floor and hug and kiss her. She wags her tail and smiles her golden smile for each of them. I find it strange that everyone is saying goodbye, like some sort of ritual. I know in my heart she is coming home with me. She always comes home with me. She is my dog.
Don’t these people know she is coming home with me? I would never leave her.
Everyone is visiting, and talking in this lively room. No one is crying. Holly socializes with everyone, and is having a good time being the center of attention. She loves this. Someone steps in and reminds me that Dr. Farber has to catch a plane at 7:00 p.m. Have I forgotten the horror of why we are here? It is nearly 5:00.
I say, “Okay, please call him.” My daughter gets up and walks out of the room. I think she is fearful of death since her father died when she was fourteen . She avoids hospital visits and funerals. Nina asks to stay. She has been Holly’s auntie, friend and trainer for nine years. I say, “Yes, stay.”
Dr. Farber comes in looking like he just lost his best friend. I have never seen him upset before. He has been my support system for the last year, always smiling, always keeping things positive and hopeful for me and for Holly. He attaches the IV tube filled with fluids to the catheter in her leg. I ask about first giving a tranquilizer, as I know that valium usually helps to relax the animal before the overdose of anesthesia that will stop the heart. He says yes, valium is already set up in the IV tube. Again, he asks me if I am ready.
I think never. I say, “Yes.” He releases the clamp that starts the flow of valium through the catheter into her vein. I lie down on top of Holly, covering her body with my own, feeling her heart beat, and letting her feel mine. I want to shield her from all of this. Let it go through my body first.
Dr. Farber holds her head in both of his hands as the valium is drained from the catheter into her body, and she sinks into a sleepy and relaxed state, her head now dropping to the side of his arm where it rests. Now the pink drip of anesthesia begins. It lasts only a few seconds. I hold back the rush of emotion until I feel her leaving her body. I don’t want her to hear this. And now as if the clamp on my emotions has been released as well, all of the wrenching sobs of a life time expel from the guts of my body.
All that has built up for the last eight months since her diagnosis and probably all of my life begin to climax, building up louder and deeper without any self consciousness, without any concern for anyone else in the room, or outside in the hallway, until the offices and examining rooms and surgical areas and kennels are filled with my agony. It is primal, it is all of the hurt and pain and grief that exists in the world, flooding out of me, and there is no stopping it.
I hear someone else in the room crying softly. It is Nina. My face is buried in Holly’s fur. She is quiet but seems to be asleep. I think I feel her heart. I stop weeping and look up. Dr. Farber is now leaning weakly against the wall. I say, “She’s still breathing.” He assures me she is not. He bends down with his stethoscope to listen, and says, “There is no heart beat.” He asks me if I want to stay longer. “No,” I tell him. Do I want her tail? I never heard of such an idea. I say,”Yes.” Nina carefully cuts the beautiful golden plume keeping it in one piece, and ties it with a ribbon. I put it in my purse, walk to the door and leave her there on the floor.
I go home without my dog.
October 24, 2002: Outgoing voice mail message
To my friends calling to inquire about Holly:
On October 24, I made the agonizing decision to give Holly my final gift of love by allowing her gentle spirit to leave her beautiful golden body and continue the journey of healing for which she was sent to us. She had a beautiful death, assisted by her beloved Dr. Farber, with all the courage, dignity and style with which she lived; surrounded by love and gratitude. With bliss, she died in his hands.
She sends you all her steadfast unshakable love with reminders that:
All we have is love. Love is all there is.
Your messages are appreciated.