It was bedtime on a cold December night in our busy home on the East Coast of Canada.
Our beloved 15 year old chocolate Labrador, Heidi, was uncomfortable. In spite of gentle care, her hip was interfering with her gait. I worried as I assessed Heidi’s ability to maneuver over the stairs and to circle her L.L. Bean doggy bed before laying down. You could detect the strain in her eyes, and the defeat in her shoulders. My youngest son was soon leaving for his two week hitch up North, he paced and sighed. My husband, son and I gave Heidi a gentle group hug. I lingered to give her a tender kiss on her perfect head. I looked longingly in her eyes.
I fought the panic in my chest. The previous winter she also lost strength in her legs and overcame that set back. Looking at her, I assured myself she was uncomfortable but she would persevere. Surely it was early days if something was wrong.
Heidi’s deep brown eyes reminded me of my father. I secretly felt that she was my conduit back to Dad. Even that night, I knew we were in contact. Dad was deceased almost 32 years. Mom was now living with me having reached the glorious age of 91 years. Dad’s presence would not falter and leave us now. Heidi would hold all of us together.
With a firm reassurance, I patted Heidi and turned in for the night. My husband is one of those people who puts his head on the pillow and falls asleep. Opposites attract, for 32 years of marital bliss, my husband has slept soundly while I toss and turn. On that night, the air was still. I could hear every sound. Heidi moaned, Mom snored, my husband snored and our son slept restlessly, like his mother. Correction, I didn’t sleep.
Heidi began to cry. I lay rigid in bed. Listening sympathetically, I prayed that she would settle down, shift a bit on her bed and find a comfortable spot. She struggled with her pain. I scolded myself, “what are you accomplishing here in bed. Heidi needs comfort and that dog bed isn’t doing it.”
I crept out of our bed and into the hallway. Heidi had slept outside our door since she graduated as a pup from her dog carrier. When my husband travelled, I would leave the bedroom door open. I would have left the door opened that night but she could only have been frustrated by her inability to jump up on the bed. I took my place next to her on her bed. Heidi accepted the company but her discomfort wouldn’t let her settle in.
After a disconcerting period of consolation, Heidi stiffly rose to her feet. Even with her grey hair, slumping back and awkward gait, she was the most beautiful dog I ever knew. Those brown eyes were the pathway to gentleness.
How long had it been since her last acetaminophen? I didn’t want to upset her stomach as she was eating less and less these days. She was evidently in a lot of pain. We looked long and hard into each others eyes. I decided to take the chance and placed the pill in a marshmallow. Heidi stared at the marshmallow, previously the treat of choice, the highlight of her summer bonfires. Hesitantly, she gently took it from my outstretched hand.
The pain was hanging on resolutely, never leaving that hip. She tried to stand up again. Standing was too great an obstacle. Confused, Heidi winced and moaned. Her crying was continuous. I sat nearby, nesting my head in my hands. We caught each others gaze and we cried together. I left the chair and lay again on the floor, by her side, and held her as we continued to cry.
I choked down the lump in my throat. Breathing was nearly beyond my capability. My forehead seemed clamped by an invisible band. In pure panic, I grappled with the possible loss of my faithful puppy dog. It wasn’t welcomed. How could my world be immersed in such turmoil? I needed my family. Mom and Heidi, they only needed to stabilize. No one could falter. Our balance was tenuous.
After what seemed like hours, Heidi gave in to her exhaustion. She slept. I needed to face the morning, so I allowed myself to return to bed and sleep.
Tossing and turning, I thought about my son and husband quietly confiding with each other before bed. Brushing off sleep, I took on a catatonic stance. No one, I told myself, will take Heidi away. If there was any discussion of the vet, I would merely end the discussion. I was not ready to say goodbye. And that was that!
Sleep arrived at 6 a.m. and for once I was grateful for the late winter sunrise.
When I awoke at 7:30, Heidi looked exhausted. She gingerly made her way to her bowl. The pain in her hip equated to the pain in each of our hearts. I made Mom her breakfast. One fried egg and one slice of whole wheat toast. I knew she would take two hours to eat it. Tara, Mom’s homecare worker, arrived at 8 a.m. sharp. Somehow I managed to prepare for work. I took my own acetaminophen, brushed my hair, applied makeup and lip stick and searched for sunglasses. The regular rhythm of the day was leading me step by step.
I carefully and lovingly hugged Heidi. My husband had left for work. Mom tackled her egg and my son slept fitfully. As dour as it seemed, we had conquered the night and my heart was set on another day of normalcy.
I don’t remember the drive, but I arrived safely at work. I sat skittishly at my desk and felt the descent of gloom and foreboding.
I picked up the phone and called my husband. His accountant answered. I asked to speak with him. She apologized and explained that our son had arrived and he was in my husband’s office and the door was closed. I stiffened, “Patch me in to the conference please.” With a nervous laugh on the other end of the phone, my call was transferred to my husband. I don’t remember how my husband explained things to me, I only recall my response. “No. And don’t think for one moment you are going behind my back. Heidi is our dog. I am going home now.”
As quickly as I arrived at work, I left. I made it home to see my husband and son kneeling next to Heidi, her lead in my son’s hand. The dye was set. We were going to vet. In denial I boarded the car. My plan was to control the discussion with the vet.
As we entered that waiting room. Heidi seemed to recognize the change in Karma. As we sat, I held her lead tightly in my hand. Heidi got up, I observed she seemed more agile. She lead me to the door. It was her signal that it was time to go home. My husband rose, patted her gently on the head, said nothing and guided us back to our seat in the waiting area.
I convinced myself all was fine. Heidi was feeling better.
The vet called us in. The four of us descended upon the sterile stainless steel room. Upon examining my precious pet, the Vet explained that a growth in Heidi’s hip joint had pushed her femur out of place and was interfering with her pelvis. It was not likely that this hard growth would subside on its own. I asked about surgery and if the Vet thought it was cancer. Could she take a biopsy? Was there medication? I explained I wasn’t ready for this.
My husband and my son took over the conversation. They asked if Heidi would be in pain. The answer was obvious, yes she would be in great discomfort. The Vet commented that it appeared that we arrived at the veterinary hospital seeking direction but the immediate decision was ours. We were left to make the decision.
I prefer not to write or speak about the short time we had left with Heidi that day. We had all lived a wonderful life as a family together. Heidi was a joy to behold, a beloved child in so many ways.
We did not take Heidi home that day.
I arrived home shattered. I looked at my mother and nodded. I sat at Mom’s bedside in silence. She told me I was exhausted. I nodded, words wouldn’t come. She raised her blankets and I climbed in beside her. Silently the minutes passed. We mourned together and slumber came.
Heidi rests in our yard next to our fire pit, a place where she playfully chased hot embers as they spit from the bonfire.