Saying goodbye to my ageing dog was the hardest thing to do


Saying goodbye to my ageing dog was the hardest thing to do

He taught me everything I know about love

By Gayatri Sarang  May 14th, 2015

The first time I was faced with his mortality, Linus was six. We were downstairs in the garden for one of his notorious 2am strolls (nocturnal, like me, he always preferred the night’s quiet), when suddenly, his hind limbs buckled. He dragged himself around for a while until he realised it was futile, and then he just sat there, and fixed me with a calm gaze. He was sure I’d know how to help him even while I trembled with fear. It’s hard to trust people, harder still to find someone who will blindly place their trust in you. And when you do, it changes you — you try to become worthy of it; failing is not an option. We were able to treat Linus and despite being diagnosed with a fatal heart condition, he lived for another seven years.  

November 12, 2001. The morning my life changed forever. I was 19 and in college. My friends and I were excited because a dog had given birth on campus, far inside a defunct drain. We were all on our haunches, straining to get a glimpse. My friend shone her flashlight and there they were; there he was. A tiny black-and-white ball, eyes glued shut, mouth gaping, whining for milk. His weary, frightened mother died soon after and when we decided to foster the pups, I already knew which one I’d be taking home: the one who was sick from the tobacco someone cruel had fed him, the one who refused the insipid biscuit-water pulp we’d feed the rest and would eye my egg-and-cream cheese lunches, the one who whimpered like he was being tortured just so someone would pick him up and cuddle him. The one after my soul.

My parents had ignored my pleas for a dog for 19 years. It took this boy all of three hours to change their minds. He had to be ours. Linus. Every teenager deserves to grow up with a dog. That unquestioning acceptance is a great salve for growing pains, while you struggle to figure out who the hell you are. Linus came to be my one constant through all my rash decisions, erratic plans and emotional ebbing. I could go home after the worst day and, without judgment, there he would be, elated to just be with me. In being loved by him, I started to like myself better — and treat myself better. I was finally able to end a rather testing and long-drawn relationship soon after he came into my life. Linus had never liked him anyway, uncharacteristically keeping his distance and barking uneasily every time he entered the room.

 

Years later, the first time I brought home the man who is now my husband, I was more worried about Linus’ reaction than my parents’. I bet I’d have seriously reconsidered if Linus hadn’t taken to him as well as he did. An eight-year-old dog knows things. But right away, they were like cake and frosting. He was soon the only person outside the immediate family who Linus would obediently follow on his walks. He was always a stubborn boy, but he liked listening to my husband — he showed a sense of regard, deference, gratitude even, toward this person who was making me so happy.

I don’t think I had a single full night’s sleep after I got married and left home. Linus was already 10 and I had become his walking stick. He knew I could foresee obstacles before anyone else so it made him nervous not to have me around all the time. Now I lived two hours away, across town, with my husband’s family; I couldn’t take him with me because not everybody was comfortable with having a dog — and being removed from familiar surroundings, from my mother, at this juncture would be too stressful for him. The best I could do was visit every second day. For that I was, and will always be, consumed by guilt. I’d be jolted awake at 3, 4, 5am and frantically call my mother to make sure his heart hadn’t stopped. Sometimes he would go sit in the garden and refuse to get up until I rushed back. And as soon as I did, he’d be fine. I think he just missed me. 

In his last few years, Linus helped us understand the meaning of family. It is amazing to see the lengths to which people will go — or didn’t know they could go — for the love of a creature who’d love them anyway. Decisions like buying a car involved making sure it was ideal for an arthritic dog (more leg room so the little fatty could fit comfortably on the floor). None of our lives had any semblance of a routine  — work became secondary, socialising was of little importance, furniture was binned, rooms were redesigned. My husband and I planned staycations at home by sending my mother away so we could have our ‘getaway’ with Linus. We were asked a few times, “All this, for a dog?” Yes, we answered simply, but we were working as any family does, for our happiness. If our boy was happy, we were too.

 

There’s something about an old dog that makes him intensely, vulnerably dependent, yet resilient at the same time. Linus was unfazed by his swelling heart and failing kidneys. Undeterred by his arthritic pain. Oblivious to the tumours that hampered his physical movement. I’ve been around sick and dying people before, but I had never seen anyone embrace growing old with quite so much poise.  

We had an understanding, Linus and I: I would fight to keep him alive for as long as he wanted to stay. Euthanasia is an option for dogs, but even they make a choice about whether it is their time or if they want to endure the struggle. If you know how to listen, every animal will tell you what they want.

In his last 21 days, when all his problems snowballed, he and I both knew there was little we could do. All we wanted was to celebrate what his life had been. So, in October last year, it rained just for him, and in spite of his paralysis he splashed in the puddles and rolled in the mud. Everyone who had meant anything to him came to visit him, and despite a failing neuromuscular system, he wagged his tail at every single one of them. And while he had been off solid food for days, his appetite would return for a bite of all his favourite treats.

 

And so it was, that just as I’d been the one to bring him home, he let me be the only one with him when he left. His eyes were wide open in fear for a brief instant, and then he was at peace. I had dreaded that moment for years. As I sat there holding his lifeless body, I felt the bitter realisation that life was going to go on, without him — I had never been able to even imagine that possibility, yet here we were. And then something beautiful happened. I felt the knot of terror I’d carried in me all these years since his diagnosis loosen. I realised that Linus could die only once — I was finally free from the crippling fear of his passing. I could now feel him in nothing, but in everything. 

Dogs are purer, better, uninhibited, unashamed versions of us. They have a way of dissolving ego, of dissipating all past belief in who we think we are, by doing nothing except being their boundless selves. Without him, I’d never have fully understood how deep and wide and dense love can be. In missing him, I miss who I was around him. I try to fill the void with stray rescue and care, ferrying animals to people whose Linus they can become.

About 10 days before he died, he had had a rough night when we thought his heart had collapsed. I whispered in his ear, “Go if you must, but come back to me.” I meant it. For all the heartache, all the commitment and all the energy that was sapped from me, I’d still do it again, over and over.    

The first time I was faced with his mortality, Linus was six. We were downstairs in the garden for one of his notorious 2am strolls (nocturnal, like me, he always preferred the night’s quiet), when suddenly, his hind limbs buckled. He dragged himself around for a while until he realised it was futile, and then he just sat there, and fixed me with a calm gaze. He was sure I’d know how to help him even while I trembled with fear. It’s hard to trust people, harder still to find someone who will blindly place their trust in you. And when you do, it changes you — you try to become worthy of it; failing is not an option. We were able to treat Linus and despite being diagnosed with a fatal heart condition, he lived for another seven years.  

November 12, 2001. The morning my life changed forever. I was 19 and in college. My friends and I were excited because a dog had given birth on campus, far inside a defunct drain. We were all on our haunches, straining to get a glimpse. My friend shone her flashlight and there they were; there he was. A tiny black-and-white ball, eyes glued shut, mouth gaping, whining for milk. His weary, frightened mother died soon after and when we decided to foster the pups, I already knew which one I’d be taking home: the one who was sick from the tobacco someone cruel had fed him, the one who refused the insipid biscuit-water pulp we’d feed the rest and would eye my egg-and-cream cheese lunches, the one who whimpered like he was being tortured just so someone would pick him up and cuddle him. The one after my soul.

My parents had ignored my pleas for a dog for 19 years. It took this boy all of three hours to change their minds. He had to be ours. Linus. Every teenager deserves to grow up with a dog. That unquestioning acceptance is a great salve for growing pains, while you struggle to figure out who the hell you are. Linus came to be my one constant through all my rash decisions, erratic plans and emotional ebbing. I could go home after the worst day and, without judgment, there he would be, elated to just be with me. In being loved by him, I started to like myself better — and treat myself better. I was finally able to end a rather testing and long-drawn relationship soon after he came into my life. Linus had never liked him anyway, uncharacteristically keeping his distance and barking uneasily every time he entered the room.

 

Years later, the first time I brought home the man who is now my husband, I was more worried about Linus’ reaction than my parents’. I bet I’d have seriously reconsidered if Linus hadn’t taken to him as well as he did. An eight-year-old dog knows things. But right away, they were like cake and frosting. He was soon the only person outside the immediate family who Linus would obediently follow on his walks. He was always a stubborn boy, but he liked listening to my husband — he showed a sense of regard, deference, gratitude even, toward this person who was making me so happy.

I don’t think I had a single full night’s sleep after I got married and left home. Linus was already 10 and I had become his walking stick. He knew I could foresee obstacles before anyone else so it made him nervous not to have me around all the time. Now I lived two hours away, across town, with my husband’s family; I couldn’t take him with me because not everybody was comfortable with having a dog — and being removed from familiar surroundings, from my mother, at this juncture would be too stressful for him. The best I could do was visit every second day. For that I was, and will always be, consumed by guilt. I’d be jolted awake at 3, 4, 5am and frantically call my mother to make sure his heart hadn’t stopped. Sometimes he would go sit in the garden and refuse to get up until I rushed back. And as soon as I did, he’d be fine. I think he just missed me. 

In his last few years, Linus helped us understand the meaning of family. It is amazing to see the lengths to which people will go — or didn’t know they could go — for the love of a creature who’d love them anyway. Decisions like buying a car involved making sure it was ideal for an arthritic dog (more leg room so the little fatty could fit comfortably on the floor). None of our lives had any semblance of a routine  — work became secondary, socialising was of little importance, furniture was binned, rooms were redesigned. My husband and I planned staycations at home by sending my mother away so we could have our ‘getaway’ with Linus. We were asked a few times, “All this, for a dog?” Yes, we answered simply, but we were working as any family does, for our happiness. If our boy was happy, we were too.

 

There’s something about an old dog that makes him intensely, vulnerably dependent, yet resilient at the same time. Linus was unfazed by his swelling heart and failing kidneys. Undeterred by his arthritic pain. Oblivious to the tumours that hampered his physical movement. I’ve been around sick and dying people before, but I had never seen anyone embrace growing old with quite so much poise.  

We had an understanding, Linus and I: I would fight to keep him alive for as long as he wanted to stay. Euthanasia is an option for dogs, but even they make a choice about whether it is their time or if they want to endure the struggle. If you know how to listen, every animal will tell you what they want.

In his last 21 days, when all his problems snowballed, he and I both knew there was little we could do. All we wanted was to celebrate what his life had been. So, in October last year, it rained just for him, and in spite of his paralysis he splashed in the puddles and rolled in the mud. Everyone who had meant anything to him came to visit him, and despite a failing neuromuscular system, he wagged his tail at every single one of them. And while he had been off solid food for days, his appetite would return for a bite of all his favourite treats.

 

And so it was, that just as I’d been the one to bring him home, he let me be the only one with him when he left. His eyes were wide open in fear for a brief instant, and then he was at peace. I had dreaded that moment for years. As I sat there holding his lifeless body, I felt the bitter realisation that life was going to go on, without him — I had never been able to even imagine that possibility, yet here we were. And then something beautiful happened. I felt the knot of terror I’d carried in me all these years since his diagnosis loosen. I realised that Linus could die only once — I was finally free from the crippling fear of his passing. I could now feel him in nothing, but in everything. 

Dogs are purer, better, uninhibited, unashamed versions of us. They have a way of dissolving ego, of dissipating all past belief in who we think we are, by doing nothing except being their boundless selves. Without him, I’d never have fully understood how deep and wide and dense love can be. In missing him, I miss who I was around him. I try to fill the void with stray rescue and care, ferrying animals to people whose Linus they can become.

About 10 days before he died, he had had a rough night when we thought his heart had collapsed. I whispered in his ear, “Go if you must, but come back to me.” I meant it. For all the heartache, all the commitment and all the energy that was sapped from me, I’d still do it again, over and over.