Is It Time?

An examination of coming to terms with our worst fears
By Suzanne Roberts, March 2014

The way we loved her—my husband and I —ended in a fierce custody battle when we divorced, both of us threatening the other with lawyers and lawsuits. Which, of course, was ridiculous, since animals, as we found out, are not family but property. Which made Riva Jones technically mine, since I’d adopted her before the marriage. But as we all know, in matters of the heart, “technically” and “legally” are muddled, and a dog qualifies as a matter of the heart.

When we fought, Riva would come over and rest her head on my knee while she looked up at me, her eyes saying, Please be happy. She, like most dogs, was family, not property. And that’s why I agreed to share custody of her. My ex loved her the way I loved her, and no matter what kind of meanness I could muster for him at the loss of our relationship, I could not take Riva away from him, nor could I take him away from Riva. So after we broke up, we traded weeks. He lived across the highway and it was easy enough. We saw her through two major surgeries, costing us $7,000; she saw us through new partners, engagements, broken engagements and a marriage. She loved us just the same. She accepted her two-household life. She loved the girlfriends of my ex (even though I told her not to), and she loved my new husband.

After three years of the weekly dog swap, my ex announced that he was moving three hours away. I figured I’d just keep Riva full-time, but he figured otherwise, and fought for her. Motivated by the leftover guilt of leaving him or the fact that she loved him too, I agreed—we would do the dog swap once a month. For three more years, we met on the side of highways, at rest stops, in the dark corners of gas stations.

It seemed like we were trading contraband— who would have guessed that we had pulled over to trade off a German Shepherd? My new husband resented waiting in the gas station parking lot or on the side of the road. I do not know what the girlfriend thought. But Riva always seemed happy to get into one car or the other, never complaining, never even looking back. I wish I had just a little bit of that kind of acceptance, that sort of living in the moment, the attitude that says: “Okay, this is what we’re doing now. Fun!”

At 12, Riva started cutting trail on backcountry ski trips so she could keep up. The last time I took her skiing, she ran down the skin trail instead of following behind us, diving in and out of the fresh snow like a porpoise. When she disappeared, I shouted for her for an hour, afraid she’d fallen in a tree well. She had taken the easy way down and was waiting for us at the car; she sat, smiling, as if to say, That took you a long time.

I took Riva on her last summer hike when she was 14, which, in retrospect, was ambitious, though even our vet had called her the “Wonderdog.” My plan was to hike the two miles to Meiss Meadow from Carson Pass and then back again. It was hot, she was tired and her back end kept giving out. I sat in the shade with her, stroked her head and told her it was okay. I am sure that my ex and Riva took a similar hike—one that was a little too much.

By 15, Riva was blind and deaf. She became incontinent and was horrified when she realized what she had done. I tried my best to tell her it was all right. Nobody was mad at her. No one had ever been mad at her. We tried everything, including installing a doggy door and layering plastic over the floor of one room, with pieces of old carpet on top so she wouldn’t slip. That lasted until she pooped, stepped in it and smeared it all over the carpet pieces and the plastic. Then, the dog whose bed had been right next to mine for 15 years had to sleep in the garage.

My ex got a new job, one that required travel, so the last six months of her life, Riva stayed exclusively with me. I resented my ex on the days I had to clean the house, my shoes and her fur. I resented it when she had to sleep in the garage. I resented it every time I had to help her up and down the stairs, every time I had to go outside and stop her from barking at imaginary things, which prompted the neighbors to call animal control, even the police. Once during that time, I needed a break and called my ex; he said he could not take her. My husband said, “Riva is here to teach you something. It’s her last gift.”

I made a list of all the things I loved and how many of them I could do without and still want to live. Perhaps I could go without skiing and hiking and running, but not reading, not spending time with family and friends. I came up with a number: 30 percent. If I could still do 30 percent of the things I loved, I would want to live.

I made a list for Riva. She could no longer chase chipmunks or swim, but she could eat treats and relax in the sun. From what I could tell, she was at exactly 30 percent. That’s when I started googling “When to put your dog down.” During this period, my friend Sandra came over. When she saw Riva, she said, “You have to put that dog down.” She was not being mean. Sandra is unflappable, and she is not one to couch her opinions in euphemism. She has an aging Pit Bull, Luna, who goes everywhere with her; they even went out together last Halloween, both dressed as witches. Sandra said, “When it’s Luna’s time, I want you to tell me.” I should also say that in addition to old age, Riva had Cushing’s disease, and her spine was a column of stones. Her belly was bloated and her fur matted with old age. Her milky eyes probably no longer looked intelligent, but I had not noticed. At one point that evening, Riva had fallen on the slate floor (recently installed because of her incontinence) and cried, and I picked her up. This, from the dog who never complained. Sandra said, “Put that dog down. You can’t let a dog lose her dignity.” I knew Sandra was right, that she was only trying to encourage me to do the humane thing, but of course I could think only this: That is coming from a woman who dresses her Pit Bull in a witch costume.

I asked my husband what he thought, and he said, “It’s your decision to make. And you have to do it alone. Riva would want that from you. She expects it.”

But I called my ex, and we decided together that we would put Riva down in one week’s time. He would come to the house. The vet would come to the house. I put in for a day off work. But still, I kept searching online for something that would make things easier, something that would tell me when it was time. Again, I googled “when to put your dog down” and landed upon lists and surveys, which I took for Riva Jones, checking whether or not she ate or wagged her tail when I got home (the answer to both of those, by the way, was “yes” until the very end).

All week, I fed Riva steak and chicken and rice. I doubled her pain medication. I spent as much time with her as I could, and she improved. The weather had warmed, so she was sleeping on the deck, happy in the spring Sierra air. Some days, she could walk a half-mile up the trail behind my house. My ex came over, and we ended up sitting on the deck, sharing a bottle of chardonnay with Riva at our feet. We caught up on our friends, but talked very little about Riva. I wondered why he didn’t spend the time on the ground with her, but figured that we all deal with these things in our own way; maybe he didn’t really want to admit she was going, could not bear to say good-bye.

He came again the next day, the day before the appointment, and we took her walking. She made it about a half mile. We saw a bear, and she seemed happy to be among the wakening wildlife. We didn’t talk about the appointment, which was how things had always been between us. But after he left, I cancelled it. I told him we’d wait and see, take it day by day. My ex went home.

In the end, it really would be my decision to make. Among the survey questions on the “Should you put your dog down” test was Did you make euthanasia appointments and cancel them? I now checked “yes.” Riva was now at 50/50, the point at which, according to the survey, one should “put the dog down.” But did it count? Did I make a mistake when I made the appointment in the first place? So I waited.

I am here to tell you there will be an answer to your question, “When should I put my dog down?” but the answer cannot be found on an Internet survey.

There is only this: On a Thursday morning in April, you will wake up and your dog will be throwing up. By the time you leave, she will seem fine. But still, you ask your dog sitter, who is also a vet tech, to check on her during the day. You will run a poetry slam in the evening and will not be home until late. When you call your husband after work and before the event, he will say your dog seems fine. You will ask him what the dog sitter’s note said—she always leaves detailed descriptions of what goes on.

“No note,” he will say.

“She always leaves a note. Find it. Tell me what it says.”

“I didn’t see a note.”

“Look on the counter,” you will insist.

“No note,” he will answer.

You will leave it alone, knowing something is wrong, but you are in charge of an event, so you will choose to believe that your husband is telling you the truth.

He isn’t. He knows you have to go to the event. The note says your dog has been throwing up. But your husband checks on her and she seems to have improved, so he doesn’t say anything.

When you get home, you will find your dog on the porch, dry heaving. Though it will not have snowed for months, on this night, it will be snowing. You will find your dog outside, trying to throw up over the deck. She will know better, even then, to make a mess outside. She will be shivering, and tiny frozen flakes will be caught in her fur.

You will coax her inside, start the fire and ask her to lie on her bed. She will be dry heaving, and every once in a while, yellow bile will come up. She will froth at the mouth, and you will wipe the fur around her face with a towel.

So here’s when you know: when it’s too late. Which is what you tried to avoid with your googling late into the night. You will apologize to her over and over, telling her how sorry you are for not having the doctor come to the house and put her down.

But you could have not done that. You needed it to get to this.

You will call your vet, and because you live in a small mountain town, the office is closed. You will be directed to the vet hospital in the nearest big city, more than an hour from your house. You will call the hospital, and the woman on the other end of the line will encourage you to bring your dog in. “Her stomach could be flipped, and this is extremely painful,” the voice will say. You don’t believe this, but it will make you cry harder. “But she probably won’t make the drive,” the vet tech will say.

You will ask, “Why would I force my dog into a long car ride she probably won’t make?”

“You should bring her in,” the voice on the other end will answer. You will hand the phone to your husband, and he will talk to the vet tech in the other room. You cannot, in fact, do this alone.

When your husband hangs up and comes back into the living room, you will ask if you are going to drive your dog to the big-city vet. He will say no. You will say, “Call Sandra. Ask for her gun.”

He will say, “What? I am not calling Sandra. It’s after midnight.”

“Call Sandra and ask for her gun.”

“I can’t do that.”

“You have to. Just get her gun.”

This is when you know it is time to put your dog down: when you have never shot a gun in your life, and you’re willing to illegally fire a bullet from your unflappable friend’s pink .22 into your dog’s brain.

Your husband will call your friend Sandra, and after she figures out who’s calling her so late at night and asking for her gun, she will say no way. She will tell you it is illegal to shoot a handgun in your town. Unflappable though she is, she will not let you shoot your own dog.

So you will pull your dog’s bed, with her on it, over to the couch, and you will sleep next to her on the couch. She will dry heave for a while but then fall asleep, mercifully, until 7 am. For the last time, you will sleep beside her.

Your husband will leave for a meeting. It will seem, for a minute, that your dog has stopped dry heaving, frothing at the mouth.

But she hasn’t.

You will call your local vet, and the receptionist will say the vet cannot come to the house, but you can bring your dog to the office any time. Your eyes will have that sandpapery feel. You won’t know why, but you will feel the need to shower while your poor dog is suffering in the other room. Maybe you just want to make sure. Maybe you will get out of the shower and she will have stopped dry heaving, and she will be better!

She isn’t.

So you will dry off and get dressed and you will realize you can’t wait for your husband to be done with his meeting. It is time.

You will lift your old dog from her bed and carry her down the stairs. She will not resist you. You will put her on the grass, and she will sniff around and go to the bathroom, and this last act of normal doggy behavior will nearly bring you to your knees.

You will call her, your voice cracking. She will see the hand motions you now use since she can no longer hear you, and she will look into the car as if she might try to jump into it. Before she can try, you will lift her into the car, and put her on her bed. She will smile, knowing she is going somewhere.

You will call your ex, telling him you are on your way to the vet … that it is time. You will call your friend Eve, who has three dogs, because you figure she might offer you some words of wisdom, and she does. She tells you to have them do it in the car. She will tell you that is how she has had all her dogs put down.

When you walk into your vet’s front office, everyone will know why you are there. The front office staff will tell you they will help you carry her in. You look around at all the other pet owners with their animals who will have to watch this. Your vet will agree to come out to the car. You are thankful for your friend who told you to have it done that way. You will go out to the car, open the back and sit with your dog in the morning sun.

The front office person will come out with paperwork. He will ask if you want your dog’s paw print. You will imagine them sticking the dead paw into a mold and quickly say no. Then you realize that your ex might want said paw print, so you call him.

“Do you want her paw print?” you say when he picks up.

“Her what?”

“You know, they make a plaster imprint of her paw.” Then you add, “But they do it after she’s dead.”

Your ex will agree that the $79.95 paw print isn’t needed.

“But you are doing the private cremation, right?”

“Yeah,” you will answer.

“Call me. Later.”

You agree that you will.

You also agree to the more expensive “private cremation,” even though a former student has offered to dig a hole in your yard.

Here’s what you need to know if you are afraid of the actual procedure. Don’t be. You will not believe how easy the dying is. Afterward, you will wonder why we can’t let our humans go in this way, with compassion and kindness and love.

Here’s what happens: The vet tech will tell you that your dog will be given something to calm her down, make her “loopy.” You will ask if you can have some. “Only if you want to puke,” your vet will say. “It makes dogs feel great, not so much with humans.” Your dog will very quickly stop dry heaving and foaming at the mouth. She will lay her head down and seem to be in a very happy place. You will pet her and talk to her and do your best not to cry because you do not want to upset her. Then the vet will say she is giving the second injection. You will keep your hand on your dog’s chest, feel her heart slow and then stop.

“We’ll be right back,” your vet will tell you. “Take a few minutes.”

That is when you will bury your face in the fur of your dead dog and you will wail. The vet and vet tech will come back with a little stretcher, they will lift your dog onto it and cover her with a fuzzy ducky blanket that seems at once sentimental and silly, but heartbreaking, really.

The next day, you will relay your story to your running partner, and when you get to the ducky blanket, your voice will crack. You will have to stop talking. Your friend will say, “That isn’t heartbreaking. It’s soulbreaking.”

And so it was.

As with most dogs, Riva Jones taught me how to be a better creature in the world. How to live in the moment, to go with the flow. How to be a friend. How to live and, finally, how to let go.

Even though I wanted to prevent her from suffering even one single minute, I couldn’t. The last 20 hours or so were uncomfortable, really uncomfortable. But I have to believe Riva could see that I did the best I could. Would it have been more humane to put her down a week earlier, when I had made the first appointment? Probably. But as it is, I sometimes wonder if I should have brought her into the vet that morning, had the doctor check her. Maybe she’d be alive today! Those are the irrational thoughts that go along with the here-one-day-gone-the-next nature of death. I even worried that Riva would “wake up” in the vet’s office, scared, wondering where I was.

Everyone says your dog will tell you when it’s time. That you will know. That only makes sense in retrospect. You did it, so it was very much the right time. My ex didn’t send me a check for half the euthanasia or cremation, but he did call me to tell me he would be up to spread the ashes. When I told my husband, he responded, “Tell him no cash, no ash.”

I went back and forth about what to do. Finally, I opened the wooden box (a private cremation comes with a lovely cedar container) and we dished two heaping ladlesful of Riva into another baggie. As I did with my father’s ashes, I sifted through Riva’s remains, hoping for what, I’m not sure. Some feeling that it was her. But as with my father, it was gray bone fragment, and I could make no connection between it and the living being.

When I went to meet my ex with the ash and Riva’s collar, he asked me if I wanted to go with him. I felt like I needed an ending to my story, an ending, in many ways, to my relationship with my ex. We had kept in close contact because of Riva, but that would be over now. I then realized that the day he sat on the deck with me, drinking chardonnay, he was there not so much to say good-bye to Riva as to say good-bye to me.

We hiked up the hill behind the house we once shared. Since her death, he had gotten a dog paw tattooed on his forearm, and underneath, Riva’s name. I refrained from telling him, even in my usual passive-aggressive way, how ridiculous I found that. I saw that even though we both lost the same dog, we both had our own journey with it. When we reached the top, the valley unfolding into the lake, my ex opened the baggie and let the wind take the ash. It swirled around, scattering on the dirt below us. He then drove a metal cross into the ground with a mallet and wrapped Riva’s collar around it. We both sat there for a long time, looking out across the lake.

A woman with a dog came up the trail, and said, “Great spot, huh?” We allowed that it was.

“My husband proposed to me right there,” she called.

“Right where you’re sitting.”

She walked off with her dog, and I said, “Should we tell her?” We both laughed for a long time and then agreed it was time to head back down. When we reached my car, my ex gave me a check for half the vet bill without being asked. And then, finally, we said good-bye.

Suzanne Roberts is the author of Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (winner of the 2012 National Outdoor Book Award). She writes and teaches in South Lake Tahoe, Calif.