Summit of An Caisteal – South of Crianlarich 2013
I thought that my best-beloved dog, Dylan, would make it to Easter. I felt that he had enough quality of life to make it to his fourteenth birthday. I was deluding myself. Beset by arthritis, prostate problems, a tumour and the onset of canine dementia he was struggling on at best. It was the last of this dreary list of problems that tipped the balance, for here seemed to be the clearest signs of actual distress. This was where the pain stopped him being himself.
Canine dementia can manifest itself in trembling fits, behavioural changes, shifting sleep patterns and obsessive repetitive behaviour. Again, it was the last thing in this next bleak list that seemed to cause him most distress. He would repeatedly circle and circle, often after one of the four or five nighttime visits to the garden he had been requesting. He would crash into things in the dark bedroom and was clearly distressed by the experience.He was shuffling, scuffling and thumping about and I had taken to scooping him up into the bed and cradling him under the cover- something that he would never have tolerated at one point in his life. It seemed to give him some comfort, or at least respite, from the stumbling, anxious circles he was caught in. He would tuck his head under my chin and sigh. I could feel the thin flesh over his ribs and the starkness of his hips: angular bone where there had once been firm muscle.
It was easy enough to say, “Maybe it’s time this week”. We all agreed that he was struggling on stoically and that there was only the promise of increased suffering for him in the future. We could save him that by taking on the pain of his loss ourselves. That’s the rational theory of compassion that euthanising a pet needs; the theory needed to help shape thoughts and feelings. The practice is harder.
Even at this late stage in his life Dylan had moments of brightness that brought fragments of sweetness into our days. I took him to the Bluebell Wood in January. There is a photograph of him charging between silver birches, grass like green fire and streams of bluebells on a day that is bursting with sunshine. Some serendipity of light, shade and shutter speed caught him, speed-blurred, in a perfect moment. It was the quintessential Dylan but this photograph was taken in May 2005: those old Nokia phones had good cameras…
The Bluebell Wood- Stepps circa 2005
Anyway, he recognised the place and got really excited, charging down the hills like a puppy. Right at the end of the little glen is the steep hill where the photograph was taken all those years ago. He couldn’t get up the hill now. We turned back and I had to carry him on the steeper sections of the path. But seeing his excitement, the shade of vigour from his glory days, was good. And he had started to eat well again, although he wasn’t putting on weight. And when he went on a walk he would sniff and snuffle and be interested in world of smell that we poorly snouted humans have no inkling of. And he still liked to chase a ball. And he was still interested in us…And I went on and on and on with thoughts to help me evade the truth of the pain that he was in.
The call to the vet was made early in the week and life went on, keeping things normal while trying to turn each moment into a memory, holding on when you know you have to let go. I wavered and thought of giving him more time but by Friday it was settled. Lynn, the vet who has been treating him for years, had kindly agreed to make a house visit on Saturday at 1:00 PM.
How do you prepare for a moment like this, preparing to lose a beloved friend of nearly fourteen years? The weird clarity of the day sticks with me. We were up early and he played in the garden. The weather was calm and still, a benign suburban Saturday morning, perfect for a walk in the park and Dylan sniffed and snuffled around his realm of scents, greeted some other dogs and seemed happy. Later, a sirloin steak was cooked, rare enough to satisfy him, and he gobbled the slices down.
It was still early, so another walk to the bigger expanse of the hockey field was in order but he seemed slower, maybe two walks was just too much? I hadn’t brought a ball, something that normally enthused him but he brightened when he spotted another dog. The owner was taken with Dylan and gave him a biscuit. Dylan mouthed it and dropped it, anything less than steak clearly wasn’t worth the effort. I told the man that Dylan was poorly and about what was about to happen. “Sorry wee man, I’ll see you in another life” he said and patted Dylan. I thanked him and we walked back through corridor of dark green privet and laurel that led out of the park.
Everything was about preparation now. Family had called in to say goodbye. I picked some narcissus and crocuses that had just recently bloomed in the garden: bright yellow and clean white with lilac stripes. Candles were lit, and music selected. The room was warm and Dylan was sleepy, cosseted and serene on the couch with Morag. I put scent on cotton handkerchiefs: tears need comforting. I wrote him a card to take with him when he left us:
“To Dylan, the best beloved boy,
So, we’ll go no more a roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.”
While looking out his fleeces to wrap him in I had a mild panic when my posy of flowers was moved. Morag told me to sit with Dylan and I did. He stretched across my lap and slept: oblivious and content.
Lynn arrived on schedule and was happy to see Dylan so settled. The normal protocol for euthanasia is a two step process, with sedative administered first followed by the barbiturate overdose that stops the heart. However, on seeing how profoundly relaxed Dylan was Lynn decided to move straight to the second phase. The sedative injection is intramuscular and this risked causing Dylan more distress than the drug would alleviate. Given how much muscle he had lost and his increasing sensitivity to injections this was understandable. Unfortunately, I had to lift Dylan to slip a fleece under him. I should have thought of this myself. The fleece wasn’t for Dylan as such, it was to protect clothing and furniture from the incontinence that would inevitably be the result of the last injection. I wish that I had just left him undisturbed at that point: the mess wouldn’t have mattered in the least.
Lynn located a vein in Dylan’s hind leg and the process began. The plunger of the syringe depresses and Dylan lets out three or four high and clear barks. Lynn’s cry is plaintive, “Oh no Dylan don’t!”. I stroke and shush and calm him and Lynn continues to depress the plunger of the syringe. Dylan takes a last breath and his whole ribcage stiffens. I know his heart has stopped. Lynn has to check with a stethoscope, but I know his heart has stopped- the rumbling whoosh and rush of his heart, a sound and feeling I know so well, is gone. His chest hardened and it was gone. Lynn knows Dylan well, she knew his strength, his resilience and his stoicism. She said that he hadn’t felt any pain. Who really knows? Lynn felt that those barks were just Dylan’s residual strength speaking. He barked clear and true before he died, a highly unusual reaction, but that great heart of his could hardly “go gentle into that good night” and although I have been vexed by this thought, maybe that was right.
After that there were the last moments with his poor little body. Placing the flowers between his paws and tucking the card under him: something physical from us had to go with him. Then wrapping him like a sleepy child in the blanket and lifting and carrying this lightest and heaviest of burdens to the Lynn’s car. I placed him on the back seat, patted the small bundle, hugged and thanked Lynn and walked away, empty-armed but not unburdened… It was then that I cried, a horrible wracking retch of a cry and yet I if this is the cost of the love and beauty that he brought into my life then it is a cost worth paying.
Bellachantuy Bay, Kintyre.
Toward Jura from Kintyre 2008
My best beloved dog
April 25th 2003 – March 11th 2017