We’d been saying goodbye to Hunter for eight months, since we learned that she had kidney disease. What had begun in August 2012 with the treatment of what appeared to be a urinary-tract infection had turned quickly into the urgent management of and an intensive crash course in glomerulonephritis, the merciless cause of Hunter’s diminished kidney functions. Most dogs don’t last two months after such a diagnosis, we were told by our dedicated veterinarian and a consulting veterinary internist. In the end, she’d lived for eight more months.
Hunter died on March 29, 2013 – Good Friday, somewhat ironically – at the end of a horrible week that we all-but knew would be her last. My wife, Jessica, and I had done all we could do to manage the disease over the “long term,” whose duration had elapsed. And Hunter, an 8-year-old black Lab mix we’d adopted in 2005, was telling us she’d had enough. Dr. B, as compassionate and extraordinary a caretaker as we and Hunter could have hoped to rely on, had said several times that Hunter would “let us know” when she was ready to stop fighting. And in those last few weeks of her life, it had become clear that she was fighting for us, and no longer for herself. No matter how far removed I am from her death, I am destroyed anew by that critical bit of communication, which carried a crushing reminder that Hunter hadn’t been able to tells us much during her illness about how she was feeling and what she wanted or needed. And yet, she’d remained the stoic one, brave and trusting to the end, even as I helped her die.
She hadn’t eaten in days and was staying hydrated only because we’d been giving her fluids subcutaneously. She’d stopped climbing the stairs and going outside on her own and had spent the last week in a peaceless stillness, nausea-induced tremors interrupting any chance of relaxation. While Hunter’s eyes had lost their brightness and struggled to focus in her imprisoning weakness, they didn’t fail to convey her trust. The last few times she’d been outside, after I’d carried her into the yard and set her down to face into the wind, she’d stood still, confused by the dizziness but unafraid of what it meant. She’d always spent a few minutes facing into the wind, closing her eyes and letting the current wash over her forehead. In the past, though, her stillness was meditative until broken in a burst of energy as she bolted across the yard with unusually spectacular speed in pursuit of an interloping bird or squirrel. Now, it was all she could do to just stand there, unsteady, leaving me to remember those purposeful sprints and the smile she’d wear as she came trotting back to the deck, the back door, and the indoors, where she now lay, frail and courageous.
That morning, I’d carried her downstairs from our bedroom, just as I’d carried her upstairs and placed her on our bed the night before. I called our veterinarian, who’d last seen Hunter at the beginning of that terrible week. We’d run out of time, and there was nothing else we could do for Hunter. More important, there was nothing more she wanted us to do. In fact, doing anything more would have been unfair to her. And what was best for her had always been our priority.
Dr. B had told us she’d be off from work that day, but that she’d be available, whatever we needed. What we needed was her help to let Hunter stop fighting. Dr. B and I had talked about this eventuality. Neither of us was surprised that the time had come. Hunter had let us know. She’d answered a question that I wrote down after she was gone: “Do I give her that day, or do I give her the opportunity to not have to endure it?”
Calmly, Dr. B said she’d make arrangements for someone to watch her children and head to her office to pick up the necessary drugs and equipment, after which she’d come to our house, to Hunter. Gently, she asked if we wanted her to take Hunter’s body when it was all over, or if we had plans to bury her, which we did, though that wasn’t a conversation Jess and I’d had. No sooner had I told Jess the details of my conversation with our veterinarian than Dr. B called back to say she’d be at our house within the hour. Immediately, I felt sick to my stomach, a symptom, no doubt, of pain and guilt. It was the right decision, I knew, and yet it hurt in a way that I can still feel.
Not wanting the moments after Hunter died to be taken up with the unwelcome task of digging her grave, I grabbed a pair of gardening gloves and headed for the neighbors’ shed to get a shovel. Jess asked if I wanted her help, which I did not. I let her know as much in a breathless tone that betrayed the anger and grief I felt, and which was captured in another notebook entry, made in the hours and days after Hunter died: “The muscles in my legs ached from digging Hunter’s grave, a ghoulish exercise I performed in the moments before our veterinarian arrived.”
I picked a secluded spot next to the gravesite of an animal companion we’d lost in June 2011: Alex, a more than 15-year-old cat I’d adopted almost that many years earlier in New York City. Alex had died peacefully of old age. She’d made it easy on us, Jess and I have said countless times since. As I started digging this time, I felt no such peace. Adding to that anguish was my concern that our neighbors, with whom we’re friendly, would see what I was doing and come over. They’d known Hunter since we’d brought her home and knew how sick she’d been. They’d noted her increasing absence in our yard and that her final days were upon us. Given that it was a holiday, our neighbors – J and K – were home from work. And it would not have been surprising for J, the handyman neighbor every homeowner should hope to have, to lend a hand. As a do-it-yourself hobbyist with his own backhoe and dump truck, J could’ve dug Hunter’s grave in a few effortless minutes, although, to include anyone else in the performance of this necessary and dreadfully symbolic task was unthinkable.
Thankfully, I was left alone to dig Hunter’s grave – to fight with the stubborn roots that resisted my efforts to split them with the shovel’s edge, to remove pieces of tableware that had likely been buried as trash by our home’s original, 19th century owners, and to set aside the large stones that tumbled into the rectangular excavation. It was a beautiful day in terms of the weather, by most people’s standards, and I worked up a sweat trying to complete the ghoulish exercise before Dr. B arrived.
Like most first-time visitors to our house, she missed the driveway, which is hard to see for those approaching from the north. I’d finished digging and was waiting in the driveway, expecting her to drive past. Had I not known that the decision we’d made earlier that morning was the right one – that Hunter had told us, in her way, that she was done fighting, and that any more fighting on our part would have been for ourselves and not for her – I might have hoped for Dr. B to get lost and fail to find our house. That thought never entered my mind. Hunter was near death and without intervention might have made it through the day, perhaps even through the next. She hadn’t eaten in a number of days, and the only fluids in her were those that we’d provided subcutaneously. She hadn’t stood on her own that day and hadn’t changed her position on her cranberry-colored mat since I’d relocated her there from our bed. Hunter’s once-enviable quality of life had disappeared with her muscle, appetite, and energy.
I greeted Dr. B with an honest smile, in part to put her at ease and let her know that I – that we – were OK, and in part, I’m sure, to acknowledge myself that we were doing something for Hunter, and not to her. Still, Dr. B’s presence once again provided comfort, the extraordinary care she’d provided Hunter marked by equal measures of expertise, professionalism, and compassion. I led her inside and past our nearly 2-year-old cat, Monty, who’d wandered into the kitchen, and then into the living room where Jess sat with Hunter who moved only her eyes as we entered the room. Dorrie, our 5-and-a-half-year-old beagle-hound mix – Hunter’s younger canine sister – stood quietly and attentively nearby. Hunter’s bravery seemed to have rubbed off on the rest of us, though it didn’t cure the physical sickness I’d felt since calling Dr. B’s office less than an hour earlier. More than once, I’d hung up the phone after talking with our veterinarian and cried uncontrollably, angered and devastated by the death sentence Hunter’s glomerulonephritis had come with. I’d been vigilant about channeling those emotions into limiting Hunter’s suffering as much as I possibly could.
Dr. B had Jess and I sign a document pertaining to the procedure, which we did as matter-of-factly as we could so as not to draw any more attention than was necessary to the clerical element, and sat with us on the floor around Hunter, acknowledging and saying a few words to Dorrie and to Monty, who’d joined us in the living room. As she always had, Dr. B spoke to Hunter and gently caressed her sweet, trusting face, which she hadn’t lifted from the mat. Dr. B had long admired Hunter’s stoicism in the face of relentless poking and prodding, and thoughtfully asked if we’d prepared any sort of memorial ceremony. I tried to say through the grip that held my throat that we hadn’t planned anything. Despite my inability to articulate it at the time, I wouldn’t have wanted the moment to unfold any other way.
Dr. B explained to Jess and I what would happen: She’d administer a sedative followed by a barbiturate overdose. It would be over in a matter of seconds, she said, and we shouldn’t be alarmed if Hunter took a deep breath when the lethal drug, which had a somewhat ironic milky-pink hue, entered her system. Still, I felt a stab of panic when Hunter lifted her head and gasped for one, final breath before going limp, her head falling back onto her mat with Dr. B cushioning the impact. I hadn’t removed my hands from Hunter’s body, and there they remained as Dr. B checked for a heartbeat and found none. At least once, Hunter seemed to cough in a single, isolated hack, but it wasn’t really her. It was her body’s final release. She was gone. Explaining that dogs’ eyelids don’t close when they die, as humans’ eyelids do, Dr. B ran her palm over Hunter’s face, closing her eyes once and for all. She told us that we could expect whatever urine and feces that were in Hunter’s system to drain from her body when we moved it, but none did.
Jess and I walked Dr. B to the door, where she told us for the umpteenth time that we’d gone “above and beyond” in taking care of Hunter, which had struck me as a terribly sad comment on whatever the norm is. Jess and I each hugged Dr. B the way we might’ve hugged each other had we not been moved to express our gratitude to her. Awkwardly, I asked if there was any charge for the procedure, which Dr. B said there was not.
When she’d left, I returned to the living room. Jess placed a soft blanket over Hunter and I carried her, still on her mat, outside. I remembered the challenge of carrying an animal-companion’s limp and lifeless body, and made sure Hunter rested in my arms just comfortably as if she were alive. We left Dorrie inside, not wanting her to watch her sister being put into a hole in the ground and covered with dirt. As gently as I could, I placed Hunter in the grave, her cranberry-colored mat providing a deserved cushion against the harsh unevenness of the earth. Slowly, I poured the earth I’d dug up over Hunter’s still and now-peaceful body, then, with Jess’ help, framed the gravesite with pieces of firewood and decorated and protected it with the large stones I’d set aside, as I had with Alex’s grave. Jess marked Hunter’s grave with a piece of earth from which a single, stubborn flower grew, unbothered by the shovel’s earlier violent attack. When we finally let Dorrie out, she ran knowingly to Hunter’s grave.
The above was written one year ago.