My nineteen-month-old daughter has a new word: Buh-ber. Normally I would be thrilled by this development, but it’s her word for Booker, the name of our fifteen-year-old dog, who I was hoping would die before she learned to name him. Of course, what I really want is for Booker to live forever, but because that’s not possible, I want him to quietly slip away without any of us noticing, as if scrubbed from our memories like Joel’s Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. As he teeters terribly close to that time, his great big body frequently betraying him, it’s more than I can bear to imagine going through all we inevitably have to should it come down to our deciding when and how he goes. What haunts me most as we brace our family, our home, for Booker’s death, is how to prepare those who can not be prepared—like my wee daughter and my other dog, Safari, Booker’s best friend. I keep picturing them in the days and weeks after, wandering together from room to room, my daughter’s little voice chanting, “Buh-ber? Buh-ber?” I keep hearing myself in response saying what I always say to ease her separation from beloved things: “Bye-Bye, Buh-ber.” At that, she will wave.
In a word, Booker is old. Fifteen is ancient for a dog his size. Over the last couple of years, his back end has weakened to a place of sincere disability. A few months ago, x-rays revealed a kind of structural collapse from mid-back to tail. This was no surprise. He can walk, but unreliably. A change in direction can bring him right to the ground. He can’t wag anymore and instead uses his tail as a rudder the way cheetahs do when they reach their highest speeds, only Booker uses his just to keep himself up. He’s on a daily painkiller, though even the vet doesn’t think he’s in much pain. He does wear the niftiest harness that helps us help him when he can’t get up. (It’s called the Web Master Harness by Ruff Wear; I swear, it has saved us all.) He spends most of his time on his bed, which we moved into the kitchen once he started losing control of his bowels in the night. Every morning when he stands up we find a little present where he was lying. I told my husband the other day that it’s like collecting eggs from a chicken. He looked at me. “Except it’s poop from a dog,” I acknowledged.
Most of the time Booker still gets up and down our three outdoor steps connecting our porch to the yard, but sometimes his back legs give out and he falls. The other night, before bed, I called into the cold dark for him and then saw him lying at the bottom of the stairs. He hadn’t even made it to the yard yet. It’s similarly hit or miss whether or not he will make it the seven feet to his water bowl. We don’t take him for walks anymore, except around our yard, because the last time we did he dragged his back foot until his nail wore down to the quick and bled everywhere. He can’t jump into his favorite western New York lake anymore because the last time he did my husband and his brother had to jump in after him or he would have drowned.
All that said, Booker still eats like the winner of a Coney Island Hot Dog Eating contest. He still wrestles as best he can with Safari, who has learned to play with Booker on the floor instead of air-born in the yard. He still licks my children up and down and cleans the floor after every meal they’ve half-dropped, half-eaten. He still watches us with such soulful intensity that we can’t possibly pass by him without one more belly scratch. So indeed, in addition to the question of how will we do this there is also the question of when.
People often talk about eyes—that when someone is ready to let go, you can see it in their eyes, like they’ve already left a little bit. Booker’s balance may be gone, but his eyes are still so full and wide sometimes it feels like you could fall into them. He quivers when he sees us, lights up from head to tail when my husband, the love of his life, comes home. He still licks our palms and clambers to be closer, always closer, all the time. He seems more in occupational discomfort than physical pain. It’s clearly a bummer to him not to be able to get reliably from Point A to Point B, but once he falls, is it so bad there in that middle ground? I am sure that it’s scary to fall in the night and, unless his whimpers wake us one floor above, to have to stay stuck there until someone comes along, but is it painful? I imagine it’s not terribly comfortable to poop on your bed when your legs can’t carry you elsewhere, but does the morning light still bring hope? When we stumble into the kitchen for coffee and food and all the morning rituals of our home, is there still a thrilled little voice that goes off in his head: Movement! = People! = Scratches on my head! When we lie with him and he shimmies with the same nimbleness he always has just to give us better access to his belly, groaning his long lazy groans of rapture, does it make the rest worth it? When we help him to the yard and he free falls onto the grass or the leaves or the snow, burrowing his muzzle, rolling until we call him in, is he reveling in what he is still able or underscoring what little else there is?
To me, today, this remains a tough call. Still, I wonder, does Booker still want to be here as much as we still want Booker to be here? And if I wonder this we’re probably closer to an answer than I’d like to admit.
We’ve gone through two recent stretches where we thought we were going to lose him—days that seemed to represent not just funks but permanent deterioration—yet both times it was as if he heard our tearful late-night conversations and buoyed himself back up. We even had what can only be described as a goodbye party for him. That was four months ago. A few days after, I had the initial conversation with our vet during which I cried so much that my eyes swelled up and I had to ice them with a bag of frozen peas—a technique I owe to a particularly sad break-up. (Thanks, twenties!)
The only animals I’ve ever had to euthanize were in emergent, traumatic distress (internal bleeding, a burst tumor, kidney failure). I’ve never had to make a choice for them—there was no choice. So I had a lot of questions for Booker’s vet, who is wonderful on many levels, but is also one of Booker’s biggest fans. (The feeling is mutual.) She started by telling me that for him she would come to our house if that is where we want to do it. That relieved me. But then I thought of Safari, who Booker raised as much as we did—where would he be? Our vet said that usually for the actual procedure other animals are kept out of the room, but afterward it could be important to let them visit the body as a way of finding their own closure. This made sense to me. She said the only thing to consider if she came to our home is that it would be up to us to deal with his body. In other words, if we’re planning on having him cremated we will have to get him to the pet crematory ourselves. When you euthanize at the office, she explained, the crematory sends a vehicle at the time of your appointment. It was the one time I laughed that day. I needed it desperately, that ridiculous image of my husband and me, wrecked with grief, trying to get our gigantic dead dog into the back of the car. I’m still not sure how we will do it.
For now, my husband and I check in with each other almost weekly about how we think he’s doing. We talk openly with our five-year-old about how old Booker is. We emphasize that he’s having a tough time. “Yeah,” our boy says. “He’s probably going to die soon.” Then, with growing concern, he starts listing the names of his grandparents, asking how old they all are. We have slowly become more comfortable—not with the idea of Booker’s dying, but with all the vocabulary that precedes death. We aren’t there yet, but we can talk about it. You could say, like Booker, we’re stuck.
We can see the here, our life with Booker—our kitchen with the disabled but determined old dog asleep in it; the sight of the blue plastic bags of poop on the porch, waiting to be carried to the trash; the feel of his weight against the harness strap as we walk him to and from the door. And we can see the there, our life without Booker—our wide-open future kitchen just as it was when we moved in; no dog bed; no poop bags; no cheap rugs spread out on the linoleum floor to offer his wobbly legs some traction. But we can’t see how we get from here to there, how we pass through the unpassable—how we make the decision; how we hold our dog until he is still; how we watch as our other dog explores him one last time; how we surrender his body; how we explain to our children that Buh-ber is gone; how we ever come home again.