A year ago today was my service dog, Gadget’s, last day. This post is about Gadget’s last night — which was adventurous, unique, and, ultimately, serene, all in one — much like Gadget was, himself.
As I mentioned in my previous post, we had already known for over a month that Gadget was dying. I had never been in the position before of nursing an animal through a long terminal illness and deciding in advance to euthanize at home. Most of my animals had died naturally. In a couple of cases, they died in accidents. The only animal I’d euthanized at home was my cat, Ferdinand, who, seven years ago, had very fast-moving pancreatic cancer. I made the decision in haste and realized too late it was the wrong one. I was haunted by terrible guilt. Only recently have I started to forgive myself for how Ferdinand died.
With a similar situation looming for Gadget, I worried a great deal about how I would know it was “time,” and when I did make that fateful decision, if it would be the right decision. His illness, especially near the end, was grueling, but the idea of losing him was unfathomable. The thought of taking the life of my partner, my beloved, my best friend, an extension of my own self, was sickening. I hoped he would die on his own, quickly and peacefully. I kept handy the number of a vet who made house-calls, and then I tried not to think about it.
As soon as it became clear we would have just a few weeks together, I dedicated myself to making that time the best it could be. A big part of this was taking him to the pond. Fiske Pond is a town-owned public park less than a mile from my home. It consists of a medium-sized pond with a trail all the way around, along with other trails, forests, and fields of grass. When he was doing well, we walked there and back. When his energy started to flag, a PCA drove us in my van.
Upon arrival, I’d let him off-leash, and he’d run and run and run, his ears flopping. We zoomed along the paths (the few that were minimally powerchair accessible) and down to the water. He always waded in — usually up to his armpits — for a drink. This was a source of amusement for Betsy and me because generally Gadget refused to drink water from a bottle or bowl unless he was practically in danger of heat exhaustion. In fact, he could be panting like all get-out, and I’d offer him water in the van right before we got to the pond, and he wouldn’t touch a drop. But no matter the weather or temperature or length of his coat, he always wanted to drink pond water.
“Mm, pond. . . .” Betsy and I would intone, mimicking Homer Simpson, when Gadget lapped up the filthy pond water. We joked that we should bottle it and sell it to city dogs, because obviously pond water — this pond water — was the best-tasting water. “L’Eau du Pond” was my favorite name for our imaginary company. However, we both conceded that the bottled water would never be as good as the real thing, because obviously it tasted best only if you were standing in it up to your armpits. Or maybe it was just easiest to drink that way, without having to lower your head.
All of the pictures in today’s post are from visits to the pond. It was gorgeous there, year-round. We called it “The Happiest Place on Earth.” (No theme park could ever hold a candle to the myriad smells, the other dogs, the swimming, the running, the number of trees to mark.) We meant it was his happy place, but really, it was Betsy’s and my happy place, too, because Gadget was so jubilant there — and he was so gorgeous when he ran — that I was filled with joy just watching him. We both went as fast as we could over the bumpy terrain, up and down the hills, pushing our limits, reveling in the freedom neither of us had access to much of the rest of our lives.
Gadget knew that if I put his orange vest on him, it was recreation time — either a walk or some other fun outing. If I told him to get in the van in his orange vest, he was thrilled, because that meant the pond, for sure.
However, he generally already knew we were headed there because he knew the word, “pond.” We had to be careful never to say it unless we were about to go, because we didn’t want to raise his hopes falsely. We had a lot of conversations like this:
Sharon: I think I’m going to take him out soon, to the you-know-where. Do you want to come?
Betsy: To the p–
Sharon: (Interrupting) Shh!
Betsy: (Looking around for Gadget) To the P-O-N-D?
Betsy and I got quite silly about winding him up during his last year of life. If you said, “Pond,” around him, he would race around, bouncing and whining with anticipation. Thus, we developed “The Pond Song.” I don’t remember how it started, but one day Betsy or I discovered that if one of us howled just the right note, Gadget would join in. We encouraged him to turn the whine into a howl, and soon after announcing a trip to, “The pond! The Pond! The POND!” We’d all be howling, “The Pond Song.”
As cancer started to take its toll, I was consumed by nursing him, night and day. Taking him for walks, feeding him his favorite foods, giving him his medication, and making sure he was comfortable in any way I could. When nausea first struck, and he didn’t want to eat, I gave him an anti-nausea medication that brought back his appetite. Eventually, when he was eating and drinking less, I gave him subcutaneous fluids. I checked on him constantly, night and day.
He seemed to be uncomfortably hot most of the time. He took to lying on the coolest spot on the floor instead of on his dog bed. He didn’t like to cuddle for more than a couple of minutes before he’d move to a new, cool spot. He drank a great deal. More than ever, he wanted to be at the pond. He still lit up when we arrived. He ran around, sniffing and marking. But he headed into the water with a swiftness and purpose that he’d never shown before. No matter how cold it was — even on days it was well below freezing — he waded all the way in and drank. Often he would go back in repeatedly to cool off and drink more.
He became slower, and his appetite was more unpredictable. He seemed very tired, and sometimes didn’t wander far in the yard before lying down. The last full meal he ate was a portion of his regular homemade food, followed by fried egg and French fries off my own plate, with us both on my bed. Eggs had become a staple — one of his favorite foods; my surefire way to get him to eat anything was to mix an egg into it. That night, he stopped licking my plate when there was still egg on it.
The next day, he didn’t want his food. I managed to tempt him with just fried eggs, yogurt, and cottage cheese, which I spooned into his mouth. He was more interested in eating something if it came directly from me than if it was on a plate or in a bowl. I bought vanilla ice cream, because I’d read that sometimes it was the only thing a sick dog would eat. Sure enough, the following day, all he wanted was frozen yogurt or ice cream, and even those I had to first put a dab on his tongue before he got the taste for it.
It was clear that Gadget’s time was coming, and Betsy and I frequently discussed when I would know it was time to call the vet. I really, really didn’t want to call the vet, but I also didn’t want to keep him living past the point he was ready to die, due to my cowardice and fear.
However, Gadget kept telling me he wasn’t ready. He wanted to go for walks. Sometimes I’d let him out to pee, and he’d head down the ramp to the gate and wait. I’d just let him out and follow him. Most of his walks around my home were off-leash anyway, because there was hardly any traffic, and Gadget knew to sit at the side of the road when a car came by.
In those last couple of days, even if he sometimes wandered and then seemed to collapse with weakness, so that I became scared he’d not be able to stand again, he always did; and if we went for a walk, he perked right up. His step was bouncier and quicker. He became alert to the smells, sights, and sounds around him.
In fact, two days before he died, my mother came to spend the day because we thought it might be his last; that morning was the first time he had laid down outside and then had trouble regaining his footing. However, when I asked him if he wanted to go for a walk, he did. My mother, Betsy, and I put on our coats, and we put on his orange vest and headed out. We saw a neighbor and told him Gadget was dying.
“He sure doesn’t look like he’s dying to me!” he said.
“Well,” I said, trying not to cry, “he is.” What I should have said was, “That’s because he’s Gadget.”
We moved along slowly, so he wouldn’t feel rushed. We turned around after a short time because we didn’t know how much strength he had left. He wanted to keep going.
That night, around 2:00 A.M., I let him out to pee before turning in. Although he’d been wobbly and unsteady that day, he went to the gate. He wanted a walk. It was bitterly cold, and I wasn’t wearing a coat, but he wanted to go for a walk, so we went. I just followed behind him. This was different from how we had walked even a week before. Normally, I raced along as fast as my chair could go, and Gadget was free to stop and sniff or mark something, and then come roaring past me before stopping to enjoy another roadside attraction.
However, I didn’t know how far he could safely go, and I didn’t want to push him beyond his limit of enjoyment or safety. I was concerned, too, that if he collapsed, I didn’t want to leave him alone in the dark while I went home to get help. Nevertheless, I let him lead the way, and when we got to a gully at the side of the road that was often filled with water — a vernal pool in the spring, and the equivalent in fall if it had rained a lot — he waded in. We’d had a wet fall, so the water was up to his belly. He drank and drank.
I was afraid he would have trouble getting back out, so I moved toward home and called him. To my relief, he made it out of the pool and followed me home.
The next day, he didn’t want to eat. Not vanilla ice cream, not anything. He didn’t show an interest in anything, except . . . the pond.
“You wanna go to the pond?” I asked him. And he tilted his head, lifting his ears. He definitely wanted to go. We put on his orange vest, and he headed right to the van.
At the pond, he was slower than usual, but he was steady, and he definitely enjoyed himself. We knew it was most likely his last time. We had already decided that I would probably call the vet to come the next day. I was still unsure, though. I kept hoping Gadget would somehow give me a sign. I didn’t know what to look for. Seeing him enjoying himself there, but so not himself, was bittersweet. I knew bringing him had been the right thing. I knew he wasn’t yet ready to go. I just didn’t know when I would know, or how.
Again, that night, when I let Gadget out to pee before bed, he went to the gate. Betsy and I debated whether we should take him to the pond. We weren’t sure what he wanted or what he was up for. We decided that I would just let him lead me, and Betsy would follow us in the van in case we needed a ride to the pond. She needed to get dressed in warm clothes.
It was twenty degrees out, after midnight, as Gadget made his way, and I followed. When we came to the fork in the road where we normally went right, toward the pond, he took a left. Again, he headed for the vernal pool. This time, I was concerned. He had experienced several episodes of difficulty getting up that day, and I was alone with him at night, in the cold and dark. I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but I knew he was going to go in, and I wanted to stop him, but I didn’t. I don’t know if I told him no and he ignored me, or if I even had a leash with me or not. I’m pretty sure I didn’t, or I would have been able to stop him.
All I remember was the layer of ice over the leaf-filled clear water of the roadside pool, and Gadget wading into it, breaking through the ice and entering the water like it was a cool embrace. I was increasingly scared that he would not be able to get out.
I was right to be scared. When I called Gadget, he couldn’t get out. He didn’t flounder or sink, but he tried to climb up the bank and then gave up. He just stood there in the water up to his chest. He was very still.
At this time last year, I was not very mobile. I had improved vastly from the previous year, when I was almost never able even to get out of bed, even to go to the bathroom. However, I was still largely unable to stand or transfer myself or do anything beyond the one walk a day we took. Even that — riding in my powerchair — was something I had to push myself very hard to do. In fact, a couple of weeks after Gadget died, I crashed very hard for several months, perhaps because I overextended so long and hard to care for Gadget.
In other words, I was not in any condition to pull a wet, 75-pound dog out of a mud-bottomed pool. But there was no way in hell I was going to leave Gadget in that freezing water. I was trying to decide what to do when my van appeared. It was Betsy. I was so relieved.
I told her that he was stuck, and we’d have to pull him out. She was not happy about this. I tried pulling him out by the collar, without success. I didn’t have enough leverage. I put one of my legs in the icy water, shoe and clothing and all, up to my thigh. Then we were both stuck. I couldn’t get him out, and I didn’t think I could get myself out, either. I called to Betsy, urgently, to come help me get Gadget out of the water. She had to step into the pool, too, with both legs, which she was extremely unhappy about, and she lifted him out. Then she helped me out.
“I think he wants to go to the pond,” I told her.
It had seemed like an outlandish scheme so late at night, with a dying dog, but nothing really felt normal — or abnormal — anymore. We stood there in the road, wet and shivering, debating whether to go to the pond or not. We decided the first thing we all needed was to get warm. Then we would decide.
I sent Betsy ahead to get Gadget home and dry him off and warm him up. She had to lift him into the van because he was too tired to jump in. I didn’t want to slow us all down by using the van’s hydraulic lift to get my powerchair in and out. I rode my chair home, feeling extremely cold as I willed my slow chair to go as fast as it could. Mostly my mind was on what we would decide — about everything — when I got back.
When I arrived, Betsy had brought towels out to the van to dry Gadget off and bundle him up. He was on his dog bed and seemed to be okay. Betsy and I were both freezing.
If we were going to the pond, I didn’t want to bring Gadget inside. I was sure that his adventure in the icy roadside gully, combined with trekking from the van to the house and back, would wear him out beyond a possibility of going to the pond. If we were going to go, we needed to go right away, so Gadget could stay put until we got there. Regardless, Betsy and I needed to dry off and get into warm clothes.
I still couldn’t tell if it was a good idea to go or not. Yet, by now I was certain this was Gadget’s last chance to go to his happiest place on earth. We decided we would go, and if he seemed interested when we got there, great. If not, at least we would have given him the option.
I didn’t want Gadget to be alone in the van, so I went in the house to towel off and put on dry clothes, while Betsy watched over Gadget. Then I went to the van — blessedly warm and dry — to stay with Gadget while Betsy went in and changed. We were both equipped with flashlights this time — and a leash.
When she came back out, it was 2:00 in the morning. I asked Gadget again if he wanted to go to the pond, and this time he clearly indicated that he did. He looked more interested and engaged at the word, “pond,” than he had all day.
So we drove to the pond, Betsy and I wondering if what we were doing made any sense at all. When we got there, Betsy unloaded my chair (the one that did work with the lift), and we opened the side door. Gadget popped up and leaped out of the van! Apparently, we had made the right decision!
The sky was clear and full of stars. The air was crisp and dry and cold.
Gadget trotted ahead of us, all dog, sniffing everything, his nose to the ground. He marked his favorite bushes and trees to mark. Yes, he was moving more slowly than he had a month before, a week before, but if he wasn’t galloping, he was definitely trotting, sometimes running. He was happy.
Betsy and I were happy and sad, cried and watched him and talked a little. We looked up at the sky.
Then I saw a shooting star. I pointed it out to Betsy. Then there was another. She saw it, too. I wished on the star that Gadget would die that night in his sleep. I don’t really believe in such things, but it was my heart’s desire. It’s just what popped into my head, without any thought. (It turned out the shooting stars were meteor showers; I hadn’t known there were to be any that night.)
Gadget was in his element, and we followed behind. Betsy and I both felt a sense of peace and rightness. We agreed that I would call the vet in the morning. It was time. A last night at the pond was the right way for Gadget’s life to end.
We did not allow him to go to the side of the pond where we usually went, where there is a steep drop-off he could have taken to get into the water. Instead, we went around to “the swimmers’ beach,” which had sand and a gradual drop-off for safer wading. We were nervous about letting him go in, but we did. Gadget walked into the water, and there Betsy saw another shooting star above him. I told her that I knew things were going to be okay. When we called him from the water, he did come back. No more beach rescues.
When we got back to the car and loaded Gadget in, he settled right down in his bed. Betsy and I had already told each other we had felt a peace descend on us when we stood at the beach and looked up at the stars. Now, Gadget seemed to be exuding an aura of peace and tranquility, too. The restlessness I had sensed in him during the past week, and increasingly in the last couple of days, was gone. For whatever reason, he seemed ready, too.
Gadget did not die in his sleep that night. I slept very little and checked on him often, but he continued, resolutely, to breathe, though somewhat labored.
In the morning, we called the vet and said that we hoped he could meet us at the pond, as that was Gadget’s favorite place, and we wanted him to die where he was happiest. We told the vet we weren’t sure if we’d get him there or not.
In the early part of the day, I asked Gadget if he wanted to go to the pond, and he showed interest. But when we let him out, he wandered over to the side yard, not a place he normally goes, and as usual, we followed him. The trip around the house to the other patch of lawn appeared to have been all he could manage, and he sank down in the grass. I asked Gadget if he wanted to go to the pond, and he didn’t respond. That’s when I knew, absolutely, it was time.
Betsy and I sat on the grass, patting him and talking to him, scratching his favorite spots — behind his ears, under his chin, in his armpit. His last great effort came when the vet arrived. Gadget jumped up and barked at him. If you’d only seen him in that moment, you’d never have known he was sick. That he was dying.
Then he folded back into the grass. The vet explained what he would do — use an intramuscular injection first that was a combination sedative and painkiller, which would make him lose consciousness — and then give him the lethal injection which would stop his heart. Gadget went limp in Betsy’s arms immediately after the first shot. Unlike my cat, who had lingered and was clearly not ready to go, Gadget went immediately. He was definitely ready to die. Although I wasn’t ready to lose him, he was ready to go. He was tired, and he’d had his last great adventure.