The Sadness of Saying Goodbye

After an emotional high of being away at camp this weekend, we returned home in a tornado of activity as we quick-changed to make it to E.V.’s first dance recital. We were all exhausted and focused on just getting through the excitement of it all before crashing. When the girls had finally passed out and things were winding down this past Sunday, Ryan told me that it had been a rough weekend at home — among many things, our dog Oscar had been throwing up for two days straight and hadn’t eaten or drank anything since we’d left. 

That night, Oscar was lethargic and dazed, and I was so worried that I kept waking up to lean down to the end of the bed to see if he was still with us. His breathing was labored. He’d twitch uncontrollably. His heartbeat was irregular. It was awful. So I took him straight to the vet at 7 a.m. the next morning. 

On the drive into the doctor, I realized that while we were caught up in the whirlwind of May-cember, Oscar had actually been having a bit of a tough month. He’d been acting a little strange…peeing in the house, falling down the stairs, standing and staring like a statue for long periods. He was sleeping a lot more, barking a lot less. But I reasoned that he had acted like this before: Every so often over the past few years Oscar would get sick with pancreatitis from getting hold of human food, and we’d finally take notice once he’d thrown up until he was dehydrated. Pancreatitis isn’t great, but it is a diagnosis that’s easily cured: A hydration shot + some antibiotics from the doctor, and he’d be as good as new within a few days. I figured that was what was happening again, so I didn’t worry too much about it. But I was wrong. 

Mid-morning, the doctor called: I did an ultrasound and x-ray. His kidneys are failing — one’s not functioning and the other is enlarged…There are giant tumors in his stomach and lungs…Cancer all over his body…I’m sorry…he’s dying.

I always get a strange sense of calm in the initial wave of tragedy, so I listened carefully and then asked only question: How long did we have?

I’d be surprised if he made it a week.

We brought him home immediately.

May 13th was Oscar’s golden birthday — 13 on the 13th. We had planned on throwing him a family party; the girls had insisted. But I had been busy, too busy to orchestrate it. We’ll just do it later, I had promised them. But I didn’t know that we wouldn’t have a later. Bad would only turn to worse in the next few days, so much so that the only time Oscar even seemed remotely like himself was when he was in a deep, peaceful, medicated sleep.

Wednesday morning I sat on the bottom step of our deck, watching Oscar awkwardly meandering around the yard. The lawn was fuller than usual, taller and more lush from a season of rain, not yet dried out by the harsh summer sun. His weak hind legs could hardly push their way through the grass, could barely raise themselves high enough to step over it. He looked…lost. Staring at the puppy I’ve loved for over a decade and not recognizing him felt all too familiar, reminiscent of a season of loss just a few short years ago when our first dog, Olive, passed, foreshadowing the passing of my mother just six months later. I can’t do this again.

But here I am, doing this yet again.

Looking at his unsteady gait, his protruding ribs, his glassy eyes, all I could think is, You’re barely you anymore. Oscar, like most dogs, lived to be outside, barking at neighbors, exploring the leftover scent of deer and squirrels, laying in the warm sun. But the dog I was staring at was, quite frankly, a faint shadow of the one I knew. The pain was so obvious, it had taken over and robbed us of the friend we knew so intimately for thirteen years. As someone who has felt faced with the abrupt death of loved ones repeatedly in this season of life, my best take away is this: Love them before they’re sick. 

Take the dang picture, the annoying video. Save their hand-written cards and little tokens and things you don’t think matter in the moment. Hug them and laugh with them even when you’re tired. Don’t check your phone when you’re with them, because the time you have together less than you think.

By the time the terminal diagnosis is made or the news is given, your loved ones are already not themselves. They are in pain, lacking energy and clarity and function. (That’s why they saw a doctor in the first place, isn’t it?) And most of the time, even when the best effort is made to get them well again, the treatments sink them even further into disfunction, making them less and less of the person you knew. For Oscar, the only thing we could do to salvage a few more days with him was to give him the mercy of pain + anti-nausea meds. But in those last few days, he wasn’t his true self; he slept and snuggled, but that’s about it. He wouldn’t eat or drink or bark. His breathing was labored, and he could barely walk. When we did realize that he’d gotten up on his own and wandered somewhere in the house, we’d find him hiding, trying to pass into death alone and peacefully like animals do. But we weren’t ready to let go quite yet, so we’d scoop him up and lay him back down next to us. Not today. 

The other piece of advice I have, the harder one, is to let them go sooner than you’re ready. Because, truthfully, you’ll never be ready. Imagine the pain they’re in — to pile on the weight of trying to hang on when their greatest desire is release + relief is a selfish act on our part. Could we have gotten another few days with Oscar? Yes. But his suffering would only have intensified, his meds would have increased so much he’d have been comatose, and the inevitable would just have been looming in the distance. It was this way with my mom, and although I’m thankful for the six weeks we got with her between diagnosis and death, I am regretful that we didn’t just give her the gift of passing peacefully when she initially asked for it. It was selfish on our part, on my part, and I won’t make that mistake again. 

So today, just four days post-diagnosis, we said goodbye to the best friend I could have ever imagined having in my life.

I find that at the end, you can’t help but think on the beginning: Ryan and I searched high and low for the perfect puppy when we were first married, and God put Oscar into our laps in the most miraculous of ways. We were on the hunt one Sunday, perusing the usual adoption spots. A crowd had formed around one little dog, and as I craned my neck to see what the fuss was all about, I saw him. 

“That cute little guy looks like his name should be Oscar,” I commented to Ryan.

He was dark gray and squirmy. His hair was unkempt and he looked like he was rescued out of a trash can. Some family was snuggling him, bragging about taking him home that day. I didn’t think much about it — until we came back again the next week and he was still there. This time a little girl was snuggling the fuzzy guy, and I was surprised to see him. There’s Oscar again! I supposed the family had changed their minds. Oh, well. Looks like he’s found a good family this time.

Yet there he was AGAIN, the third week. This time a little boy and his dad were playing with him, paperwork in-hand. I finally went over and petted him. The boy was so excited, and although I was still confused (were there three puppies that just looked similar?), I rolled with it. The boy seemed nice and the dad was smiling as he scribbled down his information.

And on the fourth week, as Ryan and I walked up to the sidewalk adoption, we immediately saw that same happy, eager tail wagging in a cage. I was perplexed: How in the WORLD is this puppy still here? Ryan went to play with him, but I marched right up to a volunteer and announced: “That dog over there is meant to be mine. I’ve seen him now four times, but each time it has seemed that he’s being adopted. But he’s still here! What’s going on?” The volunteer chuckled and explained that the foster family in charge of choosing his forever home loved him SO much that they had rejected all of the many applicants for this particular puppy. I grinned and told her, “Well tell them today is the day — he’s meant to be ours!”

We had a home evaluation and did some charming, but the foster family finally chose us. “Joey” was his given name, but from the moment I saw him, I knew his name was meant to be Oscar. And he was meant to be ours.

Ryan and I knew that Oscar was special from the moment we saw him, but what we didn’t know is how much joy and laughter and comfort he would give us over the next 13 years of our lives. He spent days sleeping under my desk when I worked in an office. Before children, we’d hang out for hours at a time at the dog park. When Ryan traveled, we joked that he was my “puppy husband” and the “man of the house.” He slept dutifully at our feet and at the feet of our girls. He was always happy to see a friendly face, and even happier to share a warm lap. I always used to say that I’d paid extra for a “forever dog” who would never die. I couldn’t even bare the distant thought of him passing sometime in the far future, but today it happened. And to say that the feeling of loss is deep and painful wholly falls short of what we’re going through.

Do all dogs go to heaven? God, I hope so. I only half-listened the day my high school preacher addressed this common question, and, quite frankly, I don’t care about mechanical theology much. Today, all I can think is that deep down, my heart reasons that if heaven is truly a New Earth, then surely there’s a need and a place for a good soul who just happens to have four legs.

Oscar (5/13/06 – 5/23/19)

one final session with our forever friend

“Oscar” gave the girls necklaces to remember him by, just like Olive did.

and a quick look at our buddy through the years

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