So. My dog is dying.
What’s Going On
His condition isn’t exactly terminal; it’s objectively manageable. However, to keep a very long story short, Czar has a weak nervous system and also weak legs as a result of a neck injury in 2014 and a bad right hip as of 2016. In July of this year he suffered a brief but intense bout of vestibular syndrome. At the time, it merely weakened his hips but now has rendered them useless and he cannot stand up or walk on his own.
His right hip is not in the best shape, and so, when he was still independently ambulatory, he would lie on his left side often, and now there is a pressure sore there that I can only do so much to mitigate and delay infection. It has grown, it’s not pretty, but I simply do not have the resources to get it treated.
He has had a handful of truly bad days where he walks into walls. He’s slowly becoming more incontinent and so now wears a belly wrap when I’m at work but that often leaks. I’ve seen spots of blood left in the liner a couple of times.
Socially, he’s mostly still himself, just a little bit less so. Walks are no longer 30-minute twice-daily affairs. We have not gone further than the end of the block in months, and the vast majority of his walks now are mostly scuffling to the neighbor’s lawn to pee (where I hold up his back end with a hip harness).
Each day is a struggle whether to let him go or not, and when.
The Reality of the Situation
I won’t eulogize him, as I will await the need for that catharsis when the time comes. As it is, he is still alive now and remains bright-eyed and looks at me like I hung both the moon and sun.
This is more about anticipatory grief, the reality of caring for him that changes by the hour, the stress that winds my shoulders up around my ears on a daily basis, bearing the load of being his sole caretaker, and the constant guilt of both doing things too early and too late, and how the terminal illness and potential loss of a pet is still disenfranchised and misunderstood, despite the fact we are aware how devastating grieving a pet is for their human guardians.
Czar is fifteen-and-three-quarter years old. His birthday is January 1, and I am equally torn between the flickering hope he might hang on that long and the stark reality that he simply may not make it if I have to euthanize him before then.
Ready, but not Prepared
When dogs get that old, those fractions of years matter, at least to me. I found myself adding “…and-a-half” to his age around the time he turned twelve. We took our last hike, unknowingly, at Elysian Park right before his right hip was decommissioned for good by his vet.
Czar is very close to sixteen, much closer than I ever thought he’d get, a number that seemed impossible. For his size (a bit underweight at 74 pounds), it’s a miracle he’s made it this far, not only due to the advancement of veterinary medicine but also predatory capitalism’s earnest clutch of every resource I possess.
Caring for a declining, geriatric, and disabled dog is expensive. There are so many more things to consider than just money (and in my case, there is very little to consider because I have none). Every minute of my day revolves around his needs: potty, food, hydration, incontinence, hygiene. Having pets isn’t unlike having a four-legged toddler, but when they are this precarious, extraordinarily old, and fussy by nature, it makes things complicated. I am grateful for our bond and Czar’s command of understanding my words and cues–he knows how to respond to my offerings of “Water? Potty? Dinner?” if he gets restless and whatever signal he’s giving isn’t registering with me.
The biggest challenge is the ambivalence I feel. I have had Czar in my life since he was four months old. He has survived cross-country moves, two universities, internships, house foreclosures, and witnessed so many of my most private moments. It is so, so hard to look at him and be ready to let him go.
But I am also so very, very tired.
I am doing all of this alone.
I have housemates, and one, in particular, is close with Czar and helps out, but no one is ultimately responsible for him, and, even when they try to assist often make the situation worse rather than better.
Several times I have come home to Czar wailing by my bed, lying in a pool of his own urine, oozing into an open sore that I am trying to keep under control. I have to remove his belly wrap, clean the carpet, get him outside, clean him up, clean his harness, and comb him to make sure there are no mats in his fur or any new sores. And, later still, he has to eat and drink, because he cannot do it on his own.
He wakes me several times a night, often for help to stand to get to his water dish or simply to be rolled over and repositioned for his pressure points. Once in a while, he wakes up and either doesn’t know where he is or isn’t sure where I am and so I spend twenty minutes cooing into his ear, lulling him back to sleep, ensuring he gets deep enough to let me catch maybe a full REM cycle. I find myself crawling to bed earlier each night, and it wasn’t until I fell ill with a sudden fever and fatigue in the middle of the week recently that I realized generating a sleep debt can take tolls on one’s health beyond just being tired or just one or two hours short of sleep each night.
The Next Steps
There is only so much I can do at this time. Fortunately, Czar’s excretions signal that everything internally mostly works well, or well enough. I’m trying to save up for the inevitable house call and trip to the crematory, but living hand to mouth makes it almost impossible to consider shitting out an additional six to eight hundred dollars. I would rather let him go sooner than later and sometimes I wonder if it isn’t later already.
And then there is the part of me that is ready to be done and move forward. I love Czar more than anything else that walks the earth, but there are times where I am eager to be free of the responsibilities of caring for him. To be able to take a friend up on the offer of a weekend getaway. To spend the night with a date. To jump on a plane and reconnect with loved ones I have not seen in years.
I do not resent Czar, but I am acutely aware of the kind of space that will appear in my life after his time comes. It is a limbo. I feel thankful for knowing what I will have to look forward to when I heal from his death, but frustrated that it’s a waiting game right now and just about everything else in my life is on pause.
But we have today. And, probably, hopefully, tomorrow. I am responsible for him but it’s a decision we ultimately make together. And whatever time it happens will be exactly right.
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