End of life decisions hard with family pets

My 15 year-old-dog is slowly fading and we’re fast approaching the dreaded quality of life versus eternal peace decision. It’s never easy. We’ve been there before, when her mother, an aging Springer Spaniel named Chappy, wandered off in a 2005 pre- Thanksgiving snowstorm. My kids, then three and five, were devastated, but their sobs morphed into cries of “Can we have a new puppy?” My grief nearly co-signed the deal.

I explained Chappy was practicing a Native American ritual we had read about, where, toward the end, the old and infirm slip away to find a place to die peacefully. The kids  bought my story until three days later my brother-in-law found Chappy a couple miles from home, pacing deafly and blindly in circles alongside the road, a canine Mr. Magoo who’d managed to cheat death.

Back home, Chappy received less than the prodigal dog welcome she was due. My proclamation of the wonderful surprise had Uncle Craig had brought us was met with groans, versus cheers. “She’s supposed to be dead. Now we can’t get a puppy.”

Chappy was with us another nine months, long enough for me to get to explain the concept of euthanasia to my pre-schoolers. Theory merged with practice when she became permanently anxious, snapping at any detected movement. She bit Connor hard one morning for no good reason, then wandered out into the road, nearly causing an accident. I called the vet’s office and made an appointment for that night.

My mother and kids went along, Connor pleading for clemency, despite the still-visible toothmarks on his right knee. I explained this needed to happen before Connor or someone else got seriously hurt. The kids waited with Grandma in the lobby. I went in to hold Chappy during the injection.

I forgot they’d shave the injection site. While Chappy didn’t mind shots, she hated grooming. The whir of the clippers triggered high-pitched vocalizations that could be heard for miles and especially well in the lobby. “They’re killing her, Grandma,” was audible over the howls. Within 10 minutes, I was carrying 11 years of relationship out the back door in a blanket to the trunk of my car.

The kids selected a burial site by the raspberry bushes, 200 feet from the house. We dragged over their little blue swimming pool and bailed water from it to saturate the parched ground. I began moving dirt with a vengeance and a vision of what the proper grave should look like. I pictured Chappy cozily sprawled in her eternal resting place.
Fifteen minutes and still only six inches into the project using a broken-tipped shovel, my vision changed: She’d come into this world in a fetal position, she could leave it that way. Each shovel jab into the wet hard clay soil sent mud splattering onto my pants and shoes.

I paused after another 15 minutes. The hole was maybe a foot deep and only about 18 inches square. I considered borrowing my neighbor’s tractor and auger. It could do the job in no time. I didn’t know of any rule against burying pets vertically, but it somehow seemed wrong, so I dug on.

My breaking point came 30 minutes later. The 30-by30-inch hole still too shallow, I cried more from frustration than grief: Hard work, a hot day and a crappy tool. I looked at my beloved Chappy lying beside me on the blanket and sweatily resented her. Noting the setting sun, I briefly contemplated shaving her long fur so she would take up less space in the hole, but remembered how she hated clippers.

Digging down another eight inches, I garnered new insight into why serial killers dismember their victims and bury them in shallow graves. I fantasized about just throwing a pile of rocks over her, like they do in Western movies, but resisted. The kids were watching.

When the hole reached minimum depth, we placed Chappy in it. As I’d learned from previous pet burials, the hardest scoop of earth to replace is the first. Shovel anyway. I used my feet to level the mounded dirt and said a quick prayer, drained of both energy and grief. There’s no therapy quite like hole-digging. 


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