At 2 a.m. Wednesday morning my wife drove our nearly 14 year-old miniature dachshund to a 24-hour vet 30-minutes from our house. Thirteen hours later we sat in the veterinarian’s exam room and told her we weren’t going to pay $6,000 for an emergency gall-bladder surgery for our dog. Twenty-minutes later Chloe was gone.
Her death was a complete shock. She was old, sure, and cranky, less energetic than she used to be, reluctant to cuddle, and quicker to flee when our toddler rampaged in her general direction. Her breath, preternaturally awful, resembling hot seafood garbage, worsened acutely. In reflection, she didn’t seem herself this past year.
Still on Tuesday night, as she lay on her side unwilling, or unable, to move we thought perhaps she had gotten a stomach bug, maybe she ate something disagreeable, but ultimately fine. Well, I did anyway. When my wife returned home from work she felt something was terribly wrong immediately.
I initially convinced her Chloe just needed to rest, that we’d take her to the vet the next day if she got sicker. That’s a characteristic I have – an inclination toward “wait-and-see.” Sometimes it’s a virtue, and sometimes it’s a flaw.
We placed her on a pile of blankets beside our bed, the bed that’s usually hers, and fell asleep. But my wife couldn’t sleep. She knew something was wrong, and was frustrated that I couldn’t see it or admit it. She put on a shirt, washed her face, and left for the vet’s office with with Chloe. I stayed home with our son.
“She’s like a limb,” my wife said of Chloe after we put her down. Chloe was my wife’s dog. She got her in high school, and they forged an identity together. Mrs. Tepper was her apologist, her guardian, her friend.
For example, Chloe was biologically inimical to being left alone in the house. She’d pee everywhere, rip up walls and wires and newspaper and anything else she could find the moment we left home. My wife spent years, and hundreds of dollars, searching for a salve. We bought Thundershirts, Kongs, and CDs to help her relax. Nothing worked, and one reason we moved to the suburbs was to give her more space.
To ameliorate her separation anxiety, we took her with us constantly. We’d set up a makeshift bed in the backseat whenever we drove cross-country, and wrap her under our coat to sneak her into two-star roadside motels. My wife instinctively peeled off sandwich scraps and fed her by hand. Even a quick trip to the dry-cleaner or hardware store was an occasion for Chloe to plop onto my wife’s lap and enjoy the rhythm of the car.
She returned to my wife’s life unexpectedly. After college, my wife and I moved into a small one-bedroom apartment deep in Brooklyn, with no plans for caring for a dog. We were just learning to care for ourselves. But my wife’s mom’s then-boyfriend found it impossible to co-exist with all of Chloe’s peculiarities, so two months into our first apartment, we had a dog.
In retrospect, this was a gift. Not just because Chloe’s hot seafood garbage breath wafted through our walls, but five years later we had a child unexpectedly. One reason, and it’s not a small reason, we had the strength to be parents was because we cared for a dog.
Having a child is to forever “have your heart go walking around outside your body,” says Elizabeth Stone, and it feels the same way with a dog. On the way back to the vet to make a final decision about Chloe’s surgery, we asked, through tears: why have pets? Or children? Why make yourself that vulnerable? Why exposure yourself to such pain?
But of course pets aren’t children. If our son needed surgery, he’d get surgery. We’d sacrifice our finances, and our lives, for him. We wouldn’t for Chloe.
In Chloe’s half-a-day stay at the vet, she already needed $2,500 in care (which my mother-in-law graciously offered to cover.) Her doctors ran blood tests, sonograms and an echocardiogram. They gave her fluids and pain medication to ease the agony. Her liver and other organs were inflamed, and her gall bladder needed to be removed.
“She’s a sick dog,” her doctor told us, which reduced Chloe’s chances of recovery. And that’s if she survived going under the knife.
I became bitter. Pet health care, like human care, has become much more technologically advanced in the past two decades, which meant that lives could now be saved that would have otherwise been lost. But with increased education and more powerful tools come higher bills for pet owners. The demand for specialized veterinarians will only grow, along with their pay. I longed to be told that “there’s nothing we can do.” But, alas.
After giving us Chloe’s prognosis, the doctor left the room. Chloe couldn’t live on in this pain, and we couldn’t afford the surgery.
“If the surgery was free, would you want to do it?” I asked my wife. She said yes, but of course it wasn’t free, so I called the doctor back into the room and said we’d chosen to euthanize Chloe.
They brought her into the room. She was weak and fragile, still unable to move. We hugged her, and thanked her, and told her we loved her, and cried some more. The vet then gave her two injections, one white and one pink, and in an instant, Chloe was gone.
We were numb on the drive home. We had used up most of our tears, and the weight of deciding to end her life was suffocating. We were sleep deprived, starving and in shock. We told Chloe stories in between sitting in silence. We told ourselves it was her time, even though we knew it might not have been.
In a few years, we’ll have another dog and another child. I think that makes us masochists, at least when it comes to pets. We’ll love our new dog, and so will our kid and future kids, but on one random Tuesday 10 to 15 years later that dog will get sick and need some operation of limited utility that we won’t be able to afford. And we’ll go through this all over again.
There is only one rationale that makes sense to me: the love you experience, for a pet or a person, transcends the pain and daily grind and connects you to something bigger. At least that’s what I tell myself.