“He is getting worse and I think you should prepare the kids tonight.”
I held the phone to my head as my mom finished talking. Max, my daughter’s dog of four years was a very friendly, hyper, loving dachshund. A few days before my mom called me, Max started whimpering in pain when he was picked up. Eventually he started to drag his back legs and finally he lost all control of them and was literally unable to move his back half. One Monday my mom took him to the vet and they diagnosed him with a probable herniated disk. They prescribed steroids and “bed” rest for two weeks. The next morning Max had already begun to show major improvements, like a miracle had occurred. He was even using his back legs to take steps. However Wednesday he was back to dragging his legs. Thursday he was even worse, as my mom confirmed on the phone, it was decision time.
I hung up the phone and instantly began to rehearse a conversation I had never had in my life. How do you tell your children you need to put their dog to sleep? I think the birds and the bees talk pales in comparison to this one. At least for me, I can make the birds and the bees talk funny. But you can’t make putting a dog to sleep funny. Or so I thought.
As I sat at work, chatting to my wife, we began making decisions and preparing.
“I think I’ll try and get off early today so I can take care of this.” I said.
Reluctantly, she agreed.
“This isn’t going to be good.” She replies.
I didn’t respond. Just stared into space and daydreamed of what exactly was going to take place when I tell the kids this horrible news. It clock read fifteen till three. I took a deep breath, locked up my computer and headed to my car. It’s time, game time, “Ugh!”
The drive home is quiet. No radio. Not even any thoughts. Well other than the one that keeps trying to figure out how precise is it when the red needle is on “E”. After deciding that losing a few minutes to stop and fill up is better than calling my wife Nicole for a ride, I stop at a gas station and fill up. Back in the car now it is time to get my words in order. I begin rehearing,
“I’m sorry kids but — ” No, that implies I did it.
“Kids sometimes in life these things happen — ” No! That implies I watched the Brady Bunch dad give too many speeches.
Finally I decided no matter what I practiced, it would most likely be far removed from what I would actually say.
As I walked into the house, it just felt sad. My mom has Max and her two dogs cuddled with her on the couch. Cassidy, my eight year old daughter and owner of Max, runs around the corner from the kitchen.
“Daddy, I got 100’s on my report card!”
All I heard was “Daddy why are you going to kill my dog?”
“Good job baby”, I replied.
“What’s up dad?” Aiden, my sandy haired son, said crouched over some homework at the table.
I looked at Nicole.
“Now?” she asked.
“Yea, we don’t have much time.” “Let’s go in Mamaw’s (name my kids called grandma) room guys.”
As they sat down, I took a deep breath. While I hesitated, their faces grew more serious.
“We need to talk about Max — the medicine isn’t working.”
This is all it took for Cassidy to begin crying. Aiden, only six and who is usually a responder to someone else’s emotions soon followed his sister’s lead by clasping his face in his hands. I fumbled through the explanation and reason behind the decision we were making. Cassidy would cry, calm down, then when it would register, she would cry out again. I fought and eventually lost to tears myself. Nicole did the same. I told them the plan of taking him to vet, then having a backyard burial. I asked if they had any questions, they said no, but I would find out soon this wasn’t the truth.
“I am going to take him in about an hour, so you guys can go spend some time with him.” I opened the door and they both ran to the couch to hug on Max and Mamaw.
I knew we had a shovel somewhere. I remembered seeing one out front. I was right, partially. This was barely a shovel. I would say it was a large spoon actually. But it was all I had, so to the backyard I headed ready to dig the resting place of our family dog. “Why hadn’t I mowed in 4 months?” This was just one of the questions that entered my mind as I stepped in the backyard. Another question was, “Why does the spot I picked to dig have low hanging branches that are ripping into my neck with each shovel er..spoon toss?” I start digging and it’s starting to go good. Aiden comes outside to watch.
“Is — th..th..this — where — you are — burying — him?” he sobbed the question.
“Yes son,” I answered.
“He — .is — gonna — li..live — out here now?” Great! Now I’m crying again!
Cassidy then made her way out to the site. I kept digging and then came across the first cable. “Great!” I thought. I guess television cable installers & weeping dads have something in common. The location for the cable is as perfect as the location for the dead dog. Suddenly the back door swings open and my mom’s two dogs run out headed to bark at the neighbors dogs across the fence. Nothing strange here, this was a daily ritual for them. However, Max decides to run out also. Keep in mind he has no movement in his back legs. Max comes “half” blazing out the door towards the fence. Cassidy sees this horror film moment as Max drags half his body to get to the fence and screams out a scream that would make Jamie Lee Curtis applaud.
“MY DOG!” she yells running towards him.
My mom runs out and grabs Max and takes him back in. Meanwhile I’m sweating, digging and great; I have come across my second cable. Apparently the entire neighborhood’s cable set up runs through my make shift pet cemetery! And this same branch is still jabbing my neck every time I stand upright! Now I’m mad, I swing my giant spoon violently at the branch. But apparently it is made out of rubber and won’t even bend. Aiden looks on as I now make it my personal goal to remove this evil weed! Finally I won the battle with the weed and stomped it to prove it. The hole is now dug. We are in the final moments before I leave and take Max to the vet.
Back inside, the kids are in between tears. Cassidy begins talking about the memories and that she doesn’t want him to die. In probably one of the most heart breaking moments, she gets on her knees on the floor as Max lies on the couch and takes his face in her hands and says,
“I’m sorry baby, I wish I could fix you.”
I comfort her by saying, “Baby its okay. We have memories, pictures, and video of him.”
Aiden perks up.
“Can we watch the video?”
I admit that I made up the video part, but confirmed we did have pictures.
“Can we take a picture of him now?” Cassidy asks.
“Sure baby”, I respond as I went to get the camera. Quite possibly the saddest picture I’ve ever taken.
A few minutes later things seem to be calm. I am actually surprised as Aiden continues to do homework and Cassidy has been on the phone with her Aunt. I am feeling pretty good about how things have gone and how my explanation apparently put everyone at ease, but then Cassidy walks over to me with a question. I knew not to use the “put to sleep” term but I couldn’t get myself to say dead, die or death. So while explaining it to her again, she asks, “So after he is asleep and we put him in the ground, can we dig him up later and take him back to the vet?” I locked my jaw as not to laugh and explained the finality of the situation or so I thought.
Aiden, and you really have to know Aiden to truly appreciate the work of art he is, remembers that it is dinner time and no one has eaten. He comes to me and asks if we can get dinner. I tell him after the vet I will take them to eat. He runs to tell Cassidy the “good news”, as if we don’t have dinner every day.
“Can go to McDonald’s?”
“Of course” I said.
From this point on Aiden wouldn’t care if every dog on earth was put to sleep. Now he is skipping around and excited and in probably one of his most sarcastic moments ever, he walks over to Max and mocks himself crying and lets out, “awwwwww Max”. I am amazed at this kid and his love for food.
It is four-thirty, half an hour until go time and it is time to say goodbye to Max. Everyone gives Max a hug and kiss. Aiden still high on the McDonald’s news, grabs Max and says, “I won’t see you forever!” then skips back to the kitchen. I look at Nicole she is sad, Cassidy is sad, Mamaw is sad, daddy is sad, it’s time to say goodbye, however this will not be the last time they see Max.
So here I go, time to drive down the road, literally headed for more sadness. Like a movie, the clouds are starting to roll in, lightning flickers on the horizon; subtle echoes’ of thunder are heard. The setting couldn’t be more dramatic. At any moment I knew I would hear some low strings and organs play the soundtrack of this dark moment. I wrapped Max in his “farewell” blanket and placed him in a box in the passenger seat. It was a quiet ride. I would look out the windshield and slowly turn my head towards the passenger seat only to find out that, yes, he was still looking directly at me. Did he know? No way, right?
“Lay down Max.” I said more for me than for him.
The twenty-minute ride felt like a week, but we finally pulled into the animal clinics parking lot. “Okay buddy.” I reached into the box and pulled him out, “Let’s go” I said as if he had a choice. I bunched him up close to me, walked towards the building, realized the first door I went to was actually a window, and then followed the sidewalk around to the entrance.
Bank lobby lines, grocery lines & now vet’s offices. What do they have in common? For me, they are all places where strangers feel completely free to talk to you as if you were lifelong friends. At a bank lobby it’s usually weather related. In a grocery store line it’s usually a cute kid or grocery item that’s discussed. And apparently in a vet’s office, its pets that are discussed or in this case criminals, drug deals and kids! Let me explain.
The bell rang above the door as it shut behind me, I walked towards the counter. Max began to shake, so I held him tighter. The television hanging in the corner displayed the news and there were 2 people in the waiting area. As I took a step towards the counter I heard a loud growl and a very hoarse bark. I looked down and soon realized why the bark was so hoarse sounding. This was no dog, this was a horse disguised as a dog.
“No Baxter” the equally large boy who couldn’t have been no older than 13 but had a full-grown man’s body, said.
I side stepped the horse and talked to the lady behind the counter.
“Is this the little guy with the back problem?” she said.
“Yea” I answered.
I sat back down and waited to be called. I said there were two people in the waiting room, the large boy with the horse on a leash and then one other lady. I learned that this was the large boy’s mom. She had big curly black hair that didn’t go past her shoulders. Thick gray sweat pants that were too tight, a baggy, faded tee-shirt that said “San Antonio Fiesta 2000” and tube socks that I’m pretty sure didn’t match. The news head was talking about a child that had been murdered over a drug deal. And the mom was into it. She was talking to the screen. After she realized the screen wasn’t going to talk back she looked over in my direction and I whispered to myself, “Please, no.” It was too late, she stepped towards me.
“If I lost my kid they would have to lock me up. Better run if you hurt one of my kids. You see this big one right here? Even if they hurt him you better lock me up. I would be all over someone if they hurt my kid. I mean you better lock me up.”
At this point I wanted nothing more than for her to be locked up. I am trying to have some final moments with my dog and she wants me to be impressed that she cares about her kids? I gave a few half smiles and some “I hear ya’s” in a plan to show her politely that I wasn’t in the mood for small talk, criminal talk or any other kind of talk. She stopped when the horse needed to go outside and use the restroom.
So Max and I are alone in the waiting room. I patted his head and made a few friendly dog noises towards him, he looked up at me. I started playing the movie Marley & Me in my head, but this movie started right when Owen Wilson took Marley to the vet the final time. I saw myself holding his paw and saying goodbye as he drifted off to never never land. I felt my eyes fill a bit with tears.
“I mean even if they hurt Baxter here, I would be locked up!”
She was back! I was just about to win an Oscar in my make shift movie moment and the mom in the tight sweat pants was back talking about being locked up again.
The side door opened.
“You can come on back” the nurse said to me.
“Thank you!” I said, probably too excited.
I walked down the hallway. Up until this moment I heard dogs, cats, birds even some other unidentifiable creature making sounds, but it was almost like they all knew. The silence was deafening. No sounds. It was almost like Max & I were on the Green Mile taking that final walk to the “last door on the left” the nurse said. I walked in the room and sat down. Max and I, two chairs full of pet hair and a shiny silver table sat alone in the room.
“The doctor will be right in”, the nurse closed the door.
“Well Max this is it.” I kissed his head. Apologized to him and told him I loved him then I sat there. I saw tissues on the silver table. Hmm, would I need some soon? Now I will be the first to tell you, I had shed tears during this ordeal, I was sad and emotional; however I am also highly allergic to cats. So as I sat there I felt my nose starting to run, my eyes getting itchy and I came to realize that the hair I saw on the chairs must have been from a thousand cats and it was hitting me hard. I am tried to stay calm, not wanting the female nurses and female doctor to think this cool big guy is crying. But they wouldn’t believe an “I’m allergic to cats” story. I grabbed some tissue and tried to extinguish the nose and eye problem but this just made it worse. During a mid nose cleaning the nurse walks by and sees me through the window. She opens the door.
“Its okay, the doctor will be with you in a moment SWEETIE.”
She said sweetie cause she thought I was crying like a baby because I have four tissues in every orifice.
“Wait, no it’s the cats — ” she had already closed the door.
Twenty minutes later the doctor finally walks in.
“So how is Max doing?”
Weird question, I thought. Does it matter? He is about to be put to sleep.
“Let me take him”
I handed him over and she placed him on the floor. She messed with his legs and pulled at his tail, then picked him up and put him on the table. I’m still wondering what part of this matters if he will be dead soon. She takes some tissues and puts it under him and does some vet voodoo that makes him pee.
“That’s a good boy.” She whispers to him.
I’m thinking, “Well maybe they have to drain him before they give him shot”, what do I know?
“So is he eating on his own?”
Why is she asking me this? I’m confused. She sits down and says, “Putting him down is an option, however it’s not the only option.” I am immediately thinking, “Oh no you’re not going to put me in a pull the plug don’t pull the plug but live with it not knowing what might have been situation” but she did.
She felt strongly that with therapy, time & love, Max would make a full recovery, not guaranteed but strong likelihood. She said he was already stronger than he was when he came in Monday. That he had feeling in both legs still and that putting him down may be acting too soon. “But I already told my kids — .dug hole — .McDonalds — ” I trailed off in my mind. “So what do you want to do?”
I felt this was an answered prayer. We didn’t have any guarantees that Max was out of the woods yet. I could be back in the vet’s office in two weeks but we decided to give him another chance. How could I say put him down when she made it sound like he had a chance. They taught me some therapy exercises I could use to help strengthen his back legs and then I picked him up and headed back to my car.
So I began to recap the events. I just broke kids hearts, dug hole, cried, kids cried, they said goodbye, took “last” pictures, they are expecting a dead dog when I get back. How exactly do I explain why this dog is still alive? I called Nicole and told her the situation. I said, “Why is this dog still alive and looking at me?” She didn’t answer then I heard her laughing. Then I started laughing. Then we just echoed each other’s laughs for a few minutes.
As I pulled into the driveway I tried to think about what to say to kids. Should I go with the over the top funny, “You got punk’d!” or the old school “psych!” I considered just walking in and laughing but didn’t know what to do. As I opened the door, Cassidy came around the corner. Her face was more than confused as Max looked at her and was still alive. My mom walked over and kissed him. And then here came Aiden, who obviously didn’t understand anything at all about the dog being sick, being too sick, and going to vet and being put to sleep. Aiden saw that I had Max and that he was still alive and as serious as could be said, “Do we bury him now?”
Max was with us for several more days before we realized he wasn’t going to get any better. We found a lady who was willing to take him from us to seek out some help for Max. After a valiant effort it was discovered that he was too severely hurt and for too long. We had to make the final decision to put Max down. He rests in our backyard today but his memory will be with us forever. Max brought us laughs and tears and he truly was a part of the family. We love you Max!