Thinking about death

My dog died on March 20. Our sweet Spencer was diagnosed with probable bone cancer in July. Eight months later, he was obviously in some pain, but his disposition had not really changed. We visited our vet for advice – we weren’t sure we could trust Spencer to let us know when the pain was unbearable. The cancer appeared to be less aggressive – not bone cancer – and confined to the leg. Spencer had lost weight and was used to hopping around. He was better equipped now to handle life as a three-legged dog. So we opted for amputation.

The surgery took place on a Monday. Spencer’s vitals were fine, but his exit from anesthesia was like nothing our vet had ever seen. We took him to Ohio State’s Veterinary Hospital for close monitoring and access to a better supply of pain drugs. He appeared to be overly sensitive to the sedative effect of IV pain meds, but it became clear by Thursday that he was not going to fully wake up. Ever. The theory is that he had a stroke during surgery. So we opted for euthanasia, to free him from that existence.

Spencer in his favorite spot on the couch.

Spencer in his favorite spot on the couch.

It was stunning to learn that the outcome was going to be this bad because all week, we thought we just needed to wait for the IV meds to leave his system. We had been preparing for his demise for months and were then elated by the possibility of more time with him, cancer-free. As soon as I learned he was cognitively impaired, though, that was it. There was no reason to prolong a life like that in a dog that had been so connected to his humans. While I was talking it through with the critical care vet, I said, “I’m influenced by my mom. She has Alzheimer’s, and has had it for a long time. I don’t know if her life is worth living anymore.” I was sitting on the floor of the ICU with Spencer, my hand on his furry neck, and tears rolled down my cheeks and dripped onto the floor. Euthanasia seemed, to me, to be the clear choice for Spencer. Patrick and I were in complete agreement about that.

We had been on a death watch over those eight months, wondering when Spencer’s pain would be too much and worrying that his bad leg might break. There were some lows when he seemed very tired. And highs every morning when he bounded to the kitchen for breakfast. It might not seem to be appropriate to compare my dog to my mom, but I began this Alzheimer’s journey thinking a lot about when Mom would die and how she would die. That outcome is inevitable with Alzheimer’s, and I strongly opposed prolonging her life – by controlling her cholesterol or vaccinating her against pneumonia, to name a few examples. But the time frame of the illness is another thing altogether, and I’ve stopped thinking in those terms about Mom. I think about her mood, and her overall health. When she will show any signs of decline after years of stability. Whether she is clean and comfortable. How she will respond to me during any given visit.

Lately, she has been asleep or uninterested in me when I have dropped in at the Alz center. I have felt discouraged – not taking it personally, but not all that interested in subjecting myself to rejection. For the past several months, I’ve let a fair amount of time pass between visits. But after Spencer died, I felt compelled to see her. Mom had been a good grandma to him and our other dog, Bambino. She had taken the death of our previous dog, Cookie, extremely hard. Losing Spencer but still having a mom, despite her terminal illness – it just had an odd effect on me. I was fretful about staying away from her; she is, after all, on borrowed time.

Mom and our dogs on Christmas morning in 2008. They loved her.

Mom and our dogs on Christmas morning in 2008. They loved her.

And just when I needed it, Mom was back to her cheerful self last Friday. I left work a little early to drop in before dinner. I loaded her closet with a stash of new clothes and then joined her on the couch, where she was lying down but easy to wake up. She sat up and I sat next to her, and within a few minutes she reclined again, with her head rested against me. I loved that physical connection. I coaxed her to a table – it was close to dinner time. We sat together, waiting for her tray, having a conversation even though I didn’t understand anything she said. A woman at the table, a resident I didn’t recognize, asked me who I was. “I’m Bonnie’s daughter,” I replied. Later, still waiting for the tray, Mom mumbled, “My daughter.” “That’s me!” I exclaimed. And we both laughed. She even said she loves me.

I texted Patrick that Mom was in a good mood and that I wanted to stick around to see how she did with eating and to enjoy the pleasant visit. Mom’s aide said she was still good at feeding herself solid foods, but that she tended to spill her liquids so he helped her with those. I assumed his role for this meal, encouraging Mom as she ate with her fingers. I fed her bites of cottage cheese and peaches and helped her with sips of water and milk. She slurped up her high-calorie cereal. When she was done, I cleared her tray and wiped her hands clean. An activities staffer and I walked her over to a chair with others to watch a Rock Hudson movie. I kissed Mom goodbye. And I didn’t think about death – hers or Spencer’s – for the rest of the night.


5 comments so far

  1. patwhite67 on

    I read with sadness and empathy about your precious dog’s passing. All is so much more poignant, I am sure, because you have been losing your mom over such a long time.

    Sending my thoughts to you and your husband.

  2. Laura on

    Beautiful, heart-warming post.

  3. momsbrain on

    Hi, Pat! Yes, it has been weird because my feelings about Mom and the dog have been mingling in strange ways during Spencer’s illness. Thank you!

    Hi, Laura-Thank you for that…

  4. Gloria Mueller on

    Hi Emilie, I just finished reading some of your blogs and I have to say how proud I am of you writing such wonderful stories about your mom and your journey along with her. I know it is hard to see her getting weaker, but also very nice to read how well she is being cared for by you and the fine, loving staff at Alzheimer Care Center. I’m still going there Monday mornings and have always seen an amazing staff of nurses and aides along side the residents. At 9:15 AM they are cleanly dressed and are finished with breakfast. That alone amazes me. I’m so sorry about Spencer. There is nothing wrong about your weird feelings at this time. John’s death was sudden, and even though I miss him a lot, I know his passing was a tremendous blessing to both of us. Gloria Mueller

  5. momsbrain on

    Hi, Gloria! Great to hear from you. Thank you so much for your kind and supporting words. I do take comfort from your take on John’s death, actually, when I become concerned – not sure what the right word is – about Mom’s stability. I’m just glad she is not miserable if she has to endure living with this disease for so long. My brother, brother-in-law and I just had a nice visit with her Friday. She still likes to laugh, and that is great. Take care.

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