It was an honor, ten years ago, to be asked by my daughter to be present in the operating room as she gave birth by emergency C-section. The eventual emergence of a healthy, wriggling baby girl, my first grandchild, flooded my every pore with relief and joy. Last month, I was just as honored to be present at a death in my son’s family. Sadness enveloped me this time, and admittedly, some measure of relief as well. Each event felt sacred, a tiptoeing onto hallowed ground — that portal between being and the mysterious realm we still can’t define.
On an August afternoon, my husband, daughter, and I accompanied Nick, my bachelor son, to have his old and decrepit dog Onyx euthanized. Although technically Nick’s dog, Onyx was well-loved by everyone in our family. Named for the gem her black and brown layered coat resembled, she was herself a gem, but one whose luster had faded after eighteen years of life. Her once lithe, energetic body was now riddled with arthritis and the ravages of an old injury, so she hobbled unevenly and got up and down with difficulty. Her once expressive eyes were now vacant, so that we futilely searched for signs that she still recognized us. Her incontinence and lack of appetite were now commonplace.
The examining room was stark and suffused with the smells of sanitized cleanliness, but we hardly noticed, as Nick laid his sweet burden gently on the padded cushion provided on the floor. The veterinarian came in to explain the procedure: first an injection with a sedative, later, an overdose of barbiturates.
None of us had ever seen this doctor before; he seemed competent and professional in his white lab coat. The two injections he was about to administer, though perhaps not routine, were necessary aspects of his job. Observing our grief-stricken demeanor, he ventured to break the uncomfortable silence. “It’s never easy,” he said. “No matter how old or how sick they are, it’s not easy.”
Oh, the enormity of that understatement! Nick’s agony the previous year had been not whether to euthanize Ony, as we all affectionately called her, but when. None of us wanted to lose her, but it pained us to see her in pain. But was her suffering severe enough to override her inherent instinct to survive? That was the question that tortured him.
Dogs — this amazing species that has evolved to enjoy a unique compatibility with humans, allowing them to love us unconditionally and communicate fairly effectively with licks and tail-wagging! Wouldn’t it have been perfect if Nature had gone just a bit further and granted them speech? Not the kind that orations are made of, but just the ability to express their last wishes: either “I’m ready to die,” or “I want to go on living.” The doctor’s observation, then, would have been needless.
He then shaved a spot on Ony’s leg to take the needle that delivered the sedative. A minute later, she stopped panting and calmly rested her head in the cradle of Nick’s hand. This former athlete, who had once scaled a six-foot barrier meant to keep her in the kitchen and out of the living room, now lay motionless. Although Ony wasn’t born of his flesh, Nick called her and his younger dog Boli his ‘kids.’ Their three-way devotion brushed aside the lines between species and blurred the definition of family. I haven’t a shred of doubt that this passage was no less painful than that of a blood relative would have been.
When the doctor returned with the second needle, the mother in me knew that Nick was experiencing a jumble of contradictory emotions — relief that it was finally going to be over, and panic that it was truly going to be over. I was feeling them, too. The insertion of that drug-filled syringe caused no reaction in her limp and sedated body, but it was like a sword into ours. Then, after holding his stethoscope to Ony’s chest for several excruciating seconds, the doctor declared softly, “She’s gone.”
Gone where? I wanted to scream. This death, no less than that of any beloved human, elicits the same age-old questions: Where did she come from, and where is she now? I’d like to think that in the hereafter, there will be a great gathering of all sentient beings, past, present, and yet to come, and we’ll reunite with her there. She’ll once again wag her tail and wiggle her hind end furiously as if she were spineless.
But I’m doubtful.
She was simply a beautiful gift from the universe, now required to pay the debt incurred by her birth. Her joys were simple — excavating rocks from the lake was her favorite — and the joy she brought us is now part of who we are. We share that identity with the ten-year-old grandchild, and with everyone else in our circle of influence. On and on. This is immortality.
Thank you, Onyx. Your work is done. Now rest in peace.