Everybody Dies: The End

I knew when I looked out the window, March 23rd, 2004, at 7:00 a.m., that today was the end. Monday morning, the day before, we had gone for a walk. Half a block from the house, he suddenly looked down, as if some terrible smell startled him, and then sidelong to the left, a bit ahead of me. He sidestepped away from whatever it was, and his eyes widened, as if he was seeing something so horrible it terrified him. I spoke to him, and he didn't hear. He was leaning against the leash, as far as he could get from the monsters suddenly in his head.

He pulled harder and harder away, staggering and then, suddenly, falling into the dirt and convulsing in a terrible foam-flecked silence. The seizure lasted what seemed like at least five minutes (it seemed longer, but may have been less). Then he stood up slowly, groggy and unsteady. He seemed to snap out of it. He grinned and mugged reassuringly and he insisted on continuing the walk. But he was disoriented and troubled, smiling politely but confused. We walked a block or so, then he stopped, considered, took a few more halfhearted steps, and turned back, as if he was used up. I called the vet. She suggested a brain lesion, based on years of his medical history, and we made an appointment for the next afternoon. It was not said, but I knew that we might be deciding about days, not weeks. The diagnosis for a lesion was an expensive, disruptive MRI, and confirmation would leave us with no acceptable treatment, given his age. He was too old and too tired to live a life of seizures for long.

He spent the day fairly comfortably. Uncharacteristically, I came home at lunch, and I found all well: no signs of seizures. Then in the evening he was up and around, waiting for me, when I got home from work. As usual, he sniffed the grocery bag for bones, and as usual, he found some. In the house were signs of at least one seizure, a rug disarrayed by the back door where he'd taken lately to sleeping and hanging out during the day. But we had a quiet, thoughtful evening, normal if subdued. He was having some attention problems, but he seemed in good spirits if easily distracted. Nine, and off to bed. He slept well. I woke up three times; each time I found him restless but comfortable.

Tuesday morning he went outside as usual, around 5 a.m. At about 7 I was in my bathrobe, making a new pot of coffee when I looked out the window. I think he had barked. He was standing under the phone line, glaring up at a starling. His life for the last year or so had been filled with a constant battle to protect his precious bones from the greedy birds. His rump was bristled aggressively and his head cocked back to watch the intruder. Then he glanced right, saw his demons again, and began staggering sideways.

I was beside him when he fell, and I knelt to sooth him and wait it out. I knew this seizure meant we would be going to Lafayette to end it, that three attacks in 24 hours meant a disintegration of his quality of life that neither of us would want to continue — helplessness, violent pain, the humiliation of incontinence, even partial paralysis, even brain damage. It was the end, and I was responsible for how it happened, these last hours. I was planning how to get him to the car while I waited out the convulsions, my hand on his chest, his head, talking quietly to him. At last he got up, shaken and disoriented, and we made our way inside the house, him unsteady, me trying my best to be supportive in all senses. I called the vet.

Dr. Schwind cleared her schedule and said she would meet us at 9:00, the soonest I could get him across town. As I hung up the phone, I heard him wandering through the house. I found him in the spare bedroom, standing expectantly, staring at the wall. Then he looked around, as if he had misplaced something. I finally realized he was so disoriented that he couldn't "remember" where the toilet was, and I helped him go there to drink. Suddenly, his muzzle in the bowl, he seized again, falling, foaming and thrashing, the rug tossed aside just as I had found it yesterday. He had had at least two seizures yesterday afternoon, then. The second when he tried to get a drink after the first. And how many on that rumpled rug at the door?

He went back to the kitchen when he recovered, and I quickly threw on some clothes. Tying my shoes, I heard more thrashing in the kitchen. Later, I would be sure he had slept through the night, because I would have heard that sound if he had seized while I was sleeping. Years of his illnesses had made me a light sleeper, tuned to his discomforts. So he had slept well — the barbituate of sleep. I hurried to his side, where he lay against the foot of the stove. He never recovered enough to walk unaided. We were suddenly in a crisis, because he weighed 135 pounds, and no miracle was going to help me get him to the car. My neighbors are all elderly and in that respect helpless.

I wrestled him into his riding harness, to have handles to help me, and we began our slow way to the car. He could barely walk with me supporting half his weight as I staggered beside him. Two stairs to negotiate, and thirty feet across the lawn. It took more than ten minutes to cross those sixty feet from kitchen to car door, and he seized again beside the car. He was helpless at last, completely incapacitated and groggy if not comatose. I was desperate and, like him, helpless to do anything but heft at him as pointlessly as trying to lift the car itself. Fortunately, a motorist stopped to help, and we lifted him into the car. We were on our way by quarter to eight.

The drive takes roughly an hour. He seized three more times; each time I stopped to sit with him, so he would not be alone. I would think later that it would have been better to keep driving, get it over with, that he was too far gone by then to take comfort in anything. The wrong decision perhaps, but it seemed right. Each seizure I expected to kill him or be the last for a while, for a respite. By the time we arrived at the vet he was immobilized, his breathing shallow and labored, and barely conscious. It took three of us to get him inside, where we lay him down, wept over him, and gave him the only cure left. At 9 a.m., I listened to the panting relax. I held him, lying along his back as I used to do when I needed his comfort. I watched the rapid, light, birdlike pulsing of his chest slow and stop. He was dead.

I have a great deal more to say, elsewhere, about myself, what I did, Hindsight stepping in when Hope could no longer torment me. I want to tell you what I went through in the next 48 hours. Not for sympathy but because you too, someday, will be where I was that day, and this record is for us all. For now I will only add that from the moment the first seizure hit at 7 a.m. until I pulled into that parking lot, I believed, though less and less as time passed and wave after wave hit him, that if we got through this seizure we would be done, we would make it to the vet before another, and give him, gently, peace among friends. I was wrong.

Hindsight is a whore, telling us what we could have had, what we could have done, selling guilt. She is the tardy sister to the whore Hope who convinces us to try when nothing can succeed. I did what I could, what seemed right. I thought, as my vet put it later, with my heart. And that, she insisted, was best, for reasons I'll examine elsewhere.

But best was not good enough. He was dead. After two hours of suffering, he was dead. And I could only feel relief, that the suffering had ended. So much else that ended, I could not think of then. It is here with me now. His absence fills the room.


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