Lessons from a Dying Friend
Often, I'd asked the question as to how I would react when my 'Max' would pass away. He was our mainstay, our original family pet. Not only a dog, but one of my 'surrogate children' as well. We'd brought him home 9 years ago and I still recall the small, white sack of wrinkles chasing my son's shoe laces about the house. A guard dog to the end, he'd never permitted strangers from entering my domain and he was probably the most faithful dog I'd ever met.
There were times when my other 'children' would sneak out of our yard and there at the door, would be my Max tattle-taling on the others' sneaky escapades. He was the Alpha dog of the pack and would quickly let the others know exactly that - when they had gotten out of line.
To me, Max gave the illusion of immorality. He wasn't the poster dog of health, as he had always had seizures from the time he was a pup; but he was a survivor. And I guess seeing that he had never succumbed to the effects of this sometimes horrible condition, I wanted to believe that he could survive just about anything.
One of his negative sides was that he was a constant protector. Very territorial, he demanded utter respect of 'intruders,' and many times, we had to send him to my bedroom to keep his overzealous attitude from harming our guests. But he never complained. A matter of fact, he enjoyed his tranquil moments lounging on my bed away from the rest of the pack.
Sometimes, Max would lay across the room and admire me with his tiny, cherry eyes. Being the Sharpei he was, he never lacked gratitude or devotion to me.
His reprisal of water made him a funny candidate at bathtime or on wet, soggy days. He would literally tip-toe like a ballerina across the rain-soaked lawn in hopes of diminishing his contact with the wetness; and when bathtime came around, he would make himself as stiff as an ironing board as to avoid being carried to the 'dreadful' tub. But once he was lathered in soapy suds, Max would tolerate his wash like the humble soldier he was.
In retrospect, I wouldn't have traded him for the world. Though he sometimes acted like a hyperactive child, his otherwise loving disposition conquered most thoughts of anxiety.
When I noticed Max having difficulty staying on his feet, I didn't want to accept that he was deathly ill. It just couldn't be. He had been healthy just a few days prior. We'd always made certain he had his routine vaccinations, heartworm preventatives, healthy dog food, and periodic checkups. Another sign of his sickness was that he would pull his face together in a grimace. I'd never seen Max pull a grimace, and then when he couldn't lie down due to the pain in his rapidly swelling stomach, I knew it was time to take him to the vet.
In two-day's time, my Max was inevitably dying. At first I tried to convince myself that he had a bad case of gastroenteritis or perhaps bloat, at worst. He couldn't have cancer - though the thought had crossed my mind.
We entered the vet office and suddenly he perked up. He acted as if he had nothing wrong with him - but I knew better. Dogs, like humans, want to live.
Initially, the vet took extensive blood and stool samples. Waiting for the results was the hardest part. As we stood there with Max, I watched him grimace again and again, and I knew he was in terrible pain. After what seemed like eternity, the veterinarian returned with the heartbreaking results. Max had a massive cancerous growth on his liver, and it was shutting down completely. The prognosis was extremely negative and imminently terminal. There was no alternative treatment which we could give him.
As I stood there in forced disbelief, I began to cry and realized that I had to make one of the toughest decisions of my life. I could've taken Max home and allowed him to live a few more days, perhaps a week or two in agonizing pain. The other, realistic option was for me to give him his final dignity and allow him to be put to eternal rest.
As I signed the release form for Max's final treatment, I looked into his cherry eyes and pulled his face close to mine. Kissing him gently on his forehead, I gave him a hug and told him that I loved him and that he would be going home soon.
He peered back at me as if he'd understood me. And I prayed that he did. His passing was very peaceful and dignified. And at that moment, and now too, I know I made the right decision.
My dying friend taught me that all life - humans, dogs, other animals, even trees - have an instinctive spirit to survive. Even at our worst, our will to live takes over the conditions or diseases that riddle our bodies. What I'd learned was that my Max had obviously lived with this cancer for months but never displayed the effects until the last two days before his passing. He was a fighter, a survivor, and a big piece of my heart. He also taught me that decisions have to be made in life - and we have to live with those decisions regardless how painful they may seem at the time. In his final moments, he taught me the most valuable lesson: that his spirit would be forever alive with mine, and that physical death was inevitable - and in order to live life to the fullest, we have to accept that fact. I can go forward now knowing that Max is no longer in pain, and he is probably guarding the rainbow bridge of heaven.
No matter what happens in our lifetime, the cycle of life and physical death continues. It is eternal and as I told a friend of mine, pacification comes with time, and time is the healer of all things great and small.