I fretted about putting my dog Eddie down from the time I noticed the first gray whiskers on his snout, some years before the actual event. I talked to others about what it would be like. I wrote an article for a large daily on pet euthanasia: how to do it, how to expect to feel about it, what he or she could sense or know. I trolled sites like Rainbow Bridges and others meant to memorialize and advise on how to deal with grief because I knew mine was coming.
Nothing helped, of course. I would fall apart as do most people who love their animals. When I found myself upright again, I flew to Los Angeles to hang with my sister near the little horse ranch where I first lived with Eddie, where I planted a peach tree next to the one my neighbors planted for Eddie’s first friend, Mowgli.
By then, I had managed to leave the death of two dogs to one ex-husband and one ex-boyfriend. They did decent jobs, I guess, but I wouldn’t really know — I wasn’t there, and I didn’t ask too many questions. For that I would be haunted. I’d always been terrified of falling apart publicly thanks to a crippling fear of shame for showing any emotion when I was a kid.
Eddie was like an old-school car salesman, fast, nosy, schmoozy (hence his original name “Fast Eddie”) but with terrible separation anxiety. He had the body and head of a German Shepherd but with the legs of a Corgi: ridiculous and adorable. He would sit up for no reason, apparently from my defective lessons on teaching him to sit up. He would sit up sometimes when the front door opened and always around food — just in case it was required.
I found Eddie while hiking in the Angeles Forest. He skulked past me, a terrified, probably road-tripped, year-old pup who had noticeably not eaten much for weeks, maybe months. About a half-hour into tracking him, I blocked him against an embankment and got a terrified howl when I went to pick him up, upon which he went completely limp in my arms from fear.
By then, I felt I couldn’t have another dog. I asked at the ranger station if there had been any reports of missing pups with his description, nothing. So, I brought him home, fed him a can of wet food and bathed him. I wondered that day if I had traumatized him. Then that night, the Northridge Earthquake toppled a bookshelf on the two of us mid-sleep. He seemed to cheerily survive it all. From day one, the way he looked at me was slightly unnerving: “You are She Who Saved Me. I will never let me (or you) or pretty much anyone forget that.”
He became a formidable shape shifter. He could get through places a quarter of his size and wind up in the canned goods isle at Ralphs looking for me, or wandering under a mechanic’s lift, again looking for me. I once caught him trying to negotiate the revolving door to an evening council meeting I was covering for a local paper.
Often it was endearing, but it was also frustrating. He was so afraid of losing me that he had become emotionally wired to the thing that moves, so it was a chore getting him out of a car, anyone’s car. I didn’t know how awful his separation anxiety was until I left him for the first time with a buddy to visit friends who couldn’t have dogs.
I’d put food and water in a side bedroom, kissed him and left for three days. My friend later told me a story of a dog I felt as though I hadn’t met. When I got back, he said Eddie hadn’t left the spot where I had left him, that he had not eaten or gone out to pee the entire time I was gone; he was so riddled with fear of abandonment that my friend couldn’t get near him without him growling.
It was heartbreaking. I felt as though I had a child, or as though I was learning what it was like to love someone clinging to a primary caregiver after being diagnosed with battle fatigue; it was deep and sad, and I, of course, loved him more for it.
So, he traveled around with me in a truck I got for both of us with a camper shell and a little window between bed and cab. He would only put up with being in back when a human occupied the passenger seat and then only with his head in between us. We lived in L.A. until I left for Montana to work on a photography magazine. We later trekked back and down the country, nearly 3,000 miles from Glacier National Forest to Fort Lauderdale.
Along that long trip full of side trips, I took him leashless into wilderness bars to meet (smell) new people and test my own mettle. I sometimes would let him signify which way to go, his big head acting as way post. He never got over being abandoned, and I forever felt bad for not trying harder to help him. The best I could manage was to keep him with me as much as I could, which is what I did for the 16 years or so that I had him.
I would eventually buy a house in Nashville with a sizable backyard I thought he would love; he hated it, unless all doors that led to me were wide open including the sliding glass door to the backyard (even with a doggie door) and the door to my bedroom. He slowly went from bounding about to fading. When Eddie’s eyesight and balance began to fail, I made him a ramp from the porch to the front lawn and one from the back deck to the backyard. I fretted about Eddie’s departure but also about my state of mind when he did.
While my vet one day was palpating around his frail frame, I told him the one thing I knew to be true about putting down a pet was that one week too early was better than one week too late. I’d heard that somewhere, and it stuck in my head. My vet once asked me if Eddie was my “best buddy.” I didn’t think I seemed like a person a normally non-inquisitive vet would ask that of, so I was a little shocked at his sudden powers of observation or, worse, that I had unwittingly revealed myself, a threadbare soul whose best friend was a dog.
So, we came to an agreement, my vet and I, that he would “wink” when he thought Eddie’s time was at hand. I loved my vet for not proselytizing about that not being a vet’s “job” or how owners “know when it’s time.” We don’t, or most of us don’t. Love blinds even those who understand what disease or age does to a pet’s body and brain. How could we?
The week of that visit, I got laid off a miserable pressure-cooker of a gig, so I was afforded the great gift of time with Eddie. I took him on a short car trip to Chattanooga. With a little help, he could still manage to get up on the arm rest and let the wind fly through his fur. Because he could no longer manage the stairs, I planted myself on the living room couch and caught up with every foreign film I could think of, his head within scratching distance of my hand. He would sometimes bark at what seemed like ghosts and found it harder and harder to manage the ramps unless I got him halfway down.
My vet told me a few months later that Eddie had congestive heart failure, and that it was making it continually harder for him to breathe. On his way out of the examining room, he made eye contact with me … and winked. I am sure I stared at the door he closed behind him for no less than a minute.
Two days later, my vet and I set the date for the following Thursday at 11 a.m., because he needed to come to my house. I told my vet that I could not bring my dog to his death; death would have to come to us. He had tacitly understood how I felt about Eddie, and agreed.
I spent every moment after that brushing Eddie, kissing his noggin, hoping he could see that I could “see” him, so he would be “known” by me — a thing I imagined he’d always wanted. I was that crazy. On Wednesday evening, I went out and got a filet mignon, cooked it, and fed it to Eddie in tiny bites. I eventually went to bed but got no sleep.
In the morning, I took Eddie’s collar off and waited on the couch with a view to the driveway. Eventually, a black pickup rolled up, and my vet and his assistant, carrying a medical bag, walked up the ramp. No one smiled or said a word from the truck to my house, a thing for which I would forever be grateful, because now when I look back, I feel that Eddie’s death was as honored as he deserved.
I put Eddie’s favorite blanket over his sleeping mat (I wanted to be effective before breaking down). I picked him up and sat him down on the blanket, the assistant letting me help hold him, my grip for comfort, hers for ballast, while my vet got out the works, an action that made me start to sob — hard, embarrassing sobs with little bits of sound eking out in a high pitch. I had wanted to say something meaningful as a goodbye, but could only muster, “Sorry, little man.” The assistant began stroking my arm because I, without a doubt, was crying the hardest I’d ever cried in front of another person.
My vet found Eddie’s vein easily without him seeming to notice. In went the cocktail and, within seconds, Eddie let out the air left in his lungs and quietly slumped over in my arms for the second time in his life.
I don’t remember too much after that. I remember the assistant and I gently laying him across the blanket. The vet hugged me, respectfully saying nothing, and I went directly upstairs to lie down because I needed to sob horizontally, to get on with that first mother lode of grief. They wrapped Eddie’s body in his blanket and were quickly, and silently, gone, my two angels of death.
The next few days were hazy. I would spiral down and then level out, fall precipitously and then level out again. I had girded against Eddie’s actual dying, but had made zero plans for missing him. I felt stricken. I would have it out of my head for a moment and then be shocked to see his mat still at the foot of the stairs. I dumbly smelled his brush once, only to be viscerally reminded of the primal hard-wiring between the olfactory system and the frontal lobe.
As I began writing this, I came across E. B. White’s memoir of the death of his pig, Fred, bred for slaughter until he became suddenly sick, upon which Fred, I can only gather, became humanized from the tending, which seemed to upend White’s organized farm life.
“I went back up to the house and to bed, and cried internally -- deep hemorrhagic in tears. I didn't wake till nearly eight the next morning, and when I looked out the open window the grave was already being dug, down beyond the dump under a wild apple.”
E.B. White’s wild apple tree, I’m sure, still bore fruit after Fred died, as I am sure did the peach tree at my old ranch in L.A., the one I planted to grieve the loss of, and to celebrate the life of, Fast Eddie.
Life went on, and I didn’t go permanently mad from holding my dog as he passed away or from the mourning that followed.
Eddie died in May of 2009; this is the first time I’ve written about him. I know the process is different for everyone, but, for me, Eddie’s death was a good death. It is what I, who had blown through years in a blur of selfish neuroticism, really had just wanted for him and for me — to get it right.
As I look back now, I know I did. Eddie’s coming into my life gave me a sense that there was something to serendipity, something spiritual. His exit afforded me the comfort of knowing that a certain kind of riling pain is manageable even while on duty to life elsewhere, that I could survive the up-close-and-personal loss of someone I loved. I had avoided that even with the death of my own dad.
About two years after Eddie died, I rescued Happy, a small, muscular mixed-breed terrier who is oddly polite, affectionate and brilliant. She has fewer issues than Eddie did, a different problem — for me. Nothing bad has happened to her, so she approaches any living creature without fear.
I don’t love Happy any more or less than I did Eddie, but I do love her differently. If I am lucky enough to be around as she approaches her last days, I hope to have a say in how she leaves this planet. I’d like to say I am better prepared, and I am, somewhat, but I’m not, not really; love and the loss of it are the crosses we have to bear, being human, I guess.