Dog owners know how their canine family members have this magical ability to ease pain. Whether you’re sick, hurt, or emotionally in knots, a dog’s companionship soothes and comforts whatever ails you.
The final weeks of our beloved dog’s life held some of the hardest, most painful moments of my life. Just about four months shy of his fourteenth and Golden Birthday, Kokanee stopped eating like he used to. Then he stopped eating at all, or threw up immediately after trying. We took him to the vet, expecting the worst.
My husband and I had the difficult conversation of where to draw the financial line. It’s hard to balance the worth of diagnosis and treatment at the end of life. Kokanee was our faithful companion for well over thirteen years. Our children (9 and 11) had never known life without him. We wouldn’t let him starve to death, but we wouldn’t give up on him without trying to make him well. Until he stopped eating, he seemed ageless – a puppy trapped in an old dog’s body. We couldn’t easily let go of that, but he was nearly 14 and any life-saving attempts would buy us only a short time.
The x-rays and blood tests within budget ruled out anything obvious. Aside from weight loss (which he didn’t need), all of his health indicators looked good without any red flags. The vet checked one more thing and Kokanee tested positive for Lyme disease. This could explain his symptoms, but the vet cautioned me there was no guarantee. We had a glimmer of hope – Lyme disease is treatable.
After a steroid and antibiotic injection, he seemed to perk up. He even ate, and kept down, an entire bowl of boiled hamburger and rice. Perhaps he’d make it to his Golden Birthday after all! We all knew that two things needed to happen to make it that far: he needed to take ALL of his medication, and he needed to keep eating. The day after the vet, we were still positive. We tricked him into eating all of his pills, and he was still eating the burger and rice mix.
The day after that didn’t go as well. He didn’t eat much and spit out the pills. He turned his head away from peanut butter because he knew we’d put the meds in it. Peanut butter!! We had to try to hand feed him to get him to eat something. If you ever need your heart pulverized, try listening to your daughter beg her dog to please, please just eat something.
The next day I came home from work early and immediately checked on Kokanee. He looked up at me from his blanket on the laundry room floor, and I burst into tears. In that instant, I saw in his eyes that he was ready. It was time. We weren’t going to get him to eat or take his medicine. He was done. That night, we let the kids try to feed him anything he would eat. A few licks of ice cream, a couple of meatballs. Maybe, just maybe?
I called the vet the next morning. They said I could bring him in that day or the following morning (Saturday). I couldn’t take him while the kids were at school – we hadn’t told them yet that he wasn’t going to get better. They hadn’t said goodbye. I couldn’t do that to them. I cried all day. When my son got home, the first thing he asked when coming through the door was whether the dog had eaten that day. I cried again and he knew. “When?” he asked. “Tomorrow,” I said. And we sobbed together.
We didn’t tell my daughter until after her hockey game that night. The kids cried themselves to sleep on the couches that night. They wanted to stay downstairs to be close to him. I didn’t sleep at all. My whole body ached with the pain of a broken heart.
The next morning I sat on the floor of the vet’s office, with Kokanee lying beside me on a soft quilt. I had cried a million tears in the past four days, but there were still more. I stroked his ears after the first shot that numbed his whole body. I whispered to him how much we all loved him. I promised him it would all be over soon. I told him it was ok for him to go now.
Then, just like a dog would, he took my tears and my pain away. He took them with him when he left this earth. I don’t know how he did it, but when the vet checked for his heartbeat and told me he was gone, I felt at peace for the first time in weeks. And that’s when I knew: Dogs don’t go to heaven. Dogs ARE heaven.
To me, heaven isn’t a place with gates and a ruler. To me, heaven is pure love and everything that is good in this world. And there nothing with more unconditional love and true goodness than a dog’s heart. Every time a dog kisses your tears away or nuzzles his way into your heart, be grateful that you have your own slice of heaven right now on earth.
The day we said goodbye to Kokanee, we visited a litter of lab puppies. Every puppy kiss, every puppy sound, every puppy smell was like glue on the pieces of our broken hearts. My son said it best when he said the only thing you need when you lose your dog is your dog’s love. They take the pain and turn it into love.
Dogs don’t go to heaven. Dogs are heaven.