Oreo creeps into the waiting area at the vet hospital, lagging behind my baby-step pace. I sit down and keep my addled Boston terrier close to me so he doesn’t get stuck helplessly under a chair. The person next to me says, with a trace of pity, “That guy doesn’t look too good. How old is he?”
“Thirteen-and-a-half,” I say. Oreo’s apparently end-of-the-trail state inspires my waiting room companion to launch into an obituary of his late, great Alaskan malamute, a dog that could rescue even Lassie from a well. Shortly after my neighbor’s paean to his pooch ends, Oreo and I are called into the ophthalmologist’s exam room for his glaucoma exam.
The vet tech instructs me to put my old guy on the examining table, but doesn’t give “Ors” the typical vet tech googly-eyed doggy greeting: “Okay, you cutie-cutie – come on up here!” I wonder if she’s annoyed about checking Ors’ eye pressure because she doesn’t like working on “zombie-poos” whose eyes stare off into space.
After the check, she asks if I want to book another appointment.
“When?” I ask.
“Six months,” she says.
“No, I don’t think so.” Tough for me to blurt out, but it feels truthful.
Driving home from the exam, Oreo sleeping on the floor of the backseat, I wrestle over whether or not it’s time to make the dreaded “big sleep” consult for Ors. I have told myself that just because he now inconveniently answers nature’s call in the great indoors, instead of waiting to be taken out, that’s no reason to put him down. Besides, he still eats well – no longer attacking his food, but still managing to mouth his way through it with only a few pauses.
But in all honesty, Oreo’s eyes and other senses no longer focus on canine concerns. Sometimes when he is silently sleeping, I think he might have quietly died and I’m flooded with both dread and relief, thinking that my untenable role as understudy to the Grim Reaper is over, and now all I have to do is select an urn for him. But I realize I won’t be let off the hook that easily. Maybe my wife
Les is right – it’s time. I will have to make an appointment with our vet – and a lot sooner than six months from now.
The appointment is made, and the day is upon us. Les and I watch as our vet weighs Oreo. In a somber voice, she tells us he now weighs only 17 pounds and has lost about a third of his normal weight. Then she kindly suggests that, from her perspective, putting him down is a humane decision. From my perspective, I can only look at the statistics, as my emotions are still numb: 17 pounds…something must be really wrong with him.
A few minutes later, Les and I are sitting side by side, and I am holding a heavily sedated Oreo and crying. I am filled with a kaleidoscope of sad thoughts, one of which is that if I hadn’t made this decision, Oreo would be ambling out of the office right now instead of lying lifelessly in my arms.
A few days after Oreo is put to sleep, I attend my dad’s 95th birthday party. My sister and I are the only guests, except for the nurse who ushers Dad into the small nursing home function room. She assists him with the delicate transfer from his walker to the chair, ensuring that he remains tethered to his oxygen lifeline. Dad eats a little cake and we try to converse as a family, but Dad only exhibits islands of lucidity in a sea of confusion. As with Oreo, I am the health proxy for my dad, and again I pray that I don’t have make a life-ending decision. Ors’ end-of- life conundrum was a border collie-sized agility hurdle – challenging enough – but with Dad, I imagine the bar raised to St. Bernard height. At life’s end, it’s still less difficult to be a responsible dog owner than a dutiful son and parental mind reader.
Yet I feel that taking responsibility for Oreo’s end-of-life welfare has made me less intimidated about being Dad’s health proxy. With Oreo, I have already run the gamut of end-of-life emotions, from guilt, grief and angst to just zoned out. I know what to expect.
In information technology, the Beta Test is when you check out the system in a real world situation before launch. Ors, I am grateful that in your last days, you were my Beta Dog.