A few days ago, I stood above my 14 year old rat terrier Carly as we waited on the veterinarian to come with the series of syringes that would end her life. While she looked up at me with absolute trust, completely oblivious to what was to come, I struggled to reconcile my love for her with the sense of deep betrayal I felt running parallel to that love, because I knew what was about to happen, and I had chosen it. She had no way of knowing why we’d left the house to take a short drive to the emergency vet, less than two miles away. She trusted me, because in our long history together, I’d never done anything to hurt her. But this was the best thing, I told myself repeatedly, even as I feared it might not be. She was in pain. She wasn’t going to get better. This was the right thing. The only humane option. But was it really? What if…?
But that was the end. The beginning was different. Better.
My mother had been diagnosed with cancer and was undergoing chemotherapy. We were all living in a constant state of terror, though we never spoke of it, lest we summon some additional looming misfortune into the precarious balance of our lives. A coworker of my father’s had a rat terrier that had just given birth. We went to visit those puppies when they were several weeks old. Carly had a perfect circle on her back, and she was the runt. It was love at first sight.
She came home many weeks later in a cardboard box to keep her from roaming free in the car. We named her after both Carly Simon and Carly Corinthos, a character from General Hospital, my Mom’s favorite soap opera. Our shared amusement over this plucky new dog got us through the dark wilderness of my mom’s cancer treatment. I took her to obedience classes — she passed with flying colors, though she was truly an unbossed and take-no-shit kind of K9 — and had her picture taken with Santa for her first Christmas. She became the center of our small universe, and her gravitational pull was undeniable.
In between the day she came home in that box and the day I rode in the backseat with her up to the emergency vet, her time with us running desperately short, there were many years of memories that will likely make me smile in the months to come, though they cause tears now. For the first several years of her life, you couldn’t leave a pen or pencil sitting out without her chewing it beyond recognition. She’d climb onto a side table to steal your food if you were careless enough to leave it sitting unattended, even if only for a few seconds. She used to play with empty soda bottles, chasing them around the house and growling like a tiny tasmanian devil. She was a world class hellraiser. When she had puppies herself, she was a tender, attentive mother…until she wasn’t, and then her mostly grown pups could fend for their damned selves and stay the hell out of her way, which they did, even as recently as last week.
We had a cancer scare with her last fall, but the vet was able to remove the tumor, and we breathed a sigh of relief that ultimately proved to be premature. A few weeks later, I found a lump on her opposite leg and, this time, the vet declined to operate, citing her age and the likelihood that it would cause the cancer to metastasize. But it did that anyway, and it happened much faster than any of us were prepared for.
I spent the last few weeks as Carly’s condition worsened wondering if I’d know when the time had come. In the last two weeks of her life, we had to increase her pain medication just to keep her comfortable. The tumor grew, making it harder for her to walk. She cried in the night, unable to sleep. It became too much. But when I set her next to me and rubbed her back, she would rest easily. I convinced myself that this was okay. But it wasn’t. None of it was.
At the vet, I wanted to ask if this was the right thing to do, or if we should take her home to let her live a little bit more of her life. It didn’t feel right to choose this, after so many years of nourishing and loving her, of making sure she was safe, happy, and healthy. But I couldn’t muster the words. What if they said we’d waited too long to bring her in? That she’d suffered unnecessarily because of our selfishness? What if they accused us of bringing her in too soon, of just wanting to get rid of her? It all felt right and wrong at the same time. I leaned to kiss Carly and she licked my face. It felt like I was betraying her, but also like I was doing the right thing by letting her go.
Dogs are like special guests in the running, sometimes banal drama of our lives. They play the heartwarming supporting role to our unwilling protagonist, the much needed comedic relief to our maudlin, self-centered narratives. But, eventually, they are written out of the series, and we have no choice but to soldier on, because there are still scenes as yet unwritten, though we miss their companionship, and the show is never quite the same without them.
I know that time softens the sharp edges of grief and that we’re better for having loved these silly, snuggly, loyal little creatures. But the pain of losing them changes us, and the uncertainty over their final moments can make us question ourselves long after they are gone.
Was it the right time to say goodbye? Could I have held on longer? Should I have held on longer? Why are we given such a heavy responsibility in the first place? It doesn’t seem right, that we should choose for them. Who the hell are we, in the grand scheme of things?
Fourteen years is a long time to love someone. But it’s also the blink of an eye.
I said goodbye to my sweet, sassy Carly. I held her until it was over. I told her I loved her, and that I was sorry. In the end, just as in the beginning, we were together.