Musings on Death
Recently I had to help a friend when it came time to take their dog to the vet to be euthanized. The dog was suffering from canine degenerative myelopathy (the doggy version of Lou Gerhig’s disease), plus he had a long history of hip issues dating back to puppyhood. In the space of 24 hours, he went from stumbling along but walking on his own to being unable to use his hind legs, and the painkillers stopped working as well.
Here’s where it gets weird for me.
Early in the morning, the dog went into their bedroom and whined and nudged to wake his owners up. When they got up, he dragged himself by his front legs to the front door. Of course, his owners were alarmed at seeing him that way, but even more confusing was his desire to go out that door.
Because that wasn’t the door for “walks.” That was the door for “car rides.”
He wanted to leave.
Because of the dog’s large size, I got called to help get him into the car (they had been prepared for this day and to make this decision) and take him to the vet.
As soon as he got into the car, he stopped whining and just put his head in his owner’s lap. At the vet, a place he usually hates, he was calm as we dragged-carried him in and let everyone pet him. Usually he’s not good with strangers.
For anyone who knew this dog, you could tell instantly he was letting his owners know it was “time to go.” As in, over the rainbow bridge.
I’ve experienced something similar with my previous two dogs. Both died of cancer after long, happy lives. The first one, Buffy, spent her last day prone on her blanket in the house, unable to get up and do anything. She wasn’t in pain, thanks to pills, but you could see she wasn’t happy. Again, we were prepared, because she’d already had one operation and, at 13, wasn’t getting another. So we made her comfortable, knowing the next morning would be her last. When we got up the next day, to our surprise she stood up and went to the door. I let her out, and she went into the back yard, where she proceeded to circle the entire yard slowly but in a stately manner, her head up, examining everything. Then she stood in the center of the yard, lifted her head, took a long, deep breath, and walked right past me to the car and waited for me to open the door.
And she was another one who always hated the vet, but on this day she was giving kisses to everyone who came over to her.
Her sister, Harley, lasted another two years after that, but eventually developed intestinal cancer. When her time came, we made an afternoon appointment and spent the whole morning taking her around to her favorite places. First, we got ice cream, then we went to her favorite park. When we got there, we let her get out of the car. Earlier, she’d barely had the strength to walk on her own.
At the park, she jumped out, ran in circles, and then tried to chase a deer. We ended up walking almost a quarter-mile with her. In the car, she was happy but calm, and just sat with her head between us on the console instead of out the window.
At the vet, instead of putting up a fight like usual, she walked right up the stairs and into the office.
When I tell these stories to people, most pet owners I know have similar tales of their dogs or cats being ready and even telling their owners it’s time. And that doesn’t count the animals like my mom’s last dog, who hid herself under a bush and refused to come out, because she wanted to die in the yard. She, too, experienced a last bout of energy at the very end, getting into the car by herself despite having pancreatic cancer. (Labradors and cancer, it’s an awful thing)
So, what is it about animals that allows them to know not just when they’re dying, but to tell us it’s time for us to take them to the place where death is waiting for them? How do they know that we must ferry them across that modern River Styx?
Humans are different. We’re animals, but we’ve lost something of our nature. We might say we “want death” when we’re suffering from terrible pain or wasting away from a disease, but usually by then we’ve lost all quality of life. We try to hang on to life to the very end, long after we’ve reached a condition where if we were a pet, we’d have put ourselves down.
Is it that dogs and cats and other animals “know” there is something beyond this life? Or is it that because they tend to exist in the now, they don’t worry about having a future? Or perhaps they enjoy life to such an extent that they’re satisfied when it reaches an end, whereas humans have all sorts of regrets and unfilled desires that we still want to accomplish.
Whatever it is, it borders on the supernatural. Because these dogs aren’t just telling us they’ve had enough of life, they’re saying “today is the day.” And they’re letting us know they understand where it is they have to be taken to put them out of their suffering.
I’ve often wondered if, during all those trips to the vet, the dogs (and cats) smell/sense the aura of past deaths there, and understand on some level that this is the place you get taken when your time is up.
It could explain why so many pets hate going to the vet—they think they’re getting put down before they’re ready!
As for me, if I live to be 100, I still won’t be ready to go. Put my brain in a robot and let me live forever. I don’t want to die until I’ve accomplished everything in my vast bucket list.
I’d make a terrible dog!
My next novel, Hellrider, comes out on August 8 from Flame Tree Press, and the print editions (hardcover, trade paperback) are available right now at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Hellrider-Fiction-Without-Frontiers-Faherty/dp/1787582620. Ebook soon to follow.
When Eddie Ryder is burned alive by fellow members of the Hell Riders motorcycle gang for ratting on them, he vows revenge with his dying breath. He returns as a ghost, with his custom motorcycle Diablo by his side. After he finds out he can possess people, he launches a campaign of vengeance that leaves plenty of bodies in its wake and the police in a state of confusion. Spouting fire and lightning from his fingers and screaming heavy metal lyrics as he rides the sky above the town of Hell Creek, he brings destruction down on all those who wronged him, his power growing with every death. Only Eddie’s younger brother, Carson, and the police chief’s daughter, Ellie, understand what’s really happening, and now they have to stop him before he destroys the whole town.
“Hellrider is a thunder and muscle hell ride through dangerous territory. Fun, wicked, and unrelenting. A horror thriller that breaks the rules and the speed limit at the same time.” – Jonathan Maberry, New York Times-bestselling author
I’ll be doing a book launch at Mysterious Galaxy bookstore in San Diego on August 11. If you’re in the area, stop by!
Also out now is my new collection of short stories from Cemetery Dance Press, Houses of the Unholy, which includes a brand-spanking-new novella, “December Soul,” which is a sequel to my popular short story, “The Lazarus Effect.” “December Soul” is a darkly poignant romance set during an unusual apocalypse.
Available in e-book and print formats: https://www.amazon.com/Houses-Unholy-JG-Faherty-ebook/dp/B07QR7R7KZ. And also at B&N and other retailers.
And, as always, check out all my other titles: http://tinyurl.com/jgfaherty.