In November 2018, I heard her nails catch the carpet. The noise was a gentle, scratchy zip, and I think even then I knew she was dying. Well, at the very least, the pessimist in me knew something was very wrong. I began Googling, and the worst hit was degenerative myelopathy (DM). That’s what eventually killed my dog, Gracie, on Sept. 7, 2019.
DM is a degenerative disease that affects the spinal cord. It is analogous to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in humans. Initial symptoms include wobbling of the back end and knuckling of the back paws. Then the legs become weak, then paralyzed. Then the bladder goes. Then the front legs. Then the respiratory system. The disease is generally known to be painless and terminal.
My husband, Troy, and I took Gracie to the vet immediately after the first episode of “knuckling” and received an optimistic prognosis — DM was “way down” on the differential. The knuckling only affected the one back paw intermittently. A conservative approach with a focus on strengthening and exercise was a reasonable first step.
By December 2018, her back legs slipped just a little on my parents’ shiny wood floor as she ambled near the Christmas tree. In February, she ran drills for treats in our living room to strengthen her legs. By March, she wobbled more when she walked and had trouble placing her right back paw firmly on the ground, so we tried therapy and took her for X-rays. Nothing was wrong with her skeleton, not even the arthritis expected of a dog her age.
In April, we traveled to a dog neurologist. He said we could do an MRI. He was pretty sure it was DM without the MRI. He advised we send away a DNA sample for genetic testing. In the meantime, her right back leg became completely paralyzed. The results of the DNA test returned in mid-May: “A/A Homozygous at risk, 2 copies of the DM Mutation.”
Dejected but defiant, we committed ourselves to Gracie’s wellness. We tried every leg brace and paw-traction aid we could find. We bought a rear harness to operate her right leg for her. Then we bought a wheelchair. We researched the most nutritious foods and supplements and purchased them. When her incontinence started in May, we bought reusable diapers and piddle pads.
In July, the crippling urinary tract infections began. Vet appointments occurred multiple times a week by August. But she rallied! She played with her ball, barked and sniped at her much bigger and younger dog-sister, gave us her paw to shake, and soaked up the attention and treats at a Labor Day cookout. She continued to affirm our game plan: As long as she remained “Gracie,” happy and engaged in life, we would continue to fight with her. When she couldn’t go on, we would know, and we would make a compassionate decision.
Gracie took the decision out of our hands. Two days after the last time she handed Troy her paw in exchange for a treat, her diaphragm apparently stopped working. He picked her up to put her in the car for a planned vet appointment. She looked him in the eyes and died.
The shock of her imminent death created mental dissonance that is physically painful. We knew this was going to happen. We watched it happen. It happened. So, by definition, it can’t be shocking. Yet, here we are, weeks after she passed, still in shock.
Gracie was sick. In hindsight, she was really sick for much of July and August. The house smelled of urine. “Gracie laundry” added 30 minutes to my prework routine in the morning. I was late to work a lot. Our counters were lined with syringes of steroids and pill bottles for various symptoms. Our refrigerator housed a bag of sodium chloride for emergency hydration; our pantry, needles for subcutaneous injections. Troy learned how to express her bladder and left work midday to keep her on a 4- to 5-hour expression schedule.
We woke up at least three times each night to reposition her and change the first layer of absorbent padding. For approximately her last 65 days, conversations were exclusively Gracie-focused: “Did you get her to eat? Was her diaper wet when you got home? Do you think she feels warm? Can you grab more wipes on the way home? Why do you think she’s not eating today? Should we go to the emergency vet or wait until the morning? Today is a great day, right?”
Despite the constant fear and worry, there was no other path. Her “bad” days only punctuated great days. How could we choose to end her life when she appeared happy and dignified, but for some mechanical failings? We became her legs and her bladder. We maintained impeccable hygiene for her. We were practically permanent fixtures at her vet’s office.
Our nervous systems now operate in overdrive. Our shoulders have been crunched under our ears for 10 months. Repeated, alternating sensations of deep relief and overwhelming panic, within the course of a couple of hours, multiple days a week, rewired our brains. I feel a sense of dread when the phone rings. Then I realize the “bad call” already happened and a macabre sense of relief floods me for a second. I start to gear up for postwork caretaking duties as I drive down our hilly driveway, only to realize by the time I pull in the garage, there are none.
“Her absence feels like homesickness: I want to go home, except I can’t because that home disappeared, and there is no way to find it.”
I held her for five hours after she died. She became cold and hard and heavy, like a big piggy bank wrapped in fur. I struggled with her weight and shape as I walked around the yard, tracing the route where she used to run after her ball. I watched my bereft husband dig a grave in the impossibly rocky, clay soil of our backyard in nearly 90 degree heat. He placed her in the ground and covered her up, and my previous 12 years hit a hard stop.
Her absence feels like homesickness: I want to go home, except I can’t because that home disappeared, and there is no way to find it. The three of us were an ecosystem for 12 years, 10 months and 13 days. She watched sports with Troy and “yelled” at the TV when he yelled. She laid her head on my keyboard when I worked too long. She begged for bites of every dinner. She ripped open packages every Christmas. (They weren’t even hers. She just really liked ripping things apart.) She herded nieces and nephews and nestled closely to them at sleepovers. She ate a small piece of birthday pumpkin pie every Oct. 25. She was co-captain of boat rides on the lake. She snuck nibbles of Pop-Tarts from her “Pap” when she visited her “grandparents.” She slept next to us every night. Now what?
In the immediate days after she died, Troy and I stopped eating. I would wake up with a racing heart shortly after falling asleep. I still don’t want to come home from work because the house feels haunted by tragedy. The specter of death had lingered for months, but in the form of a familiar foe. We had a daily strategy and executed it. We were winning. Then death entered the house by sneak attack, establishing itself the victor.
In movies, people fall to the ground and cry when someone has died. Previous to Sept. 7, 2019, I, blessedly, never totally understood why. Now I do. It’s because people actually do fall to the ground and cry when someone has died. Never in my adult life have I spent so much time on the ground. On the deck. On the little bed where she took her last breath. On the patio by her grave. In the living room. In my bedroom. I now see that grief physically forces you down. If there were a place lower than the ground, the grieving would find it.
Looking at the fresh grave in the yard was untenable, so we planted a rose garden around it. We put up a little white picket fence, added some stepping stones, and put a bench next to the two miniature rose bushes we planted on top of her. The physical work, the sweating in the heat and the straining to see our work area as the sun set, helped us sleep at night. Creating something nice allowed us to channel our grief into productivity.
Grieving for a dog feels bad. On top of the devastation of losing the being that got me through the entirety of young adulthood, I feel guilt and shame. There are people who have lost children to illness, violence and accidents; people who don’t have money for necessities, let alone veterinary care; 12-year-old children who haven’t lived a life as good as this dog had; ailing elderly people who are not provided the attention and quality of care that we gave Gracie; and a litany of other terrible things affecting people and this planet at any given time. That is a problem. I know it. I am sorry for it, and I wish my sorrow for those things would change how bone-achingly sad I am about my dead dog. While wrestling with the uncomfortable privilege of mourning this dog, I need to mourn this dog.
Admitting to the grief is embarrassing. Despite the fact that Americans spend billions of dollars a year on pets, and occasionally give them seats at dinner tables and create social media accounts for them, their deaths have an unspoken qualification: “just.” Just a pet. Just a dog.
Their deaths are presumed to be a source of sadness, but not high enough in the Hierarchy of Sad Things to qualify you for bereavement leave. Perhaps there are practical reasons for that. My father, at age 13, lost his father. The emotional devastation was compounded by a new economic landscape and a new reality as the “man of the house.”
When a pet dies, there are no ancillary impacts. I have suffered no loss of income as a result of my dog’s death. I didn’t depend on her to make dinner or cut the grass. There is no estate that I must now administer. No showing or funeral to publicly pay respects. There is only loss. A dogless collar, a negative space at the head of my bed, a confounding detachment between my present self and the person I was when she was mine.
“Despite the fact that Americans spend billions of dollars a year on pets, and occasionally give them seats at dinner tables and create social media accounts for them, their deaths have an unspoken qualification: “just.” Just a pet. Just a dog.”
Gracie was more than her illness. Failing to recognize that would be a scandalously reductive view of a rich and impactful 12 years. She was a force, and the fact that she thrived with her condition as long as she did is a testament to her mental and physical grit. Weighing in around 30 pounds for most of her life and standing at approximately a foot tall, she was a hardy little beast, but petite and beautiful. Bright orange and white with an eardrum-shattering bark, Gracie made herself known.
She was parent and child to us. Protector and protected. She was my favorite childhood stuffed animal come to life: pure, tactile comfort and warmth with the added bonus of a real, unique personality incapable of malice. Food, water, and general care and keeping in exchange for unconditional love, acceptance, kinship and limitless joy seems too good to be true. In the fog of grief, sometimes I think it was.
I named Gracie within moments of locking eyes with her in December 2006. She looks graceful, I thought. I never actually looked up the word “grace” in all those years. The first definition from Merriam-Webster.com is “unmerited divine assistance given to humans for their regeneration or sanctification.” Boy, was she ever. It was pure bad luck that my Corgi was afflicted with DM, but resentment is an affront to her spirit. How fortunate any of us may be to share a fraction of our lives with such precious creatures. How fortunate I was to have so many years full of grace.
Lauren Twigg Krupica is an attorney in West Virginia.
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