Yesterday, I wrote an email to family members and friends who knew our dog, Mikayla…
“It happened so fast… or maybe it didn’t. Mikayla has been slowing down as older dogs do. She turned 13 last Friday. We were still running together – slowly – until the heat came on hard this summer. She still wanted to go, but she had enough sense to turn back a couple months ago. Mikayla ran a marathon with me, you know? She was a great runner because she wasn’t attracted to water – creeks or even puddles. She just ran.
“We got Mikayla the summer Emily turned four. And if my scanner was working I’d show you her baby pictures with Emily. You can see from her expression that she’s always been the same girl — timid and questioning, more interested in people than other animals, looking for approval. She was a good kids’ dog, a great companion to adults, and she knew how to put Xavior in his place.
“Skye and I tried to shave her for the summer heat a couple of weeks ago, and we really botched the job. She was patient with us. But we finally gave up and hoped it would just grow out soon. We haven’t taken the older dogs for walks because of the heat. So, I don’t really know how long it’s been that she didn’t want to go. But, on Friday, when I put the leash on her, it was clear she didn’t want to leave the house. I got her to the sidewalk, but she hung back as I tried to pull her along. Then I noticed that she was walking funny, unstable-like. I took her back inside. I called the vet and made an appointment for today. Mikayla was still eating and drinking — though not enthusiastically. In the past week and a half, she had started leaking urine on the basement floor as well.
“When I took her in to see the veterinarian this morning, he thought she might have some compressed discs in her back. She didn’t seem to have much feeling in her back legs. The vet also observed that she was pale. He took her back for some x-rays. It was not good news. Yes, Mikayla had disc disease. But she also had fluid around the lungs and in her abdomen. There was a large mass which the veterinarian suspected was a splenic malignant tumor causing internal bleeding. We left her at the office for further tests.
“The call finally came. The fluid in her abdomen was blood. She had cells consistent with a malignancy. She was severely anemic and would require blood transfusions. Her platelet levels were low. Her white count and liver enzymes were high. She needed ICU care.
“What were the treatment options? We could hospitalize her for blood transfusions and see an oncologist. They would do an ultrasound and exploratory surgery. If she did not have metastatic disease, they could remove the tumor and start chemotherapy. The vet thought it unlikely that the tumor had NOT metastasized. Even with chemotherapy, most dogs in her condition do not do well, and the survival rate was 3 to 6 months. Our other option was euthanasia.
“The kids were all at home and I sat them down for a discussion of the options. We agreed we did not want her to be in pain or alone. I called John and he came home early from work. The decision was made to let her go. We would all go to the office and say “good-bye.” Skye thought it important that the other dogs also went to say good-bye.
“And so we went and took pictures and hugged her and said our final words. Emily, Journey and I stayed longer to witness her final departure. There were lots of tears and there will be more. She was a good dog, a very good dog. Wherever she is, I hope she will run and run as far and as fast as she wants to go…”
There’s more to this story. After I sent out my email, Sherry responded with the question: “Is everybody okay?” As I tried to formulate how to respond, I thought about all the individual reactions.
As we sat in the office with Mikayla, Becton watched the rest of us, trying to take in what was happening. “Is Mikayla going to die? Now?” I explained that the medicine the veterinarian would give her would put her to sleep, but she would not wake-up. Tears began to run down his face in sincere sadness as he petted her, but when the tears dropped, he said, “Look at my tears on the floor.” Becton has an eye for the drama of whatever is happening around him…
K.J. had been quiet, solemn. As he stroked Mikayla, he began to sob, head down, shielding his red-rimmed eyes. He did not put into words what he was feeling, but his sorrow was tangible.
Skye fought her sadness. It would come over her and then she would push it away. Earlier in the day, after we had made the decision but were waiting for the doctor’s call, she ran into my room with a magazine advertisement for a tombstone she wanted us to buy. This planning of the burial seemed to cheer her. And, yet, throughout the day, she would – uncharacteristically – come up and lay her head on me, hug me, or even kiss my nose.
Emily was in a pool of tears as soon as she learned of Mikayla’s condition and throughout the day. Emily’s emotions flowed freely, her heart on her sleeve.
It had been decided that Emily and I would stay for the injection of medicine that would release Mikayla’s spirit from this world. But when it came time, Journey wanted to stay because, as she told her daddy, she was “worried about us.”
The others had left the room when John re-emerged to ask me about “ashes.” We had two options if we wanted her cremated. We could let the county do it, but the ashes would not return to us. Or, we could pay for a private company to cremate her and receive an urn with her remains. Skye was all for getting the ashes back and creating a gravesite with all the trimmings. I understood that Skye’s desire, in this case, was related to the way she grieves. However, when Journey asked what we were talking about and I explained cremation to her, she burst into tears. No! That was NOT how she wanted to remember Mikayla. She wanted to remember Mikayla through memories of her and pictures. She did not want a container filled with her burnt body.
I went out to the others and expressed Journey’s request, which, I discovered, had become my own opinion on the matter. We would let her body go. Skye could order a plaque or tombstone, but we did not need an urn.
I went back to the room where Mikayla starred up at me with Journey and Emily on either side of her. For several minutes, we cried and talked to Mikayla, telling her how much we loved her, what a good dog she had been, and how much we would miss her. She seemed so alive to me, but the decision had been made. I suppressed what I had just seen: As Joe and Xavior were led from the room, Mikayla had tried to follow. We didn’t let her go. We kept her there against her wishes…
When we returned home, Emily and I kept running into each other, embracing, tears falling on each other’s shoulders. K.J. disappeared into the basement and Journey settled in front of the TV. Becton and Skye wanted to swim, so John and I walked them to the pool. They were wild and loud and exuberant. It felt unreal. We were moving on.
At home, Emily had fallen asleep already. All that sorrow is exhausting. I tried to sleep, but woke repeatedly with images of Mikayla running through my head. They were not happy images. They were images of her pleading to go home with me. They were sensations of the feel of her soft ears, her rough coat from the terrible haircut, her imploring beautiful eyes.
I took Emily on a college visit today, but as we drove, I thought I might have to pull over. The tears kept coming. What right had I to end Mikayla’s life? Had I been selfish – thinking of cost or inconvenience? If she had been a child, I would not have made that decision. I would have done everything imaginable to prolong the child’s life. I felt the weight of her dead, lifeless body pulling me down, down.
Emily was reassuring and we made it through the next few hours. When we returned home, I took K.J. to therapy and then Becton to get his allergy shot. But these were only distractions from the great heaviness in my heart that continued to grow. Finally, I came home and crawled under the covers in my bed and began to sob some more. I had killed someone I loved, someone who wanted to live!
I remembered Adagio – my dog, my friend, for 15 years who had developed kidney disease late in her life. She was becoming more fragile when Skye was born in August 1997. In October of that year, our family took a trip to Chicago to see the cousins and introduce Skye to them. With an infant, a one-year-old, and a three-year-old, my hands were full of preparations. As we departed for the airport, I remember pushing Adagio out of the way. That is my last memory of her, my last interaction. While we gone, she died. I never got to say good-bye. I never got to tell her I was sorry for being rough. I never got to tell her that she was the best friend I ever had.
And, now, I had created the opportunity to do all those things with Mikayla – but at what cost? Mikayla was an angel who had never harmed me. Indeed, she wanted nothing more than to be by my side. She wasn’t ready to go. I was selfish, selfish, selfish again! So, I lay in my bed and cried.
Then came Journey – the gentle one who kept reappearing to ask, “How are you doing?” and telling me that she loved me. Through my sobbing, I confessed my sins. I pointed to Mikayla’s sleeping spot on my floor where, I said, she should have been. Tears leaked from Journey’s eyes and she spoke quietly, reassuringly, “Mikayla would rather be up there running than here in pain.” There was nothing dogmatic or superior in her expression. It was a transcendent moment. She opened my heart and a sense of peace came over me. Journey stroked my arm and reached to hold me, telling me yet again that she loved me.
I was now able to get out of bed to retrieve Skye from her horseback riding lesson. Journey came along. As we were walking up the stairs back home, Journey turned to me and said, “I have an idea, Mommy. When you are feeling sad, you can pray and talk to Mikayla. I know she’d really like that. And you can ask God to keep a close eye on her.”