February 26, 2013 in Blog

Yesterday was weird pretty much all around. I mean, the last week has been odd but yesterday really took the prize. Yesterday felt like a countdown clock tick tick ticking away from the moment we woke up. We didn’t wake up at 6 o’clock, we woke up 4 hours before my dog was scheduled to die.

Fifteen years ago, long before we were married, Chris and I adopted Apollo, an uncommonly handsome mutt – largely collie, as a birthday present to eachother. Apollo was our original son – our first joint commitment together. We raised him together, through good and challenging times. It was through Apollo that we came to see each other as nurturers – it’s through Apollo that we knew we wanted to parent children together. Then we got some cats. That’s probably why it took another ten years to actually bother to have children. But that’s another story….

A year ago – just after Christmas and New Years, Apollo fell horribly lethargic from extreme anemia. The cause turned out to be a large tumor sited where his large intestine and small intestine meet. The Veterinary Emergency and Specialty Center said that they could perform surgery and they’d either fully excise it and he’d recover, or, due to the extreme anemia, he might die on the table and that seemed like an odd win-win… He’d either recover nicely or die peacefully, but doing nothing was certainly an excruciating death sentence. In fact, the doctors did present a third option to end his life then. But we thought that if it was his time, we’d let him die fighting. So we wrote the check. It turned out that there was another possible outcome, which was that his recovery would be excruciating AND the tumor would be a spreading cancer. That’s the one we got. After a few weeks of everyone thinking he couldn’t make it…we brought him home and he got better. A few weeks after that, the only evidence that he’d ever been sick was the short hair growing back on his belly, revealing his pink spotted skin, which we hadn’t really seen since he was a puppy.

The veterinarians estimated three to six months before the cancer fully took him. During that three to six months, we saw glimpses of his puppyhood when he’d run laps in the back yard (he just ran fewer laps and possibly slightly slower now that he had a heart murmur and arthritis and – you know, allegedly, cancer). He saw my son’s first birthday and had the opportunity to build a relationship with the young toddler, Apollo being the only family member with the endurance to roll a ball back and forth with him for 20 minutes. He saw my daughter’s fifth birthday and first sleepover. When Chris decided to take up smoking meats as a new culinary hobby, Apollo was there. He was very, very, VERY there. We blamed Apollo for not being able to go on family vacations (he was too old to be boarded, and we couldn’t bear to give someone the responsibility of dog sitting if he should happen to take a turn) which pretty nicely deflected from the fact that my son’s frequent illnesses was another reason to stay close to home.

Three to six months later, Apollo watched Isobel (and her friends) learn to swim in the back yard. He did NOT learn to swim, but he watched by the edge of the pool, only falling in once. And then he saw his last Fourth of July – which he wasn’t supposed to see. And Halloween. By Thanksgiving, we finally started seeing signs of wear and by Christmas the incontinence had started to set in. By New Years we wondered if he was incontinent or just old, and cantankerous, and both literally and figurative could give a sh*t. That, along with my son’s diapers and my pukey cat inspired the facebook status, “Generally, you can tell what sort of day I’m having by the number of bags of human and animal waste have piled up outside the garage door. Today is a four trash bag morning.” But even that experience seemed to find a way to have a positive impact in our lives when one day, Isobel surprised me by wanting to show me how mature and ready for the responsibility of taking on a pet she is by cleaning up one of Apollo’s accidents while I was taking a nap.

And then Apollo saw Eli’s second birthday, and Chris’s, and mine, and Valentine’s day. All of which were bonuses. In fact, by the Valentine week, his back legs were obviously not functioning successfully and more often than not, if trying to stand in one place, gravity would win and he’d tip over and fall. And when trying to drink from his water bowl, he’d lose balance and find himself splayed out on the floor unable to get up without assistance. Oh – maybe that’s why he suddenly started drinking from the toilet. Hmm. There’s something I wish I had thought of before.


Anyway – it’s a weird thing to make an appointment to have your dog killed. I mean, there are nicer words – put to sleep, taken out of his misery, put down… but at the end of the day, we’re calling someone in to administer a lethal dose of anesthesia. We have a veterinarian who comes to the house and can do it right there at home. I told Chris I’d make the call and even gave him the option of not being there when it happens because everyone knows that I have the emotional fortitude of a brick wall. I mean, it’s like a brick wall on the set of a low budget Kung Fu film, but I look pretty steady. For a time.

But Chris said he’d be there, but appreciated that I would make the call (which I still procrastinated doing for a while). I was really focused on Isobel during this – and to some degree, Eli but having just turned two, he would likely not have as difficult a time with the transition. But for Isobel, not only has she has never known a life without Apollo, she is particularly attached to all animal souls. I mean, she goes to school on a farm. But she has been preparing – in her way – for this for a year now. So have we. I have sought advice from others about how to handle this and perhaps the most salient advice I’d received was from my aunt who reminded me that Isobel will handle this in her own way, and not in my way, and that I may not recognize the mourning because it is different. She will go through it and process it and my job is to be there and support her during that process. Indeed, if there’s anything I would offer to others who have to share loss with their children, it is that.


Isobel has been preparing for Apollo’s passing for some time, mostly by planning out our next dog. She had wanted a poodle for months. Most likely she was thinking a toy poodle – something she could put in a purse and make wear a sweater. This is not so interesting to me and, moreover, I am afraid that a toy dog of any sort would not have the bone structure to tolerate my exuberant two year old boy. Not wanting to blame Eli for not being able to get that particular dog, I simply told her that I was not a big fan of little dogs since we already have cats and little dogs can be yippy and they nip. I prefer larger dogs that are athletic – that I can run with. So we looked at Standard Poodles and emailed my aunt, who has had standards, for more information about them, and I secretly started falling in love with the idea as well. Ok – fine, yes, I too want a dog I can put in a sweater. Don’t judge me. I also want to run with the dog, and want a dog that can swim in the pool. And not shedding – well that would be a lovely change of pace. And have you seen the corded coat? It’s like a Rastafarian dog. That’s just awesome. Needless to say, Isobel and I got ahead of ourselves early on. It took me several months to realize that it wasn’t just Isobel who needed to think about the next dog to start healing from imminent loss, but I did too.

Isobel moved on to golden retrievers and labs and mutts – because Chris would like to adopt another mutt. She’d get books from the library on dog breeds and we’d look at them together and talk about appropriateness for our family and lifestyle. She really likes Goldens. I made a point of saying that they are heavy chewers and so she said she should start practicing keeping her (and Eli’s) toys off the floor now. This was a great idea. Didn’t bear much fruit, but it was a great idea. I often wonder if my ability to turn these wishful scenarios into behavioral modification incentives is a sign of good parenting or crafty manipulation. Or both.

As a young child, Isobel was the very definition of a spirited child. Unexpected change was REALLY hard on her so we work hard at helping her prepare for change in advance and letting her know what to expect. She has a vivid imagination so we have to be cautious about how detailed things get. She gets both of those traits from me, I now realize, because for a year I had been preparing myself for the inevitability of the death of my original son. I had prepared myself for noticing when the turn happened – when the number of bad days outweighed the good. And what defines a bad day. And I hopefully envisioned that one day I would walk downstairs and see Apollo sleeping there (he had stopped coming upstairs several weeks ago) and then discovering that his chest wasn’t moving. I hopefully imagined seeing his body lying there quietly – having passed in a manner demonstrating complete and total satisfaction with his life and the impact he’d had on ours.

In the event that didn’t happen, I also started to imagine in my mind having to take assertive action towards his death. People have told me that I’d know – that he’d show me through his eyes – that it was time. That didn’t happen. I even prepared myself for the worst – that the cancer would go to his brain and he would turn mean. That also didn’t happen. His decline was somewhat gradual and he just seemed to press through the daily challenges.

Once I had made the appointment and the doctor gave me some background about what to expect, I started to imagine that happening as well. I had a picture in my mind of sitting with him in the front foyer, bathed in sunlight, with his head on my lap. In my mind, he’d look at me as if to nod approval and then sigh. And I’d watch his eyes close and feel him pass. Having never felt death – never witnessed it personally – this was how I had pictured it from stories I’d heard.

It was almost nothing like that. We were in the front foyer, yes. It was a bit overcast. I had already given him his last meal — some left over bread with Nutella on it and ribs – including the bone. So there was no turning back. I gave him what he’d been missing out on all this time and it would all be over before the discomfort from the chocolate and the rib bone set in. Apollo was curled into his doggie bed and I was reaching in to hold him near his head. Chris was behind me leaning in to rub his chest. He twitched strongly exactly once as the sedative went in. His breathing deepened and slowed. His chest moved with heavy, steady movement. His eyes dropped out of focus and half closed. He became unaware. Unafraid. Unable to argue or ask us to stop. The doctor swabbed his paw with alcohol – Chris and I would later remark that we found that odd – and the doctor pushed in the anesthesia. It had no visible effect. I told him it was ok – that we would be ok and that he didn’t need to fight to stay with us. So a few minutes later she did it again in another leg. I watched as a droplet of blood entered the syringe, mixing with the foreign drug like a droplet of paint hitting a bowl of water. It was beautiful in its way. I watched her push the plunger in. And then, in the middle of an exhale mixed with a snore, he stopped. Unceremoniously. No sigh. In fact, nothing changed except that his chest stopped moving up and down and Chris and I simultaneously gasped with extreme sadness.

I had no palpable experience of his soul leaving his body. I had no wash of relief come over me. There was no warmth of any sort. It simply ended. And I felt loss. Apollo’s body started to feel cold sooner than I would have expected and I felt awash with incredible fear that we had acted too soon and that he was mad. I was, I am, overcome with a feeling of guilty fear. And loss. And shame. And sadness. And grief. I unbuckled his collar. I had imagined that moment feeling like finality. But I had already felt that so the moment, in actuality, felt simply, necessary.

I watched the truck with his body drive off the driveway to take him to the crematory. I wondered if I would regret not deciding to keep his ashes. Well, I didn’t wonder. I did regret it. I just don’t know what I would’ve done with those ashes.

A lot of crying happened. My brick wall was virtually useless. Someone clearly forgot the mortar because I crumbled to the floor. I stared at my phone like I should update facebook or something. My contact lens flipped out of position so I needed to excuse myself to the bathroom. My skin was burning all over from the salt in the tears. And I needed to start planning for the next step. Telling Isobel. We would be picking her up in four hours.

20130226-214351.jpgThe week before (but after I had made the appointment) Isobel and I made a special trip to Three Dog Bakery to get super special treats for Apollo. I nearly broke down when the bakery clerk told me not to give them all to him at the same time, that they should last at least a week. And I was thinking that they really… wouldn’t… She probably thought I was a nut job when I glared at her. I just didn’t have anything to say.

I had suggested Isobel share some special moments with him, and thank him for being sweet. We talked about memories with him. We took an extra weekend to take a few self-posed family portraits. I was afraid she was catching on. I think she probably was. She may tell me as much when she’s older. I’m prepared to be entirely honest when she asks, but I will refrain from offering certain truths.

The morning of, I suggested she gave him some extra treats and give him a hug. She told him she loved him and that she didn’t want to squeeze him too hard. She told me that she was careful – dogs are tremendous teachers of boundaries and caring and forgiveness – among other things. And then we left for school. I put my sunglasses on – despite the clouds – to try to hide my sadness. It wasn’t very effective. It was a very quiet drive. She knew something was up because she wasn’t chatty either.

All the way to school and back, I kept glancing at the clock wondering if I had time to get something for breakfast before… before it happened. I kept subtracting from the appointment time. I got to Isobel’s school one hour and forty minutes before. I would make it home at one hour before. Chris and I gave him his taste of chocolate forty five minutes before and his ribs forty minutes before. The veterinarian was late because she got a little misdirected and that’s when time stopped and wouldn’t start back up again until around lunch time. And the new time was measured by how long before we picked up Isobel and told her. Apollo died at 11AM – four hours before we needed to tell Isobel.

I can see why parents lie about this sort of things to their kids. It would be easier. My parents gave me the “went to the farm” story. Except the farm was a junk yard. And there was some sadistic truth to that, I would later discover. But I can see why parents look for an easier way to tell their children about the death of a pet. But I think of myself as a brave and thoughtful mother. I didn’t want to rob her of the opportunity to grieve. In the moment, it certainly didn’t feel like a gift. But it will.

So while I couldn’t be entirely honest – I couldn’t tell her that we made the appointment and that we decided when it was his time to die, if she asked (and she didn’t, so when she does), I will tell her. But for now, I don’t need to create a picture in her head of her dog getting a shot and then he died. Her annual physicals are difficult enough as they are. But Chris and I did do some strategizing about how much truth to offer. So when we got to school, we found a quiet place to talk and I sat her on my lap and told her, through my own broken voice, “You know, Apollo had been in pain for a long time now. And today, well today, he passed away. And he is no longer in pain.” And we waited for the crying to start.

And then we waited for the crying to end.

Chris stepped out to find tissues. (We are surprisingly ill-equipped parents in the physical sense. If I spent half as much time planning for practical needs as I spend planning for emotional needs — well, I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be handing my kid socks with which to wipe their noses in the car. I digress). Isobel quietly asked me when we would start planning for the next puppy and I asked her if it helps her to deal with her sadness to think about a future puppy. She said, “just a little.” She was still crying. I told her we’d start looking at books again and then get serious just about finding a puppy sometime after her birthday. But that we all needed time with our sadness for now. She got quiet again when Chris came back into the room.

It wasn’t long before she said she was ready to go. And that she wanted to say goodbye to her friend Kennedy before she left. Chris and I watched her walk back out into the field. The (much) older boy on whom both she and Kennedy have been crushing for weeks walked up to her and asked her what was wrong, seeing her tears. And Isobel said, very simply, “my dog died.” And kept walking.

And that’s how it is. Really. The thing about kids is their emotions have such fewer hesitations and filters to try to morph into some appropriateness. The openness of being able to simply declare, “my dog died” and to be able to experience pure sadness without having to make room for guilt and shame and embarrassment at the same time – without having to parcel out room to “pretend to not be sad” in public – why bother? There she is – multitasking the feeling of sadness and the desire to run in the field – freely experiencing both. Unabashedly emoting through the field – with whatever she happened to be feeling. And my job, as a parent, is to let her.

On her way back, the same boy asked her how many dogs she had. And I watched her look confused – like this was a math question. Isobel had one dog. That dog died. How many dogs does Isobel have left? She stopped running, turned around – and because she was turned I don’t know what she said. And then she came back to us and we got in the car. Chris quietly said that he was surprised that she seemed less upset than she did when her f-i-s-h died, he spelled it. She can read now so I’m not sure that was effective. But I reminded him that it’s her process. She’s doing fine. He said it’d hit her later. I thought it hit already and she, like us would be reminded of it at weird times. Like when we got home and no one greeted us. Or when she saw his collar sitting on the counter. Or when we sat down and watched tv and no one came to ask to be let out. Or when we made a sandwich and no one was underfoot ready to eat the bread crusts. Or, like me, just randomly with no obvious instigator. This morning, in the car, after the tears spent another twenty minutes stinging down my cheeks, she quietly volunteered, “I miss Apollo.” I think she said it because she wanted me to acknowledge the same – to stop pretending I wasn’t crying in the front seat. And I did. And it was… it was ok.

I will continue to tell myself that putting him to sleep at this time was the right thing to do, even though I’m not really sure. I can only hope that, as was his way, he will forgive us. I know people who believe that dogs and animals don’t go to Heaven, that Heaven is just for humans. I can’t imagine any place without dogs – without Apollo – being called Heaven. It simply wouldn’t be complete him. So I choose to believe that he’ll be there waiting for me. I choose to believe that some of the ones we love die before us so that we won’t be lonely or afraid in the after life. I choose to believe that he leaves a part of his spirit with us; that he leaves me with his strength and endurance, Chris with his will and his attitude, and my children with his ability to love and play freely – something he had in infinite supply.

Rest in peace dear Apollo. You loved us well.

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1 response to Apollo

  1. Carmen,
    I am so sorry to hear about the loss of Apollo. As hard as it was to read your story, it was so touching…I’m still teary eyed over it. I’ll be thinking of you and your family.

    Take care,

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