Last weekend Jack started choking and gasping for breath. I applied the dog Heimlich and fished around in the poor bugger’s gullet with my finger trying to find whatever it was that was ailing him – but to no avail. He could breathe, but it was a gurgling gasp and his little body was inflating and contracting so much I could see the outline of his ribs. “Yes, take him to the vet now,” said my neighbour Rob – expert on all things canine, “better than a disaster tomorrow.”
It was 6.30pm on a Friday. The vet was closed and I left messages. Eventually Ben called back. He had been reconstructing the facial bones of a colt who had run into a pole: “I’ll meet you at the surgery in 20 minutes.”
“We’ll make supper,” said Hannah and Kyra. “And I’m coming with you,” said Riley, “you mustn’t be on you own.” We didn’t say much in the car, but both of us had our hands on his belly feeling for rise and fall. We were thinking the same thing
Two hours later my poor dog had endured a sedative, full anaesthetic, had his leg shaved and all manner of implements thrust down his throat. At one point his little tongue had turned lilac and I saw the vet blench. He injected my dog with something and the colour came back. And then with something else to take down the swelling in his airways. And then with a steroid. I could tell he was crapshooting. He had no idea what was wrong. When he was out of options he brought Jack back from under the drugs and my poor boy tottered round looking at me with bewildered eyes.
Exhausted and sore, but breathing.
We drove home and he lay on my lap so still, so ‘not there’ that Riley eventually voiced what I was thinking: “Suzie are you sure Jack’s not dead?”
He wasn’t; but that night was a bad one. Jack sounded like he was drowning — his every breath was an ugly symphony of wet wheezing and gurgling. He would sit up to stare at shadows, then collapse with a whimper. At 3.00am he was in such distress that I breathed into his nose for a good five minutes, until he struggled upwards and pushed me away. He curled up against me again only to roar and gasp up again.
Saturday was better — but I could tell he wasn’t himself. “Wait and see,” said the vet.
Sunday 11pm found us back in emergency. The desperate choking had started again and I thought he was going to die. When we got there, a couple was sitting in the waiting room: trying to make a decision. “We’re going to say goodbye,” I heard the woman tell her father, “yes tonight, we need to, she is in too much pain.” They signed the consent form and went through into the back room. Less than three minutes later they returned — cradling the lifeless form of their cat. Tenderly wrapped in a towel. “We’re going to bury her at home,” the young man told me. “She deserves that.”
The Vet looked at me and said: “It is always so awful, one never gets used to it. But come now, let us see what we can do for your baby.” More steroids and a bag of intravenous antibiotics late,r and Jack was breathing calmly. “Take him home and keep him close, and don’t worry he is going to be all right.” As I drove back through the rain, with my dog cradled against my heart, I thanked all the forces that had made me able to give him that care. We went to bed, slept for 8 hours straight and in the morning he was much better.
My mother once told me that the night before Honey (our family dog) was put down, mom cried so much her ears filled with tears. She said that the holding of Honey as she died was the most awful thing she had ever done. I remembered those tears as I had sat waiting for the anaesthetic to take Jack under: my gasping hound on my lap. The room was bright white fluorescent — everything was hard and etched. My little niece was right beside me — watching, quiet. Both of us suddenly so vulnerable and so exposed to the possibility of death. Both of us willing the other to believe it wouldn’t happen. She was stroking him gently and I was making deals with the universe… “don’t let this little dog die, oh please”. Then the lightness went out of his body and I instinctively put my ear to his stomach to see if his heart was still beating. Riley did the same.
I know I need to be with him if the day ever comes, and I will — every step of the way. But the sense of him being gone was so real and huge it winded me. I will have to steel myself. I will need to have somewhere to go afterwards.
There are valid arguments on both sides of the assisted suicide or ‘right to die’ debate. The most often repeated ‘against’ being that people will choose to euthanise family members who have become a burden through sickness or mental incapacitation. And perhaps they will. But I have to trust that legal checks and balances will take care of that awfulness.
For the rest of us — it may be a decision we have to make one day – for ourselves or for another. A decision we will have to think long and hard on. The deciding will not be easy and it will never be without abuse — that is the human way. But I still believe we should have the right. Because just for a moment in that chair I felt the weight of a dog’s last breath. And even if it is half that of a last human breath, it felt like the weight of the world.
(Image of plastic toys copyright Caroline Coetzee, used with permission. Image of Jack, copyright campari&sofa. Image of The Smile Room found unattributed on Facebook.)