Pain is often the only word I have to express it.
But, on the rare occasion that I’m feeling articulate, I describe grief like this:
Have you ever felt like your heart has grown icy cold, frozen over, and then shattered into a thousand shards inside your chest? And afterward the shards remain, cutting you up from the inside out with every breath you take?
A year ago on Thursday, I watched my dog die. And I knew I had killed him.
Ronan was given to me before breakfast on a Saturday, early in my 10th grade year. His red collar had a tag that said, “To Jay. Love, Dad & Mom.” At lunch, my parents announced they were getting a divorce. I spent dinnertime in my room and discovered that nine-week-old puppies like the taste of tears.
Ronan and I grew up side by side. When I was 17, he was two. We were similar in a lot of ways. We were both lanky and awkward and overexcitable. I had greasy dark hair, and he had a rough black coat. We both liked driving around in my dented up truck. We got each other into minor trouble and kept each other out of major trouble. Together we could polish off an extra large stuffed crust pepperoni pizza in one sitting. We went through dozens of pizzas during high school and although there were only a couple of times when eating too fast made one of us sick, it wasn’t ever me.
School was rough, but I clawed my way to graduation with the help of a few kindhearted teachers. After I turned 18, I didn’t go to college like most of my friends; I started working under the table at a local sheet metal factory. I moved out and got a cheap studio apartment. The sink leaked brown water and the heating was inconsistent. I didn’t care, since management turned a blind eye to the huge Irish Wolfhound that moved in with me. During the winters to keep warm, Ronan and I ate cheap microwaved pizza and huddled together under a thin quilt.
There was a lot of turnaround at the factory and, by age 20, I was on the books and had worked my way up to a management position. I moved into a slightly bigger apartment where dogs were allowed, the water wasn’t brown and the heating worked okay. We kept sharing pepperoni pizzas, and by then I could afford delivery once in a while. Ronan was huge, still lanky, and seven. He probably weighed 130 pounds, and if I noticed any slowing down I just attributed it to all the pizzas. His tail never stopped moving. It thumped against the floor when he sat impatiently waiting for the pizza kid. It thumped against the cabinets when I made breakfast and made the cabinet doors shake. It thumped against the couch cushions when we were stretched out watching a movie together. It sounded like a big loud heartbeat. There was one evening the little old lady across the hall came over. I could tell she was there to scold me about the noise, but when she saw it was Ronan’s tail her face just lit up. There wasn’t any scolding. She came back later with a treat for him.
Fast forward another 12 months and 187 pizzas. I was 21, Ronan was eight, and I didn’t know that wolfhounds got the short end of the stick in the lifespan department. My boss’ something-cattle-dog was 14 and she was still going strong. I would remember later that his tail didn’t thump as much, but I didn’t think much of it at the time - he’d always been in great health.
We ended up at the emergency vet’s at 2am on a November morning. I was strong from the factory work, but Ronan’s weight made me stagger as I carried him in. His tail wasn’t thumping, and I couldn’t tell if his beautiful brown eyes saw me. I don’t remember crying but I remember gently wiping tears off his thick fur.
The vet was kind. He said Ronan was a handsome boy. Wolfhounds usually live to seven, he told me, so Ronan had made it an extra year. He explained the problem was with his heart. He said there were treatment options, but they weren’t guaranteed to work and they were all expensive. He talked about payment plans and credit and pet insurance. He put a hand on my shoulder and told me about euthanasia.
I looked down at my friend and stroked his face. He had been with me for so long. I could tell he was in pain, and I couldn’t afford any of the treatment options even with the payment plans. I remember at some point I just started to sob.
After a few minutes, I sucked in a ragged breath and told the vet I decided on euthanasia. As I said the words, I couldn’t believe they were coming out of my mouth. I hated myself. I hated seeing Ronan in pain. I hated feeling like I didn’t have any other options.
In the back of my mind that night, I felt like he wouldn’t just die…I would be killing him. I would be the one responsible for the decision. I would be the one sentencing my friend to death.
The kind vet gave me some time alone with Ronan. I don’t remember much of it. The vet came back in with the supplies quietly. I remember crouching down, resting my face next to Ronan’s huge head, whispering in his ear that I loved him, my arms stroking his nose, his neck, his shoulder. The vet talked through the procedure as he went, and then it was over so fast, and his motionless form was lying there.
After I pulled my battered truck up to my apartment, I sat alone in the dark for a very long time. And the feelings that surrounded me while sitting there, shock and stillness and loneliness and darkness, would follow me for several months.
As time went on, I knew my decision made sense. I knew he was no longer suffering. I knew his last moments were spent close to someone who cared about him, and I had comforted him as much as I could.
At some point I thought I was ready. Then I decided I was ready. Now I hope I’m ready.
And you, sweet Charlie, are reminding me that nine-week-old puppies like the taste of tears.