For the love of animals
A year ago this week, our oldest of three dogs died. Mom was staying with me when it happened, and for the first time in her dementia she was experiencing hallucinations, which was stressful for her and for me. Add to that the grief of losing Zeke, a dog John and I’d had since he was born in our yard when we lived in Grand Prairie — well, I was a mess. But this week, remembering Zeke and the pain of losing him when my emotions were already pretty heightened made me recall how as a kid, my mom used to help us care for the pets we had.
Cats, dogs, the occasional gerbil, I always felt my mother delighted in them as much as her kids did. Though perhaps it was simply that she delighted in our joy. She also felt our pain when we feared for our pets. I remember thinking that my mom was fearless, a real hero, when it came to our pets.
One time, one of our cats had a litter of kittens and my brother, sister and I spent hours at a time playing with them. For some reason, one day we decided to lock them in a dog house while we went to do something else so they wouldn’t leave while we were gone. We placed an aluminum grate we found on the patio over the dog house opening and left. Turns out those openings in the grate were just the right size for a kitten’s head to fit through and when we returned we found each one of our tiny charges was stuck in the grate and howling.
We screamed for our mother, and she came running and found us crying just as loudly as the cats. She wrapped one hand around a kitten’s body, and with the other worked its head out. One by one she freed all of those cats.
We never did that again, though we’d go on to have many more pets over the years. In fact, when I look back at the first signs of my mother’s dementia, one stands out. I’d visited her and found that her dog, Rebecca, was barely able to stand. Mind you, that dog was at least 16 — we’d found her as an adult so she may have been even older — and her hips just couldn’t hold her up anymore. I knew we had to end Rebecca’s suffering, so I told my mom I would pay for a vet visit.
The doctor said that while she could prescribe a different pain medicine than the one Rebecca was now taking, it was unlikely to do the dog any good. It would just delay the inevitable. With this option, my concern was that I’d go back home, and that Rebecca, during one of mom’s trips to the grocery store or church, would end up on the ground unable to get back up. I couldn’t stand that thought, and I explained to Mom what the doctor said, thinking she would understand the choices before us.
“We can try more pills Mom, but what if Rebecca gets really sick, and you’re alone and no one can help you with her?” I said, hoping she would tell me what to do.
But Mom wanted the less painful option — to keep Rebecca alive a bit longer. If she needed help, she’d call my sister. “She always helps me,” she said.
“But Mom, did you understand what I said? The pills probably won’t help. You don’t want Rebecca to suffer, do you? What if she dies alone, while you’re out? You wouldn’t want that, would you?”
We went on in this vein for a while as the doctor waited. Mom said she wanted something to make Rebecca better, then sat back in her chair in the exam room and waited. The look on her face, equal parts denial, hope and trust, broke my heart: denial that this was happening, hope that it wasn’t, and trust that I would make this right. And that’s when it dawned on me that our roles were now fully reversed. I was going to have make this decision because my mother couldn’t. I was going to make this decision to euthanize her dog, and she would be upset, and that was going to upset me. There was no good way out of this, none.
As Rebecca died, my mother wept, saying “Me puede, me puede.”
Yeah, it hurt me, too. I loved that dog. And seeing Mom cry over the dog hurt even more.
Rebecca was Mom’s last dog. She simply couldn’t care for one anymore, though she has an indoor cat that’s still around, a cat that sits in her lap while she fills in coloring books with purple, red and green crayons, a cat that loves her and lets her pick him up and sing to him.
I don’t think she remembers all the dogs and cats we had growing up, though. She probably doesn’t even recall Rebecca anymore. But I know when she’s at my house Mom enjoys holding my Guinea Pig. She enjoys peering through the glass of the bearded dragons’ terrariums and singing to them. And she likes opening the door for our dogs to go out to the yard. And when Zeke died during her visit here, she said, “Pobrecito, me puede.”
Yeah, it hurts me, too. Still. I wouldn’t be my mother’s daughter otherwise.