Time to Make a Decision

April 16, 2010

I never thought of myself as a pet person. I was the last among my dog-crazy siblings to acquire one and did so only after my daughter Julia launched a relentless campaign that ended when we fell in love with a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. Our life with Sara began with an eight-hour journey to a breeder in northern Wisconsin and back, shortly after 9/11. She was so sweet and cuddly that I carried her for weeks, before accepting she was a puppy, not a baby, and was born to walk.

Over the years, we took turns being Sara’s favorite. As Julia recovered from a serious illness and sought normalcy in friends and sports, Sara became my buddy, following me from computer to coffee pot to washing machine. She had an insatiable need for attention and affection and had her ways of getting her way, imploring me with her eyes to take her along in the car, or barking until I sheepishly pulled her onto my lap at the dinner table. When I entered our home, she snapped to attention from her perch in the sunroom, tail slapping against the pink leather chair she claimed as her own.

Yet, at night, she would nestle at my husband’s feet as he reclined on the chaise lounge to watch sports, BlackBerry in one hand and remote control in the other. It was Ted who she hounded for treats, knowing he was an easy mark, for she was one of daddy’s girls and Ted adored his girls.

In the weeks after Ted’s heart attack in December, life changed – and so did Sara. At first, a stream of visitors invaded her space. Then, commotion gave way to inactivity as we established a new and unsettling normal, punctuated by her labored breathing. When she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, I wondered whether she, too, had a broken heart.

I am a work-from-home mom who often spent more waking hours with my dog than I did with my stay-at-work husband. While I was not prepared to lose Ted, I was forewarned that Sara’s poor health would likely not improve – and I was sick about it. The kids and I discussed our options and made a plan. I prayed she would go in her sleep on a weekday when my vet was in town.

None of my prayers were answered. Plan notwithstanding, I was completely unprepared for the end. Mere hours after I purchased the headstone for Ted’s grave, I walked into the house and watched Sara’s legs splay as she attempted to stand. It felt as if the granite stone I had just procured landed on my shoulders. My brain registered what was happening but my heart could not bear what was — after Ted’s death and that of a close friend just weeks later — becoming an all-too-familiar experience.

As I held her like a baby once again, my affectionate Sara could not muster one last lick. In my desperation, I wondered whether she might rally, if a different medication might revive her. How could I know for sure that this was the end? I was already struggling to accept the utter finality of the deaths of two men who had been in my life for decades. I felt paralyzed by the gravity of deciding to end another life — even if it meant she would not struggle or lose her dignity — and even if she was “just a dog.” Both a sympathetic friend and a vet tech I did not know at a clinic I had never been to before waited patiently while I reluctantly made a decision I hope never to face again.

Rather than feeling at peace with a sound choice, I am laden with the awfulness of rendering a judgment that eliminated a four-legged member of my shrinking family. With the trauma still fresh, I am mindful that being called upon to make an end-of-life decision for another is a wrenching duty. In the case of us humans, with proper planning, we need not impose that duty upon someone else.

For years, I have been reluctant to sign a health-care directive. Perhaps I have watched too many episodes of “House,” in which the brilliant diagnostician and his staff solve yet another medical mystery and pull a patient from the jaws of death. What if a real-life Dr. House could employ extraordinary measures to save my life but I had signed away that option? What if I would be one of those miracle coma patients who awaken against all odds?

Thus, many moons ago, when my husband signed a living will, I did not, reserving the decision until I felt more prepared to consider it. It seems that day has arrived. While I do not know when or how my time will come, I do know I can obviate an avoidable end-of-life decision for those I hold most dear. So, after much dodging, I am at last resolved. The selfless option is to spare my loved ones from having to do for me what I did for Sara.