“…love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.” Kahil Gibran
I came home from vacation secretly guarding myself from the fact that one of our dogs was ailing and likely would not rebound. We have had many basset hounds in our lives, and a few unfortunately succumbed to hind leg paralysis in their later years. When our housesitter Sarah called to tell me that she woke up to find Rusty facing the same problem, my heart sunk. We were several hundred miles away. Fortunately, Sarah worked for our vet, so Rusty got immediate care. Given his more than ten years, we declined surgery.
After several more days, Rusty still could not walk. By then, I arrived home and took over his care. He always was a stubborn old hound. True to form, he refused confined bed rest and insisted on laying by me whenever he could. He experienced intermittent pain. I was able to help him walk by sliding a sling under his stomach and lifting his hind legs. Sometimes a door would open and he would insist on sliding outside to do his business. Forget that sling, he said. In his better moments, he still managed to howl for food like he always did when my husband or I served up his fare. His spirit was strong, but his body just wasn’t catching up.
Sometimes it is plain hard to know with animals when it is time to say goodbye. You can let their plight drag on, hoping for some improvement, further compromising their quality of life. Other factors have to be considered as you balance their care – your return to work, your other pets, the family budget, etc. There is no right way and the choice is very personal. I worked in a shelter and have rescued many dogs in my time, so I am no stranger to the heart-wrenching journey. You wonder if you are holding on for your own benefit as opposed to the animal’s benefit. You also wonder if you tried hard enough. In Rusty’s last days, I would often turn to him and ask what he wanted. He only looked back with soulful dark brown eyes, leaving me further confused, plagued with an internal dialogue that swung between guilt and compassion, pain and love.
I finally made my decision in the dark of morning when the house was asleep and my mind became quiet. Rusty got up and tried to slide toward me. He could only go so far. I knew this was not the way he would want his freedom.
I laid by Rusty when he died peacefully. There was no trauma. It was quick and humane. When he passed I found myself looking upwards as if to imagine him on the wings of angels until he got his own wings. He was free. He would no longer follow me into the garden as he often did in better days, but at least now he could fly.
We had Rusty for close to 15 months. He was about nine years old when he was found wandering a southern California street close to starving. It always perplexes us that someone would relinquish an animal to the streets without care for their well-being. Older dogs have a harder time finding homes than the younger ones. People hesitate adopting senior animals because they know that time with the animal will likely run shorter. It really doesn’t matter. Saying goodbye to Rusty was one of the hardest things I had to do. You would think we knew him for a dozen years, not a dozen months.
The fact that we found Rusty – rather, he found us – was a gift. No regrets. Goodbye, Rusty. Thank you for your howl, and the reminder that love never dies.