I kept waiting for the event.
Back legs giving out completely.
But the event didn’t come. Sombra our 15-year-old Labrador/Whippet mix was not going to have an event. He was going to stay. That was his job. To stay with us.
I didn’t know what to do. Help him leave? Wait until his body stopped? I asked my friend Sandra if she thought Sombra was enjoying life. At that moment, we were standing in the yard watching Sombra squat and pee and then stand there, motionless. For a dog who would take off running after squirrels, deer and any nearby body of water, he didn’t wander much anymore. I suspected it was because he was mostly blind and deaf and had the good sense to wait for me to be near him with a leash. But I also felt like the edge of him was disappearing. Each day, the definition of him in space and time was blurring. Instead of being the dog who could run after those things that needed chasing, he was becoming those things.
I’d seen these blurred edges before. When my daughter was born, she had no sense of the edge of herself. She was me. For many months. Her cries were as much about needing to be held as they were about sustenance. It was as if the edge of me and my love for her defined her, kept her from floating away, allowed her to thrive and land in her own body.
With Sombra, I was watching the process in reverse.
Sandra said, “I don’t know if he is enjoying life but he will be here with you as long as you need him.”
“You mean he’s waiting for me to be ready to let go?”
“I don’t think he’ll leave unless you’re ready.”
We helped Sombra stumble walk inside. As we sat down to dinner, he waited nearby to lick my empty plate. I thought about his little expectancies during a day: Breakfast and dinner; standing at the door with me about to go outside; the dinner plate. His world was diminished. Do I wait until they are all gone?
I didn’t know. When is the right time to help someone leave their body? Strangely, this question is similar to the one couples ask themselves about parenthood: When is the right time to have a child? The answer to both questions is: there is no right time. You do it and you make room and it is always a blessing.
And so I was ready.
I called my daughter and we figured out a time when she could be with me virtually. She was there at Sombra’s beginning when some boys on bikes, hanging on to a black dog with a collar, came up to our car and asked, “Is this your dog?” My daughter, seven years old, said yes, with all the conviction in the world. We brought him home and her dad named him Sombra because he was as black as a shadow and stayed nearby as shadows do. Now we were going to help him slip into the shadows.
As the day approached, I kept wondering if I should be doing anything special. You know, taking him out to do his favorite things. The only one thing I could think of was taking him to the creek for a little farewell because he loved swimming so much. I found a place where he could walk in gradually. A few months before I’d taken him to a deep swimming hole and he sank because his back legs didn’t work well enough to swim. As we edged our way slowly to the water, he tripped over rocks and tree roots until finally his paws were in the water. And there he stood. Frozen. And looking slightly miserable. “Like what the heck am I doing here? I can’t swim.”
So we went home and I served him a yummy dinner of grain free kibble, goat milk and pumpkin. I sat next to him while he immersed himself in his meal. These small pleasures: a good meal, a clump of grass with intoxicating smells; a prodigious pee. Who am I to remind him of his lost pleasures? He is this pleasure now. May I be so wise when I am near death.
The next day, a few friends gathered.
As was their habit, Diane took him on a last little stroll in which he peed and pooped and then had a biscuit and a drink of water. Sombra lied down on his favorite white rug, which used to be in my daughter’s room but he coveted it so much that she finally gave it to him. Eight humans circled him. Fifteen candles (his estimated age) circled us.
Michael gave Sombra a shot to relax. I sat next him, stroking him as he sank more heavily and deeply into his white cloud rug. Finally, Michael shaved a little spot on his leg and injected him with a pink liquid. Sometime between the first press and the empty vial, his heart stopped.
After everyone left, I called my daughter. She was still crying.
“Did we do the right thing, Mom?”
Could we have waited one more day, one more week, one more month? Could we have waited until he had no more little events during the day, which made him happy and expectant? Could we have waited until misery eclipsed everything?
I suppose yes we could have.
But here’s what I know. Sombra was loved from moment he leapt into our car until his heart stopped on the white cloud rug. Is there anything better than that?
In May, my daughter and I will return Sombra’s ashes to the creek for one final swim.