My friend Dawn was the caregiver for her mother. Dawn’s Mom had cancer and was slowly dying, and it worried Dawn to no end how and when her Mom would pass. Each morning she would tread towards her Mom’s bedroom and check her pulse to see if she was still alive. Dawn’s Mom was a playful person who would open her eyes and shout, “I’m still alive, honey! You’ll know when I am ready to leave. I will send you a sign.”
Several months into this morning exchange, Dawn left the house to go to the pharmacy. She never left her Mom alone, but needed to pick up pain medication that her Mom desperately required. While driving back home, Dawn turned on the radio in her car and heard Tom Jones sing the “Green Green Grass of Home”. It was then that her fear disappeared, for this was her mother’s favorite song. Dawn was filled with deep calm as she placed her key in the front door, opened it up and saw her Mom on the sofa, eyes closed with a smile upon her face. “I never realized that death could be so peaceful,” Dawn remarked. “My Mom said she would send me a sign and that song was it. My Mom loved Tom Jones so much and was one of those women who went to his concerts and threw her panties on the stage. But his song about returning home and being lain underneath the old oak tree in the green, green grass of home told me that my Mom was perfectly fine. And now I am, too.”
I had forgotten this story until recently. My husband Freddy and I owned a dog named Roxie. She was one of a pack of dogs, and she didn’t seek to be the star of the group. But she was so feisty and would stand up to anyone who threatened the others; she was small, but mighty. We had no idea how old she was, because we rescued her from an abusive situation and the vet couldn’t discern her age when we got her years back.
In the middle of this September, Roxie developed a round, hard belly. We took her to the vet and an X-ray revealed that there was a mass inside of her, but the vet couldn’t figure out what was the cause of this new growth. We were offered an abdominal ultrasound and biopsy to the tune of $900, and declined to look further.
After all, Roxie was old and we didn’t want her to undergo probing and prodding, given that she was so happy and still wrestling with the other dogs.
Whatever was in Roxie’s belly grew rapidly. It became hard to watch her body expand, while her extremities became thin as her abdomen quadrupled in size. I was glad that doggies don’t look at themselves in mirrors, because it seemed that Roxie had no awareness that she was so misshapen. Yet when she stopped eating, Freddy and I knew that it was time to take her to the vet and put her down.
We carried her into the vet’s office and were immediately ushered into a private room. Freddy cradled Roxie as the worker told us what would happen next. This wasn’t our first rodeo in this department, but choosing to end the life of a pet always comes with a unique sense of loss. While we knew it was time for Roxie to leave us, and the workers assured us that we were doing the kindest thing for our baby, it was still a terrible sensation. There is a lining that surrounds the hearts of human and animals and it is called the pericardium. Losing a beloved pet feels to me as though that lining of the heart is being peeled away.
But something was distinctly different about this day at the vet for us and for Roxie. First, we never had to endure sitting in the waiting room, with all the other dogs and happy owners who were there. Secondly, the kind workers in the office took Roxie into the back room to sedate her so she wasn’t afraid. They also inserted a catheter that went straight to her little heart, so that when she was ready to fall asleep, they wouldn’t have to poke her while looking for a vein. (I’ve watched that happen with one of my other dogs and the vet couldn’t find a vein, while the doggie was in agony and needed more expeditious help). Lastly, they wrapped Roxie in a blanket and nestled her back into Freddy’s arms.
The workers gave us a little button (it looked like a doorbell), and told us to take as much time as we needed alone with Roxie until we were ready for the vet to come in and give her the injection. All manner of thoughts went through our minds. We wept and shared memories of her strength and tenacity as she looked at the both of us in wonder.
When it was time, I pressed the button. A lovely vet entered the room. She crept behind Freddy’s chair and attached a syringe to the catheter on the dog as her owner held her close. Roxie’s heart stopped beating and she fell sound asleep at last. We were then told to take our time and press the button again when we were ready to leave the building and say goodbye for good. When we did, another worker took Roxie from Freddy and carried her away, still wrapped in a blanket.
I’ve never seen the death of any creature, human or animal, handled with such grace. Most of the time, animals are placed on a stainless steel table for the End Of Life moment and the humans must crouch down to look at their faces and touch them. This was the first time I have ever witnessed the animal being wrapped in a blanket and held by the human who was the one who loved her best. It was also the first time that I observed the vet’s presence in the room as stealthy and deft – that vet was like a little ninja who crept about and allowed us to mourn without interference. And finally, Roxie was not left alone on the stainless steel table, but was carried away by a person.
Everything about this day of letting go of Roxie reminds me of Dawn and her Mom. Dawn had feared the loss of her mother for so long, she had tried to anticipate the loss before it happened, she had checked on her Mom each morning to see if she were still alive. It wasn’t until she left the house and surrendered control of the situation that she heard the “Green Green Grass of Home”.
I suppose what we fear most about death is surrendering control. I am reminded of how scary that is, but from this day with Roxie, I also have respect for this surrender. This respect was possible because of the manner in which Roxie died. She was held by Freddy in a blanket with few other people around to confuse her. There was no stainless steel table, no long explanations from the staff, just a seamless attachment of a syringe to a catheter, followed by deep rest for Roxie.
I know the feeling that Dawn had when she came home to find her Mom in deep rest on the sofa. She was no longer afraid. Whenever I think of Roxie now, I recall the words of that poignant song by Tom Jones…”Yes, they’ll all come to see me in the shade of that old oak tree, as they lay me ‘neath the green green grass of home.”