“She’s gone,” said the vet, pulling the stethoscope from her ears. “I’m sorry.”
Bill and I were sitting on the floor of the clinic, stroking our dog’s thin, cancer-ravaged body. Quiet tears slid down our cheeks, a thick, bitter knot of sadness lodged in the back of our throats.
We learned several weeks ago that Chelsea had large tumors on her liver and spleen, amounting to nearly 10 pounds of cancer in her abdomen. She had been losing weight quickly, dropping 30 pounds in less than 6 months. Despite her ravenous appetite and verve on the good days, she was deteriorating quickly. Her miles-long walks became a 30-minute shuffle around one city block. Her hours-long naps were punctuated with panting and fidgeting. She had given us nearly 13 years of companionship and unconditional love. The best we could do in return was to make her comfortable and not unnecessarily prolong her suffering.
I’ve had dogs all my adult life, having now raised two from puppyhood into their salad days. Our first dog, Cobie, died suddenly at age 12. We never got to say a proper goodbye and it haunted us for a long time. As Chelsea slowly crept into old age, I wondered what her end days would hold. Would she die a natural and peaceful death or would we have to intervene? If we did intervene, how would we know when the right time would be?
“You’ll know,” said friends who had gone through similar experiences. All of the articles I read said that we would know. The vet said that we would know. But, honestly…we didn’t know. It troubled me.
When to euthanize Chelsea was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make. There was no moment of clarity, no spiritual direction, no clear indication that the time was right – from her or anyone else. Bill and I had mentally drawn lines in the sand, fixing points that we wouldn’t cross: the point when she couldn’t walk anymore, the point she couldn’t go to the bathroom by herself, the point where she’s consistently visibly distressed. But the more time we spent with her, the more we realized that we didn’t want her to have to reach those points. Those points were already too late.
Upon reflection, I was amazed how we got used to her decline. It wasn’t until we started going through old photos and our journals did we realize that she hadn’t been able to sit, like a dog should sit, for over a year. We didn’t realize how much her body had changed, or how her eyes didn’t fully close when she slept because they had sunken into her skull so much. We didn’t realize how much pain she had been in because she’s never been good at expressing discomfort. It’s all part of having the countenance of a Puffy Lion Dog.
We got the phone call from my mom in early spring of 2000.
“Do you want a Golden Retriever puppy?” she asked. “The neighbor boy found a litter tied up in a tree and they’re trying to find homes for them.”
Cobie, about three at the time and also a rescue dog, had been spending too much time by herself under beds and coffee tables. We had decided that she needed a dog companion before she started rejecting all human contact and digging her own survival caves in the backyard.
“Sure!” we said. “Golden Retrievers are great! Send one out!”
My brother drove Chelsea from east Tennessee to Portland that June. She was a six-month old puppy who went into heat the day she showed up on our doorstep, about 60 pounds of silky soft yellow fur and muscle. She looked like a Golden Retriever, yes. But she also had a mottled black tongue, a thick neck scruff, and an aloof, cat-like disposition.
We didn’t get a Golden Retriever. We got a Puffy Lion Dog.
The Chow Chow is referred to as “Songshi Quan” in China, literally “puffy-lion dog.” We soon learned that she was extremely loving, but fiercely protective of us, our house, our friends, and her bones. She loved snow and water (wading, not swimming), preferred cold weather to warm, and had a really weird bark. “Get a real bark!” we’d chide her. She was generally annoyed by children (or people who got up in her face), Postal Service workers, and trucks on the freeway. She was the meanest Golden Retriever we had ever met, but extremely sweet for a half-breed Puffy Lion Dog with puppyhood trauma issues.
Chelsea and Cobie bonded immediately and became best friends. They were opposites: one yellow, one black. One skinny, one thick. One nervous, one calm. One loving, one that didn’t like to cuddle. But they complemented each other; the nervous one teaching the calm one how to be a good dog; the thick one bringing the skinny one out of her shell. Cobie stopped hanging out under beds and coffee tables all the time and Chelsea got some structure and discipline.
Chelsea and Cobie were our constant companions. We took them hiking, backpacking, skiing, rafting, mountain biking, running, climbing, walking, road tripping, and all the mundane day-to-day adventures of life in between. They climbed mountains and swam rivers. They got pushed up 5+ scrambles and diligently defended us from deer while camping. They went to BBQs and met up with their dog friends for romps on the river beach. And while I’m certain Cobie loved being in the wilderness and playing the role of wild animal, I’m not so sure it was Chelsea’s cup of tea. She wanted to be with us and we wanted to be outside, so she was outside, too. But given her druthers, she would have rather napped in the sunshine on the deck and watched the squirrels in the backyard instead.
When Cobie died in 2009, Chelsea was devastated. She seemed to age overnight. While she loved going on her twice-daily walks, she refused to get into the car when the backpacking and hiking gear came out. Instead, she would sit on the front porch near the door and calmly stare at us. “Let me back inside, please,” her eyes said. “There are squirrels to watch. I am not interested in your human outings with these colorful backpacks.” And so we started leaving her home when we went out to hike or bike or ski. She didn’t seem to mind, as long as we came home before dinner time and took her on a walk around the neighborhood before bed. It was her choice and we honored it.
Chelsea was funny as old lady, particularly in the last year. She got really particular about dinner time. At 4:55 PM, precisely, she’d find me or Bill in the house, stare us straight in the eye, ears perked, and issue a single, resonant WOOF!
“No,” we’d say. “Dinner is at 6.”
Chelsea’s body was relaxed, her countenance calm, when her life ended. She was given a whole can of fish-flavored dog food to eat before getting her sedative, so she was sated and comfortable on the blanket. We were sitting on the floor with her, supporting her weight as she gently slumped into the drug-induced haze. We stroked her head, fingering the silky soft hairs behind her ears, and murmured quiet songs of reassurance to her. “Are you ready?” asked the vet. Bill buried his face in her Puffy Lion Dog mane, inhaled deeply, kissed her, and let go.