Our dog Woody was 12 years old when he died last week. His presence in our family eased us through some very hard, sad and mostly wonderful moments. When it came to unconditional love, he gave as good as he got.
I'd never had a pet growing up, so I sheepishly confess that I'm guilty of secret eye rolls when folks went on about how heartbroken they were when their animal died. I want to apologize to every single one of those people.
Woody began slowing down in August. He stopped springing up when we walked in the door. Two weeks ago, without my completely understanding, he began the process of dying. He stopped eating, didn't want to walk and wobbled when he stood. His legs would go out from under him and it was all there in his eyes. “It's my time,” his eyes said. “Can you please let me go?”
And so we did. COVID-19 meant we couldn't all be together in the vet's office, so we chose a mobile vet service. With all three daughters home, the five of us surrounded Woody in his own bed. We petted and held him, sobbing. We told him how he was loved and then sobbed some more. The quiet ease of his passing left us all feeling spent but whole. We wouldn't have changed a thing. And the process of loss and grief unpacked the two very different journeys I'd experienced with a loved one's death: what could have been and what was.
A slow decline
As Alzheimer's slowly and stealthily began to scramble my father's brain in his late 60s, we three daughters quietly watched him fade. I longed for him to articulate what was so painfully obvious — that the lights were gradually going out inside his head. If he'd been able to acknowledge it, if we just could have said the word, we all might have all felt more settled.
Instead, his decline remained the elephant in the room, moving at a slow, lumbering pace toward a certain end. We had all become experts at avoiding the word Alzheimer's in his presence as he moved from living independently with my mother to the memory care ward of my parents’ senior living facility and finally to the nursing home. After the long drive to visit him, I'd enter his room to find a person suspended in a shifting time continuum, unmoored from the day or hour. It was there in his eyes.