Today was the first morning in twenty-three years that I awoke at home without the presence of a dog to greet me.
I was filled with dread as I entered the kitchen, knowing full well that if I were to call out my usual greeting—“hey, buddy”—there would be no reply in the form of a tail beating or nails scratching on the brick floor. Peeking into the mud room, all I saw was an empty bed, almost brand new, since I’d bought it just the other day in an effort to make our elderly dog more comfortable.
Yesterday, in the darkness of an early December evening, I arrived back at the animal hospital, where earlier in the day I’d taken Mulligan, our thirteen-year-old British Labrador retriever. Even though I could hardly believe it, a part of me knew what I was going to have to do. And I was going to have to do it alone, since my husband and my son were away.
Mulligan was a Christmas dog, which is something parents are always warned against doing , Still, I was determined. The breeder had promised us a second dog, if we wanted, since Bogey, the first dog we’d gotten from her, had a slight case of hip dysplasia.
Matt, our younger son, had already decided on a name. In fact, he’d had the name Mulligan picked out for as long as I could remember. Since Bogey had hip dysplasia Mulligan, his much younger half brother, was the do-over, I suppose you could say. Or at least this seems to have been what Matt was thinking with his choice of name. (Having been a golfer from the age of five he knew the terminology.)
Our next-door neighbor kept little Mulligan at her house on Christmas Eve night so he would be a surprise the following morning. (The neighbor, who had two dogs herself, had warned me against getting a second dog. “Double your trouble,” she’d said.) Obviously I hadn’t listened. No, I wanted Matt, who was twelve at the time, to have a dog, partly to help cushion the blow (for all of us) when Bogey passed away, as he would undoubtedly do within the next few years. I also wanted to do whatever I could to make our family seem larger, since for all practical purposes Matt had become an only child following his brother’s departure for boarding school and then later for college.
Bogey died in March, 2011, six months after my older son Kieran died by suicide at the age of twenty-two. The dog’s sudden passing from a brain tumor was a shock, although, looking back, I realize how numb I must have been at the time as a result of my older son’s passing. It wasn’t that losing Bogey didn’t hurt; it most definitely did. Still, I was numb, even though I probably had no idea just how numb.
When Bogey died an important link to my son Kieran was broken. And now, with Mulligan it’s the same. Kieran was at home for Christmas in 2006 when Mulligan, a fluffy bundle of fur, came bouncing into our lives. (Instead of shouting “a puppy!” or words to that effect, Matt excitedly shouted, “Mulligan’s here!” Mulligan’s here!” as if confirming that no other name had ever been under consideration.)
Yesterday, though, it was Mulligan’s time to leave us.
At the age pf thirteen, our dog was extremely—no, terminally—ill, a fact that I was finding difficult to accept.
He’d had surgery the Monday before Thanksgiving and the pathology report had been grim: Of two masses that were removed, one was a malignant melanoma that I’d already been warned had almost certainly metastasized to his lungs.
Almost as soon as he returned home following the surgery, Mulligan had begun going downhill. My husband and i spent our entire Thanksgiving weekend nursing him. Then yesterday I took him back to the veterinary hospital since he was steadfastly refusing to eat, no matter what I cooked or otherwise did to try to encourage him.
“Euthanasia is definitely an option,” the young vet said.
“You mean now, as in today?”
“Yes,” she said kindly.
The vet said she’d managed to grab the oncologist, who told her that even with chemo Mulligan probably had only a month at most to live. And that month would definitely not be easy for any of us, especially with him refusing to eat.
I needed time. Time to try to get in touch with my husband Tim and with our son Matt, both of whom were out of immediate contact via phone and even text. It took a few hours, but eventually I managed to contact both of them.
They understood and agreed that it was time. Late yesterday afternoon I headed back to the veterinary hospital, still uncertain about what I was going to do. Fortunately the sweet young vet I’d seen earlier in the day was still there.
I put her on the phone with my husband. She told him the same things she’d told me. Both Tim and Matt wanted to Facetime with Mulligan to say goodbye.
I was taken to a small room with dim lighting, comfortable couches and a thick pad on the floor. Mulligan was brought in to me, still wagging his tail, if weakly.
It was time to let him go. Our precious—although occasionally maddening dog—was deathly ill and there was no reason to prolong his suffering. My writing “buddy” was leaving me to write on alone.
Tim had stayed but I didn’t when Bogey was put to sleep. I’d hugged the dog’s blocky head while he nuzzled into me before turning and walking out of the vet’s triage area. It had only been six months since Tim and I had buried our son and I doubted myself, my ability to cope.
But this time I stayed, largely thanks to the vet’s gentle encouragement. First Matt had his Facetime call, where he saw Mulligan for the final time. Then Tim stayed on FaceTime with me until the worst was over.
Kneeling on the floor, I put my arms around my son’s dog, the dog that had eventually become my own, at least to a certain extent, after Matt left for college. I held him gently until the lethal injections took effect, As the dog lay still in my arms I felt the pain of an almost indescribable grief. But at least I wasn’t numb. Nor had I attempted to turn my back on those so very necessary emotions of sorrow and grief. Instead, I had somehow managed to embrace them.