The Last Time

Twelve hundred miles loomed between me and home, when—with a high degree of trepidation—I checked voice mail. After the first three words, I knew from the pain in Pat’s voice that Indy had taken a turn for the worse. My wife could’ve spoken Swahili and I would’ve known. I remember only one specific line from her message, “I’ve made an appointment with Valley Pet Clinic for tomorrow, Saturday.”

The news wasn’t shocking. Diabetic, with blood sugar levels that roller coastered; Indy’s health had declined over the past couple years. During that time, his sight and hearing diminished, his hindquarters weakened. He listed to the right and hadn’t jumped up on the couch for ages. I don’t even remember the last time he jumped on the couch, rolled to his back, and drifted to sleep with a look of absolute contentment spread across his muzzle. We seldom remember ‘last times’ because it’s only in retrospect that one realizes a last time occurred: the last time you climbed 5.10, the last time you fished with your father, the last time you and a friend set off on a road trip. The last time your dog jumped on the couch.

Pat and I had vowed to each other, and to Indy, not to be selfish, not to let him suffer unnecessarily due to our reluctance to let him go. We’d watched friends allow an animal companion to live a compromised and painful existence because they couldn’t bring themselves to face the inevitable parting. I knew, before I headed out on vacation, that the time to put Indy down could come prior to my return. I’d nearly put him to sleep a couple months earlier while Pat was on her vacation. Indy’s blood level plummeted to 45 (normal being around 125), which would put most of us into a death coma, and then rocketed to 545. I’d thought, this is it—his pancreas can no longer regulate sugar levels and his system will domino into collapse. He pulled through however, one last time.

No, Pat’s message didn’t shock or surprise me—it struck me more like a barely padded baseball bat upside the head. I listened and her words sucked my breath away and left my mind numb. I dialed home and willed myself to take long slow breaths as the phone rang. “Look, I don’t want him to suffer,” I said, “but if you think it can wait until I get home, I’d appreciate it.” Pat said she’d reschedule the appointment for Monday. I drove, eyes on the road, occasionally looking out into the desert—sand and sage, the ocotillo in bloom, skeletal mountains beneath a cobalt sky—as memory clips ran through my mind. Indy at the top of the hill above the pond, “Stay. Stay. Okay! Com’on!” and Indy running down so fast I expected him to cartwheel. Or Indy, intimidated by the depths below a footbridge, walking a laser straight line along dead center. Or the one time Indy wanted to snuggle between Pat and me in the Mother Ship, motivated by a minus twenty chill.

My eyes clouded. Two days of driving stretched between home in Montana and my current location in the middle of the Mojave, and I wasn’t going to make much progress with tear fogged eyes. I started a book-on-tape and, quite mercifully, it held memory at bay to within fifteen miles of home. As I backed up the driveway shortly after 11:00 p.m., Saturday night, I saw the silhouette of Pat sitting outside the house. I knew Indy would be next to her. I hugged Pat and then buried my face in Indy’s fur and inhaled him. Then I sat down on the other side of him and held Pat’s hand for a while. I don’t recall us speaking much beyond clinical questions and answers regarding blood sugar levels, food intake, mobility, wakefulness and the like. Pat had given him some acepromozene to counteract the restless agitation he experienced in the evenings.

Sometime after midnight, Pat said she’d roll out a sleeping bag and stay with him the rest of the night. “Why don’t you get some sleep, you look like you could use it,” she said. Yeah, I could but it took a while to fall asleep. I was roadstoned, my head felt packed with cotton, and the white dashes of an endless center divider flashed across the inside of my eyelids.

In the morning I woke and thought, “This is my last day with Indy.” Pat and he had moved indoors during the night. Indy preferred sleeping indoors—it didn’t matter if he started out beside one of us on a cushy pad with a pillow, Indy considered a night spent outside as second class. And believe me, Indy was quite opinionated when it came to what he deemed second class.

He ate that morning. I only saw Indy lose interest in food a few times; once after pit bulls attacked him and then a time or two towards the end when his blood-sugar levels must’ve been wildly whacked. We went for a morning walk. Indy moved at a glacial pace and his pom-pom tail hung at half-mast, but he expected his morning walk because that always followed breakfast. Indy shuffled forward with his hindquarters canted to the right and slightly askew from his front legs. He appeared as if a puff of wind could knock him down but for the most part he remained upright. When he stumbled and fell, I helped him to his feet. At times, he walked in tight little circles the way a dog does when it’s seeking the right spot to lay down. Indy had probably experienced a few strokes and, while he never was the brightest light in the marquee, Pat thought he suffered some degree of neurological impairment. We took fifteen minutes to traverse a stretch of road that he used to cover in fifteen seconds with ears, tail, and that long silky coat streaming back, nose thrust forward, and eyes on high beam. But this hadn’t occurred in I don’t know how long. And it would never happen again.

As Indy napped on the double-cush pad that Pat had fashioned for him, I watched him breathe. How many times over the years, even when he was young, had I stared at his chest to make sure it rose and fell? I knew from the moment he walked into our lives, that this day would come and for fifteen years I’d dreaded it. I didn’t exactly fixate on his death, but it was most always there on my mind. Sometimes I wondered if this was a warped way of thinking, a mental defect. But I don’t know because I have no idea how much other people think about death. And besides that, I have no control over such thoughts. I may as well try to stop clouds from forming as attempt to prevent thoughts from entering my mind. I may consciously, or seemingly so, engage in a line of thinking and set in motion a thought process, but for the most part I react to thoughts that come unbidden. I can delude myself that, for the most part, I control my thinking. But really, I’m a puppet to neurological impulses and chemical reactions that occur within spongy gray matter.

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