I knew something wasn’t right when it was a struggle to get the door open. We were coming home from my wife’s first infusion treatment, which had been a disaster of epic proportions, and were looking forward to nothing more than collapsing in bed. For whatever reason, though, the rug in our entry was balled up and shoved under the door, the first obstacle in our quick-to-bed plan. Once we finally were able to get inside, we realized the extent of the destruction left by our normally well-behaved mutts who had been left alone far longer than intended when we said goodbye that morning. The two of them — Suki with her intense separation anxiety and Honey with her increasingly severe senior needs — left evidence of their displeasure, a mixture of shit and shredded paper towels, from one end of the house to the other. It was the final indignity at the end of an unbelievably stressful day, leaving us with the option to either laugh or cry. So we did both.
We’d been leaving Honey alone less and less, mostly because her health’s decline seemed to be picking up speed in recent months. What started as mere mobility issues — her hips and joints plagued by the sort of arthritis than one might expect in a dog of her age — was now more complicated by her increasing loss of vision (she’d lost her right eye to a cancerous tumor years earlier, but now the remaining eye was failing, too), a frequent inability to control her bodily functions, and a growing cognitive deterioration that often left her confused and very anxious. On this particular day, though, after getting my wife tucked in bed and the house returned to acceptable-if-not-spotless standards, I sat on the floor and had a heart-to-heart with our favorite fifteen year old dog. I explained that she was going to need to pull it together and hang on for a bit longer because as anyone could plainly see, we were already at our stress capacity. Then I kissed her nose and gave her a few treats. She seemed to understand.
Honey loved these heart-to-heart discussions of ours, mostly because she seemed to love any opportunity to monopolize my time and attention. For the last year or so, once it became increasingly difficult for her to get up and greet me at the end of a work day, I’d make sure to take a few minutes to lie down on the floor next to her and have a moment, just the two of us. It had become our new thing and I was just fine with it. After all, at her age, she’d certainly earned this shift in routine.
We had another of these great discussions a little over a week ago, when I came home early so Honey and I could sit by the pond and enjoy the sunshine. Her deteriorating health over those prior couple months had been building to this inevitable day and to this most important heart-to-heart. We used to walk the pond’s perimeter all the time, back when Honey was far more mobile and willing. Sometimes we’d use the opportunity to discuss the day or bitch about those infernal geese, but most of the time we wouldn’t need to talk at all. On that particular afternoon just a handful of days ago, though, I’d have to help her to the pond, as the short walk was more than she could manage on her own. I did it all selfishly, because what I needed was for her to do the talking this time, to turn to me like some cartoon dog and speak in perfect English. Maybe she would be able to tell me that she trusts us to do the right thing — the hardest thing — for her. Maybe she would tell me that she’s tired, ready. Or maybe she would be able to say the perfect thing to somehow make it all less sad. Of course, that’s not the way it happened. Honey had spent the better part of a decade bringing joy to our lives, but on that day, it was clear that the heavy lifting was going to be mine.
Honey coming into our lives wasn’t part of some grand master plan. My wife was at the vet’s office with our other dog at the time, an American Eskimo mix named Paige, where she learned that a local collie rescue group was in desperate need of foster homes for an unusually high number of dogs-in-crisis. It wasn’t a great time for us to take on any new responsibility, much less a dog, as we were still in the earliest stages of rebuilding our lives after my wife’s long battle out of addiction. In fact, if we’re being honest, the timing was terrible. We were still fractured from the whole experience in every conceivable way, but my wife also thought that fostering a dog for a short time might be a healthy distraction from her own internal chaos and a meaningful way to give of herself. So, without much additional thought or added fanfare, Honey, a six year old collie, came to live with us.
Make no mistake, Honey was what my mother-in-law would lovingly call a “hot mess.” A puppy mill rescue, Honey was malnourished, routinely abused, and in such poor physical health that she was missing both a lot of her hair and teeth. Confined to a small cage for the first years of her life, she was in a shattered emotional state, as well. She didn’t know how to walk in grass, much less on our wood floors, and she was scared of everything and everyone. So, yeah, we were broken, but she seemed broken, too.
In those first few weeks and months with Honey, her physical health began to slowly improve with the assistance of countless vet visits and a variety of medications. We spent that time working on her other issues a lot, too, such as trying to teach her to trust humans again, even though she’d suffered at their hands for so many years. That’s the truly amazing thing about dogs — specifically, rescue dogs — you see. They somehow have this seemingly undaunted ability to trust and to give of themselves, even when everything in their life experience might have taught them to withdraw instead. We were amazed at how quickly Honey did just that, how soon she was able to express love and trust that it would be returned. It was, as we would only later realize, the exact lesson our own shattered souls needed to learn…. trust, give, receive. In that way, she was a great teacher who saw that we were broken, then lovingly pushed us on a journey back to wholeness. In the process, we became unrepentant “foster failures” and she became an integral part of our family.
Nearly a decade later, we knew that having to say goodbye to our sweet one-eyed friend would not be easy. We’d been having versions of the “what we need to do” conversation with each other for weeks, probably months, in an effort to both come to terms with the reality of the situation, but also to make sure that we were on the same page. Eventually, we would make The Appointment with the vet, at the same office where my wife first saw the flier requesting foster homes. It was on that day of our appointment — just over a week ago now — that Honey and I would make that last trip to the pond.
It was important to us that we both be there with Honey when she took her last breath, to offer any comfort we could as she transitioned from this life to the next. Even though we knew it would be incredibly difficult, we did exactly that, huddled together on the floor of the vet’s office, my arms extended around both my wife and my dog. Those first moments after she peacefully took her last breath were almost unbearably sad, of course, but the experience also cracked the dam a bit on a lot of other nonsense we’d been keeping under lock and key in recent months. I think we’d been so focused on being “strong” and “positive” throughout my wife’s diagnosis and treatments, or maybe just so concentrated on the task at hand because it was all the energy we had in the moment, that we may have forgotten to allow a bit of our dreaded humanity to leak out, too. And so there we were, on the floor of the vet’s office, wallowing inconsolably in our pent-up humanity. Once again, it was Honey to the rescue, showing us the way out of our brokenness.