Five dogs old: saying goodbye to April

I measure my life by dog lives. I am four dogs old. April is my fifth.

Lately, April has developed a new habit: puking on rugs. She never pukes on the indestructible vinyl floor, only on the rug. My response has been to develop a new skill: cleaning up puke. It’s a job, and I do it. Beyond wondering if I’ve bought a bad bag of food, I never consider that something might be wrong. Clean up the puke, clean up the problem.

After a month, I take her to the veterinarian. April’s weight is down three pounds. She’s always been 67 pounds; now suddenly she’s 64. I tell Nancy, the vet, about April’s lower-than-usual energy level. But April puts on a good show, dancing on the linoleum, turning this way and that. She is the picture of health for an older dog.

Nancy orders a change of diet and medication for April’s diarrhea, but these measures fail to bring about a change. Her weight stays low. I perfect my rug-cleaning technique.

Come October, I have to go out of town for a week. Normally, April is my traveling companion, riding in the front seat and putting nose prints on the window. I am not immediately friendly, but she welcomes the world. She is my ambassador. Even a dog princess isn’t welcome, however, if she is puking more than once a day. The neighbor who usually looks after April isn’t as skilled at puke cleaning as I am, so I call Nancy and arrange to leave April in the kennel.

While April is there, they observe her behavior and run diagnostic tests. After a week, April’s low weight and puking habit have a name: lymphoblastic leukemia— cancer of the blood. Nancy advises me of the remission-inducing medicines available, and of other, more advanced diagnostic techniques for managing April’s disease. She encourages me to consider these techniques.

But I have to ask myself: Are these options for me or for April? Time was when dog oncology was not available. But Americans have heavy pocketbooks. We can afford to keep our “companion animals” alive.

I elect not to do the drug therapy, resorting instead to chicken soup and calls to Jesus: “Save this animal, oh Lord!” A neighbor says, “You got the wrong vet; ain’t nothing the matter with that dog.” And April looks good: she shines; she barks at squirrels. But her weight has dropped to 53 pounds. I feed her by hand: rice, eggs, white-meat chicken, and low-fat beef.

April lives. She greets the mailman. She continues to carry out her part of the contract. But her weight loss is relentless: 48 pounds. What’s my part of the contract? How do I know when to let her go? Contemplating euthanasia is akin to thinking about cutting off my hand. Our contract is simply to be together and to be good to each other.

There is small print in the contract, however— a stipulation that I might be required to kill my best friend if she looks at me with eyes that say, “Let me go.” I hope I have the sense to recognize that look and heed her request. In late December, April helps celebrate my birthday, posing for a picture with family and friends.

But that afternoon, Scott and I dig a hole. It’s cold and due to get colder, and we need to make the hole before the New Year turns the ground to iron. The hole will be three feet in diameter and three feet deep, located so that she can see the house, shaped so that she can curl up in the bottom. The act of digging a grave colors the afternoon. April lies in the sun, leaning up against the freshly turned pile of red Virginia earth, watching us struggle with our tools, going deeper and deeper.

I’ve taken to sleeping downstairs on the floor so that April can wake me easily when diarrhea demands a trip outside. There are many trips outside. Puking in the house is one thing, but housebreaking runs deep. At first, she wakes me by barking. As her energy ebbs, she simply stands next to my head until I hear the music of her dog tags. We take a 3am walk under a waning moon. Forty-three pounds.

The time comes when she can’t make it outside; she is racked by spasms of diarrhea in the kitchen. I’ve got to say, I really don’t care about the shit. I am a cleaning person. I did diapers for years. I’ve cleaned adults in the hospital. I have shit stories you wouldn’t believe. But as I sing to her and clean up her not-so-bad mess, she is giving me a look. It doesn’t say, “Let’s walk.” It doesn’t say, “Give me some food.” It is a new look. It says, “Let me go.”

On a Wednesday, I call Nancy and ask if she makes house calls.

“For this,” she says, “we do.”

Forty-one pounds. April wags her tail when Nancy walks into the room. I am there, and my lovely ex-wife and my best friend. Nancy talks to April, socializes, looks at her gums (white), speculates on her red blood cell level.

Am I Jesus, or am I Judas? Hell, I am Bill, and this is my good dog April, and I am letting her go in the cold first week of the New Year.

April’s bed— a foam mattress covered with a cotton blanket— is next to a radiator, beneath a window that dumps northern light into the room. We all sit around it in a semicircle. Nancy finds a vein, inserts a catheter, and gives April a sedative. A big dose of Phenobarbital follows the sedative, and the life that was in April is gone.

Fifty years ago, when the owner and builder of my house died, he was “laid out” downstairs, in the northeast corner of the room. Black crepe ringed the front door, and neighbors visited. And so it is with April, minus the black crepe.

April lies in state for 24 hours. Thursday afternoon we bury her, surrounded by food and water for the afterlife, favorite t-shirts from her friends, a special toy from each of my godchildren. Though the Christian God doesn’t officially recognize dog souls, I read his words. I swaddle April in a cotton sheet and two blankets. I say goodbye. I heap red earth on top of her. She is gone into the ground.

I am five dogs old.

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