I’ve lived a lot of my life in my head.
I spent so much time searching, swimming for reasons, and hoping to find a deeper meaning in my life.
I’ve made many moments in my life more complicated than needed.
Last night, I was confronted by the impossible simplicity of what was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.
“I have two syringes,” the doctor explained.
“The first is like a sedative. It calms her down and makes her very peaceful. The second is a stronger anesthetic – first, it will shut down her brain and cognitive functions before moving onto her heart and lungs, and then it will bring stillness to her whole body.”
On December 23rd, I was sitting on the floor of a small room at Wheat Ridge Animal Hospital. After living in nearly perfect health her whole life, our beloved family dog, Islay, had begun struggling to move and walk.
It happened while I was away. When I left, Islay was surprisingly nimble at 80 pounds – routinely bouncing and swaying around the house in search of a chance to snuggle to coax a treat from anyone she could find with her big brown eyes.
When I returned, standing looked like a herculean feat. It took all her strength, and the walk that followed looked like she had aged a decade in only two weeks.
She had been at the hospital for 36 hours, undergoing a battery of tests, pokes, and prods to understand better what was happening. They called to inform us that they found a mass on her spleen, likely cancerous. They predicted that she would have less than a month to live.
We arrived at the hospital filled with optimism. Armed with high-quality pet insurance, we were ready to discuss surgery and chemo and all the available options. “We’ll fight this,” we said.
But then we saw her.
The attendant opened the door, and Islay weakly stumbled into the room. She collapsed. Legs splayed. Eyes closed. I felt the hot tears begin to leak.
We quickly pivoted and agreed that keeping her comfortable was our greatest priority. We brought her home with pain meds and steroids to give us as much of her back as possible.
On the drive home, we said that if she could make it Christmas, only two days away, that would be enough.
On September 6, 2015, I picked Amelia up from the airport, and we headed to a suburb about 45 minutes outside Chicago. We pulled into the driveway of a house that looked like every other house in the cul de sac, revealing the oversized garage with its door ajar.
The garage was full of kennels, blankets, and bowls – it looked like a doggy orphanage.
Our breeder was wonderful and extremely weird. She had called us on Thursday to ask, “Why haven’t you picked up your puppy,” which sure made it sound like she had let us know that we had a puppy to pick up.
Regardless, I did a panic run to PetCo to get ALL OF THE THINGS and took Amelia from the airport to grab her.
When we arrived, there was only one puppy left. They called her Tinkerbell. She had earned a reputation for mischief after knocking over the communal water bowl. We were immediately in love.
“No stairs for six months,” the breeder explained. Our apartment had no stairs in it, which was helpful. But the apartment itself was a fourth-floor walk-up, so that was a bit of a challenge.
So, for six months, I carried Islay up and down our stairs every time she had to go out to pee. I didn’t realize it then, but it was building a most powerful bond between us. Her life began with the assumption, “I will do anything for this dog.”
In the earliest days, we put a little pee pad on the roof of the building, and I would take her up there to watch the sunrise. Just me and my bubba.
Islay made it to 26 states thanks to a prodigious window of road-tripping that we undertook as a family. She was the most agreeable co-pilot there ever was. She made friends at every truck stop and every weird town we could find dotted across the landscape of the United States.
She never wanted to play with dogs at the dog park – she went right for people, performing her signature lean that made it impossible to ignore her.
She was, at her worst, playfully petulant. She was known to lie down in the middle of a hot city block to communicate that she had walked a sufficient amount. But her face also had a certain sweetness and a story in her eyes. Walking with Islay took twice as long because people couldn’t resist stopping for her.
She was there when I finished my first Ironman and opened my first restaurant. She was there during the divorce and the systematic upheaval of our lives from Illinois to Colorado. She was always there.
And that’s the most challenging part right now. She’s just not here.
Over the last four months, we couldn’t help but tease her. “Islay – what are you still DOING here?” Because she made it past mid-January and mid-February, and March. She made it past my 36th birthday, and she made it past every prediction we had found online and otherwise about how long she would be here.
The last four months have been a roller coaster. There were no less than five times when I found myself quietly crying on the floor beside her, feeling sure that this was the end, only to see her rebound and find another spark, another breath, another step, and another day that we got to spend with her.
She had her bad days, for sure. But so, so many of them were good. Her tail wagged, her paw punched, and her appetite never really waivered, even in her final days.
But after four months, the vet let us know that the war was lost. Her body had gone into a state of shock, doing everything it could to keep the lights on, but we were running out of time.
The doctor pressed the first syringe, and I saw her body relax. She flumped into her classic sleeping position, her head resting in Amelia’s hands and her body leaning against mine. When the doctor started pressing the second syringe, I watched her stomach.
For the last four months, every time I saw her lying around the house, I would check her stomach. Just to make sure she was breathing. Just to make sure she was still with us. When I saw her stomach rise and fall for the last time, I felt a chasm of sadness and lost it.
I don’t understand the inner workings of trauma and inner child work, but I know that a younger version of me bubbled up to the surface as I started gasping for air. “Please don’t take her away from me. Please don’t do this. She can’t be gone.”
I worried that she would feel different, that she would somehow transform into a different being when her breathing stopped. But she didn’t. Her fur was as soft as it ever was. She seemed as gentle as she always was. I buried myself in it, feeling her warmth, spilling a mess of snot and tears.
Eventually, a calmness returned. I caught my own breath, and acceptance started to settle in.
This morning hurts, but not in the ways that I expected—four months of expectation prepared me for grieving. Recalling memories and photos of her doesn’t hurt.
But the finality of it is excruciating. It feels violent.
Last night, after everyone else had gone to bed, I went to the back entrance of Amelia’s house, which has a stone floor. In her last days, those stones were a source of cooling and healing for her. Even though they would make her joints stiffen up, it was where her breathing was most calm.
I slid my back down the wall, feeling that same cold against the back of my legs. But there was no one there. I looked out the window at the spot in the backyard where I had sat with her that morning, her head resting on my feet. But there was no one there.
Shortly after arriving home last night, it started snowing.
On April 21st.
Anyone who has ever known Islay knows that she loves the snow.
My heart breaks thinking about how close she was to one final morning of laying in the snow, letting the flakes dot her black coat.
But I take it as a sign that she made the safe passage.
Her hips, in mint condition from my six months of carrying her up the stairs, are as waggy and sassy as they ever were.
She is leaning against the angels, charming them with her sweet eyes.
I’ll see you again, Islay. I’ll see you in the pictures and the memories. I’ll see you in the moments I return to this heartache. I’ll see you on the journey others take with their pets and lives.
And I know that you’ll always be with me.
And I’ll feel lucky every day because you were here.
I love you forever and always, my sweet Bear.