Social Distancing with a Dying Dog

The family dog is dying a strange death at a strange time. I’m writing to find some meaning in that.

I’m at home with a dying dog.

Off work for the summer, I’m weathering the pandemic with my mother, father, younger brother, and two family dogs, one of whom is the real, original family dog. He’s a twelve-year-old miniature poodle named Reggie, and he’s dying. Dogs do that – they get old and sick and sad, and then many owners “put them out of their misery” at the vet’s office or behind a shed. Reggie is dying, but not because he can’t eat, but because he won’t eat. He can chew and swallow and digest and excrete, but he refuses almost all proffered provender with a disinterested turn of his head. Many things – meats, grains, veggies, kibbles, treats – he will agree to consume once or twice, and then he will add them to his list of “do not want.”

As a result, Reggie is wasting away, his once athletic hind legs deteriorating into bags of bones, his ribs and spine knobby to the touch when you pet him. In response, my mother and brother have taken to grinding up soft dog food with chicken stock and forcing him to eat using a turkey baster. He hates it, pulling away and clamping his jaws shut, but he accepts it, never fleeing before or spitting out the mix after.

Feeding him has become a daily and day-long labor of love. Do you want this, Reg? Will you try this, Reg? Repeated over and over, hopefully, plaintively, begging him to eat in an inversion of the pet/master relationship.

All his life, Reggie has been a greedy, gluttonous, insatiable eater. After our first Thanksgiving meal with him, he found his way on top of the dining room table, just about to enjoy the table scraps before we all shrieked in alarm. The six inches of the table’s edge has always been a no-fly zone for unattended food, and the kitchen floor a killing zone. He would try anything and demand everything, and he eventually developed a bizarre predilection for cardboard. Refusing to eat even the most delicious food is, in short, the last way I would have expected Reggie to go. I always thought he’d be killed by what he did eat, not what he wouldn’t.

I’m off work, my brother works from home, my mother stays at home, and we’re all here with him all day watching this happen, willing it to end, but unsure of how it will or what it will look like, at the same time as we’re home amidst a pandemic watching the world lose its mind, willing it to end, but unsure of how it will or what it will look like. My father leaves for work in the morning, his offered kibbles uneaten, and returns in the evening with a syringe for feeding and a hopeful query about what Reggie’s consumed.

His blood work is fine, he shows no signs of cancer, and he seems himself, albeit an older, frailer version. The vet and Google alike lack answers. And so, try as we might, Reggie is dying.

This would be a sad, strange way for a dog to go at any time, but especially so during “these times.” In our various states of quarantine, social distancing, and safer-at-home, we have asked and answered a host of new questions, confronted new realities, and come to fresh realizations. Our notions and experience of who we are collectively and individually have been challenged and are changing. We are, in these strange laboratory conditions, at home with our humanity in new, often uncomfortable ways. The least we could hope for would be for a pet – that great rock of stability, comfort, and familiarity – to be there, largely unfazed by these great changes. Not so with Reggie. He’s on the way out, and in a way as strange and unpredictable as the crisis playing outside his realm of comprehension.

In the past, Reggie cared a great deal about his people being home. He would often sit in the dining room waiting for the last person home to arrive. He would sprint laps around the house when my father returned from work, and jump for joy when my sister visited from college. He shadowed my mother around the house (and still does) to make sure he had an idea of where she was. The Reggie of yore should love safer-at-home policies, but even as his people stay around the house, he continues on this Mahatman hunger strike which paves his way to permanent departure.

But Reggie’s strange death march is also a dereliction of one of his great gifts to our family at a time when we want it more than ever. As the pandemic presents our notions of humanity with so much change, Reggie threatens to cease being what he was – a source of peace and stability, and a fundamental symbol for how we saw ourselves as people. My brother wrote, when Reggie appeared very near the end a few weeks ago: “He’s been one constant in a world of change. I can barely remember what life was like before him, and he was by my side as I went from a boy at the onset of puberty to a full-grown man. Reggie is a bridge to another time. He has essentially not changed for 11 years, so in him many things seem to exist which no longer do. He’s the last piece of my innocence. When he goes there is nothing left of my childhood. Somehow, in him my family still exists. Sure, my siblings and parents and I are still family, but we are no longer a family. My sister has her own family and lives across the country and my brother lives across the state. But Reggie is a living, breathing symbol of our family.”

I don’t particularly love dogs, but I still believe pets can unlock something for us, something mystical and powerful and important. It’s why we react so strongly to not only ordinary household pets in truth and fiction, but also buy into the idea of the fantastical animal companion, like the direwolves in A Song of Ice and Fire or Harry Potter’s owl, Hedwig. They come to represent something about us and become integral to our identity, and when that is threatened or taken away, it can be devastating. And, sometimes, the pain related to that loss is related to a fear of reckoning with what we stand to learn or lose about ourselves. The washed up, maimed farmhand Candy, in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, sees himself in his decrepit dog, and so while he knows the dog should be put out of its misery, he can’t bring himself to do the killing. Letting another man put a bullet in the dog’s brain haunts him, not just because of what it means for the dog, but because of what it suggests about him.

And so here we are, asked to grapple with who we are, what we mean to each other, and what is going on in these strangest of times, and our animal avatar is wasting away, compounding our loss of a sense of control, exacerbating our longing for the past, clouding our murky vision of the future. And, in a perverse turn, making us ask questions about how much money a dog’s life is worth and how much grief they are owed at a time when tens of thousands of humans have died. Forcing a syringe into Reggie’s mouth must be preferable to having our brain prodded with a giant swab to detect a life-threatening disease. A sick dog seems trivial when your grandfather is isolated in a senior facility, basically the autobahn for this virus.

But all of that is “out there.” Reggie is in here, with us, all day every day. Once, he was my brother’s link to childhood, my mother’s constant companion, and my sister’s best welcome home party. He helped my father deal with bouts of depression in the most difficult time of his professional career. And now, when we want him to be those things more than ever, he has chosen this strange way to leave us. As we plead with him to eat, to live, to go on being, I can’t help but think our desperation is informed by our own fears of what’s becoming of us. Eat Reggie, so we may eat and enjoy. Endure Reggie, so we can bear all things. Age, with grace, Reggie, so I can see my parents do the same. Live Reggie. Live. So we can stop thinking about death.

And if you’re going to die Reggie, if you’re ready for the end, just make it clear. Make it clear so we can get it over with and get on with it and be done with this. All this.

In its own small way, his disdainful head turn in answer to our ardent offerings conjures the very face of God cast away from us for all our prayers and pleas. But we offer again and again with faith, trusting that he (and He) knows the appointed time. Perhaps only when we can accept that will our trial end. And when that trial ends, let it not be said that we wasted it.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter

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