Whenever I go on vacation, I say goodbye to my animals and give them a good squeeze and a kiss on the head. The dogs always tolerate the kisses much better than the cats do. In the last two years, I have disappeared on countless adventures into the woods and mountains, leaving my beloved animals with trusted friends and well-reviewed professionals for stretches as long as a month where I am quite literally unreachable by any means of communication.
When I left Lorrie behind to spend a month on the Pacific Crest Trail, I lavished kisses and hugs on her. She was almost thirteen years old, and I knew that our time together was waning toward the darkness of memories past. I worried that she would die of old age while I was on a mountain ridge somewhere, windswept and sunburnt, and I wouldn’t have an inkling of her passing for another week. When I returned after a month in the wilderness, she greeted me faithfully, with her happy helicopter tail spinning in wide joyful circles.
As we were preparing for our most recent adventure—a return journey to Big Bend National Park that was supposed to be stress free—I hardly worried about the measly seven days that we would be away. I told my brother, who would be watching her, about the daily pain meds that she took; we talked about her reduced mobility, especially the slick wooden stairs to the second floor that I was sure she wouldn’t be able to navigate on her own. When Lee took her to drop her off that morning, I passed off her goodie bag, but I didn’t get my normal predeparture snuggles. She, always so intuitive about impending car rides, sat at rapt attention by the door, all her energy focused on the simple, magic pleasure of a leash and a car ride. Never mind that she couldn’t walk down the block the last time we went on a walk—that was clearly in the past. In that moment, a new adventure awaited her.
She heaved herself through the door, with a swish of her tail, and never looked back. It would be the last time I would see her walk, but not the last time I saw her perk up her ears and wag her tail with that familiar arching whoosh and flying hair.
Later that morning, Lee sent me an email announcing that “Operation Lorrie had landed,” and we set off that afternoon for what was supposed to be a sun-soaked week in the desert, far from people and as immersed in nature as we were in our well-stocked kindles. Instead, it rained every day, thus explaining the abundant blooming wildflowers and the greenness of the shrubs against the overcast sky. We descended from the Chisos mountains after a stormy night, bolstered and cheered with the report that we would finally need the sunscreen that we had so optimistically packed and hauled through the different ecosystems of Big Bend.
As we changed trailheads, I turned on my phone to check messages—both a devastating and fortuitous decision. After about ten minutes of driving in the car, my phone began to buzz angrily on the dash. I remember feeling strangely alone and numb in the car as I read the frantic messages from my mom to call my brother because Lorrie was hurt and couldn’t walk. I managed some kind of ashen request for Lee to pull over as I tried to get information. My spotty reception meant that I couldn’t call my brother (though I certainly tried), and my mother was on a cruise boat off of Mexico. I cannot adequately express how terrible it was trying to learn about Lorrie’s condition without reliable communication in a five-way stretch of phone tag between myself, my mom, my sister, my brother, and the vet as my phone sputtered in and out of connectivity with the wider world. Big Bend is very remote, and Texas is a large state; I feel as if I cried across half of it.
In between the desperate texts, conversations, and vet authorizations for treatments and X-rays, Lee and I talked about the dire choice we had to make: whether to subject Lorrie to a special surgery and the inability to walk for 8 weeks, nearly a lifetime for a dog her age, on the chance that her mobility would be restored to her preaccident condition or that this stupid accident meant that we needed to say goodbye and end the pain she had so graciously and cheerfully endured as it became harder and harder for her to walk or even lay down in comfort. She had, after all, broken her leg trying to go outside to go to the bathroom. She couldn’t walk well anymore, and I didn’t want her final days to be cooped up in the house and in significant pain.
By the time the vet called back with the X-ray results confirming the need for that surgery, we had decided that we needed to say goodbye. It still rends my heart into twisted, jagged pieces to remember the vet’s cheerful and perky review of the X-ray as she told me that the surgery had a high success rate—I still can’t talk about this without sobbing—and that Lorrie would heal and be healthy and be with me again, walking down the street as strangers commented upon how beautiful and rare she was, restored to me as if the accident had never happened. Instead, I heard the immediate switch in tone to sympathy as I tried to force out why we were choosing to end her life as I felt the tight stabs of grief silencing my vocal cords.
I couldn’t drive anymore. I pulled over somewhere in Texas and cried into Lee’s chest on the side of the road as cars and trucks whipped by at speeds unrivaled in any other state. I was too despondent to drive and stared out the window, reliving moments of Lorrie’s life, how she was terrified of wind chimes as a puppy, how she broke away once to sprint after a rabbit as her hair flew out gracefully behind her, how she bounded around the house with her brown eyes radiant with her excitement whenever I pointedly jangled my car keys—and always coming back to the image of my beloved dog alone at the vet, unable to move and about to die.
We spent a restless night in the house of a sympathetic friend whose dog gave me some much needed snuggles before we slipped out into the darkness of the morning and continued driving. Of all the ways to spend the day before you euthanize your dog, I do not recommend that you spend 16 hours trapped in a car with only your thoughts to entertain you. They will be bleak. You will feel the angst of confinement and accompanying helplessness as tangible things.
When we finally arrived at the vet and said that we were there for Lorrie, we received a quiet “oh” and a face that crumpled with understanding. We were led into a room where the vet talked us through the accident and the procedure before disappearing to get Lorrie for us. As the door opened, I was struck by the briefly comical image of Lorrie sitting propped upright, alert and watchful like a Roman matron being carried through the streets on a litter by her three most loyal attendants. Lorrie took one look at me, and her eyes brightened as her tail swished back in her characteristic arced swoop of recognition. Then they settled her onto the floor and faded from the room to let us say goodbye.
I ran my hands over her face and stroked her ears as I went through Kleenex after Kleenex. The moment we were alone, she laid back down on the stretcher and did not attempt to move again. She was clearly in pain, but I also like to think it was because she knew I was there with her. I apologized to her over and over again for the pain that she was in and that I hadn’t been there for her. I thanked her for all the adventures we had shared and always being there for me, a constant presence of joy, a proverbial bright spot in the nearly fourteen years we had shared.
We sat together on the floor, united as a little family once more, and I couldn’t bear to see her hazy eyes and listlessness. She was so clearly suffering. It was time, though I wanted to scream that it wasn’t, to haul her off to surgery, and to get to have those moments I had anticipated: the last spring, the last walk, the last cuddle snuck in bed, the last special treat, and one last adventure together on a path, just the two of us, under a bright sky together like we always were, smelling the breezes, chasing squirrels, and so happy just being together and alive. Those moments are lost, passing unnoticed as the last with only the pain of goodbye and the blessing that she came of her of daze long enough to give me her usual Lorrie greeting. I do not know what I would have done if she hadn’t recognized me even for those brief moments.
She died next to me, my hand smoothing back her hair one last time. Her heart silenced, but her friendly soul, so filled with love and sweetness, lives on with me and those who knew her. At some point, I will be able to return to celebrating the years we did share rather than feeling the intense grief and anger at how she passed. And whenever I go off into the afterlife, I have no doubt that she’ll be there to welcome me, with the spinning wheel of her tail and her sparkling eyes, and we will greet each other with all the joy she had been saving for my return from my last big adventure without her—life and all it may bring.