The dog that let me take the greatest lessons I’ve learned from 3R and from my life, and put my money where my mouth is.
I got off the 3R train for this winter (it isn’t over yet, but it has been over a month since I wrote a blog post) and thought that I was headed towards something..easy. Not necessarily simple, I knew I was on a journey for some clarity, maybe a little truth, but easy in the way of three meals a day, a good night’s rest, less physical exertion, beautiful scenery and long drives listening to music.
I was wrong. My best friend, my love, Mollie, got sick. She was diagnosed just at the start of the journey, which meant I drove as fast as I could to Arizona to a higher level of veterinary care than I could find in Montana, earlier than I expected. The details of kidney disease, and our bad luck, aren’t really relevant to this process, other than to say we fought like hell and she did not make it.
But, in the last week of her life, I learned more about her, about animal behavior and about myself and the truth I was seeking than I ever thought possible.
Mollie never behaved as sick as her numbers, from the very beginning. Five days before she died, I looked at a vet (one of the many we saw) and asked if I should euthanize her right then. I told them I still had fight in me, money was not a factor, but I didn’t want my emotions to cloud when she lost her fight. That vet looked at Mollie and said, we must treat the dog, not the numbers, and I could not euthanize this dog right now if you asked me to. It was obvious to this vet, who had only met Mollie twice, that Mollie was not done. I asked two more vets in that same twenty four hour period, holistic, emergancy and internal medicine specialist, and all three had the same answer. Look at this dog, we must treat the dog, not the numbers. But no, we cannot explain why she isn’t done yet, because most dogs with half these numbers would not be able to walk. Mollie was doing more than walk.
We spent a few days in the hospital. Thanks to the kindness of a specialist and his technician, I talked my way into a private room with her IV hooked up and internet access, so I spent 8-12 hours a day with her, only leaving at night to sleep a little bit (or as much as you can when your best friend is in the hospital and you call every three hours to check on her) while they did her major treatments. I am totally “that” mom!
After the first night hospitalized when I was gone, when she came into the room to see me she wasn’t her. She was checked out and despondent. I assumed this was physical pain and it was time, so I just pet her for a bit. All of a sudden she was back. I realized she had just gone inside of herself to deal with the procedures and hospitalization, and of course she had no idea that I was coming back. She didn’t do that again. The technicians told me that once she knew I was coming back, she willingly got in and out of her kennel and always tried to go to where she knew I would be waiting if they had to take her out when I was not there. I am grateful that she had this coping mechanism during our first and hardest night apart in this process, and even more grateful that our bond was strong enough that I could come back the next day and tell her she didn’t need to use that strategy anymore.
When I teach, I talk a lot about how we cannot expect our animals not to have their own coping strategies and under enough pressure to use them, but that they should be able to hear us if we tell them they don’t have to. I am humbled at how extremely true this proved between Mollie and me. This wasn’t her asking me if that loud noise was okay, this was her asking me if the scariest part of her life was okay. And then she trusted me implicitly.
Thursday night I took Mollie for her 10pm walk and she wanted to run. I have video that I was taking for my husband to show her being perky, where instead of perking her ears up, she almost pulls me over because I wasn’t expecting any effort from this dog that was supposed to be dead. I knew we were not done, even though to be honest, done would have been easier for me at that point because the waiting had me looking sicker than her. But, this was her call, not mine.
On Saturday I took her home, because her numbers had stabilized as had her attitude, but the numbers had not improved. In hand I had fluids and a million medications. I told the vets that we would give it a go at home, in case the comfort of that environment would add the little boost we needed. I told Mollie, she could do whatever she needed, but we were going home.
We drove around on Saturday because her truck was her favorite place and then relaxed in the yard. Within a couple hours of being home, I knew she had started dying. But every time I called a vet to ask an opinion, or a number for someone to euthanize her, she would do something nuts, like jump over me, off the bed, and guard the perimeter fencing like always. Then she would return to labored breathing and increased heart rate. Her eyes had still not changed. I’ve never seen an animal fight so hard. I told her to tell me when, that she could go if she wanted to and kept her comfortable.
That night was the longest night of my life, because she kept getting worse. Half way through the night, for the first time, I saw fear in her eyes and though her body was not completely done yet, and she could still walk, jump up on the bed, follow me….that fear was enough for me to know. I made an appointment for the next day to have some wonderful people come to our home to send her off while sitting in the truck. We spent the morning having one last walk in the desert and driving. She was still digging in the sand and ran a few times. It was quite shocking, but she is Mollie, the toughest dog I know.
We returned home after the morning outing and for the first time ever, Mollie wouldn't leave the truck. She had been off solid foods for a week, but always drinking water. Now she wouldn’t take water in the desert heat either. She was bright eyed as she looked at me from the truck, able to walk and clearly herself. But not getting out. I left all the doors open, went and got some subQ fluids and told her we could sit in the truck until the vet came. She never got out of the truck.
I wanted Mollie to go with dignity. I wanted to fight until she said she was done, because the vets were just as astounded by her will to live as I was (so I’m not just a crazy mom on this one!). She was coherent, had some light in her eyes and was still somewhat physically able when she told me she was done. I am eternally grateful for how clear this was. She was dying in that truck whether I helped her or not. Mollie and I were always partners, and we made the decision together, and I never had to see her lose her dignity, which is as much a blessing for me as it was for her.
I’ve never seen anybody, human or non human, fight and stay positive like Mollie did. I’ve also never seen such a rational approach to death. I have never made a decision about death with a non human animal that was quite so discussed and mutual. But then again, I’ve never had a partnership like I had with Mollie. She wasn’t my pet, wasn’t my kid, wasn’t my responsibility. She was my choice and I was hers. Someone commented that at times it was hard to tell the where she ended and I began. That is sure how I felt.
I brought the rest of my dogs (Billie, Paislie and my mother’s dog who is a part of my crew during the winter, Jackson) to see her body in the truck. Paislie wanted to avoid, though I did insist she processed Mollie’s body. Jackson just kissed her face. Billie, the number two dog who bonded the hardest with Mollie, put her front paws on the fender, sniffed Mollie’s face, wiggled as if to initiate play and revive her, looked back at me in panic, tried again and then stepped down and looked at me and cried vocally.
Something I am good at, whether due to my temperament or my experience with horses, is being steady during crisis. Leading up to all of this I was a wreck, but I was calm from the time we started with Mollie’s exit and until well after the dogs had processed her, because that was about them. So, I’m certain Billie’s cry was for Mollie and not for me, because my insides were steady in that moment as the pack leader. The rest of that day was primarily filled with relief, because her suffering from the night before (the only time I thought she was truly suffering) was over and the euthanasia had been easy for her.
I woke the next morning a wreck, of course, and had planned on spending all day in bed feeling sorry for myself, since I hadn’t eaten or slept in over a week really, and my heart was broken. But, half way through the morning, I saw Jackson the German Shepherd. He loves me. He thinks I am the best thing to happen to the world because we go cool places and I’m always steady and I bring cool heeler dogs to play with. And he looked at me like he was dying. He wouldn’t come near me and when I called him, he dropped his head and came over, but he clearly was uncomfortable and didn’t want to. He left quickly and stared at me again from a distance, head down, the posture of a sad, horrified dog. He did not do this when he saw Mollie’s body. He did not do this while I was still holding it together for the pack. The only time I (or my mom, who saw all of this moment between him and I) have ever seen him do this was when he saw me so distraught. There are few times in my life where I have been so distraught and I am sure he thought I was a completely different person and he couldn’t handle it. I walked away and decided I wasn’t spending the day, the week, the year in this state. That grieving is fine, but darkness that is that powerful is not good for the world, especially a world with German Shepherds.
So I walked into the light. Broken and crying, but I’m in the light. I reflected for the day (with a little ice cream) about Mollie, her life and her process towards death. I have thought about how inspiring her way was with illness. How dignified her request at the end was. How incredibly strong she was and how all the time, money, missed meals and sleep and time on the vet floors I spent that week was worth it to stabilize her to get her home to make that decision herself. I always hope that they can go after their ability to maintain their desired quality of life is gone, but before their dignity has left, and she clearly was fighting for that last walk in the desert and ride in the truck.
I also thought about how because of all of this, she died happy. It was very clear she was completely content sitting with me in that truck. I’m thankful I could speed up her process towards death to avoid pain, but even if I hadn’t, she was doing it on her terms. I have reflected on why she died happily, why she hung on so long with such great spirits when she could have gone or looked sad at any time and I would have listened, and I know it was because her love and life were simple. She loved me, pure and only, and that love was the center of her life and the center of her death. She was not anything but love, so why not die happy.
I think about what I wanted to learn this winter and I know this is it. That to die happy one must center their lives around love. I’ll still have to figure out exactly how to do that, how that changes my daily life, but I am so much more peaceful with Mollie’s passing than any other death I’ve encountered because I am so clear on her passing with love and dignity. I hope that I am lucky enough to have the same, but I do think it was her choice, her fight for it, her insistence upon it that earned her it. So luck probably had little to do with it.
Something I have learned from horses is that you should not push against something and expect it to not push back. Mollie and I pushed hard against illness and death. I have no regrets about fighting next to Mollie while she was alive. That little dog almost pulled me over just a couple days before her death because of her enthusiasm when I pointed at the world as if there might be a cow to chase! That was the time to fight, to sacrifice myself for her, as she had done for me so many times. But now it is done, and there is nothing to push against. So if I keep pushing, I will only create hardship for myself, and those animals around me, by creating that fight that is no longer there. By spreading darkness. So I’m practicing surrender and now the time is to honor and learn, the time to fight is done.
I will grieve in the light. I will keep loving, even though when these things happen it is easy to never want to create this situation for myself again. To continually fall in love with things that live less time than we do is the ultimate price for the most incredible gift. I love Mollie and to surrender to this is just an awful thing to have to do. But the alternative would not honor the example she set. So instead, I am going to tour a dog, horse and farm animal sanctuary today. I can’t guarantee I don’t come home with something, but I can guarantee I will learn about a new model of rescue I’m unfamiliar with. I will spread love as much as I can. I will honor Mollie. And her collar will hang from the rear view mirror, because anyone who saw me coming for the last five years, saw Mollie perched on my center console, eyes peering below the rear view mirror, helping me drive.
Broken, crying and in the light.
Love that is only.
Love that is center.
To die wanting nothing more
but sunlight and you.
Sunlight and me.
Nothing in between.
Nothing in the way.
You leave with everything
Because of your center.
I stand still and forward.
but in the light.