Saying Goodbye (The Ralphie and Kaylee Post)

August 21st, 2013 9:00 am by Kelly Garbato

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4/30/08 – The pack (at the time), reunited after Kaylee’s surgery.
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The Power of the Dog

by Rudyard Kipling

There is sorrow enough in the natural way
From men and women to fill our day;
And when we are certain of sorrow in store,
Why do we always arrange for more?
Brothers and sisters, I bid you beware
Of giving your heart to a dog to tear.

Buy a pup and your money will buy
Love unflinching that cannot lie–
Perfect passsion and worship fed
By a kick in the ribs or a pat on the head.
Nevertheless it is hardly fair
To risk your heart to a dog to tear.

When the fourteen years which Nature permits
Are closing in asthma, or tumour, or fits,
And the vet’s unspoken prescription runs
To lethal chambers or loaded guns,
Then you will find–it’s your own affair–
But … you’ve given your heart to a dog to tear.

When the body that lived at your single will,
With its whimper of welcome, is stilled (how still!)
When the spirit that answered your every mood
Is gone–wherever it goes–for good,
You will discover how much you care,
And will give your heart to a dog to tear.

We’ve sorrow enough in the natural way,
When it comes to burying Christian clay.
Our loves are not given, but only lent,
At compound interest of cent per cent.
Though it is not always the case, I believe,
That the longer we’ve kept ’em, the more do we grieve:
For, when debts are payable, right or wrong,
A short-term loan is as bad as a long–
So why in–Heaven (before we are there)
Should we give our hearts to a dog to tear?

* * * * * * *

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9/24/06 – When Shane and I (with Ralphie, Peedee, and O-Ren in tow) visited our family in New York, we took Ralphie on a special trip (just us three!) to our old haunts in Fairport: old house, hiking trails, community center, Lollypop Farm. I’ll cherish these memories forever.
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The year that Shane, Ralphie, Ozzy, and I relocated from New York to the Midwest (then Kansas, now Missouri), I did some work on a pet loss website. In addition to graphics, I scoured books and the web for public domain poetry and whatnot for use on the site. While the whole project was rather maudlin and depressing, it’s the latter task that took the greatest toll on me. Oftentimes I’d find myself bawling at the computer screen, imagining as the subject of this essay or that poem Ralphie – my first-born, my baby, my little man – placing myself in the author’s shoes, contemplating just how utterly awful my dog kid’s passing would be. Sleepless nights spent crying into his gorgeous red fur, willing him to live forever; arms wrapped in a veritable death grip.

Rudyard Kipling’s “The Power of the Dog” and “Where To Bury A Dog,” by Ben Hur Lampman, were two of my favorites. Even though I’ve since realized that Kipling was a racist asshat, I still adore much of his animal-centric poetry. (As always, the speciesism is taken with a grain of salt. I don’t, for example, consider myself anyone’s “master,” nor would I ever buy a dog, puppy or otherwise.) Even today, I start to tear up over the titles alone – the feelings associated with each are that visceral and powerful.

Regrettably, my love for Ralphie carried with it a long shadow of sadness, colored by unhappiness and anxiety over the grief this love was sure to one day cause. Not any time soon, mind you; this was in 2002, when Ralphie was a wee little pup of four or five. Obsessing over a future hurt still a decade away – this just goes to show how utterly illogical it all was.

In retrospect, I was most likely suffering from depression. I’d just moved to a new state, more than 1,000 miles away from the friends and family I’d known for the first 24 years of my life, accompanied only by a man, a dog, and a cat. I didn’t know a soul aside from our landlords, who were perfectly pleasant people – except for the fact that they exploited nonhuman animals (cows and dogs) for a living. I’ve never suffered from a glut of social skills, and complicating matters was my budding vegetarianism and feminism, which slowly gave rise to a sense of alienation from others. I’d put graduate school on hold because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life (still don’t a decade plus later). Ralphie was my best friend, my responsibility, my reason for being; it’s no surprise that the inevitability of losing him, no matter how far off, exacerbated the depression and anxiety I was already feeling.

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4/9/03 – Ralphie, Peedee, and I taking one of our famous midday naps.
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Things got better when Peedee came into the picture. From the day we started planning our move to Kansas, we knew that we’d adopt a second dog so that Ralphie wouldn’t be alone. We even wrote it into our lease! (Luckily, Karla and Larry were nice enough to allow dogs three through five, even though they were not previously agreed upon.) Peedee took some of the pressure and focus off of Ralphie, allowing me to relax a little. Ditto Rennie, Kaylee, and Jayne, who came later (March 2005 and September 2006, respectively). While my dog kids’ mortality has been and will forever be a source of dread for me, it’s something that I’ve learned not to linger on. Whatever comes, we’ll all face it together.

* * * * * * *

In late March, a few days before Peedee went in for minor dental surgery and came home minus most of his teeth, Ralphie fell ill. He was tired, listless, and mostly uninterested in food. At first we just thought it was just a tummy ache; it wouldn’t be the first time he’d eaten something he wasn’t supposed to. Once, in 2005 I think it was, he swallowed a piece of Rennie’s Kong. After days of vomiting, and after taking an x-ray with worrying results, our vet referred us to a specialty clinic for a sonogram. Upon examining the x-rays, a well-meaning but dumb-ass intern insisted that it was cancer. Never especially anti-social, Ralphie growled at that guy every time they met subsequently. Up until this May, that might have been the biggest scare of my life; that and the day we found out that Kaylee had a heart murmur.

When Ralphie still wasn’t feeling well by Monday afternoon (April 29), Shane decided to take him to the the vet, since he was already going in to pick up Peedee. Like us, the vet chalked his symptoms up to an upset stomach, gave him a shot of Cerenia for the nausea, and sent Ralphie home with instructions to come back on Friday if he still wasn’t feeling well.

The next day – I can still remember it clearly – I spent most of the afternoon outside with the dogs. They were due for their flea and tick treatment, after which I prefer to keep them outdoors so they can do all their rolling and rubbing on the grass instead of my couch. In his later years, Ralphie didn’t really care to be outside unless he had some business there: digging for critters or going on a walk. Sunbathing was never his thing. So it came as a surprise when he actually napped on the blanket with us for an hour or two.

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4/30/13 – Ralphie
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He looked so thin and frail, spine all sticking out. The weight loss he experienced in his last few years was actually rather healthy – a result of the meds he began taking for hypothyroidism – but the growing prominence of his spine made me uncomfortable. For whatever reason, I’ve always associated that look with cancer.

Anyway, while his skinny little bod wasn’t a cause for concern, his listlessness was. I was scared that he only stayed outside because he was too tired to get up and go back in the house. That’s when I really started to worry.

By Thursday, Ralphie still wasn’t eating, so we returned to our regular vet. He did some bloodwork and immediately referred us to BluePearl, an emergency animal clinic in North Kansas City. (It’s actually a new branch of the same clinic we visited when we lived south of the city. They built it just in time to save us a two hour plus round trip.) Ralphie’s potassium and creatinine levels were dangerously high, indicating renal failure.

Shane left the vet’s office and headed home to come and get me. He tried calling on the way, but my cell went to voice mail; then he sent an instant message, which I saw. I panicked. Freaked out. Just a few lines of text on the computer screen…that was all it took for my world to fall apart. It was late morning – not a morning person, I’d yet to shower – but I dressed and fed the other six dogs in record time. My heart felt as though it might pound clear through my chest. This was it: the moment I’d been dreading for so long.

He picked me up and together we made the 45-minute drive to the animal hospital. I laid out blankets in the back of the van so I could snuggle with Ralphie.

When we arrived, Ralphie was quickly admitted. It way May 2nd. They anticipated a several-day stay; they needed to administer fluids to rehydrate him and (hopefully) stabilize his kidney levels. They also administered daily Cerenia shots to help combat the nausea. While kidney failure was one possibility, they also surmised that it could be a kidney stone or infection wreaking havoc with his kidney functioning; they wondered whether he’d been exposed to any strange animal feces lately. (Always a possibility, given where we live.) Only time and testing could tell us more about his prognosis.

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5/4/13 – The Grumpy Patient
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Ralphie’s hospitalization lasted all weekend. We went to visit him daily, staying an hour or two at a time. The staff was nice enough to accommodate us. Ralphie had to stay hooked up to fluids 24/7, so all of the visits took place in the back room, in Ralphie’s kennel. (Though we did get to walk him once, around the back parking lot.) His was on the top tier, face-height; after hours spent standing, leaning into his cage so that I could cuddle him, I often arrived home with an aching back. And heart. I hated seeing him that way.

Days went by with no change. The first twenty four hours, this was to be expected; but with each passing day, his prospects dimmed. The test results came back: no infection. His kidneys were simply failing. And then, some time between Sunday night and his daily bloodwork Monday morning, his levels spiked. Not only was my guy not getting better; he was getting worse.

All this time, Shane and I held out hope. Ralphie was a tough old bastard; he’d always been exceptionally healthy, especially for a senior – every vet he’d ever seen had said so! He’s going to live to be 18, dammit. He has to be okay, because the alternative is unthinkable. Unacceptable.

But the vet who called us to break the news was unequivocal. Ralphie’s kidneys were shutting down, and there was nothing to be done but bring him home to die.

On the trip to the hospital, I furiously jotted down questions and points of concern in my notebook: Would he be in any pain? How quickly should we expect him to decline? What could we do to make him more comfortable?

Upon our arrival, we were ushered into an exam room, a box of tissues displayed discreetly on the counter. (Only a few days later, Peedee would climb onto a similar table in search of the tissue kept there, prompting the vet on the night shift to crack a goat joke.) Sympathetic looks from all corners. After a few minutes, a vet came in to explain our options. Not that there were many: take Ralphie home, give him a few great days, and then have him euthanized – or euthanize him then and there. We chose the former, obviously. (Who would choose option B? Wait, don’t answer that.)

Between the food and fluids – even when he hadn’t been able to keep his food down, he’d eaten heartily enough – Ralphie was feeling temporarily better. But the vet cautioned that this would only last a day or two; she recommended euthanasia within 48 hours. (This was on Monday.) After taking him home and assessing his state (tired but happy), we decided on Thursday, May 9th – my 35th birthday. We went back and forth – vacillating and hand-wringing up until an hour before the vet arrived – worried that we were pushing it too far (and, later, not far enough). In hindsight I think we called it just right.

I went through my list of questions – my earnestness eliciting increasingly pitiful looks (“Oh, honey, no.” her look seemed to say) – but didn’t bother writing the answers down. Either there weren’t any or, in the case of medications to ease Ralphie’s discomfort, the doctor’s directions would be printed out and sent home with us. Through eyes filled with tears, I tried to process the vet’s instructions: keep him eating and drinking as much as possible. Chicken broth, jello, yogurt – anything with a high water content. (Nope, onion doesn’t matter at this stage of the game.) Tramadol for the pain; Cerenia and Pepcid for the nausea. Subcutaneous fluids several times a day to keep him hydrated.

Once the Q & A portion of the meeting was over, the doctor left and a vet tech carried Ralphie in, all snuggled up warm and cozy in a blanket. She showed us how to administer the fluids; I was so muddled that I asked her to set up a bag for us – with the line and all – so it’d be ready to go. And…that was it. We paid our bill and left. The receptionist was nice enough to call our regular vet for us, to keep him updated so we wouldn’t have to. They were all terribly nice at BluePearl, especially once we became semi-regular fixtures around the place.

* * * * * * *

When we arrived home, the other six dogs were all over us. Shane and I more than Ralphie, I’m sorry to say; we’d spent so much time away from home the previous few days that the dogs were starting to go a little crazy. (Shane and I both work at home, so they’re rarely without us.) Ralphie always got on well with Peedee and O-Ren; less so with later additions Kaylee, Jayne, Mags, and Finnick, whom he mostly ignored. But as he got older and lost his sight, he kind of lost status in the house. His old friends spent less and less time with him, and the new dogs didn’t have much patience for his unintentional social transgressions: bumping into them, accidentally invading their space, etc. Ralphie was happy enough to have his humans, but I always felt horrible that the canines in the house didn’t show him more compassion. (Every time an adorable story of a blind dog with his seeing eye dog friend showed up on my tumblr dash, I’d wonder where I’d failed with Peedee and O-Ren.)

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5/6/13 – Back home at last.
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Anyway, we got Ralphie fed and watered – with the exception of Kaylee and Jayne (so well-behaved!), we had to lock the other dogs out of the office during Ralphie’s meal – and then took him in the front yard to see if he’d like to dig. He gave it a halfhearted go, but just wasn’t up to it. Shane and I went back and forth on the euthanasia thing; our regular vet does house calls for that sort of thing, but you have to schedule it in advance, much like a regular appointment. We were terrified that we’d make the wrong choice: wait too long and cause him unnecessary pain, or do it too soon and rob him of an extra day or two. We settled on Thursday at 4PM. Happy birthday me.

For the next three days, we spoiled Ralphie rotten. Daily walks in the park, picnics in the front yard, all the food he could eat. And gross, meaty stuff too. Animal flesh that none of the other dogs are allowed. We bought canned meat cuts and mixed them with chicken broth, in a rather obvious attempt to trick him into drinking more fluids than he’d like. It worked. Despite my fears, we were able to keep him hydrated throughout those last few days. We administered SQ fluids three or four times a day, but didn’t go through the bag as quickly as expected.

That was stressful – all the poking and prodding. We hung the bag from a coat rack positioned next to the bed. Shane sat in front of him, to make sure that Ralphie didn’t bolt, and I came at him from behind with the needle. I was already used to sticking him, on account of a decade spent giving him allergy shots. Still, it was pretty nervous-making, as the needle had to stay in for ten to fifteen minutes at a time – as long as it took for 100 to 150 ccs of fluids to drop through the line. Much to our surprise, he dozed through most of the sessions. Such a good boy, right up until the end.

We tried to take him walking twice a day, for as long as he could stand it: once in the park and once around our property. As we neared the end and he became increasingly fatigued, runs turned into walks turned into strolls and naps on blankets spread out in the grass. Late April/early May proved especially rainy, so the county had slacked on lawn maintenance; the grass was super-long and difficult for his little wiener dogs legs to navigate. Ditto our lawn: in all the chaos, neither Shane nor I had the time for even the inaugural mow.

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5/6/13 – A walk in the park. Stopping to let a car pass by.
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But that first night, Ralphie managed to impress us. Watching him make his way ever so slowly down the gravel road, my heart sank. Whereas I’d hoped to fill his final days with all his favorite things, he couldn’t manage them anymore. As we walked further, though, he gradually gained speed, until he was galloping around the pond and through the soccer fields. Legs stretching, ears lifting into the wind. He was flying – or doing his very best dachshund approximation of it.

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5/7/13 – Flying through the soccer fields.
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I picked up a fallen hawk feather, either that night or the next day; I forget now. It brought to mind Dumbo and his magic feather: “C’mon, fly! Open them ears! The magic feather was just a gag! You can fly! Honest, you can! Hurry, open them up! PLEASE!” With his big, floppy ears – on multiple occasions, too many too count, lifted high and strong against the wind – this wasn’t the first time I thought of Ralphie as Dumbo. It was one of his nicknames, after all.

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10/30/06 – Dumbo
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I still have that feather. It sits in a vase in my bedroom, along with some plumage shed by the free-living peacock who has, on multiple occasions over the past three years, taken up residence in our yard. (One day in July, we arrived home to find him sitting, strutting on one of our concrete benches. I felt like I had just arrived at Neverland Ranch.) When he calls I picture a crying baby crawling through the river gorge.

The next few days we tried to revisit Ralphie’s favorite places – the closest and most feasible ones, away. Different areas of the park: baseball diamonds, soccer fields, the front pavilion; and our property: the critter holes out front which his hound’s nose had most recently taken him to, under the shade of the maple tree, along the shore of the pond. We really lucked out on the weather; each day called for rain that rarely came. When it did, it passed quickly enough. Ralphie’s final few days on this earth weren’t the dreary, house-bound ones we dreaded. (Though our boy caught plenty of zzzs on the couch – another favorite pastime of his.)

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5/7/13 – Enjoying an afternoon in the park.
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Nights were spent snuggling with him on the couch, laughing and crying to Modern Family. (We’d just started watching it on Netflix; I’ll always love and hate it, for the place it occupied in our lives.) I felt a little guilty about watching television, but there was little else to keep our minds occupied and besides, Ralphie so loved cuddling up next to his humans on the couch. Too stressed to cook, we lived (if you can call it that) on takeout from Pizza Hut. Cheeseless, with crust like cardboard. If I never eat Pizza Hut again, it will be too soon.

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5/8/13 – Ralphie’s last night. Rennie was given the boot soon after this photo was taken.
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The dogs – all but Kaylee: never the bed hog, always well-behaved – were kicked out of the bedroom, made to sleep in the living room so that Ralphie could get the proper snuggle time with mom and dad. This went over like gangbusters; the first morning, I awoke to tiny little mounds of dried feces, dropped in streaks along the hallway. It took me a good hour to scrape them all up. (A task made none easier by the concrete floor’s brown finish.) The were marginally better the next night; emphasis on “marginally.”

I won’t rehash all the details, but that’s only because I already wrote that post.

With all of our time and energy devoted to caring for Ralphie, you’d think that we could have managed more than two outings per day. I certainly expected to do more. But between the meals and the fluids, much of our time was spent pumping water into Ralphie’s little body. The SQ fluids went into his neck – a slightly different area each time – and gravity pulled the fluid down, where it settled in his chest. Apply pressure on just the right spot, and fluids would spurt out of the needle hole. (You can imagine my surprise when this happened after our first session; as I wiped a bit of blood from his fur with a tissue, Ralphie’s neck suddenly began to leak. I thought I’d broken him!) While a session only lasted fifteen minutes at most, we usually let him rest for an hour afterwards, to give the fluids time to absorb into his body rather than slosh around in his chest.

We had to keep a close eye on his fluid output, too. Too much urination could lead to dehydration; too little, and it could mean that his kidneys had stopped working. Happily, he peed just enough. Even so, by Thursday he was terribly bloated from all the extra fluids. We had to weigh him prior to the euthanasia, so the doctor could administer the proper amount of drugs; Ralphie had actually gained a pound or two of water weight.

* * * * * * *

I tried my best to keep it together. I think I did pretty well, considering. There will be plenty of time for tears later, I told myself. Right now Ralphie needs to see you happy. Unafraid. Positive and hopeful. You have to be strong. For him, if no one else.

“The house is going to be so empty without – ”

Ralphie is still here. Ralphie is still here. Ralphie is still here.

He is still here.

This was my mantra during those terrible 76 hours.

I promised myself that I wouldn’t cry in front of Ralphie. And while there were quite a few stray, silent tears, I always made sure to duck into the bathroom for bouts of full-blown wailing. One day Peedee got stuck in there with me. Highly intelligent and sensitive, Peedee’s usually pretty quick to comfort me when I’m down. But hysterical crying terrifies him. And here I was, this wailing, sobbing, shaking mess, coming at him for a blind hug. Death grip. He couldn’t wait to get out of there.

* * * * * * *

But everywhere there sat reminders of what was and what would be: nearly twelve wonderful years with Ralphie in our life, and suddenly we were facing a lifetime without him.

The day after he was discharged, Shane made a supply run to our regular veterinarian for another bag of fluids (turns out we didn’t need it, in the end). I happened to glance at the receipt as I filed it away, and I felt as though I’d been kicked in the stomach. Staring at me in black ink were reminders for boosters and tests that Ralphie would never need: A dental exam on 6/6/13. An annual physical and senior wellness profile on 10/18/13. Bordetella and heartworm, 4/1/14. Rabies, 9/6/14. DHPP booster, October 18, 2014. Ralphie wouldn’t be alive to see October 18, 2013, let alone October 18, 2014.

Worst of all was the reminder for his next appointment: “Scheduled Appointment for Ralphie on 5/9/13 at 3:50PM.” The receptionist hadn’t specified what the appointment was for. But I knew. I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about it since the call was made.

I often wonder if Ralphie knew what was happening; if he could feel his body falling to pieces around him. I hope not. I don’t think so. I’d like to think that he was blissfully unaware; that the weight of this knowledge was something that Shane and I carried alone. One last kindness; a final act of love.

No, I think he was happy. Happy, and content; surrounded by all the people and things he so loved. If he knew that he was dying, I think he was at peace with it.

* * * * * * *

That last day, Shane and Ralphie and I took a trip to the park first thing in the morning. He was utterly exhausted by this point, so we just sat with him in wooden fort on the playground and talked. Reminisced about our favorite memories. Hugged and kissed and snuggled him. It was warm, with a slight breeze. As he lifted his face to the sky, ears floating behind him, one eye half-shut…he looked so content. Enraptured, even.

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5/9/13 – Our last trip to the park together
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We took a million pictures those last 72 hours. 927, at last count. It sounds crazy, but it never feels like enough.

That afternoon, as the hours and then minutes ticked away, we waited for the vet to come: first outside under the maple tree and then in the living room, Ralphie perched on his favorite cushion (the corner one!) on the couch. We locked the other dogs in the office so as not to disturb him. If they had been closer – or had any inkling of that was happening – we might have arranged for the dogs (or Peedee and Rennie, anyway) to say a more proper goodbye. But they had no idea.

I have a vivid memory of Shane and Ralphie playing one of his favorite games. Human hands, slapping the couch cushion, back and forth, like a dog paddle. Canine paws reciprocate. Trying to catch the human hands, but not really. Then the snout gets involved: huff, huff, with playful, grabby little nips. I never knew what to call it: Whack-a-Human? Patty cakes? Dog clap? Whatever. Ralphie got so into it.

4PM came and passed. In a twist both good and bad, the veterinarian arrived nearly an hour late. Good, because it gave us precious extra minutes with our boy; and bad, because those minutes were filled with sadness and anxiety and a stomach tied into knots.

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5/9/13, 3:30PM CST. Ralphie’s last photo.
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It happened on the twin bed. Our bedroom’s kind of unconventional (would be the polite way to say it): at the time, there sat a King bed with a twin bed pushed up next to it. (The twin’s since been relocated to the adjacent sunroom; now there’s a King with a full bed, eventually to be replaced by two new Kings. I’d love to have one ginormous bed like Shaq’s, but how on earth do they wash their equally ginormous bedding?) We pulled the twin out for easy access.

Ralphie and I were already lying on the bed, cuddling, when the doctor arrived. As exhausted as he was, as soon as Ralphie caught wind of the strangers in his house, he began to bark at them with his usual dachshund stubbornness. The vet tech and I sat on the bed with Ralph while the vet crouched alongside to administer the heart-stopping cocktail of drugs. One squeal, and it was over. Ralphie’s body, forever drained of life.

I cried over his body for a long, long time. Cuddled and stroked and sobbed. Mourned until the smell overcame my grief. (Dead bodies leak bodily fluids. And Ralphie was stuffed with fluids.)

We cleaned him off as best we could – it was an ongoing task – and then ushered the other dogs in, one by one, to say goodbye. I don’t know what I expected – this was only my second time dealing with an animal’s death as an adult; the first was Ozzy, some two years ago, and Shane made the executive decision not to show his empty vessel to the others – but it certainly didn’t go as I’d envisioned. The dogs were clearly freaked out by The Body; but, with the exception of Kaylee, they all seemed to be pretending that they hadn’t seen it. One by one, they jumped onto the bed – and then quickly jumped off. Looked anywhere and everywhere but at Ralphie’s body. Rennie even urged us to throw her tennis ball, taking care to step on the other side of the bed when retrieving it for us.

Kaylee, though. Kaylee was fixated. She couldn’t stand being close to him – like the others, she jumped right off the bed just a few seconds after being placed there – but she watched him. Intently. She climbed onto the King bed and just stared. Even after we packed Ralphie away, she kept vigil in the bedroom, gazing intently at the place his body had been. Of all the dogs, she was by far the most deeply affected. Strange, since she and Ralphie were mostly indifferent toward each other in life. Of everyone, I expected Peedee to take it hardest. But not Kaylee.

Finally, and after much resistance from me, we wrapped Ralphie’s body in a blanket, placed it in a container we’d chosen the day before – a plastic pirate chest! – and packed it in the freezer. We have a chest freezer, mostly for extra food…but it came in handy for this, too. It was just wide enough to fit his body, curled into its little bean shape.

We’ve been talking about buying a larger freezer, used on Craigslist maybe, for just this purpose. It’s almost unbearably morbid, but still better than being caught unprepared. Ozzy was small enough to fit into the the freezer portion of a fridge/freezer; Peedee and Jayne are most likely too big to fit into our current chest freezer. We need something bigger, like for deer meat.

I suppose I could let the veterinarian take the body; store it for cremation and transport it to the crematorium when the time comes. But the idea of entrusting a loved one to strangers? No. Just, no. Irrational as it may be – for the body is just that, a body, the essence that made it uniquely Ralphie long since snuffed out – no one but family can handle Ralphie’s remains with the love and care he deserves. No one but me.

And so his body sits, frozen, waiting for the day when I’m finally ready to relinquish it to the flames.

* * * * * * *

The next morning, the sun rose, the birds sang; life went on, even though Ralphie was no longer there to see it. Too shell-shocked to do much else, Shane and I gave the house a good cleaning. We’d kind of neglected such chores during Ralphie’s illness.

* * * * * * *

That weekend, the dogs were somewhat subdued – but Kaylee was downright depressed. Saturday morning I took her to the park, just the two of us. I parked by the fort that Ralphie had visited last; I was curious if she’d be able to pick up his scent and, if so, whether this would prove a source of comfort.

As it turned out, the playground equipment didn’t much interest her. Instead we strolled around the soccer fields, Kaylee moving slightly slower than her normal snail’s pace. She was having trouble with her right back leg; every time she tried to put weight on it, it bowed out from beneath her. So we lay in the grass, under the sun, and I sang to her. She seemed to prefer this to talking, which you’d know to be crazy if you’d ever heard my singing voice. The same song, over and over: Skeeter Davis’s “The End of the World,” because it felt like the end of the world. Little did I know then that this was to be our last trip to the park together.

* * * * * * *

Later that day, cuddling with the dogs in bed, I spied a bit of dried blood on Kaylee’s belly. Upon further inspection, I could clearly see two puncture holes. Awesome, I thought. Just what we need: a snake bite. Icing on the shit cake that has been this week.

Shane rushed her to the animal hospital – BluePearl again – while I watched the other dogs. I offered to go with them – I had a strange feeling that maybe I’d better – but hey: it’s just a snake bite, right? No biggie. What could go wrong?

Nothing at first. Shane messaged me throughout the appointment, keeping me updated. There was waiting and exams and shots. Nothing worry-making. And then they decided to run blood work, “just in case.” This is how we found out that Kaylee, too, was in renal failure.

Shane called to tell me the news and I flipped. There’s no other way to say it; I completely lost my shit. He rushed home to get me – I was too hysterical to drive – and I had a complete breakdown in the 45 minutes it took for him to arrive. I tried calling my mom; no answer. I tried five more times. Finally, just as I was about to move on to my father or sister, she picked up.

(Incidentally, a day or two later I called my parents’ house; my father picked up. He asked me how I was doing and I was able to hold it together for a grand total of five second before I burst into hysterical sobs. Silence on the other end. I could just picture his face: “Oh shit, what do I do?” Like some befuddled sitcom dad. Fifteen seconds of this and he handed the phone over to my mom without a word. Hence my reluctance to call him during times of emotional crisis. He’s great for car emergencies, though.)

I couldn’t manage a single syllable before the tears took over. My mom later told my sister that she initially mistook me for young child with the wrong number; that’s how utterly intelligible I was. She was eventually able to talk me down from the ledge, but I never quite stopped crying, hyperventilating, pacing the house like a caged animal. That call from Shane was easily the single worst moment of my life. I’d already lost one of my babies; not Kaylee too. No, not Kaylee. Anything but that.

That night – it was late by then – Shane and I raced back to BluePearl, this time with Peedee and Mags in tow. With two dogs going into renal failure not a week apart, we were terrified that the cause might be environmental. All sorts of crazy thoughts rushed through my head: Maybe I was inadvertently poisoning my dogs? Maybe it was a disgruntled neighbor? Could they possibly have walked through antifreeze at the park and licked their paws clean of it without my noticing? (Not likely.) We had to get them all tested just to be sure. Peedee and Mags went first, because they were the oldest; Rennie, Jayne, and Finnick all came with us the next morning (Mother’s Day – another stellar holiday at the Garbato-Brady house!). Spoiler alert: their bills of health all came back clean. Turns out it was just a crazy, tragic, heartbreaking coincidence. Yay?

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5/12/13 – Mother’s Day at the hospital. At least Rennie has a sense of humor, what with the photobombing and whatnot.
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Kaylee’s situation was both so similar to and quite different from Ralphie’s. For starters, her treatment options were complicated by the heart murmur.

(I can still remember, with visceral clarity, the day we found out about that damned murmur. Gosh, it must have been three or four years ago now. Our veterinarian took us into a back room – never a good sign – to show us the x-rays. At first I thought he was handing us Kaylee’s death sentence. I held Shane’s hand, tight, searching for anchor. Shadow had died of complications from a heart murmur just a year or two before, and the diagnosis struck the fear of Dog into me. Of course, Shadow had also lived with a heart murmur for five years before that – a fact to which I stubbornly and irrationally refused import. I almost didn’t believe the vet when he clarified that Kaylee might still live a long and healthy life, even with the murmur. Nothing was certain, of course; we could only manage it through medication and diet and hope for the best. But neither was it the beginning of the end.

For the rest of her fourteen and a half years, Kaylee’s murmur proved a constant source of worry for me. And yet the thing I feared the most wasn’t what killed her in the end. Life is just the damnedest thing.)

Treatment was risky: Push too much fluid, and it could send her into congestive heart failure; too little, and the kidneys would continue in their downward spiral. The vet warned us that death by heart failure is an especially horrible way to go: the heart fills with fluids and results in a slow, drowning death. We asked her what she would do, if Kaylee was her dog; but she seemed just as uncertain as us.

Shane and I went back and forth, debating our options. Saturday turned into Sunday and we were still there; another day spent at the hospital. The excitement of an unexpected late-night trip wearing thin, Peedee and Mags began to doze off. We thought about renting a hotel room nearby, so that one of us could be a short drive away in case Kaylee’s treatment went bad. (My greatest fear was that she’d die alone, in a strange place, surrounded by unfamiliar faces. Sometimes living in the sticks can really suck.) The vet assured us that that wouldn’t be necessary; if the fluids started to impact Kaylee’s heart function, they could pull back quickly enough to stabilize her. She’d be monitored constantly. Of course, then the treatment would effectively be over, replaced by the inevitability of death by renal failure. Euthanasia.

* * * * * * *

If there was only one good thing to come out of this tragedy, it was the conversation we had with the emergency vet about euthanasia. While our regular vet is nice enough to do house calls for euthanasia, you have to schedule it at least several days in advance, like any other appointment. Emergency house calls really aren’t an option.

Additionally, his method of administering the drugs? Not my favorite. (Is the understatement of the year. More like “highly traumatizing.”) Rather than inserting a catheter into which the drugs are injected, my vet administers the meds with a needle – meaning that the animal, if mobile, has to be held down by a vet tech during the process. This proved bad enough when Ozzy – who was paralyzed by a stroke and unable to resist – was euthanized; his strangled cry is our last memory of him. But Ralphie, as fatigued as he was at the end, writhed and wriggled and barked and cried. It was a horrible thing to witness.

My last wish for Ralphie was to hold him in my arms as he died; stroke his fur and look into his eyes as the light dimmed, so that my face would be the last thing he saw as his consciousness slipped away into oblivion. I wanted him to go peacefully into that good night. But that’s not what happened. He struggled and fought against death. Wrapped in the arms of a stranger.

The final few moments of Ralphie’s life still haunt me. It’s the only regret I have with him; the only memory that’s just too painful to bear. You deserved better, Ralphie, and so did we. I’m sorry that we failed you.

After Ozzy passed, we meant to research other options. But as the months slipped by, so did the sense of urgency. Besides, euthanasia isn’t something you want to think about…and so we didn’t. Until all that awfulness with Ralphie.

And so, that night, as we faced the possibility of seeing yet another loved one through her death, I explained to the vet what had happened with Ralphie (she looked as horrified as I felt; part of me will always love her for that) and raised the possibility with the emergency vet: Is anyone here willing and able to perform at-home euthanasia? No, she said, you need a license to take those medications off hospital property, and that’s not something we do. But one of our former employees works at a practice where that’s all they do. She gave us the business’s name and number and, while we didn’t utilize their services in the end, I can’t tell you what a relief it was – is – to have options.

In the weeks after this all happened, several people have contacted us with questions about at-home euthanasia – namely, how we found not one but two vets willing to make house calls. The best advice I can give you is, plan ahead. Don’t wait until you’re faced with a loved one’s incurable illness – that’s the absolute worst time to start researching vets. Ask your current vet if he or she is able to do at-home euthanasia; if not, see if s/he can recommend another vet who can. Call around until you find someone. Schedule an appointment – even if it’s just a routine physical – to see how you and your friend get on with the doctor. Ask about lead time. The more flexible the vet’s schedule, the better. Hit the internet to see whether any practices in your area cater to this need. Contact them and verify that you live in their service area. Check back in on an annual basis to ensure that they’re still in business and offer the same services.

Of course, at-home euthanasia isn’t always the best option, as we learned with Kaylee. While I still prefer to have my kids euthanized at home, it’s not always the least stressful alternative. If your friend is in acute pain and an at-home euthanasia will only prolong her suffering, then a trip to your regular vet or a nearby animal hospital may be the more compassionate thing to do.

* * * * * * *

We decided to go for it. Treatment, that is. Kaylee was a fighter, a tough old broad, and I knew that, if she could tell us in so many words, she’d want us to fight for her. She’d been fighting her whole damned life. I wouldn’t take that choice away from her now.

They started off slow – about half the rate of fluids that Ralphie received – and gradually increased the amount when it became clear that her heart wouldn’t present a problem. Her heart murmur was an obstacle, but not an insurmountable one. It kept beating, strong. By the second day, the vets were wholly unconcerned with the murmur; so much so that, when we were sent home, it was with instructions to discontinue her heart meds altogether. (The diuretic is hard on her kidneys.)

On Monday, we were handed over to our own vet, an internalist. True to his title, the first thing he did was look at Kaylee’s adorable little insides via ultrasound. She didn’t have a blockage in her kidneys – clearly not, as this would have been the more easily remedied problem – and, worst still, the vet noted that her kidneys were covered in cysts. Ralphie had a few – probably newish, in his case – but nowhere near as many as dear Kaylee. He suspected that she was born with a congenital kidney defect that should have killed her long ago. Like I said, tough old broad.

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5/13/13 – My single most favorite photo from our visits. Kaylee looks so happy, so excited – so alive and hopeful. I just want to wrap her in my arms and never let go.
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As with Ralphie, we visited Kaylee every day. The vets and staff came to know us by name (another ominous sign). One unexpected benefit of Kaylee’s more conservative treatment plan was that, unlike Ralph, Kaylee didn’t need to be hooked up to a catheter 24/7 – so we were allowed to visit with her in an exam room, and even take her outside for an hour at a time. She enjoyed it, at first; but when it became clear that we were walking past our van instead of climbing into it, Kaylee became rather miffed at me. Doubly so when I tried to coax her into eating. These sessions usually devolved into me sticking fingers coated in baby food into her mouth, wiping the slop onto her gums so that she’d be forced to swallow it.

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5/13/13 – Eat, Kaylee, Eat!
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Always a hearty – but paradoxically, finicky – eater, Kaylee had begun skipping meals during Ralphie’s illness, and all but stopped eating since he’d died. While in the hospital, she refused to drink as well – possibly because the IV fluids kept her plenty hydrated, but who knows? She’d always been a hard dog to read.

Though her condition didn’t improve while on fluids, Kaylee didn’t get any worse, either. After four days of hospitalization, the internalist recommended that she be discharged. He wanted to see how Kaylee would do in a home environment. As long as we keep her eating and drinking, it was his hope that we might be able to manage her condition through diet and medication. Possibly she could live weeks or even months with a good quality of life.

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5/15/13 – Kaylee & I on the afternoon of her discharge. It’s one of the last photos of us two together. I cherish it, unhappy circumstances be damned.
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As it turned out, she didn’t do so well at home, either. While she was happy – overjoyed – to be out of That Place, mealtimes were a battle. At best, she might eat a tablespoon or two of food at a time. Pills – there were many: Tramadaol, Cerenia, Pepcid; and, later, anti-depressants to (hopefully) stimulate her appetite – became a contest of wills. Who could hold out longer: mom, holding Kaylee’s snout clamped shut – or Kaylee and her stubborn refusal to swallow? We couldn’t even get her to drink on her own; all water came from a syringe, squirted into her mouth against her will.

I worried that this was a sign that she had given up; Kaylee’s way of telling us to let her die. But she’d always been stubborn, and her occasional fits of inappetence always resolved themselves on her own time scale – and never a day sooner.

At the time of her discharge, the vet brought up the possibility of a feeding tube, if we couldn’t entice her to eat on her own. No way, I thought. How barbaric! I know it’s not the same – you can’t reason with a dog the way you can most humans – but force feeding is widely considered a form of torture. A feeding tube seemed almost too cruel to contemplate.

Not twenty four hours and three meals later, I was contemplating it. Seriously. I was already effectively force feeding Kaylee – just in a terribly tedious and inefficient matter. Much more of this, and I was afraid that she’d come to hate me. We were kind of running out of options.

And so on Thursday, we drove Kaylee back to BluePearl. As I always did, I outfitted the back of the van with big, comfy blankets so that we could lay there together. But Kaylee wasn’t having any of it; instead, she crammed herself into the very back corner of the van, behind a tote bag stuffed with maps and jumper cables. She sat right down on that rubber mat, forgoing the comfort of the bedding, and glared at me. The whole ride there. She knew where we were headed and she was Not Happy. She kind of broke my heart.

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5/16/13 – Miffed at Mom
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The operation to install (like it’s an appliance! ugh, the euphemisms.) the feeding tube was a simple one, and took all of an hour. Of course we worried because anesthesia, but at the vet’s continued insistence, we left the waiting room to grab a quick bite to eat at Burger King: french fries and lemonade. (My diet lately. Oy.) I can’t remember the last time I sat down in a fast food joint to eat. A decade, maybe. It was gross and dirty and the greasy food didn’t help calm my churning stomach. The news was stupid – IRS gate this, IRS gate that – and not at all distracting. I was a ball of nerves.

I wasn’t so much that I worried about her dying on the operating table – though it’s always a possibility. No, I was afraid that we were doing the wrong thing, for the wrong reasons. The convenient-for-us thing. I worried that we were turning Kaylee into some appalling, Frankensteinian monster, all because we couldn’t bear to let her go quietly. But the alternative was even more terrifying. The feeding tube won out.

Thankfully for her, this was the last Kaylee would see of the hospital; for her humans, sadly, it was not.

So we returned home with Kaylee and started on the road to what we hoped would be Kaylee’s convalescence. We kept detailed notes about her day: how much she ate and when; how often she went to the bathroom; whether she got up to go on her own, or whether we took her out. Always anal, I printed out checklists for her medication and meals, with space to record hourly observations.

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She started on a special liquid diet comprised of prescription canned food, specifically formulated for dogs in kidney failure + water + medication, ground to a fine pulp with the mortar. At night I’d blend the next day’s food and water, with medication to be added as needed during mealtime. Amounts were all very precise: 2 cups water plus 1.125 cups of k/d. Unsure of how to proceed, we started out with seven “meals” per day (it’s hard to think of liquid slop injected into the neck as a “meal”), and then reduced it to four at the vet’s direction. The canned food left a gross, fatty film on everything it touched: blender, container, syringes. Oh, the syringes we washed. They were everywhere. In the days after her death, I missed them terribly. Can you imagine?

The weekend wore on and Kaylee refused to eat or drink on her own. I offered her all of Ralphie’s (now leftover) favorites: canned cuts of meat, beef and chicken broth, baby food. That first day home, I blended up some homemade baby food for Kaylee: roasted carrots and sweet potatoes. I persuaded her to eat a little, but when she was transitioned to the special diet, I gave the rest to Peedee. He’s on his own special, soft food diet now that he’s missing all those teeth. I soak his kibble in water flavored with various things: roasted veggies, nutritional yeast, the occasional fruits. He likes it.

In addition to the food situation, Kaylee’s legs were a constant source of worry. When she was first seen for the snake bite, Shane mentioned her wonky back leg; the vet diagnosed it as a possible herniated disc, but didn’t seem too concerned. The recommendation was bed rest, which she got plenty of while confined to a crate in the hospital. Ditto at home where she mostly relaxed: in a dog bed, on the couch, outside in the grass. But she was having more and more trouble walking, with the loss of control spreading to her left leg too. New vet thought it might be arthritis, and prescribed exercise. Easier said than done, since at this point we had to hold the poor girl up just so she could go to the bathroom.

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5/18/13 – Napping in the grass while mom reads Stung.
Spoiler alert: it was so not worth it.
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One day, I had the bright idea of looping a yoga strap under Kaylee’s belly, so we could walk with her. We tried this immediately after a meal. Which she promptly threw up.

To make matters worse, the liquid diet made her stool rather loose. Unable to hunker down and assume the proper position, Kaylee often ended up dribbling on herself.

We were unhappy. She was very clearly unhappy. We started to talk about maybe talking about euthanasia. Not right away – we still wanted to give the situation time to improve – but perhaps as a long(er)-term possibility. It doesn’t sound like a seismic shift, I guess, or at least not when I put it like this; but if you know the inexplicable force that was – is, dammit! – Kaylee and I, certainly you understand my desperation, to be discussing the E-word, what with Kaylee home, alive, in the here and now, napping in my bed. To be thinking the unthinkable when hope still lingered.

* * * * * * *

Though we didn’t know it at the time, Kaylee’s last day was Monday. May 20th. I – dog help me – I went on a walk. Since Ralphie fell ill, I’d let my exercise routine lapse, and I badly needed to get out of the house and stretch my aching limbs. And when I arrived home, did I go and snuggle with Kaylee in bed? Feed her a meal, or tell her I loved her? Nope. I assumed the monumentally important task of cleaning the back yard of branches and sticks felled by May storms. I wasted my baby’s last day. Along with precious moments of days previous: time spent reading outside (with Kaylee by my side, granted, but still), or glued to the computer, writing a wholly unnecessary book review.

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5/19/13 – Kaylee final photo. It’s not how I want to remember her, but. This post would feel incomplete without it.
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This is how her final three pictures came: I just so happened to pass by the dog bed as she lay there, napping, and snapped a few quick shots before I went back to doing the stupid human stuff that we’re all so obsessed with. Useless tasks to pass the time.

This will always be a regret, buried painfully deep in my heart. I should have been glued to Kaylee’s side those final five days. She spent six and half years glued to mine, after all. I feel like I failed her in so, so many ways.

I often find myself rationalizing this: But we were hopeful. We thought this was a long-term recovery type situation. How long were we supposed to stay in stasis, in crisis mode? That constant fear and worry was simply unsustainable.

Which is all true, but only part of the picture. That last day is also when Shane and I started to talk euthanasia – so clearly I knew that something was very, very wrong. Maybe I just had to get out of the house? An understandable reaction, to be sure, but so much worse than mere ignorance.

That evening things really started to go downhill. Monday night, I wrote this in my private tumblr journal:

Kaylee’s back legs don’t seem to be working at all, and we can’t get her to stop shaking (though hopefully some melatonin will put her down for the night). She pooed on herself a little when Shane took her out, and he can’t get her to pee – probably not yet very comfortable with someone having to hold her up while she does so. After we tucked her in for the night – on a puppy pad, just to be safe – she farted and some poo came out. She barely moved, even her front end, while I cleaned her up.

I don’t mean to sound all New Agey, but I feel like she’s telling me that it’s time to let her go, with her eyes. She’s always been hard to read, but she looks so miserable tonight. She just keeps staring into me eyes and trembling. I’m afraid that we might be nearing the end.

But it hasn’t even been a week since we had the feeding tube put in. It feels like we’re giving up prematurely, and yet I don’t know how long we can go on this way. Today was just bad, bad, bad. Well, from afternoon onward.

I hate this.

That night, I slept with Kaylee cradled to my chest (just her and I, in the King bed; Shane had the other five dogs corralled in the adjacent sunroom), cooing sweet everythings in her ear: “I love you. So, so much.” “You’re my best baby girl.” “I love you more than words can say.” “I hope you know how much you mean to me.” And, later: “Hang in there. It’ll all be over soon.”

The trembling – a persistent symptom which the vet had assured us was due to nerves (in the hospital) and/or weakness (at home) – grew worse. We gave Kaylee melatonin to help calm her nerves and lull her to sleep; I don’t think it helped much. I drifted a bit, only to be awakened by increasingly violent shaking. Over time the trembling gave way to seizures. I didn’t recognize them at first; only by dawn’s early, dim light did I register Kaylee’s stiff limbs and frothy mouth. I’d seen dogs seize before. My childhood dog Shadow suffered from monthly seizures; along with a metal plate in her hip, they were a lasting effect of the trauma suffered in a car crash. I tried to keep track of the episodes. They came on every half hour or so. Her body seemed exhausted, stretched beyond its limit. By morning she could barely move.

We woke up at sunrise. Once I was able to get a clear look at her face, it was rather obvious that Kaylee was no longer there. Eyes closed, body slack; Kaylee had slipped into unconsciousness. Later the vet told us that she probably suffered a stroke or aneurism and slipped into a coma. Some time during the night, my baby girl slipped away from me…and I didn’t even know it.

From the onset of her illness, I agonized over what to do; over what Kaylee would want us to do. In the end, she told us. Perhaps this was Kaylee’s final show of love for her humans.

I still find myself surprised at the speed with which I was able to accept her death – a body empty of its person all but demands this – but I’ve yet to come to peace with it. It’s all just so unfair.

We tried the emergency vet; we hoped he could come out right away. But it was more than an hour before office hours began, so we were greeted by voicemail instead. We left a message, and didn’t hear back from him until after Kaylee was gone.

After a half hour of alternately cuddling and cleaning Kaylee’s trembling, broken body, I couldn’t stand it anymore. As much as I wanted her to be euthanized at home, I agreed with Shane that we should take her to the animal hospital rather than wait for a call back from the vet. We didn’t even know if someone would be able to come out that day, let alone right away; and besides, Kaylee was already gone. Probably she wouldn’t even register a 45-minute car ride in her condition. The where wasn’t as important as the when. We’d all suffered enough.

On the way to the hospital, Kaylee and I lay in the back of the van one last time. Stroking her soft fur, I let the tears flow. They couldn’t hurt her now.

A vet tech met us in the parking lot and rushed Kaylee’s limp body into the building. Over a gleaming stainless steel exam table, the vet on duty – this one was new to us – told us what we already knew: there was nothing they could do. (Like, duh, I thought. Why are you wasting time? We came here to have her euthanized, so let’s get to it.) I think he expected more of a reaction – tears, questions, begging, something – but by then we knew what had to be done, and just wanted to get it over with. End her suffering, so to speak. That of her body, if not her mind. He asked if we wanted to say any last words, but there was nothing left to say. I’d been whispering my goodbyes for more than twelve hours by then. Just do it!, I wanted to scream.

Kaylee’s heart stopped beating at 9AM on Tuesday, May 21, 2013.

* * * * * * *

After they euthanized her, they left us in the exam room and let us take as long as we needed. For at least 45 minutes, possibly longer, I cried over and snuggled into her body: her soft cheek, her mushy belly, sharp elbows and canine feet. And those ears of velvet. Can’t forget those ears. So many hours spent stroking them: base to tip, first with a firm but gentle grasp, followed by a slow caress, ending in an equally gentle tug. Rise, repeat. My dog, how she loved that. It was pure heaven for us both.

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5/28/12 – The finest ears in all the worlds.
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The backs of her ears were pure black – part of the arrow that enveloped her head and neck. Inside, black lined the edges, accentuating them; further inside they were covered in the softest, finest fur, colored a pure, luxuriant gold. Like the Golden Monkey, but without even a hint of malice. (I guess that makes me Marisa Coulter? Ah well, there are worse roles to play.)

When we were ready (as if), they took the body to the back room where they cleaned her up. At my insistence, they removed the feeding tube, which I wanted GONE: It wasn’t a part of her, and I certainly didn’t want it cremated with her body, polluting her remains. (In sharp contrast to Ralphie’s fake eye, which was mos def a part of him – it symbolized melanoma, conquered, and the extra few years we were able to enjoy together.) They also removed the catheter, newly installed to administer the lethal injection, and even made both a clay and ink impression of Kaylee’s paw – the front right, I think. How sweet and unexpected is that? I’ll cherish these keepsakes, always. And if I ever get a tattoo, the ink pawprint will be my first.

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5/21/13 – Kaylee’s pawprint. I’m not a sure a tattoo is necessary; it is forever imprinted on my heart.
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Two of the techs walked us to the car and I actually hugged them, in a move Shane called “totally out of character.” I meant to bake them cookies, in the weeks after Kaylee’s death, but time kind of got away from me. I can still do it. Maybe in September, when the icing is less likely to melt.

I cried the whole way home, Kaylee’s body finally at rest on the floor behind my seat.

* * * * * * *

When we arrived home from the hospital, the remaining five dogs rushed in to greet us. Nearly noon by now, my life without Kaylee just beginning. We took them outside and lay in the sun. I needed a dog pile and they were happy to oblige – even daddy’s boy Finnick climbed on top of me.

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5/21/13 – Smothered by kisses.
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We cried, we reminisced, we procrastinated: though the worst was over, we still had to pack Kaylee’s body away in the cold dark freezer. Two bodies, one stacked on top of the other: how wrong is that?

But not before letting the dogs say their own goodbyes.

* * * * * * *

The dogs’ reaction to Kaylee’s body was a stark contrast to how they acted over Ralphie. The folks at BluePearl wrapped her body in these large cotton towels and then placed her in a coffin-like cardboard box; they even made a pillow for her head and marked the appropriate end on the lid.

(I still have the box, after refusing Shane’s suggestion that we break it down. I can see it from my seat in the office, sitting atop the white armoire in the next room, to the right of the Jane Goodall print Shane was hanging when I discovered Kaylee’s snake bite, the fateful event that set all this in motion.)

We placed the box on the kitchen floor and I unwrapped her head and shoulders. The dogs all gathered around, sniffing and investigating. Peedee got into a few tiffs with Finnick, as though guarding her body. No, not “as though” – he was definitely keeping vigil over Kaylee. Rennie reached in with her front paw and tried to uncover the rest of Kaylee’s body, as if to say “What is this fuckery? Kaylee, get up, get out of that box!”

Jayne kept her distance, which is par for the course, but looked on with interest from her perch on the ottoman in the office. When Shane brought her over, she took a few sniffs and then ran away. Again, very typical of her, but she seemed a little bothered.

Mags and Fin both seemed curious and perhaps a little disturbed, but they’re back to normal today. Rennie is uncharacteristically subdued; I think she’s taking Kaylee’s death hardest of all, since the two were so close. This morning she snuggled up onto my pillow and was mostly content to lay there without trying to wake me up and whatnot.

I saw her laying in the sun on the picnic table, alone – yesterday or perhaps the day before – and it damn near broke my heart. Kaylee and Rennie, that was their thing.

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(excerpted from a May 22 entry on my private tumblr)

* * * * * * *

By the time we got home her body was in rigor, so it’s happy dumb luck that it just so happened to fit in the freezer. Minus the box, of course. Right now in our freezer, it’s bags of fruit and veggies (to even the bottom out); followed by Ralphie in a pirate box, wrapped in a Scooby blanket and cushioned by our other Scooby blanket; then one of our thin pillows, encased in a blue pillowcase still covered in Kaylee’s drool from the seizures; and, finally, dear Kaylee, wrapped as tightly as we could managed in Mom’s thin, bright blue blanket. (Freezer space is at a premium now, so we have to go with the smaller, thinner blankets. No cozy comforters, sorry.)

Before packing her away in the freezer – I was the one to do the honors this time, which should tell you just how much that old girl means to me – we shaved some neck and belly hair with my beard trimmer. Also, there was much more crying over the body, both in the box and after we placed it on the blanket on the cold, hard kitchen floor. This last was rather creepy; since her body was rigid by now, it didn’t fall naturally to the floor. Instead her head was raised up from the floor, her neck and head stiff and cold. It was all very roadkill-like. Kaylee’s fleshy matter definitely looked better – more peaceful – in the coffin.

Still, I snuggled and stroked her until the leaking commenced, at which point I resigned myself to her body’s fate. Damn bodily fluids! They ruin everything. I’d already cleaned her up multiple times the previous night – each seizure brought on a little poo – and the vet techs did a much better job of cleaning her up after she passed. I didn’t want to make a mess again. That’s not how I want to remember my dear girl.

2010-03-25 - Kaylee - 0006

Clean bum, see?

(excerpted from the same May 22 entry on my private tumblr)

* * * * * * *

When he left, Ralphie broke my heart into a thousand little pieces. But Kaylee? Kaylee ran off with them all. I don’t feel like I’ll ever be whole again. Even now, three months later. My life – my heart – will never be the same.

Our family feels fractured, too. Like a puzzle missing half the pieces. There are five dogs now. That still sounds like a crazy number. People continue to blink at it, like we’re animal hoarders or something. And yet it feels like so few. Like Ralphie and Kaylee were the featured acts, the rest of us just backup dancers.

2006-10-21 - Spooning-0011

10/21/06 – Kaylee spooning Ralphie, in a rare (early) moment of mutual tolerance.
——————————

Ralphie was the head of the pack, and Kaylee was our heart.

And now the rest of us are left to just muddle through.

* * * * * * *

After it was all done, I wandered into the library where, hanging above the bookcases, are large 16″x20″ portraits of all our animals. Staring at Kaylee’s picture, I sank down to the floor and bawled.

She can’t be gone.

I keep saying this over and over again, but it’s not like if I say it a million times, it’ll suddenly become true. Still.

I can’t believe she’s gone.

I sat there, knees curled to my chest, face streaked with tears – until Shane ordered dinner (Pizza Hut, again!) and then we got hammered (strawberry daiquiris) and had a Modern Family and candy marathon.

* * * * * * *

Kaylee didn’t even get a chance to finish the course of antibiotics for her snake bite; that would have been Tuesday morning. Just three pills left.

In Shane’s words: “She was tough. It took a snake bite, kidney failure, a herniated disc, and an aneurysm to bring her down.”

* * * * * * *

I didn’t want to get out of bed this morning and face a day without Kaylee; but then, I felt a little empty whenever I glanced to the left side of the bed and she wasn’t there, waiting for her morning snuggles.

A few months ago, we started this tradition where, once Ralphie and Rennie started stirring and woke us up, I’d make a little tent with the blanket and she’d join me for a few minutes of cuddles, belly rubs, and sometimes even kisses. I’d keep Rennie out with strategic hand and arm blocks, and we ignored Ralphie until he grew so loud that indifference was no longer an option, and just get ready to greet the day together. Some days our morning routine was the highlight of those 24 hours. I miss it so, so much already. Through her sickness too.

(excerpted from a May 22nd entry on my private tumblr)

2007-02-20 - Kelly & Dogs - 0004

2/20/07 – Always pushing me away!
——————————

Kaylee was never big on snuggles, but that morning routine – her idea, all hers – offered a ten minute window of opportunity for me to soak up enough affection to last the day.

Nowadays I greet the day with Rennie. When the morning light begins peeking through the curtains and everyone starts to stir, O-Ren – the baby piglet to Kaylee’s momma sow – creeps over to my side. Positioning herself just so, she flips onto her back, body stretched out alongside my head on the pillow. Eyes still gummy with sleep, I happily rub my head into her piggy fat while she stretches her neck to kiss my face: forehead, eyes, nose, mouth. Just a mess of hairy dog belly and saliva. A happy start to a day marred by pain.

One morning, still struggling through the in between of sleep and wakefulness, I spotted from the corner of my eye Mags’s face, in macro, rushing toward me. For a split second – just an instant – I mistook her for Kaylee. Sometimes it hurts, their resemblance.

* * * * * * *

I feel Kaylee’s absence everywhere. How could I not? She was my shadow, after all. My biggest fan. My BFF. My other half. The love of my life.

Kaylee used to keep me company in the gym while I exercised. I had a large crate in there, just for her. Rennie and Mags wanted to be with me, too, but never enough to tolerate being crated. For them, I set a dog bed outside one of the open doors, access blocked by a baby gate.

But Kaylee? She was special. While I practiced upper cuts and downward dog, she watched patiently from behind the bars of her temporary prison. It was worth it to her, to be near me.

One morning, as I boosted her over a baby gate and into the gym, she happened to spot a piece of tissue that had fallen to the floor. Excitedly, she darted toward it (she could move with surprising bursts of speed!), snatched the tissue up, and ran into her crate with her prize in tow. From that day forward, I made sure to leave a square of toilet paper or piece of tissue sitting on the floor for her. Like clockwork would come the mad dash to the tissue and then into her cage. I didn’t even have to coax her into it; she went not just voluntarily, but eagerly. The small things made her so ridiculously happy.

The cage is still in there, though most days it sits empty. I put a raggedy old blanket (what it lacks in thread count it more than makes up for with sentimental value from my childhood) and a stuffed animal in there, as a sort of stand-in for Kaylee. First a little pink pig, which captured Kaylee’s spirit though not her visage. That was replaced with a white teddy bear, placed face-down and lumped up to resemble her funny little body. But the fur was off-white, not at all like her snow-white fur, so eventually I removed it too.

Every so often Rennie joins me for my yoga workouts. She’s still less than thrilled with the cage, so I lay a blanket out next to my yoga mat, with a little tissue or a cardboard tube to keep her distracted. So far it’s worked. (Knock on wood.)

More often than not I go it alone, that damned empty crate mocking me from the back of the room, a painful reminder of the dog who once sat there. I both long for and dread the day when I can get through an entire yoga routine without crying.

2008-09-12 - Kaylee the Car Lover - 0001

9/12/08 – We’s can go to the movies now?
——————————

And the drive-in? Don’t even get me started on that.

* * * * * * *

Kaylee used to follow me into the bathroom while I showered, too. I even had a dog bed in there, just for her. For weeks after her passing I half-expected to find here there, body stretched out, legs kicking in mind-dream, every time I emerged from the shower.

Rennie always wanted to hang out in the bathroom with me, too. But she liked to lick the water from my wet legs as I toweled off, something that felt creepy and all kinds of wrong. And so I barred her entry.

Nowadays I leave the bathroom door open so that dogs can wander in and out at will. Rennie’s welcome to drink the water from my legs all she wants. Anything’s better than that empty bed.

* * * * * * *

There are so many things I miss about Kaylee: The look of utter content as I stroked her ears. The dirty looks she gave Mags for horning in on her territory (i.e. me). Rennie and Kaylee together, whether napping in the grass or soaking in the sun on the picnic table. (They were so terribly cute together.)

2012-04-01 - Dogs Outside - 0013

4/1/12 – Kaylee studious avoids so much as glancing in Mag’s direction as she ambles by.
——————————

Her silly little body. Fat, lumpy belly. Her piggy belly had the finest, whitest wisps of hair, through which you could see a pink belly blotted with spots of black, just like a cow. Her nipples and nails were pink and black, too. Best color combination ever.

2006-12-02 - KayleeFestivus-0014

12/2/06 – Kaylee will let you peek at her belly if you give her presents.
——————————

Kaylee’s determined bark. Unlike the other dogs, she never barked at cars or squirrels or other intruders, either real or imagined. Nope, she reserved her barking for strategic purposes only: To let us know that she wanted to go out, or to demand a dirty dish. Just a single bark. Strong, insistent. Pause for thirty seconds to give us time to respond, and then repeat. Even when bossing us around, she was so considerate.

2010-07-09 - Outside with the Dogs - 0088

7/9/10 – Silly happy yawns.
——————————

You could also tell that she was so, so grateful to us for rescuing her. Whether it was a treat or a belly rub or just a kind word, Kaylee was forever thankful. She never took anything for granted. Sure, she might demand we that relinquish our dirty dishes to her, but there was never a sense of entitlement about it; more like eager hopefulness. Mags, on the other hand…that girl is a diva.

I can’t believe that I’ll never again see her misshapen little body chasing cicadas around the patio, or grazing for slugs in the yard. Napping next to me in the grass while I read, or shouldering other dogs aside to get to me. No more morning snuggles or special routines. No more begging her to eat or take a pill during a fit of stubbornness. No more Kaylee to sooth my anxious mind or comfort my aching heart.

2012-08-15 - Kaylee, Bug Hunter - 0007

8/15/12 – Kaylee, Bug Hunter. She used to spend entire summer evenings outside, searching for bugs to eat. Sadly, this is the best picture I managed to get of it. Like I said, you can take a million pictures, but it’ll never be enough.
——————————

She should be here with me, dammit. I thought that we could help ease one another’s grief after Ralphie’s passing. Instead I just find my pain compounded.

* * * * * * *

I try to find pieces of Kaylee in the other dogs. Peedee has taken over as the designated licker of dirty dishes. Just as Kaylee did not six months ago, Peedee camps out in the kitchen during his humans’ dinner time and barks for dishes when they don’t come quickly enough. But he lacks Kaylee’s patience and grace; his barks are louder, more hysterical, occasionally bordering on the annoying.

2007-11-15 - Lunchtime - 0008

11/15/07 – The line for dirty dishes starts here.
(Left to right: Jayne, Kaylee, and Peedee.)
——————————

We lock Peedee in the bathroom with his dishes, so he can lick them clean in peace, away from nosy Finnick. It’s a continuation of the tradition we started with Kaylee, after Mags and Finnick joined our family.

O-Ren, who hasn’t quite recovered from the hellscape of May, has in her clinginess become my new shadow. (She’s always been part of my posse, but has graduated to leader.) She follows me places she didn’t dare or wasn’t allowed to before: the gym, the bathroom. Her belly nudges me awake in the morning, and soothes me to sleep at night. Rarely does she let me out of her sight.

2012-05-28 - O-Ren & Kaylee - 0001

5/28/12 – Momma sow and baby piglet, laying in the grass. I would have used one of the many pictures of Kaylee and Rennie sunbathing on the picnic table together, except I already posted one earlier.
——————————

Rennie loved Kaylee something awful. We’re both in mournng.

2012-03-24 - Dogs Outside - 0004

3/24/12 – Kaylee and Mags with their matchy squinty faces.
——————————

Mags – whose face bears such a strong resemblance to Kaylee’s that we nicknamed her mini-Kaylee and not-Kaylee (along with a variety of pasta-related names: Mags and Cheese. Baked Maggeroni. Mags Salad.) – owes her very existence to Kaylee. Ditto Finnick, since they were a packaged deal. I spotted their listing on Petfinder one Friday morning; while scrolling through the site for an adoptable animal to feature on my blog, it was Mags’s face that leapt out at me, tugging at my heartstrings. The love I felt for Kaylee was instantly displaced onto this stranger; how could I leave girl, who so reminded me of my own baby, to a certain death at the pound?

2011-12-05 - Kaylee & Jayne - 0052

12/5/11 – Kaylee and Jayne, my lovely little fireflies.
——————————

And though it took me many years to make the connection, Kaylee and Jayne both owe their lives – or at least their lives here – to one another. When we adopted them, we were looking for a bonded pair: preferably senior dogs, or dogs with medical issues or other special needs. After adopting Ralphie, Peedee, and Rennie – young, healthy dogs, the “cream of the crop” – we felt it our duty to seek out especially hard to place dogs. If it had been just Kaylee up for adoption, we would have passed her right by. While I doubt that they’re mother and daughter, as we were told – or even all that attached to one another – Jayne is yet another surviving link to Kaylee. Every time I look into Jayne’s eyes, I say a silent thank you to her for bringing me Kaylee.

* * * * * * *

If it seems like I’m mourning Kaylee to the exclusion of Ralphie, you’re right. It’s not that I don’t miss Ralphie; I do, every day. But it’s different.

Ralphie’s death was sad, but not unexpected. When you live with seven dogs, two of them seniors, you mentally prepare yourself for something like this. But to lose two dogs in less than as many weeks? It’s unthinkable. Unacceptable. Tragic.

I didn’t even have time to mourn Ralphie before Kaylee fell ill; it all happened in the space of just 48 hours. In the aftermath of Kaylee’s death, a psychologist friend of Shane’s warned us that her death would eclipse his, leading to feelings of guilt. And that’s precisely what happened. Yet it only scratches the surface.

2012-11-09 - Dogs - 0014

11/9/12 – I love Kaylee’s expression in this picture; it’s almost like Ralphie stole her spot on the blanket: “Can you believe this asshole?”
——————————

With the (possible) exception of his last few seconds, Ralphie had a much better death than Kaylee. They both spent four miserable days in the hospital, but when Ralphie was released, he was rewarded with three really awesome days before he was euthanized. On schedule, while still feeling rather shiny. We were able to plan his final 72 hours. Spoil him. Fill what remained of his life with all of his favorite things: meaty food, walks in the park, picnics outside, lots of love and cuddles and belly rubs. He went out happy. Kaylee did not.

In those last few days, we took 927 photos of Ralphie. Kaylee got a fraction of that: 325.

2001-Summer - Ralphie'MightyDog'

The very first photo we have of Ralphie is vaguely dated “Summer 2001.” I don’t know what’s more amazing – how few photos I took before digital cameras, or how many I take now that I own several.
——————————

Ralphie also enjoyed a rather good life. Before he came to live with us, he belonged to a couple who I’m pretty sure bought him from a breeder. I don’t think he was ever abused or neglected, though he certainly wasn’t cherished the way all dogs should be: when they divorced three or so years later, neither party wanted him. Instead they surrendered Ralphie to the pound. There he spent one unhappy night in a cage before he was pulled by DRNA, a breed-specific rescue group. From there he went to live with his foster mom Janet for a few months. She loved him dearly, evidenced by all the follow-up after we adopted him in July 2001. And then he spent the next 11 years and 10 months with us. Spoiled rotten, always. Ralphie had a charmed life, compared to so many other dogs.

2006-09-30 - PM-Kaylee&JayneMake5-0056 [1024x768]

9/30/06 – Jayne and Kaylee, on their way to begin the first day of the rest of their lives.
——————————

Kaylee, on the other hand. I don’t know how many hands she passed through before she found us, but they were not kind ones. She and Jayne were neglected at best: along with a third dog, her previous owners abandoned them in a rental unit, only to be found by the landlord two weeks later. At approximately eight years of age, Kaylee wasn’t spayed; she also needed several rounds and thousands of dollars of dental surgery. Jayne had heartworms. Both were scared of various things – wooden spoons, loud noises, human affection – which hinted at possible abuse. (I don’t think Jayne will ever feel wholly comfortable accepting our love.)

From the day I brought her home, I told Kaylee that she had to live to be at least sixteen years old. I wanted to give her one glorious day with us for every unhappy day she endured before us. In the end, we came up short by a year and a half.

2007-03-29 - Kaylee & Shane - 0003

3/29/07 – Kaylee relaxes on Shane’s lap after the first
(of three) rounds of major dental surgery.
——————————

I feel like she was robbed. Kaylee deserved better.

It’s more than “just” a sense of unfairness that’s deepened my grief over Kaylee. I don’t know if I truly believe in the idea of one “forever” dog, but Kaylee? She’s definitely my favorite. And I say this not to diminish my love for the other dogs – because they each hold a special place in my heart – but to emphasize how truly special a girl Kaylee was. Is. To me.

Ralphie? I loved Ralphie before I even met him. From the moment I saw his picture on DRNA’s website, I fell madly in love with that guy. At first, it wasn’t anything specific to him; rather, I just wanted a dog to call my own so badly. Ever since moving out of my parents’ house a year before, I missed having a dog by my side. In my house. On my lap. It didn’t really matter which dog. I just needed a dog, any dog. Big or small, friendly or introverted, excitable or lazy – I would have fell for him or her just the same.

2002-12-29 - RalphieBone-0009

12/29/02 – Ralphie trotted softly and carried a giant bone.
——————————

Of course, Ralphie turned out to be a pretty awesome guy. Silly and goofy, playful and snuggly. He loved to eat the faces off plush hedgehogs and hide his ginormous bones all over the house: Behind the desk, in the couch cushions, under the bed. Didn’t matter where. They were a source of constant obsession for him, always hiding and rehiding them. As though mom or dad was going to run off with them. He used to accompany me to Mike’s baseball games; he was so well-behaved, and everyone loved him. And he and Shadow were just adorable together. That was the hardest part about moving to Kansas – splitting them up.

2002-09-02 - WhiteLake-Day04Shot193 - Shadow&Ralphie

9/2/02 – Ralphie and Shadow during a family trip to White Lake.
——————————

I remember the night we first met him. We drove down to Jamestown to pick him up from Lela, with whom he’d hitched a ride from the dachshund festival in Ohio. At first he ran away from us, seeking refuge in a far corner of her yard. Even though he’d known her for all of six hours, already he was glued to Lela’s side. I sat in the back seat of the Intrepid with him on the ride home. By the halfway point I’d already won him over.

He was so well-behaved, with zero house training required. He had us stop the car after a few hours so he could pee. When we finally arrived home – at the time, home was a rented duplex – he barreled into the place and promptly took a shit on the kitchen floor. After that, in-house dumps were only employed as a show of anger. If I left him behind on a walk, for example, he might leave a pile on the library floor. It’s funny – he always went in an inconspicuous place, where we weren’t likely to spot it right away. Passive aggressive much?

2004-05-04 - Ralphie&Peedee-003

5/4/04 – Ralphie and Peedee, chillin’ on the patio. We later discovered that this is where he and Rennie made their escape: the place where the fencing runs along the patio didn’t quite meet the ground, and they were able to slip under by squeezing down in between the concrete and chain link. Luckily, Peedee was too big to fit.
——————————

When we moved to the farm in Kansas, he proved a master escape artist: slipping under the chain link fencing, or forcing the shed door open and sneaking out the back. Once he cornered a badger in there. I had to separate them with one of those giant, grocery-store brooms. The badger smacked him good on the nose, but Ralphie just wouldn’t quit. Another time I glanced out the front window, only to see him and Rennie making a gleeful break for the housing development across the road. It was a rural road with a speed limit of 55. He nearly gave me a heart attack.

2012-12-04 - Ralphie - 0004

12/4/12 – I’d give almost anything to have hair this color!
——————————

Paws like paddles. The most gorgeous red fur you’ve ever seen. (The sunset lit it on fire!) Ginormous, floppy ears. The silliest happy smile. His dogged determination while digging for critters. The Ralphie trot. Mid-run, it looked like he was flying. Or at least hovering over the ground. Obsessive Ralphie kisses! In his younger days, he pinned me down by sitting on my chest. And he loved licking the sweat off of my body – legs, arm, torso – after workouts. (Gross but endearing.) He gave the best snuggles – his stubby wiener dog legs were perfect for spooning. Yeah, Ralphie was something alright.

But.

As much as I love Ralphie (and all the other dogs!), what Kaylee and I had was just…special. Words can’t even begin to touch it. I loved her from the beginning, too, but our relationship grew and deepened with time, into something inexplicable. I look back on early photos of Kaylee – Kaylee investigating the yard on her first day home, Kaylee’s first bath, Kaylee stretched out with Shane on the couch – and wonder: Did either of us have any idea then, what great friends we’d become?

2007-08-30 - Peedee's 5th Birthday - 0033

8/30/07 – An old favorite of mine. Kaylee, on Peedee’s 5th birthday.
——————————

Shane told me that he thought of us as sisters. I can see that. She was very sisterly at times. But she was also my mother, my daughter, my grandmother. My best friend. My therapist. She was wise and vulnerable and maternal and childlike, sometimes simultaneously. She was everything to me, and more.

She was the heart and soul of our pack.

Ralphie was a huge part of my life; Kaylee was a huge part of me.

There just aren’t enough words in the English language to describe the awesomeness that was Kaylee. Some days I can’t even wrap my head around it. I don’t know how or why, but somewhere along the way we became two halves of the same being. And now I feel broken, missing. Incomplete.

2009-10-24 - Kaylee - 0013

10/24/09 – Kaylee looking fierce in her leopard costume. Look up “awesome sauce” in the dictionary, and there you’ll find Kaylee, staring back at you.
——————————

(Dammit. I just let out a feral sob. Peedee promptly got up and walked out of the room. At least there’s still Rennie. For now.)

I guess it comes down to this: I’ve made peace with Ralphie’s death. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to say the same of Kaylee.

* * * * * * *

I see pieces of Ralphie in the other dogs, too. Ralphie and Peedee and Rennie: they were the original three. A pack of their own. Shane and I used to joke that, if Ralphie and Peedee had a love child, she would look like Rennie. Short, stubby little wiener dog legs with wiry, splotchy rat terrier fur. Reddish brown spots, from her dachshund side.

2005-12-10 - DogsXMasPose-0032

12/10/05 – Peedee, Ralphie, and O-Ren pose for the year’s x-mas card.
——————————

It was Peedee and Rennie who got Ralphie hooked on tissue; before them, he never cared for it. At fifteen plus, he was still stretching his loooong body out onto the living room table to steal a snotty piece. I was so amazed at this feat that I let him have it. Hey, old man earned it!

* * * * * * *

Right now, pictures of Ralphie and Kaylee – and occasionally the two together – pop up on the digital photo frame with some frequency. But as time crawls by and the collection grows, the percentage of memory occupied by their photos will steadily decrease. One day they’ll represent but a small slice of our many adoptees, loved and lost. It hurts my heart to think of it.

* * * * * * *

Reminders of Ralphie and Kaylee greet us everywhere. On my desktop are shortcuts to their health files. I keep one for each animal (myself included), to help me keep track of their medication, illnesses, exercise routines, etc. January 1st I close the old files and make new ones for the coming year. I’ve already decided that Ralphie and Kaylee’s names will stay on my desktop at least until then…as much as it hurts to pass them by while adding to the other dogs’ files.

A few months into 2013, I typed up a list of everyone’s medications (so much to remember!) and taped it to the cabinet door. Even though it’s no longer needed – everyone gets glucosamine, with the exception of Jayne, who also takes Proin for a leaky bladder – there it sits. While we donated most of their remaining medication to Wayside Waifs, we decided to keep a pill each of Ralphie and Kaylee’s thyroid and heart meds. In the original bottles, right there behind the dog food. The dogs’ cabinet just felt too empty without them.

The sheet on which we recorded Ralphie’s allergy shots is nearby, stuck to the side of the fridge. The last one was on 4/15/13. His antigens have a permanent place in the butter drawer. We’d donate them, but they’re formulated specifically for the individual.

At mealtimes, I find myself instinctively veering around the side of the counter, when I should be walking straight ahead, into the office. The laundry room hallway was always where Kaylee took her meals; the office is Jayne’s spot. For a long time after their deaths, I counted out six or seven dishes instead of just five. It can be difficult to relearn routines.

When Ralphie first went blind, Shane put these sticky, scented dots all along the baseboards and in the doorways to help Ralphie better navigate his surroundings. I hated them. They’re ugly, and a bunch of the weaker ones fell off in the first few weeks. They were constantly jamming up the vacuum cleaner. Now, I can’t imagine ever taking them down. I’m sure our future real estate agent will have something to say about that.

* * * * * * *

In the days after Ralphie died, we thought about volunteering as a foster home with Dachshund Rescue of North America – the group that gave us Ralphie. We’d toyed with the idea for some time, but I always worried that I’d become too attached to fosters to let them go. We thought about starting with cats, on account of I’d probably have an easier time giving them up. Cats are nice enough, but I’m a dog person all the way. Or perhaps we could foster an animal who already had a home: those of deployed service members or, better yet, women seeking refuge in domestic violence shelters. Problem was, no such program existed in Kansas City circa 2010. Then Ralphie lost an eye, and then his sight, and when Mags and Finnick came into the picture, we were pretty much filled to capacity.

After Kaylee passed, I began to seriously consider volunteering as a foster home for a DV program. I even fantasized about starting my own program if I couldn’t find one locally. Luckily, this proved unnecessary; after a few days of searching, I stumbled upon Rose Brooks. They established a shelter and foster network for nonhumans after a woman refused to leave an abusive situation unless her Great Dane could come with. The dog had saved her life by laying on top of her during an especially brutal attack. The woman’s boyfriend beat both her and the dog with a hammer; the dog suffered a broken hip and two broken ribs. His courage saved not just her, but countless other animals. It was because of him that Rose Brooks started offering refuge to nonhuman animals in 2012.

Shane and I intend to apply as a foster home this fall. I can’t think of a better way to honor Kaylee’s memory; to give both her and Ralphie’s deaths meaning. Fostering isn’t something we were able to do while they were alive; Ralphie, especially, demanded quite a bit of our time and attention the last year or so. And it will be a long, long time before I’m able to adopt another dog. (Famous last words!) But this? This I can do. I think. I’m going to try my damnedest.

Of all the dogs, Kaylee – with her unaccounted-for puppies – has been my sort-of mascot for vegan feminism: a symbol of the many ways in which the exploitation of women and female nonhumans intersects (specifically, in our reproductive systems). Caring for the companion animals of abused women and children? Who themselves are likely to be abused too? Kaylee would most definitely approve. I can almost feel her beaming her assent down to me from the stars.

lol kaylee - just needs a hammer

10/28/08 – lol kaylee – just needs a hammer
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I think it could be good for the other dogs, too: having a rotating roster of new dogs to keep them occupied and entertained. Shiny new friends. They need that.

If and when we start, I imagine that I’ll be unable to talk about it much, for safety reasons. But yeah. I’m really looking forward to it.

* * * * * * *

“These were the lovely bones that had grown around my absence: the connections – sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at great cost, but often magnificent – that happened after I was gone. And I began to see things in a way that let me hold the world without me in it. The events that my death wrought were merely the bones of a body that would become whole at some unpredictable time in the future. The price of what I came to see as this miraculous body had been my life.”

– Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones (page 320)

THIS. This is why I’m so eager to open up my home and heart to foster the dogs and cats and rats and whomever of women in need: if Kaylee and Ralphie were still around, this isn’t something I’d have the resources to do – and, in so doing in their absence, their deaths take on a new meaning. Every dog, every cat, every family we save will be because of them. Ralphie and Kaylee, Kaylee and Ralphie. My heart and bones.

Soon. Very, very soon.

(excerpted from a June 6th post on my private tumblr)

* * * * * * *

2006-11-22 - Shane-n-Dogs-0005

11/22/06 – Peedee, Kaylee, Ralphie, and Shane piled on the couch.
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Oftentimes I wish I was a more skilled writer. Ralphie and Kaylee deserve a much more eloquent tribute than I can ever hope to give them. Instead, I find myself relying on the words of Alice Sebold, Philip Pullman, Stephen King, and Joss Whedon. Bones and stars, billy bumblers and Browncoat buddies.

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Six and a half years; it sounds like a long time, but it’s just a moment. Nothing in the grand scheme of things; a mere fraction of my own life. Blink and it’s over.

The time I spent with Kaylee isn’t remotely proportional to what she meant to me. I need to hold tight to everything I have.

I’m terrified of forgetting Kaylee. (And Ralphie too.) Not in her entirety – she’ll never cease to exist to me – but bits and pieces. If it’s true that she lives on in my heart – and now only in my heart – even the smallest fragment is too important to let slip away. It’s up to me to keep her alive. All of her. Even the smallest detail forgotten is a tiny death of sorts.

I worry that I waited too long to write this post. For weeks the anxiety has gnawed pits into my insides. The events of the last few months have been so terribly painful to think about, that more and more I find myself actively pushing them aside, out of mind. And then I feel guilty for not thinking more of Kaylee (and Ralphie!). It hurts to remember her, and it hurts not to remember her.

And I guess that’s what this post is about, for me. Getting it all down in pixels so I can grant myself a brief respite. A short vacation from the carrying the crushing weight of May. The details are all here for when I wish to remember; and when I’d rather forget, I can do that too, minus the anxiety of killing Kaylee (and Ralphie!) all over again.

I keep writing and writing, though, unable to stop, because of this lingering fear that I’ve overlooked some important detail. Silly, right? It’s not like I can’t add to this post any time I want. Or write a whole new one. As if everything that appears here is canon – and that which doesn’t, never happened.

It is silly, and yet it continues to strangle my heart.

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In a recent (and quite timely, for me) Salon article, Jill Filipovic explained the growing role of social media in helping mourners to navigate their grief:

“Let me tell you about her” allows the grieving person to explain, in the midst of a familiar ritual, why their loved one was particularly special. The impulse to explain how a person was can feel incredibly urgent in the immediate wake of that person’s death. The telling of stories isn’t just a way to make up for the fact that the dead person can no longer make their own stories; the telling solidifies those things in the memory of the teller, making real again and again the fact that though the person is gone, you’ll remember them.

There’s a fear behind that, too: What happens when I start to forget?

To stave off the forgetting, we memorialize. We write funeral announcements and obituaries and headstones. We visit graves. And now, we make Facebook pages, we write blog posts and we tweet. The urgency in “telling you about her” spills over into the Internet and onto social media, and it seems that to many people in pain, nothing feels more natural. Yet looking in, it can feel unseemly.

Make no mistake: I write this post primarily for myself, and for the select few friends and family who want to know what happened…but to whom, as of yet, I’m unable to offer an explanation in person. (I haven’t spoken to my mom since Mother’s Day. Instead, she’s kept up-to-date via Facebook and my sister, with whom I’ve also communicated solely via social media. I still can’t talk about it without breaking down into tears.)

But to those of who have stuck by me through this whole mini-novella: thank you. Thank you for listening as I told you about Ralphie and Kaylee. Thank you for your compassion and support. It means so, so much to me.

They were great dogs. The best. I wish you all could have known them the way I did.

* * * * * * *

I had hoped that, in writing this post, I’d be able to work through my pain and grief, finally arriving at the place where I’d be able to let go. This was to be the last stop on my journey: photos (sorting, editing, uploading; sharing here and on tumblr; making photo albums; compiling pictures for a digital photo frame), craft projects, blog post. And, finally: cremation.

Three months later, and I’m no closer to surrendering their bodies to the flames. Ralphie and Kaylee’s earthly vessels still sit in my freezer, stacked like bags of vegetables. An atheist purgatory.

I haven’t looked at the bodies since we packed them away. A few times I’ve opened the top of the freezer, but I’m always able to stay my hand before it can shoot out, lift up a corner of Kaylee’s temporary shroud. I don’t want to see them frozen. Ice cold. Yet I still can’t let them go.

Part of me worries that I’ll regret it. That one day I’ll wish I had their taxidermied bodies to hold and pet. On Oddities I saw a couple who bought these wolves (I KNOW UGH) made up like stuffed animals. I don’t think I’d like stiff, mounted Ralphie and Kaylee. But stuffed animals? Maybe.

When humans die, they leave so much of themselves behind. So many bits and pieces for their survivors to grasp onto: books and essays and paintings and journals and whole houses packed with stuff. But dogs? They have so little. I have thousand of pictures, of course. Memories frozen in time. A few videos, even. But precious few belongings: collars, harnesses, and leads. Kaylee’s Shindig dress. Ralphie’s old hedgehog, ripped to pieces. But most of the dogs’ belongings are shared. Bed and blankets and costumes and dishes. Community property, to be passed down through the generations.

I know that stuffing Kaylee sounds morbid, but surely you can concede that it’s an understandable impulse on my part?

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2007-12-22 - Kelly & the Babies - 0009

12/22/07 – Me and my babies.
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I wish I knew what to say. But words can’t right my toppled world. Words can’t make everything okay, or ease the grief burrowed painfully in my heart. Words can’t bring Ralphie and Kaylee back from the dead.

But this isn’t how I want to end this post, either.

So instead I’ll say:

Goodbye, dear friends. I hope our atoms find each other again, some day. Until then, just know that I love you both so very much. Across time and space. Now and forever, wherever nature may take us. And much, much more than I can express in just 18,365 words.

* * * * * * *

Where To Bury A Dog

by Ben Hur Lampman

2002-06-17 - Kelly&RalphieAtTheGame-0019

6/17/02 – Ralphie and I taking in a baseball game. High school, but still.
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There are various places within which a dog may be buried. We are thinking now of a setter, whose coat was flame in the sunshine, and who, so far as we are aware, never entertained a mean or an unworthy thought. This setter is buried beneath a cherry tree, under four feet of garden loam, and at its proper season the cherry strews petals on the green lawn of his grave. Beneath a cherry tree, or an apple, or any flowering shrub of the garden, is an excellent place to bury a good dog. Beneath such trees, such shrubs, he slept in the drowsy summer, or gnawed at a flavorous bone, or lifted head to challenge some strange intruder. These are good places, in life or in death. Yet it is a small matter, and it touches sentiment more than anything else.

For if the dog be well remembered, if sometimes he leaps through your dreams actual as in life, eyes kindling, questing, asking, laughing, begging, it matters not at all where that dog sleeps at long and at last. On a hill where the wind is unrebuked and the trees are roaring, or beside a stream he knew in puppyhood, or somewhere in the flatness of a pasture land, where most exhilarating cattle graze. It is all one to the dog, and all one to you, and nothing is gained, and nothing lost — if memory lives. But there is one best place to bury a dog. One place that is best of all.

If you bury him in this spot, the secret of which you must already have, he will come to you when you call — come to you over the grim, dim frontiers of death, and down the well-remembered path, and to your side again. And though you call a dozen living dogs to heel they should not growl at him, nor resent his coming, for he is yours and he belongs there.

People may scoff at you, who see no lightest blade of grass bent by his footfall, who hear no whimper pitched too fine for mere audition, people who may never really have had a dog. Smile at them then, for you shall know something that is hidden from them, and which is well worth the knowing.

The one best place to bury a good dog is in the heart of his master.

2007-09-14 - Our First Place - 0078

9/14/07 – Peedee, Kaylee, and Ralphie in the foyer of their new house.
Decorated with a heart in a pawprint, because that’s how we roll.
I’m so happy we moved when we did.
The yard, the fields, the walls, the couch: pieces of them linger everywhere.
It’s mostly a pleasant haunting.
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11 Responses to “Saying Goodbye (The Ralphie and Kaylee Post)”

  1. “Triple Threat” and “Tomato Throwdown” End-of-Summer Pizzas » V for Vegan: easyVegan.info Says:

    […] I made and froze a ton of tomato sauce – but since freezer space is at a premium this year (ugh so morbid!), that isn’t really an option. And so I’ve basically been eating them on everything: […]

  2. VeganMoFo VII: Vegan A to Z! » V for Vegan: easyVegan.info Says:

    […] but had to shelve the idea due to lack of time and energy. (Regular readers might remember that I lost my two eldest dogs, Ralphie and Kaylee, back in May – a mere twelve days apart. Not to be a bummer, but […]

  3. C is for Cheesy Fries » V for Vegan: easyVegan.info Says:

    […] This is a really simple, super-delicious dish that Shane I binged on entirely too often in May. (Not to be a killjoy, but this happened.) Basically it’s just frozen fries baked in the oven (deep frying would be too much, even for […]

  4. Eighteen Little Mags & Finnick Things » V for Vegan: easyVegan.info Says:

    […] really glad that Mags and Finnick came into our lives when they did; ever since Ralphie and Kaylee passed away in May, our house has felt terribly empty, even with five dogs. I can’t imagine how lonely it […]

  5. A Good Death » V for Vegan: easyVegan.info Says:

    […] of the few comforts I took in Ralphie’s death was that I was able to make it a good one. We chose the time and place he left us; we planned and […]

  6. Katie Says:

    I just read this whole thing and I am absolutely covered in tears and snot. I took pictures of Chester in his last days, i’ve never posted them but I look at the sometimes and you can see how thin he had gotten and how there was nothing in his eyes. I will never get over it because he was my best dog (and my first dog as an adult), but I know it was right.

  7. Kelly Garbato Says:

    @ Katie – Aw, thanks. The letting go can be impossibly painful, but I’d do it a million times over, especially for these two.

  8. Kelly Garbato Says:

    Heck, for any dogs. I just love dogs so much!

  9. Sixteen Great Big Ralphie Things » V for Vegan: easyVegan.info Says:

    […] Ralphie. I really thought you’d be here. I was convinced, right up until those last few days, that you’d live to see your sixteenth birthday – and beyond. You were so damn healthy […]

  10. 2014 Real Book Challenge: January Roundup » V for Vegan: easyVegan.info Says:

    […] that my numbers would be down, on accounta I finally began fostering this month – after years of wanting to and months of waiting for my application to go through (the holidays, yo!) – and they were […]

  11. Leslie Gamble Says:

    This was a touching read. I am glad I am not the only one who connects so deeply with their animals. Letting go is hard, but rest assured that you will see them again.

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