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My mom is a big fan of yours and told me I should write to you about this, so here it is. For as long as I can remember, our family dog Riley has been part of my life. He’s a Golden Retriever and just the nicest dog ever. He’s almost 13 now, which I realize for a dog is kind of old, but my parents told me yesterday that our vet said Riley has to be put to sleep next week. I’m really mad about this. I realize Riley’s not as strong and energetic as he used to be, but that doesn’t mean he needs to be killed! My parents said that even though Riley seems OK on the outside, he’s very sick inside and that the best thing we can do is make it painless for him to go peacefully. I know my parents are sad about it too, because when they told us it was the first time I saw my dad cry real hard. My sister and I have been begging them to not listen to the vet and to let Riley live longer, but they won’t listen to us. I know pets can’t live forever, but I can’t bring myself to end Riley’s life when he could maybe still live longer, even for just a few more days. What should I do?
Help Me Save My Riley
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Dear Help Me Save My Riley,
I’m so sorry to hear about Riley. This is one of the hardest things ever. I totally understand why you feel angry and why this seems so frustrating. When pets get old and sick, it’s hard to tell sometimes what they’re feeling. They might look OK, but because they can’t talk or communicate as easily, we have to trust the animal doctors to really understand what is happening with their health. Sometimes when an animal gets sick, it can be very painful for them.
When I was 12 years old, my parents decided to put our dog, Tavish, to sleep. Just like you, they had Tavish since even before I was born. I had grown up with him as a member of the family and never really imagined a time when he wouldn’t be there. One day, it seemed like out of nowhere, Tavish changed. The fur on his face turned grey, he didn’t like to go outside very much anymore, and he would bump into walls because he couldn’t see too well. Even though I didn’t know how sick he was, I could tell he was getting old because he laid around and slept most of the time and didn’t like to run around and play.
My mom had to start carrying him up and down our stairs because he couldn’t climb them anymore. Sometimes he would crawl under my parent’s bed and stay there all day. One time, when we let him outside to use the bathroom, he walked away and didn’t come back for a couple days. He’d never done that before. We finally found him far from the neighborhood, in a dirty parking lot behind a gas station. My dad said sometimes animals start acting different when they are getting old and they want to go away. That hurt my feelings because I didn’t understand why Tavish would want to be away from us. My dad said it didn’t mean Tavish didn’t love us anymore, and it didn’t mean he wanted to be away from us, it was just that Tavish was getting ready to be away from everything.
He was getting ready to die.
That crushed me. It was the first time I really had to think about death. And even though Tavish was a dog, and not a person, he was as much a member of our family as I was. Eventually, Tavish had to be kept in an empty room in our house. For the last couple days before we put him to sleep, he was too weak and frail to go outside to use the bathroom anymore, and he just went in the room. He would make funny sounds and would sometimes cry. But we couldn’t really do anything for him except give him water. He didn’t eat really anymore. The room was a mess and I was scared to even look inside. Tavish was so different that I was even scared of him. He snapped at my mom sometimes when she would try to clean him or comfort him. We knew it wasn’t because he didn’t like us, it was because he was scared and sick.
The day my parents took him to the vet to be put to sleep was actually a beautiful summer day, exactly the kind of day that Tavish loved. We would like to play outside with sticks, or go hunting for tennis balls on a country road by our house. My parents didn’t want us to go with them to the vet, and I was too scared to go anyway. They arranged for my brother and I to go play mini-golf with some friends of ours. It was probably the saddest game of mini-golf anyone has ever played. It all just felt otherworldly- – like I was out of my body — here, in this sunny day and fun game, and then there, wondering what my parents were doing at the vet, and if Tavish had been put to sleep yet, and dreading having to go back home after the golf because then it would actually be done and have happened.
There was this floating in-between moment where I felt like I was in a dream, or a nightmare. I didn’t even feel very much of anything, not happy nor sad. Just going through the motions of basic existence — breathe, take some steps, putt the ball, look at my watch. Looking back, that was the first time I had to cope with something — to somehow find the strength to move and live and breathe, when you feel like you can’t do anything. We finished the mini-golf and got dropped off back home. I don’t remember anything else except everyone crying for what seemed like many days after.
A good dog is the closest thing to a miracle angel from God that I can think of. Dogs are the ultimate role models. They are selfless and show unconditional love. They are noble and exhibit sincere companionship, fearless devotion, and courage. They contain within them a genuinely psychic intuition, and a tireless cheerful energy. Dogs are geniuses of loving kindness.
And perhaps their best feature: an unparalleled ability to bring out the best in us. They can change our entire state of mind with one look, one cuddle, one little jump. I’ve been in some of my most deeply depressed states, and sometimes just thinking about a dog has lifted my spirits. Getting to spend time with a loving dog is a true privilege. They say that animals experience more of reality — they hear a broader range of sounds, see a more complex view, and use all of their senses to grasp a different and perhaps richer version of the world than we have access to. Imagine what sort of intelligence they posses that we can’t even conceive of. If there ever was to be an animal we should aspire to, it is the dog. They are here to teach us how to be better animals ourselves.
Right now, all you can do is hug and comfort Riley as much as you can in his final days, and remember that it’s hard for your parents too, so try and go easy on them. Even though you’ll never feel good about Riley going away, you can feel good about helping it not be physically painful for him. The doctor will take care of Riley, so you can trust that the last moments of his life are as good as they can be. And Riley will live on — as all loved ones do — in your memories and in your soul. I think the most important thing you can do for Riley now is to try and live everyday like he did, by being an animal that brings out the best in everyone around you. Stay strong.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 9, 2014
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