The night of November 3rd, to be exact. It was a Thursday.
It was happening so slowly, for so long. We knew, ‘that’ day would come. But it wouldn’t be anytime soon, we told ourselves. As he romped at the edge of the surf on the beach with us during those wonderfully lazy, long summer days, as he demanded meatballs with the dinner he eagerly ate each night, and rolled around on his back like a puppy in the tall grass with the sea-breezes dancing through his perfect brown curls while waiting for his doggy ice-cream treats from the local clam shack (complete with a milkbone topper) - it seemed like he might somehow defy the rules of nature. Everything about Donovan was mystical, and wise. Supernatural, even. He was that just that kind of dog. If any dog might live forever, I figured, Donovan could do it.
Of course, that didn’t happen. Even the most soulful dogs are mortal. Even the most treasured ones can not be saved by love alone. And sadly (or maybe mercifully), that epiphany came quickly. Suddenly, the dying was happening fast.
In the days before he left us, as the cancer began to steal the bounce in his step and his spirit, the incredibly stoic dog I'd always known to be a fearless, resilient survivor, midway through his 13th year, finally started to tip his hand. He became noticeably slower, and more fragile. I didn't want to see it.
But I did. You couldn't not.
Yet he did so love the water. And he did so love the sun. And I craved every waning second I could share with him.
So we accepted it. Death was waiting.
In the meantime, we were going to live.
I started researching push strollers I could belt him into, or ones to pull behind my bike. I devised a way to support his belly (in a way he wouldn’t find demeaning) as he stood, or tried to climb the stairs. We bought ramps. When he stopped eating his dinner, we started cooking for him - trying to come up with something he might want. When he stopped eating breakfast, we started cooking in the morning too. I remember finding myself, one late night, standing in a grocery store. He’d rejected everything I had on hand, so I’d headed out to see what else I might try. Alone in the aisle, desperately searching for an answer, a woman gently approached and asked ‘has your dog stopped eating too?’. I don’t know how she knew that, but she did. And I was grateful for the comfort of her understanding. She recommended something, and I bought it, but he wouldn’t eat that either. He just couldn’t. And it absolutely broke my heart.
There were no more long walks. Instead, I was carrying him to my car, laying him in the backseat and taking a ride down to the ocean. It wasn’t a perfect, or a permanent, solution. But the days of perfect permanent solutions, I knew, were now long gone. This, I figured, was the next best thing. I kept checking on him. He kept smiling. But I worried. At one point, simultaneously thinking we were doing too much and yet somehow not enough, wondering if we were unknowingly asking him to stay earthbound for us, I talked to an animal communicator to have her ask him directly - was he ready to go? Was he holding on to make us happy? Should I just stop trying all these things?
No, she said. He says not yet. He’s tired, yes. But he still has things to do. He says he wants to stay.
Okay then, I thought. We’ll keep making it work. We’ll keep making it work until the day he decides it's time to say goodbye.
So we cooked. And we adjusted. We bought baby food, dehydrated chicken breast and watermelon (the only things he’d now reliably eat). We stacked stairs together and crafted safety walls around them so he could still make his way to the tall bed he loved, the one that let him see the ocean. We carried him. And we kept driving to the sea. Somehow, every day, three times per, together we would watch the sun rise, settle into the afternoon, and finally fall again each night. Our friends and their dogs were always there too. Through all of the things that were now different in how we moved through life, I still found comfort, and camaraderie, in the routine that stayed the same.
And then, November 3rd.
He’d been different that morning. I couldn’t possibly explain just how with words, but my gut, my instinct, knew. He slept, as always, through most of the afternoon. But he was restless. He looked sad. He was still drinking, but now eating next to nothing. We’d gotten so many opinions from so many vets in the last two weeks, it was hard to know what the right thing was to do. There were new pain meds to try (which he hated) and new approaches to consider. New decisions to be made.
But that day, truthfully, I wondered if soon none of the opinions would much matter anymore. It felt as if the corner had been turned.
I’d gone to class that night, then traveled home. And to my delight and surprise, instead of seeing my sweet boy curled up and sleeping as I expected, when I walked in the door, Donovan was up! He was happy! It was almost as if time had shifted backwards a year or two, and now there was a blazing light, an incredibly brilliant one of love, and health, and happiness glowing in his eyes again. I’m not a religious person, but if I were I’d likely describe it as the light of God or of some other inexplicably beautiful higher power. Whatever you want to call it - that light was beaming out of my beautiful dog. Wildly even.
He was back!
For as long as we’d know Donovan (we adopted him when he was 10) one of his favorite things to eat had been my husband’s handmade pasta. His most cherished variety: extra-long fettuccine noodles. To be fair, these were one of my favorite things to eat as well (my husband being quite the chef) and over the years the three of us had often shared these together with great joy. When Donovan stopped eating, John tried making them again. Each time though, Donovan would take a bite or two. Then stop. And sigh. And lay back down.
John decided to try one more time. Maybe it was the guidance of that light, or intuition. Maybe it was just plain luck. But something told him this night might be different. So we said a prayer, John made his pasta, and once more offered Donovan a plate of noodles.
This time, Donovan ate his fill. He ate them with joy. He ate them with gusto. He ate them all, licked the plate clean, and then settled onto his bed with a look of complete contentment. We wept. Happy tears. It was the first time he’d eaten like that in weeks. We laughed and hugged one another. We hugged him. We marveled at the miracle of love, and the incredible power of noodles. We celebrated. For a few tiny, precious moments, everything seemed right in the world.
About an hour later, Donovan walked into the kitchen, laid down, and told us it was time for him to go.
They say ‘you’ll know’. In enormous decisions, and small ones, it turns out that’s true. You’ll know when you’ve found the right wedding dress or the suit that just fits like a glove. When you’ve unearthed the most perfectly plum-colored flats on the sale rack to match your new sundress. You’ll know when you’ve found the right gym, the right job, the right house. When you’ve found the right perfectly frosted chocolate donut. You’ll absolutely know when you’ve met the love of your life.
You’ll know, too, when it’s time to let your dog go home.
They will tell you. Donovan did. And when they do, and you listen…when you really really listen, you might find the moment entirely shattering. It might feel as if doing what you now know you have to do will crush you in the very deepest part of your soul (yes). It might terrify you (absolutely), or make you scream in agony and fill you with a pain you didn’t ever even know existed (that too, for me, in spades). It might make you exhale for the first time in months, awash in this strangely comforting gratitude - knowing that your dog trusts you enough to be clear, to make it certain what they want and need (yes). It might feel merciful somehow (this too) as you know his pain will finally end. It might be all of those things or none of them. I’m sure every dog and every person lives this differently. But when they tell us it is time to say goodbye, no matter how it feels to us, their request must be honored. We love them. They have asked. We promised. We must. It’s simple. Awful, for sure, but simple.
November 3rd. Donovan asked. We listened.
We laid on the floor together in the kitchen, and we cried. With his head in John’s lap and his body in mine, we cried and cried for what felt like an eternity. There was no discussion - after weeks of trying to figure out what needed to happen, what Donovan would want, how to do the right thing, how to ease his pain and give him the very best life for as long as he had - after weeks of all of that, in one moment we looked at each other, and at him, and were in instant agreement.
We gathered Donovan up in one of his favorite plush fleece blankets, and I laid with him in the back of the car as John drove to the emergency animal hospital. Donovan loved the car - he never took a ride without going from window to window, chattering along with a howl or a whimper or an all out song to the heavens as the miles ticked by. But this night, as I laid with him, keeping him warm, telling him that we heard him, and we were going to help him stop the pain, that soon he wouldn’t have to fight anymore, he simply laid with me quietly. I started trying to breathe at his tempo as that seemed to help us both. The only light in the back of the car was from the moon, but it would catch his eyes and I could see. Donovan did not look scared. He was smiling, and at peace. And in the quiet, with his lead, I realized what we had to do. As agonizing as it was, I knew we had to make this last part good. He deserved nothing less. He’d earned that, in spades. No talk of sadness, though there was plenty of that around. No time for that at all. Now, it had to be about sunny beach days and stuffed squeaker toys. It had to be about meatballs and car rides, romps in the snow, and plates full of noodles. We had to try as hard as we could to make his dying day as wonderful as all the ones he’d lived.
I had no idea how to do that. I had no idea how to hold back my grief and make what felt like this horrifying thing that was happening, good. But we were determined, for him, to try. Donovan had the world figured out. He lived his life with grace, with humor, and with incredible resiliency and dignity. He taught me so much about what it meant to love and be loved. How to live in each moment, one by one as they came.
He taught me how to be alive. And now, as the circle wound back to where it started, he was teaching me how to die.
We got to the hospital. The light in his eyes was back. He was now, miraculously, filled with strength, with purpose. He jumped out of the car as if he’d never had trouble walking in his life. When the kind woman took him from us to place the catheter in his leg, and she opened the door to let him back into the room with us, I kid you not, he was wearing - unmistakably - a giant ridiculous grin. It was the one that unapologetically showcased all his crooked worn down teeth. The one that had been gone for some time, but was suddenly back to grace these final moments. It was the one from years ago that he flashed impishly when he’d stolen a cheese slice off the counter and left a corner of it hanging from the side of his mouth, or when he’d scarfed down a sausage, or swallowed his 12th birthday cupcake down in one gulp. The one he sported when he jumped with joy after tossing his body into the ocean without warning on a cold March morning. His tail was wagging. His belly was full of his noodles, hand-made by a man who loved him with his whole soul. His spirit was strong. He was ready to go. He wanted to make very sure we knew that. He wanted to make sure these last moments were good ones - filled not with sadness, or longing, or grief. He simply wanted them to be filled with joy. He demanded it. And dammit - if we weren’t gonna laugh on our own, well then - he was gonna make it happen.
And so, he did. He got his wish.
With his guidance, we did our very best to honor our spectacular dog. We laughed with him. We thought of all the good times, and the times he made us laugh. We remembered the way he'd bolt out of the bathroom and throw himself on the ground, feet flying in the air, after getting a warm bath. The way he hated meeting tourists, but loved meeting men with trucks in uniforms. How overjoyed he was the day our garbage men almost let him ride up the street with them, because he'd charmed their socks off.
We told him it was okay to go. We held him close, one of us on either side of his body. And then, in one split second, as midnight drew near, he was gone. Gently, with lightness and with freedom, his spirit soared up into the sky. I swore I could see it happening, that I thought I heard a ‘whoosh’ though who knows if that’s really true - the last few moments were sort of a blur of tears, of spirit and of breath. Of awe, and reverence and grace. Now free of the body that no longer served him, he could dance and leap and bound about again. He was free to continue teaching lessons of love, and life, while romping wildly in the clouds. Which he did, in a most magical way, when we welcomed our new rescued IWS, a puppy named Cosette, into our lives a few months later.
Donovan was a dog like no other. Mystical, and magical. Supernatural. Otherworldly.
He died on November 3rd. It was a Thursday.
I miss him, every second of each and every day. I hope, when my time comes, I can say goodbye with an ounce of his vigor, grace, and elegance. If I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by people who love me when that day comes, I hope I can make them laugh with gusto, and breathe, and celebrate- that I fill my family with the kind of peace that Donovan gave to us.
But he did what all dogs will do, if we let them. They model for us what it is to live in the present. And to die in the present. And to do all of it with gratitude. With humor.
And with love.
In life, and in death, what an incredible gift it is for us to love (and be loved) by a dog.