The diagnosis came in June: old dog, new limp, X-ray, bad news. Bert had bone cancer, a lump growing in his left foreleg. We could amputate, the vet said, but that probably wouldn’t stop the spread. And did it make sense for a 12-year-old Bulldog anyway? Molly and I knew that pet owners can talk themselves into almost anything, and we didn’t want that for Bert. So we opted for pain meds and no heroic measures. We’d know when it was time to put him down, the vet assured us.
“It could be five days,” he said when we asked how long. “It could be a few weeks.”
This prognosis proved errant. The thing on Bert’s foreleg grew bigger, but still he played, wagged, ate with gusto. The new puppy we’d promised our four-year-old daughter, Larkin, arrived on the scene, injecting a large dose of puppy joy. The Old Man loved it. Summer passed, and he seemed to thrive — cancer or no cancer.
He’s the Lance Armstrong of dogs, we joked.
In truth, his disease was getting bad. But, like most changes in life, the badness deepened incrementally and its progress was hard to see. Bert got up a little less, limped a little more. At some point during the fall, he became incontinent at night, so we covered the mudroom floor with newspapers and moved his bed to the doorway. That became the new normal. At least he wasn’t pooping in his bed, Molly and I told ourselves. The mudroom, that’s sorta, kinda like doing it outside, right?
Basic fact of human nature: for better or worse, we adjust.
A few days before Thanksgiving, however, something happened. From then on, the bad leg was useless, flapping and splaying at weird angles. Gamely, Bert persisted, hobbling like John Cleese in the Ministry of Funny Walks. We carried him outside now. Sixty-three pounds of Bulldog, six times a day — that was hard. But the strain wasn’t really on our backs; hauling him around like a sack of potatoes violated the dignity we accord creatures in our care, these companionate animals. One day, I left Bert outside to pee and came out minutes later to find him lying in the garden, sunk down in the dead leaves like a garden ornament, looking up at me.
It was time.
We had hoped that when it came, Bert would be semi-comatose — “ready,” as the vet had said, not looking up with alert brown eyes. But we can’t fine-tune the exit from life, not even for our pets.
There remained the question of how to tell Larkin. What do you say to a four-year- old about the imponderable mystery of life and death? Of course, calling something “imponderable” is mostly a way of saying “I don’t want to.” The truth is that death is eminently ponderable (and if you think your four-yearold isn’t already pondering it, you’re kidding yourself.) At my computer, I googled, “How do I tell my four-yearold we’re putting our dog down?” Click, an instant panoply of reassurances. The angels want him. He’s chewing a bone in Doggie Heaven. He’ll be with Grandma/ Grandpa/our cat Tuffy. There was the Rainbow Bridge poem (“Inspired by a Norse Legend”), its couplets describing an eternal romp in pet paradise. On this golden land, they wait and they play/Till the Rainbow Bridge they cross over one day.
Such sentimentality in the face of a child’s capacity for honesty struck me as craven, even as I wondered whether my aversion to well-intended bromides was really a form of arrogance that would leave me empty-handed in the crunch, and our daughter unconsoled. Well, you build with the tools you have. No rainbow bridges from me, or from Molly either. Instead, we brought Larkin home from preschool on the appointed day, sat down with her in the kitchen and spoke to her as calmly as we could. Did she remember back in June, we asked her, when we’d found out Bert had cancer and we thought he was going to die soon?
She looked up warily.
“Well,” I continued, “we got really lucky. Bert hung on so much longer than we expected. We thought it might be five days, and it’s been five months. But now — ”
Her face reddened, and she interrupted. “I don’t want Bert to die.”
“It’s his time, honey. He can’t walk. A dog needs to walk.”
“No! I don’t want him to die!”
Molly put her arm around Larkin.