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Saturday, March 22, 2008

12 Good Years/ 4 Bad Hours

He got sick at 1:30a.m. He'd soiled the laundry room floor and was unable to get outside without falling. He came back into the laundry room and collapsed in exhaustion. For the next four and a half agonizing hours he panted, struggled for breath, coughed up mucous, tried in vain to find a more comfortable position, and mouthed muted woofs that begged for some kind of help. His stomach began to swell. Was it a tumor that had suddenly gone berserk? No...mostly likely it was bloat...a tendency inherent to the Greater Swiss breed, and one which we'd successfully fought off for 12 years. But this would be a final, fatal bloat. He was old, weak, and already too far gone. And there was no emergency vet clinic within 120 miles of us.

Signs of shock were already setting in: cold feet, cold ears, pale gums, rapid and shallow breathing. His eye were at first wild, and then they turned hazy. His stomach was as tight as a drum, and had the sound of a bongo when I lightly thumped it.

By 3:30 a.m. he was fairly despondent and restful, in between short bouts of thrashing and crying out. One half of his body wanted to die, and the other half wouldn't let it happen. We knew death was imminent, and agreed we would bring him in first thing in the morning to be euthanized if he made it through the night. I prayed that he would die quickly, here at home, as I watched the hands on the laundry room clock move much too slowly. "Relax, honey," I begged him, saying silly things like "It's okay," even though it certainly wasn't. "Just relax and let go." But he wouldn't.

By 5:30 a.m. his breathing had changed. The breaths were short and choppy, with seconds of silence in between, like a spouse with sleep apnea. He lost control of his bladder and bowels. He arched his back and tensed, as if stretching. The pauses between breaths lengthened. At 5:57 a.m. on Thursday, March, 20, he exhaled once more and lay still.

How odd it seems that a dog can live 12 good years, and yet the last 4 agonizing hours of a death watch seem like an eternity?

Since it's Easter, I couldn't help but draw the same parallel to the story of Jesus and his crucifixion. Here's a man who lived 33 good years, and yet those five and a half agonizing hours on the cross seemed like an eternity to his disciples and family, who had to watch him suffering.

The dying process is a significant part of the life process. But it's only a part. As overwhelming and horrific as the death process may be, we need to remember that it's only a passage. For Atlas, it was a passage to the end of his suffering. For people, it's a rebirth into something far more wonderful than our simple minds can even begin to imagine.

It's also our obligation to HONOR the LIFE by remembering it. I will try now to remember the 12 years of wonderful companionship my dog gave to me. I will remember the 33 years of wonderful teachings and enlightenment that Jesus gave us all.

We silly humans are so preoccupied with death that we seem to dwell on the process until it's way out of proportion. It's how we live that's important! In the coming weeks, the memory of the all-night death watch over Atlas will fade, and I'll remember the good things he taught me...with 12 good years of his life.


Barb Hoffman said...

Jan, once again you have put some perspective back in my life. With the help of the lessons our animals so unselfishly share, you have the gift of sharing your insight into how everything is connected.

When we are in the middle of life or death (or somewhere in between) it is sometimes difficult to 'see the big picture'. Your gift of sharing the message Atlas
gave you, will help me with my struggle in the recent loss of my mother. She too had a life well worth honoring.

Even though I only met him a few times, I too can honor his life.

Thank you, Atlas.


Suz said...

I was blessed to have met Atlas about four years ago. Many thoughts go out to you with your loss. Like a huge tree falling outside in the yard, I know his loss left a giant hole in the landscape of your life. So sorry... And I too can honor his life.

Kat&Nik said...

Sorry for your loss.
Thank you for sharing. Thank you for helping us to be the best friends we can be with our four legged friends. And thanks for the reality of what a short time, relatively speaking, we have with our special dogs.

Take care, Kathleen

Anonymous said...

Jan, I just got around to reading Dogtalk. I am so sorry to hear of Atlas' death. It brought me to tears. What a neat dog he was! He was so smart in your training classes. I can still see him doing whatever you asked, even when he could hardly walk. My prayers will be with you as you go through the grieving process.

Mel said...


I was so sorry to read about Atlas.

He was always Coals pal towards the end of the daycare day in Yakima.

Our thoughts and prayers and good memories of Atlas are with you.


Brenda Childers said...

Jan ~

I am so sorry to hear about Atlas. I remember him from the few times I visited your shop. He was a very good boy.

Thank you for detailing the process as it unfolded throughout those 4-hours. Dogs don't live forever and I dread the day when I have to say goodbye to Schultz. I will most definitely want/need to be with him until it's over. Your explanation helped me to know what to expect and that lessens the fear.

My thoughts are with you.

Brenda Childers

Margaret & Sam Pounds said...

Jan and Don,
I am very, very sorry to hear about your loss. Atlas could not have lived a better life and could not have had better dog parents. I'm sure you will hear from many folks and that in and of itself shows you how special Atlas was, not only to you but all of us. Not many dogs, let alone people have such a lasting impact on so many. And though I cried when I read your posting, I'm now smiling thinking about the day that Big Uncle Atlas met little puppy Winston. He was a wonderful role model!
Margaret & Winston

Mrs. Allen said...

Dear Jan,

I'm so sorry to hear about Atlas. He was such a wonderful, smart dog and a role model to all of the other "students" at MDT.

My heart goes out to you and your husband as you grieve your loss.

Thank you for sharing your story with all of us and for pointing out how important it is to focus on life and treasure our good memories.

God Bless,
Jennifer and Tava

Melissa ~ A BumbleBaby Mommy said...

I'm so sorry to hear about Atlas. I know how much he was loved by your family. He really was a good role model for all your MDT students.

jan54 said...

Thank you for sharing Atlas' last moments, he was very lucky to have such caring parents! I know he will be greatly missed by his family (2-legged & 4-legged)

I will always remember at the Yakima classes. He was a very good teacher's assistant (calm & attentive).

Your family are in our thoughts and prayers.

Jan & Lowell

Rhonda T said...

Dear Jan,
Thank you for sharing your final moments with Atlas. He was a wonderful boy and I always loved looking into those eyes when I came to pick up Toby and Cinder from daycare. I am so happy that he lived long enough to experience your new home and retirement. God Bless you and Don. Rhonda Taylor

cathy oliver said...

We really appreciate your sharing at such a difficult time. Atlas was such a good dog and our hearts are thinking and praying for you during his loss. Cathy and Marshal Dillon Oliver