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.