On Saturday, July 15, just one day short of her 14th birthday, we had to put Natasha down. It's the hardest decision I've ever had to make in my life, and I've made some whoppers.
Even up until Thursday afternoon I was hoping she'd hold out for another month until Cassie came home. But late Thursday afternoon it became clear that she was getting weaker and having trouble walking around. I told David that I thought it was time and we agreed that we'd call the vet after the weekend, maybe Monday or Tuesday.
Just goes to show that even with euthanasia we're not really in control.
Friday afternoon Natasha was lying in the foyer at the foot of the stairs, sound asleep after eating 1/2 of my Philly cheesesteak sandwich for breakfast and 1/2 a pound of top round steak for lunch. Until then, she'd been living on popsicles and Cheerios. I figured she was building up some energy so I tiptoed around her and let her sleep.
I had gone out earlier in the morning to get some steak, and she seemed very anxious when I left, pawing and closing the door that leads to the basement. Usually that door is left open so the cat can get down to her litter box, but I thought it better that Natasha couldn't fall down the stairs. The cat could wait for 1/2 hour. I went to Wegmans fairly quickly and hoped she fell back to sleep.
When I got home, she was right at the door, waiting for me. She ate, we played (as much as she could; usually we talked while I rubbed her fur), I went back to my work while she went to sleep.
A couple of hours later I heard this infernal scratching coming from the foyer. Usually that is the sound of Natasha's paws on the hardwood floors while she scratches fleas, only she's too weak to really work up that good of a scratch and she was on flea meds anyway. I found her lying flat, all four legs splayed out but desperately trying to push her weary body up. I picked her up and brought her into the living room, holding her on my lap while her heart raced. The episode had clearly scared her.
Throughout the afternoon she had trouble getting up; if she was on the carpet she could pull herself up with difficulty, but I usually just helped her, steadied her, and walked with her to catch her if she fell. By 8:00 PM she couldn't even do that, and by the time David came home she couldn't stand by herself to go potty. "It's time," I said through tears. "She can't even make it until Monday like this." It was the first moment I realized that everything we'd been doing - the special diet, the IVs, the vitamins - had been helping keep her comfortable for as long as possible. Now, we were resorting to holding popsicles for her to lick and feeding her Cheerios one by one. She wasn't going to get better.
Back in the spring, David had prepared a place to bury Natasha on his family's land, a deer camp out in the country. ("I don't want her to go in the winter and have to be digging through frozen dirt," he'd said.) The spot was under a big tree overlooking the pond where she loved to swim. The problem was that his brother & his family were having a huge weekend pig roast and party with at least 100 people. We couldn't crash the event with a dead dog and there was no way Natasha could go another day. She couldn't stand, eat, or potty by herself. We decided to play it by ear and see what the vet said.
It had been unbearably hot the night before and there's a window air conditioner downstairs so Friday night David and I slept in the living room again, for comfort but also to be with the dog. She had gotten onto her dog bed and couldn't move. We did one last IV treatment, just in case the vet couldn't see us Saturday and she needed to hang on one more day.
The air was too cold for me so I got up during the night and went upstairs, but after a couple of hours it started to lightning and I knew what that meant: a storm was coming and Natasha would be frightened. David's a deep sleeper (he often doesn't even hear his alarm go off) and I was afraid she's try and get up so I went down to find both David and Natasha wide awake, his inflatable bed pulled right up to her head so he could pet her head. I squeezed myself in so I could lie next to her and pet her side and together we all laid there until morning. If either of us took our hands off her she lifted her head to see where we went. David and I were praying the whole night, not for a miracle but for her peace and comfort and thanking God for sending us this dog.
At 8:00 we got up and called our vet, Dr. Hawkins. I think she'd been expecting us, because I talked to her on Thursday and she reminded me when she'd be in the office for the rest of the week. She agreed to put Natasha down Saturday morning and then meet us on Sunday afternoon to give us the body.
David went to work to get the restaurant open and would meet me at the vet's, and I sat there with Natasha for a couple of hours until it was time. I made some eggs and toast, curled up with her in the living room and watch a little of the Saturday Early Show. But after a few minutes I realized that this was the last morning I would be able to sit with Natasha and eat eggs and toast. I shut the TV off and when I was finished eating curled up next to her and just pet her and talked to her and cried my eyes out, watching the minutes tick away on the clock.
I was most afraid of taking her in to the vet. I had already told David and the vet that I was going in with her whether they liked it or not, and our vet assured me that I was most welcome to be there. David said he would wait in the lobby because he just couldn't do it.
When it was time, I went out and got the car doors open and spread out her comforter on the seat, then went in to get Natasha. I got her standing on the grass while I ran back to lock the doors, and lo and behold when I came out she'd managed to not only remain standing but take a few steps toward the car. She knew we were going for a ride.
I got her in and situated. She was too weak to hold herself up to put her head out the window so I opened all the windows and hoped she could get some of the breeze. We pulled into the vet's office lot, I got her out of the car, sat her down and turned back to close the door. When I turned around she was walking toward the building, wobbling like a drunk and in danger of collapsing at any moment. But I figured that if she wanted to walk in doggone it we were going out in style. She didn't have a collar or a leash on, so I followed her with my hands at her sides to catch her if she fell. Just then David pulled in.
We kind of herded her slowly to the door and just as we were about to go in a woman was coming out with a dachshund on a leash.
"Can you please hold onto your dog," she sniffed, as if somehow this dog who had to have her behind held up for her so she could poop would run after her little hot dog. Sure thing, we told her and held Natasha back like she was a fierce beast, smiling all the while. If she only knew.
David and Natasha sat while I checked in and signed some papers, and when Dr. Hawkins called us Natasha got up and headed for our old room on the right. It took a minute to direct her to the other side of the room but neither David or I were about to pick her up. She was wobbling and couldn't walk a straight line, but she was going out with grace and on her own power. She went right into the exam room like she owned the place.
They took her back to put in an catheter IV and David and I waited in the exam room. While we were sitting in the waiting room he'd changed his mind and decided that he needed to come in. We both were emotional, but we'd seen Natasha nosedive in the past 24 hours. We both knew it was time but that didn't make it any easier.
Understand that this visit to the vet wasn't really unusual for Natasha. She liked Dr. Hawkins and every time she saw her was poked with at least one needle. She didn't have an IV catheter every time but she did the weekend she spent at the vets when she was first diagnosed. She even knew the helper who carried her in, because she was usually in the room at some point. I don't think she was really scared.
They brought her in and put her on the table with a blanket covering the cold table. (That was probably the only unusual part; usually the dr. would get right on the floor and we'd do everything with Natasha standing.) I got down on my knees with my face right in front of Natasha, hands buried in her fur, talking and petting and reassuring her. David was on her side and I could tell he was praying.
The vet gave us a few minutes with her and when we were ready she started injecting the narcotics into the catheter. I told Natasha that she was a great dog, an amazing dog. I told her that she'd done exactly what she'd been put on this earth to do, that God was so good to us by giving her to us, that she'd protected us and loved us, that we were go thankful for her love.
Natasha kept her eyes on me until the vet moved in with the needle, then looked to see what the dr was doing. In a millisecond, she turned back to me, sighed, laid her head on her paws as if to get ready for a nap and simply went to sleep. It was so peaceful and so quick I didn't even realize it was over until the dr quietly took out the stethoscope to check for her heartbeat. We'd been praying that she would just fall asleep and not wake up, and that's exactly what happened.
That's when I lost it.
"She's not even my dog and I'm crying," the vet said.
Dr. Hawkins told us to take as long as we needed with her and then to just leave when we were ready, adding that she'd call us in the morning with a time we could come and pick her up.
David and I stayed for a long while, crying and then just talking about this dog. I stayed kneeling on the floor with my hands in her fur, kissing her nose and talking to her like she was still there.
"If there really are guardian angels, "I said, "then Natasha was surely one."
"I wonder how many times she's protected us that we don't even know about," David said. "Who she's scared off by barking, or how many tragedies were prevented simply because we had to go home to let the dog out."
We played some "remember when" and then the vet came back in to see if we were still there and make sure we were OK, so we figured it was time to go. I took one last look at my puppy lying there sleeping.
David had to go back to work and I went home. Alone to the empty house. It sucked.
The next afternoon we met Dr. Hawkins at the office and got the dog, wrapping her in a sheet we'd brought from home.
"I don't want to be morbid," she said, "but she's been in the freezer all night so she's frozen."
We thanked her again for her kindness, she offered to show us her new border collie puppy (she already had two; that's what bonded us so well with her), and I gave her a hug. David and I actually felt pretty good. We'd been worried that this might be the hardest part but it actually was OK.
The drive to camp was somber but we played some country music and rode in silence. I dozed off and David told me later he'd cried again while I was asleep.
The spot he'd picked out was perfect but the weeds and grass had grown very high over the summer, so while he prepared the area I waited at the truck. The dog was in the back of the Xterra, so I sat on the bumper and touched the sheet-wrapped bundle. It wasn't frozen solid. It was cool to the touch, but soft. I tentatively pulled the sheet back and there she was. I reached in and felt soft fur, not icicles like I'd expected. I pulled the sheet back to about her midsection, exposing her head and shoulders. She was rolled on to her side a bit, as if she was taking a nap, paws curled up around her nose. She looked exactly as if she was deep in a slumber that involved dreams about chasing the cat and swimming in the lake.
I buried my hands into her fur and began just running my hands over her body. Then I laid down in the truck bed and curled myself around my dog, my face buried in the scruff of her neck, my arms around her back, just stroking her fur. She was cool, like she'd gone swimming and her fur was wet even though she was completely dry. But otherwise she felt just like she always did when she napped and I curled up around her. I lay there crying and petting her until David came to get her.
"Feel her," I said, sitting up but not letting go.
"She's so soft," David said. "Her fur feels just like normal." He was surprised as I was. We'd been expecting her to be covered in ice. We both pet her for a while.
I gave her one last kiss on the nose, put her Dr. Doris toy between her front paws, and pulled the sheet back around her.
And we buried her.
And that's the story of the last days of Natasha the Wonder Dog. She was a faithful companion, a fierce protector, a loyal friend. Truly one of God's guardian angels. I wish I could say we've shed our last tears but they still come at strange times; I found a Scooby Snack on the nightstand last night and wept. I picked up her squeeky Santa in the yard and cried till I couldn't breathe. When I had to tell Jimmy the Mailman she was gone I could hardly stand it.
It's just not a home without a dog. I find myself looking around for her whenever I eat so I can share a taste of whatever's on my plate. When I get up in the morning my feet hit cold rug instead of warm fur. I went to take a shower on Sunday and left the door to the screened porch open, like normal, and it was only after I was naked and soaped up that I realized my security system was no longer operative, because even in her weakened state Natasha's bark was fierce enough to be scary.
I've said through this entire process that I did not want to even think about getting another dog, and yet the house is so empty without her that I've changed my mind. Not because I want to replace Natasha - there's no way that could happen - but because a dog adds so much to your life. If I had a dog, she'd know I was hurting right now and be by my side.
Instead, there's just an empty place.