I was nine years old when I first became aware of the idea that sometimes death is preferable to life. My parents have always supported euthanasia, and my father in particular has always been especially vocal about it. He was less cautious than my mother about what he said in front of me when I was a young kid, and I first heard about his feelings on the matter during a car ride with him and my brother. Dad was telling my brother, then twelve, that he didn’t understand these “self-righteous people” who allowed suffering humans to “die in their own filth”. I am not sure what my brother’s understanding of euthanasia was when he was twelve, but I imagine it was better than that of most kids his age. On the rare occasion that I was exposed to such a discussion, I remember wondering why anybody would ever want to die, ever, under any circumstances. I came to the frustrating conclusion that it was one of those Things That the Grownups Understand and I Don’t. In short, the cliche, “You’ll understand when you’re older.”
I did understand when I was older, in late 1992, when I was twelve. Unlike my brother, I had to come face to face with a real-life example to understand why death can be merciful. Our dog, Smoky (not his real name– I don’t feel like putting myself at risk for identity theft), fell suddenly ill. He had become prone to seizures over the past six months or so and had been on medication to help control them. One night, while I was watching television, Mom told me that Smoky had had an intense seizure in the garage. He couldn’t get up, but we chalked that up to his being exhausted from the episode. I was worried, and asked my parents to take our dog to the vet. Two days passed, and when Smoky still wasn’t standing up and was coughing up blood– out of BOTH ENDS– Dad finally took him to the vet. He had to carry him inside. Twenty-two years later I can still remember the bizarre, putrid smell of the blood-tainted shit. I had never smelled anything similar before and I haven’t since. But it is a very clear– and disturbing– memory.
The vet said that Smoky would have to stay overnight. Already fearing the worst and crying hysterically, I asked, “Is he going to be okay?” The vet didn’t know. What he did later discover was that Smoky had something called acidosis. An excess amount of acid was present in Smoky’s stomach and intestines, which was why he had been vomiting and shitting blood. It was speculated that Smoky had either eaten a poisonous mushroom or contracted a bacterial infection (a large cut was later found under his chin). The vet was exceptional. He kept Smoky at his office for a few nights while he treated the issue. He balanced Smoky’s acids and bases. Smoky was in coma at one point. He came out of the coma and gradually was able to sit up, stand, and walk again.
Smoky came home a few days later, but not quite the same. He had apparently suffered brain damage, as he’d lost the instinct to avoid sleeping in his own urine and feces. He was unable to absorb whatever food he ate and once even tried to eat a wrench in the garage while my brother and I were at school and my parents at work. Smoky was constantly hungry and would easily consume an entire 20-pound bag of dog food in less than one week. He couldn’t control his bowels, so we had to confine him to a small space in the garage. Dad had to get up every morning at 3:30 to shovel up shit from the garage floor and sterilize the area with Clorox. He also had to bathe Smoky almost every day.The vet wasn’t sure if the situation would improve, but we decided to see what would happen over the next couple months. Smoky recognized us but shook whenever anybody came near him. I remember having to approach him very gently and talk softly to him until the shaking stopped.
Over the next couple months, Smoky was either confined to the small space in the garage or was outside in the backyard. About a month after he had fallen ill, Dad told me that he had spoken to the vet again and told me that it was possible that Smoky might not pull through. Because Smoky was not absorbing much (if any) of his food, he was rapidly losing weight. For some reason I took pictures of him during this time (see below).
. Out of context, one might have thought that he was a neglected animal. It was hard watching Smoky suffer like this. I was suffering, too, not knowing whether my dog was going to pull through, knowing that he was in a lot of pain, and knowing he was not the same dog. In fact, when I would tell Smoky, “You’re a good dog,” Dad would often say, “He isn’t even a dog anymore.” Some days this reality hit me harder than others, and I would end up crying.
The vet said that it was possible that Smoky wasn’t absorbing food because of a problem with his pancreas. The other possibility was that he had short bowel syndrome: the damage to his stomach and intestines had healed in scar tissue and that there was no lining to help him digest food. If the latter was the case, Smoky would never get better and the merciful thing to do would be to put him to sleep before he starved to death. Dad told me that if the medication that the vet gave Smoky to help his pancreas didn’t help him digest food within the next two weeks, then that was it. When dad told me this, I was hysterical. In those days, when I needed to talk, Dad and I often went for a drive, and that day was no exception. We drove around for a little while while I was crying. I don’t remember what I said, but I still did not want to accept that death might be the best thing for Smoky. Dad said, “If you really love that dog, you will let him go if this medication doesn’t work.” Amid my raw and wet eyes, I reluctantly said, “Okay.” I was beyond upset about it, but I was finally starting to get it. I insisted on being present to say good-bye, if it came to that.
Exactly one week after Dad had started giving Smoky the medication, I came home one day to find out that, just after I’d left for school, Smoky’s back legs had stopped working and he was unable to stand up. Dad told me he had taken Smoky to the vet to see if anything else could be done, and he would be there for a few days. I believed him. After all, Smoky had spent nights at the vet before, when he had first gotten sick. I thought this was one of those times. Besides, only a week had passed since Smoky had started taking his medication. I assumed we were going to wait the full two weeks.
That was Tuesday, December 8th, 1992. On Saturday, December 12th, it was over. Mom and Dad called my brother and me downstairs to have a talk. I already had my suspicions of what this talk was going to be about. “I just got off with the vet,” Dad said after the family was seated. I was expecting to hear that Smoky was either dead or that we were going to have to have him put to sleep. After a few seconds that seemed much longer, Dad finished, “Smoky died last night.” My worst fears were confirmed. My dog was gone. I froze as I felt the familiar moisture in my eyes, which I’d grown almost accustomed to over the past two months. I asked what happened. Dad said that Smoky had suffered a fatal brain hemorrhage. I ran upstairs to my bedroom, locked the door, and dissolved into another bout of hysterics. I swore that I would never get another dog.
Almost five years later– and only because the subject came up because my mother suffered a brain hemorrhage (fortunately she made a full recovery) and I had started asking questions about Smoky’s death– Dad told me that he had had Smoky euthanized the day that his back legs stopped working and only waited until the weekend to tell my brother and me so the news wouldn’t interfere with school. Between Smoky’s defective back legs and the fact that the medication clearly was not working, death was the only merciful option for my dog. In fact, Dad said had he known what he knows now, he would have had Smoky put to sleep the night he got sick. Of course I was upset that he and Mom had lied to me, especially since I explicitly stated that I wanted to be present at Smoky’s death, if it came to that. When I mentioned it to my brother years later, he said, “Well, Mom and Dad might have also been afraid that you would hate them for having Smoky put down.” I know that wouldn’t have happened. I had already reluctantly accepted that possibility. The only thing I would have been upset about would have been that we hadn’t waited the two full weeks to give the last-resort medication a chance. As upset as I was about being deceived, I have to give Dad credit for one thing– he had known that I would have never fallen for, “He died in his sleep.” Even then I knew it was the oldest lie in the book, one that parents famously use when trying to protect their children’s feelings when a pet is put to sleep. Because Dad came up with a very specific explanation– that Smoky had suffered a brain hemorrhage– I believed him.
After Smoky’s death, I felt a cascade of emotions– sorrow, loss, and disbelief. But there was another emotion that, in retrospect, trumped the others: it was relief. I wouldn’t admit it at the time, but I was relieved that the ordeal was finally over. I had my answer as to whether Smoky would make it or not, and Smoky’s suffering was over, and mine as a result. Three days after I had learned about Smoky’s death, despite my previous declarations to the contrary, I announced that I wanted another dog. I think I had a change of heart so soon because my mourning process had already begun when Smoky was still alive because I had known that he might die. Had he been healthy and gotten hit by a car, for example, my postmortem mourning might have taken longer. Life went on, and we got another dog the following August. Smoky had only lived 5 1/2 years, but our next dog, Sahara (again, not her real name), lived for a robust 14 1/2 years; for a large dog like her, this is the equivalent of a person living into her early 90s. When it was time for her to die, it was easier to accept because she’d lived a long life for a dog (unfortunately, I was living in New York at the time and I wasn’t able to visit my parents to say good-bye when it was time for her to be put to sleep). She died a good death, with my parents by her side.
It took me some time after Smoky’s death to process what I had learned. But over the next several months it finally decisively clicked in my head that it was for the best that Smoky was dead. It was sometime during that year that I had first heard the name Dr. Jack Kevorkian. When a friend told me who he was, I had had no idea that human euthanasia was illegal. I just assumed that Kevorkian was a guy in a hospital doing his job. After all, if it was right to put Smoky to sleep when he was suffering, why should it be any different for a human?
At the age of twelve, I finally understood why euthanasia is a good thing. At the time, I had thought that I was late in coming to this understanding, but I now realize that I was early in this understanding compared to most people.Only years later did I learn that euthanasia was not only illegal, but considered a very contentious issue (especially for people who haven’t watched anybody suffer a long death). When Smoky died after his 2-month illness, my strongest emotion was relief. Many people feel the same way after a relative dies after protracted suffering, and anti-euthanasia advocates use this fact as fuel for their cause. From their perspective, the person feels relief because s/he wanted his/her loved one dead, not because s/he wanted the person’s suffering to end. It is, as Al Gore might say, an inconvenient truth. It is also an inconvenient truth that dying people can become a burden on their loved ones. As I said, Dad was cleaning up dog shit every morning at 3:30 and bathing Smoky nearly every day for two months. People who are in advanced stages of terminal illness sometimes end up sleeping in their own shit (and I keep using the word “shit” not to be disrespectful, but to emphasize how horrible these situations can get), having to be bathed and catheterized every day, and spending much of their time sleeping or staring at the wall. The lucky ones are cared for by their relatives; the rest end up warehoused in nursing homes.
Right now I can hear people saying, “Well, this is a slippery slope to allowing people to bump off Grandma when she becomes a burden.” No. If the patient wants to live, no matter how obscene the circumstances, then s/he should be allowed to. It’s a choice, as it should be. And yes, the relatives need to respect that decision. I would imagine that a dying patient would be less burdensome to his/her relatives if those people know that they are respecting the person’s wish to live. However, most people don’t want to live like that, and they only stay alive because euthanasia remains illegal. It becomes more of a burden when the relatives are taking care of their loved one, knowing that s/he would rather be dead.
I had to go down this road again with a cat that I had in my twenties. Astoria (again, not her real name), at the age of 2 1/2, suddenly began breathing heavily and dragging her back legs. I took her to the vet, who immediately sent me to the animal hospital in Manhattan. The vets observed Astoria overnight, and the next day informed me that she had dilated cardiomyopathy. Her heart had become enlarged because it was not pumping blood efficiently enough. One of the side effects was that clots formed in her brain and that she was behaving, as the vet said euphemistically, “inappropriately”. As soon as they told me the news, I knew that I couldn’t in good conscience keep Astoria alive. I told the vet to keep my cat comfortable until I got to Manhattan to say good-bye. When I saw her again, I knew I was making the right decision– she was not the same cat. Although Astoria’s illness and death were sudden, I got a new cat two days later. I guess this time since I had already lost a pet (Smoky; my second dog, Sahara, was still alive and living with my parents in the house I had grown up in, but she was put to sleep a month later), I knew that moving on as soon as possible was the best thing. I got a new cat two days later. Of course I still missed Astoria, but my new cat facilitated my healing process. And yes, if a person’s spouse dies and s/he starts dating again two days later, that’s fine. It doesn’t necessarily mean s/he didn’t love his/her spouse; sometimes people just need to move on immediately to heal.
I know that someday my new cat, Sutphin (again, a fake name) will die. I will probably have to put him to sleep, whether due to illness or old age. He’s turning seven this year, and the average lifespan of a cat is 14-15 years. I accept that he might be halfway through his life. I also accept that next year something could happen to him and that I will have to put him to sleep. But so much I know is this– euthanasia is a humane option not just for animals, but for humans. And Smoky helped me understand that.