There is no easy way to write this. We chose to put Amber to sleep. That’s a sentence loaded with emotion and fired at proxies for hope, despair and death. Humans are generally pretty rubbish at understanding there is nothing penultimate about this life. We avert our eyes and grasp sentimental metaphors.
‘Passed on’, ‘Gone to a better place’, ‘Found peace at last’. That whole afterlife construct might work for some*, but behind the veil is a somewhat more brutal truth. It’s not where something has gone, it’s the huge fucking hole it leaves behind.
So let’s deal with the something shall we? Those charmless fucks who label animal lovers as confused supplicants with anthropomorphic tendencies. It’s not like a elderly relation has died? Or a child? Or someone close to you? Close as in bipedal, self aware and mostly bloody terrified of death.
No it isn’t. It’s something a little different, but no less heartbreaking. I’m a dog person. Always have been. Always will be regardless of the shitty cards fate plays. Dogs weave themselves into your life. They offer unconditional love. They show that love in their joy of you walking through the door. They do not judge. They bind together a family and have no bloody idea how they do that.
And then they get sick and old. Rule one of being a parent; never outlive your kids. Fuck me I can’t even imagine how that would feel. But I’m far too clear what an Amber sized wound in my heart does to an allegedly stoic Yorkshireman. I know what walking downstairs and missing a waggy tails feels like. I know what walking past a box of half chewed toys feels like. I know what a house normally full of joy and noise feels like when silence is the last product of tears.
Sentimental horse-shit? Maybe. Let me tell you how that feels. Watching a dog not yet three years old struggle to breathe because anaemia has robbed her of red blood cells. Watching that same dog try and be the dog it used to be. Watching those sad eyes. Listening to the local vets, then listening to the specialist animal hospital we sent her too. And trying to find a good outcome.
Because money doesn’t buy you love. It buys you hope. And that’s what fucking kills you. A rollercoaster of ‘she’s going to die/she might make it’. One kid a week from her first A level, one apparent adult wondering if the bike trip to Italy is somehow relevant. Another proper adult missing her best mate and not dealing with it at all. And another offspring trying to work out how an outwardly healthy hound can barely get off the floor.
That sucks. Don’t for a second confuse that unconditional love to surrogate parenting. We had a last weekend with her at home – still with an outside chance she might get better – but watching her get weaker pretty much broke my heart. I have that bloke ‘got to be the strong one’ thing going on, but I was totally fucked, wide awake and weeping at 2am.
She’d had three blood transfusions and two sets of drugs. Complications were legion. Everything pointed to blood cancer but they couldn’t find it. So we went for more and more invasive tests desperate for a diagnosis. Because a diagnosis might mean a cure.
Then there is the moment. When you accept you’re keeping her alive for you, not because you think she might get better. She’s not really suffering but she’s dying by degrees. Unless you heart is forged from stone, you cannot do that to anything or anybody. Especially something that is an integral part of your family unit.
So you do the right thing. The hardest thing. The call you never want to make. Sign the forms, authorise the injection. Let them sleep for ever. I’ve led a pretty easy life because that’s absolutely the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do. It was a family decision. Not an easy one. I’m very proud of how that quorum coalesced around a decision made for Amber. Not because of her.
Even so. It was shit.
Grief apparently has five stages, I’m going with fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck and fuck. Sure I’m angry but this isn’t a linear transition between denial and acceptance. This is a hurt which mugs you with happy memories, before creeping up on a pre-dawn raid.
You wonder if you could do more. Maybe spotted it earlier. Given her another transfusion. Tried some experimental drugs. I don’t know. I never will. But my friend Nicky mailed me with this ‘There were only two choices left – leave nature to take its course however long and painful that may have been or let her go peacefully and gently. That’s not failing, that’s putting her first, that’s love. My Dad always said we’re kinder to our animals than we are out humans‘
Wise words. I’m really glad she sent them to me. Because I have no more. Other than to say Amber was taken way too early, but in the time she had, she pretty much defined why we cherish animals we know will never outlive us.
Even knowing how much that will hurt. And fuck it does.
*but not animals apparently. No such thing as doggie heaven. So goes the dogma of the new testament. Faith must be a wonderful thing. Plausible deniability for every wretched act we perform on each other.