I know that I haven’t written in awhile, and I now realize that it’s because I’ve been so intently focused on caring for my old, sweet Tango the past six months. I have felt at a loss for what to say or how to talk about the depth of my love for her for fear of beginning to cry and not being able to stop because I have been so worried about her every second of every day. Our lives had become a ritual around her many medications. Four times each day I would kneel in front of her with a little syringe filled with her cocktail of drugs, and I would see her eyes glaze over, wanting to turn away from it but knowing she needed it. I would apologize every single time – “I’m so sorry, sweetheart -” I think she knew that I hated to give it to her almost as much as she hated needing it. But we both knew she needed it to stay alive, and we were both grateful for the precious extra six months of what I now know to be borrowed time that medicine gave us. But after nearly 14 years and battling advanced heart disease over the past two years, I finally had to make that awful decision to put my Tango to sleep last Tuesday.
I don’t know how many of you have ever been through something like that, but even when you know it’s coming, you are never, ever prepared. I certainly wasn’t. In hindsight, I remember having all sorts of warning signs and thoughts – “I wonder if this is the last time I am going to take Tango in to get groomed,” or more recently, wondering if I should only buy one week’s worth of dog food at a time or be more optimistic and buy an entire months’ worth (I bought the months’ worth, by the way, and now it’s still sitting in my cupboard because I haven’t quite come to terms with the fact that she won’t be needing it now.) On the day I brought my sweetheart in to see our amazing vet, Dr. Lingareddy, Tango had been coughing almost constantly for several days before. It sounded different this time, and I knew something had changed. I had sent him videos of her during what should have been periods of rest, and part of me expected him to say something along the lines of what I had heard him say every single other time I’d brought her in: “Let’s add this other medication; let’s get some x-rays; let’s treat her for this; let’s…” Part of me would be relieved every time he said that, and another part of me was always surprised. “What? We can still do more for her?” I would think, smiling and amazed by the progress of modern medicine.
But this time his reaction was different. This time, Dr. Lingareddy shook his head and said, “Lori, I’m so sorry, but I think it’s time. I would never say that if I thought I could save her, but we have really done all we can for her, and I’d hate to send you home and then have you both experience the worst night of your life.” I was in shock. He cried and told me heart-wrenching stories about the many times when he wanted, hoped, prayed for an extra week or an extra day with one of his pets, only to have waited one day too long, and therefore gave up the dream of a peaceful passing for his beloved companion.
I had spent the past 14 years protecting my little dog from anything scary, harmful, or dangerous. I had held her close, loved her, spoiled her, put her first in every way possible, and cared for her in every imaginable way as she aged. (Yes, she even had a stroller so we could still go for long walks – though on her last days she didn’t even want to do that). Now I knew that I had to rise to the occasion once again. I knew that I had to gather the courage to ensure that her passing would be as peaceful and loving as her life had been. I knew I had to give her the death that I would want, and I knew that I had the ability to do that. But there’s such a strange – guilt-ridden – horrible dissonance between being her constant care-giver and protector her entire life and now making the decision to end it for her. I snuggled up close to her and she put her head on my hand, resting. I told her how much I loved her, over and over again, and I told her that I would never, ever leave her. I told her how smart and how special and how loved she is and always would be, and I told her that I would always be with her. Within 3 short seconds her little heart stopped, it was so weak, and then my whole world changed.
It was a week of horrible firsts while I waited for her tiny body to be cremated and returned to me. The first time I came back to my empty place without her to greet me with a tail wag, to see her empty bed, her toys, her untouched food and water dishes, it hurt so much and I cried so hard that I understood for the first time how people turn to whatever they can to numb the pain. It amazed me how such a little spirit had filled my entire home, and I spent hours wondering where she was and if she was ok now that I could no longer take care of her.
When I received the package her ashes were in, I didn’t have the courage to look at it the entire day. But when I finally unwrapped the silk bag around the wooden box, I saw that they had included a clay imprint of one of her little paws. Such a thoughtful gesture, I thought. But then what I saw next made my heart skip a beat.
On the outside of the wooden box was a little key, and beside it, a golden bone dog tag with Tango’s name on it. I hadn’t requested this, and there was no way the person who prepared this for me could have known of the significance of including a little golden bone dog tag with Tango’s name on it.
I don’t know if you believe in coincidences, but I know that this was no coincidence. This won’t mean anything to you if you don’t know about my program, How Dogs Help Kids Read and Succeed in the Classroom, but Tango was the inspiration for this part of my life’s work. Each week during this program, the children bring back completed “BoneWork” to earn – wait for it – a “golden bone” sticker. So I’ve been thinking of how cool it would be to arrange for each child to be able to get a real “Golden Bone Dog Tag,” inscribed with their dog’s name on it, at the end of the program.
The person preparing Tango’s ashes could have chosen a pink heart, a purple bone, a silver circle to inscribe her name on – but no – they chose a golden bone.
It turns out that Tango got the very first one. She always was a bit of a diva. 🙂
I don’t know what happens when a dog dies. I want to believe in the Rainbow Bridge, and I want to believe that there is no more suffering and that we are all still connected energetically. Some people say that they sometimes feel like they “see” their pets out of the corner of their eyes; others “feel” their presence, and others have told me that their dogs have found ways to communicate with them. But I was having real difficulty understanding any of it. All I felt was a profound emptiness and loss – until I saw that golden bone dog tag. I still don’t know how to explain it, but I know now that my Tango is not only with me, but is loving and supporting me right back in every moment, in every breath.
I want to extend a profound thank you to Dr. Lingareddy at VCA Animal Hospital for the incredible care, compassion, and genuine love you always expressed for my Tango at every stage of her illness. I will never forget your graciousness and your professionalism. Thank you.
Thank you also to Above and Beyond Cremation Services for the dignity, respect, and special attention you gave to Tango, even after she was gone.