A Letter of Gratitude to Tawny's Vet
by Susan Hays Meredith
Dear Dr. Roberts:
I want to express my gratitude to you for your caring and help during the recent passing of my dog, Tawny. Your gentle and knowledgeable presence and words, and the story you shared about the dog who died naturally under a tree in its yard the day before it was to be euthanized, were very important to me in my decision to let Tawny's dying process continue to unfold rather than euthanize that day. Although it was clear that she was in her final stage of lymphosarcoma, I needed to hear from a vet that she wasn't in terrible pain. I appreciate so much that you came out to our house. As we stood over her and discussed her condition, you pointed out that her mind was alert, her tail was still "waggling", and that she was still obviously enjoying being with me. You could see that Tawny and I were not yet ready to say goodbye. As it turned out, there was one more very precious day to share. I would like to tell you more about Tawny's life and death, and those last special moments, so you can know the gift you had a part in helping us receive. Perhaps her story, like the dog that died under the tree, could be shared to help another.
We adopted Tawny from the shelter eight years ago when she was three months old. She slept beside my head on my pillow that first night. She smelled and whimpered, but I let her stay there because I knew she missed her brothers and sisters. From that first night, although she was the family pet, she became my dog and I was her #1 person. Her breed was a mix of
Queens land heeler and lab, with a hint of werewolf, which she wickedly displayed when anyone tried to trim her nails. She had several personality quirks that others found difficult to deal with, but I loved her with all my heart for who she was, as she did for me.
Tawny was a great devotee of food, more than any dog I've ever known. She often had vigils in the kitchen when something she wanted was on the counter, like a leftover piece of pizza. It was as if she thought she could will it down into her mouth by intense staring. During the last five months since her high level lymphosarcoma was diagnosed, I had been cooking a special healthy recipe for her that was recommended by a holistic vet. In looking at her prognosis and options, I had decided against chemotherapy and instead took her to the holistic vet an hours drive from here. He helped me choose an alternative course of diet, vitamins and herbs that would hopefully both keep her going and help make her remaining days as high quality as possible. Food was definitely her passion, and she thoroughly enjoyed her special dinners. Feeding her became like a little celebration. She even loved watching me unpack the groceries, which often included the meat, oats, cottage cheese and veggies that made up her meal. I had never seen a dog get so excited about a bunch of broccoli. I would prepare a big batch that would last three or four days, which was actually quite easy and didn't take long to make. She just loved watching me cook for her. She'd sniff the air like a connoisseur, and watch the process intently. After eight years of eating mainly dry food, she was definitely in "doggie culinary heaven", as the vet said she would be. I am deeply grateful to him for the joy and quality he helped add to Tawny's life.
When the day came recently that she turned away from her special dinner for the first time, it was very sad for both Tawny and me. It was another one of those little deaths that we had been saying goodbye to, along with the evening walks. Those wonderful walks had recently become shorter and slower, with Tawny pausing often to smell her idea of the roses, rather than us all getting exercise. But it was when she turned away from her dinner that I knew for certain that she was in her final days. Her breathing had become more labored, and her body was now retaining fluid. She still enjoyed going outside, and wagged her tail often, as she did for you when you came out on Monday morning to help me see through my tears to know what to do.
After deciding not to euthanize her that morning, I looked at that day as a living gift of precious moments that I wanted to savor. You suggested that she might eat yogurt and that it would feel good on her stomach. Grateful for another opportunity to give her a treat, I offered her some berry yogurt and she licked up several spoonfuls. She even ate several tiny bites of chicken that evening. I was also encouraged to see her drinking more water, which I had added "transition" flower essence drops to. I had many opportunities to sit beside her throughout that day. I gently massaged her weary, swollen body, pouring forth all my love and blessings. Smiles melted into tears, the gratitude of another day made my heart both sing and break as she grew weaker. She still managed to walk and move around to all her favorite spots, so we left the door open for her to go in and out. When outside, I attached her to a long line so she wouldn't go off into the woods where I might not find her. I thought she may die during the night, but Tuesday morning she greeted me once again with that beloved tail wag.
On this morning, however, I knew from the first moment that I looked at her that this was going to be her last day, whether it would be a natural death, or that you would come out that evening to euthanize her. Unlike Monday morning, today she was ready to die and I was ready to let her go. I offered her water and she wanted none. I opened the door of our cabin so she could go outside and lay in her spot, in the comfort of the soft earth, if she wanted. Throughout the next two hours, she got up several times and would lay in various favorite spots, as if saying her own goodbye to each. I would sit beside her, speaking gently or in silence. I slowly stroked her soft golden fur and velvet ears, as if to imprint that precious feeling on my soul, which it did. As she moved again to her pillow by my art table, I thanked her for all the countless hours throughout the years that she had inspired and blessed me with her presence as I painted. When she lay by the front door, I thanked her for protecting our home so loyally. As she moved near me by the couch, I gave thanks for her loving friendship and wonderful company throughout all my good and bad days.
After a while, she got up and slowly walked outside. This time she chose a spot where I had never seen her lay. It was around 20 feet from our open door, up on a little forest slope by a big cedar amongst ferns and baby trees. She nestled her belly in the autumn leaves and rested her chin on her paws. I knew that some dogs liked to go off alone to die, and I prayed that Tawny didn't mind if I join her this one last time. I put a blanket around me and sat beside her. Her breathing was more rapid and shallow, and I noticed her ears were cold. The sunlight was filtering down through the trees, and the orange, red, and yellow leaves all around us blended so beautifully with her golden fur. I traced my fingers from the tip of her nose to the end of her tail, and told her through my tears how sorry I was that she got sick, and that if I was her I would also choose this spot, and that it was a good day to die. We sat quietly for a while, and then she turned and looked me in the eyes intently for several moments. She got up and started walking very slowly back toward the cabin. Her head was not hanging low, but was looking up and around, as if she was seeing something. I asked, "Where do you want to go now Tawny?" As her heart finally gave out and she collapsed, my question was answered as her spirit was lifted into the arms of another loving presence and carried Home.
Five months of knowing and accepting that this day would come could only help so much. I felt wracked with loss and anguish witnessing the light and life in her sparkling honey eyes go out. It was hard for me to feel anything but pain. My son had already dug a grave for her in our forested yard, and we buried her. I sat for a long time alone out there, leaning against a tree, wishing to feel spiritual about what I had just gone through but only feeling heavy with exhaustion and grief. Regrets nagged at me about what more I could have done to prevent and treat her cancer. I wished I had fed her better sooner, and maybe she wouldn't have become sick.
Later that evening and the next day, the heavy clouds inside me started softening, and bits of light and peace started filtering through. I began appreciating more the profound conscious goodbye I had just shared with Tawny. Compassionate friends and family consoled me with their caring and empathy. Blessedly thoughtful people, including you, gave me cards with heartfelt words of understanding. My friend Sharon, a true emissary of St. Francis, uplifted my heart with her counsel. I made a little altar on my shelf with flowers, photos of Tawny, the cards, a ball of her fur that I pulled from her brush, and lit candles. Instead of removing her food and water dishes and creating another void, I put out a treat for her spirit to sniff and set a small vase of daisies by it. I placed flowers at the spot where she died. All of these things comforted me.
My spiritual eyes slowly transformed the replaying image of her collapse into a vision of her walking into the arms of a waiting angel of mercy, now vibrantly alive in spirit and free of her sick body. I felt a sense of completion with Tawny that I had not been able to experience with my other pets that I had loved and lost. I hadn't dealt with their dying and deaths as well as I had wished. By going through this experience with Tawny, I feel that my awareness and spiritual strength have grown, and I have evolved into a better person, and certainly a better guardian for my future pets.
No one could really tell me how much time she had left since her diagnosis, so I often referred to her last months as a "grace period". Each new day, beautiful walk, or happy moments shared, were considered gifts. I am learning to think of every day shared with loved ones in that light.
I think it is especially appropriate that your first name is Grace, and that you had a part in Tawny's loving transition. I will always be deeply grateful that you gave us the extraordinary gift of a house call. In a sensitive situation like ours, there is immeasurable value in a house call over an office visit. In our fragile condition, the apprehension and stress of getting into the car and driving to an office, which Tawny always feared, would have been excruciating. Being in the peace of our own home meant everything, and I thank you with all my heart.
Well, Dr. Roberts, what started out as a thank you note has evolved into an essay. Sharing our story feels not only healing, but also very important to me. As a veterinarian, you assist many people making decisions regarding the dying and deaths of their beloved animals, but perhaps don't often hear what unfolds. No two experiences are the same, but each story may offer some value in helping another make their own sensitive and appropriate choices, or help cope with their loss. As deeply painful as it was, being lovingly present throughout Tawny's illness and passing is now another treasured memory of our life together.