Why’d You Have to Break All My Heart?

Thanks for all the comments and emails and well wishes. It’s hard for me to believe that only two weeks have passed since that visit to the vet and the three-month diagnosis. The vet started Louie on three separate meds for his heart condition, at which point he pretty much stopped eating. Since he’d always been crazy for food, I couldn’t help but worry. I tried everything: peanut butter, hot dogs, eggs, salami. Sometimes he’d eat broiled chicken, so I bought a couple bags of frozen chicken breasts.

Nor did the meds seem to help much. His back legs continued to weaken. I started carrying him up the two flights of stairs in my apartment. Pretty soon I had to carry him down, too. But he was able to walk down the block to the park, and he’d wag his tail when I’d come home.

But he kept getting weaker, and pretty soon he couldn’t walk more than half the block on his own. On Friday I was home all day with him. He still hadn’t eaten, and I could literally see his heart pounding in his chest, off-beat and irregular. I don’t think he slept at all that day. He had a couple of miserable moments trying to navigate his weak back legs when going to the bathroom, at which point the Ex and I took him to the vet Friday evening.

The three vets on duty, two of which had seen him before, all agreed that there was only one option left. My gut had told me the same all day. Their consensus made the decision easier; still, I was prepared to dislike the vet who would give him the injection. But since she cried, too, it was hard to hold a grudge.

We signed a form asking for him to be cremated, and his ashes returned to us. And then we held Louie while he died. The only thing harder than that was leaving him there.

When I came home, I saw that the light in the stairwell, where I had carried Louie every day for the past two weeks, had burned out. And when I turned on my bedside lamp, the bulb flashed and burned out as well.

I’d had Louie for twelve years. He’d outlived most of my friendships, and all of my boyfriends. He’d seen me sober, then not, then sober again. I’d adopted him when I was twenty-four, which seems like a different lifetime now. In some strange way, his death felt like the death of my younger self, that optimistic boy in Minneapolis. I admit I can be a little dramatic.

For the first week after his diagnosis, I felt like I was drowning in regrets, for the ways in which I had not been a good dad to him, when I was drinking, when I had left him for grad school in New York. At one point during that first week, we were out on my back deck, and he hopped off the side to pee in the bushes, and his back legs gave out on him and he fell in the grass. I tried to lift him up, but he looked as though his pride had been hurt and he wanted to just lay there for a while. The phone rang inside, and for a minute I stood at my bedroom window, looking out at him. His back was to me, and he lay in the grass, in the sun, and my heart was breaking because I felt like there was already this line between us, over which I could not follow him. I wanted to know what he was thinking or feeling, but I’d never really know, because he was a dog, and he couldn’t tell me. Nor could I tell him how sorry I was for my past mistakes, and be sure that he’d understand.

After a couple of days, though, I could see how wallowing in regret was just a form of self-indulgence. No doubt he had forgiven me a long time ago. Still, I needed those last two weeks to forgive myself. Every time I carried him up and down those stairs, my heart broke a little more. But in that moment I was nowhere else; I was carrying him, I was with him, my mind focused on the task at hand, at holding him in a way that was the least discomforting to him. And it filled me with a sense of purpose. For the last two weeks I waited on him hand and foot, and treated him the way I wished I had always treated him.

There is a part of me that can’t imagine a world without Louie. There’s a part of me that still wants to believe, against all evidence, that if I love someone enough, they will be exempt from illness or death. There’s a part of me that winces when I get this sentimental. But Louie was one of a kind. Everyone says that about their dog, but in this case it’s true.

That night I replaced the bulbs that had burned out. I threw away his meds. I put his water and food bowls in the dishwasher. But I left his bed in my room for a little while longer.

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