On this thanksgiving day I want to share the story of the death of a great and beloved dog.
Some readers will know Aktis from earlier posts or from my book. He was an 85-pound German shepherd; we brought home on the day he was weaned from his mother, 11.5 years ago. He died this Halloween, under a cold starry sky framed by 100-foot conifers looming overhead.
For the first time in more than two decades we have no dog, no sterling Kestra or exuberant Aktis to share and sweeten our days. These days I rarely walk in the woods or garden without crying at my loss. All the places are haunted by his memory.
Despite the grief, or rather because of it, I am posting this on Thanksgiving. I want to remember Aktis in a spirit of love and gratitude and celebration. I want to remember his life and our friendship. That’s my aspiration, anyway.
In the meantime there’s grief, which takes its own bittersweet time. I am not yet philosophical enough to smile at his memory. But that time too will come.
Yesterday sitting in the garden near where we buried him, I found myself smiling at the memory of his absurd ploy of gripping a small stick in his large mouth, very precisely, so that one end would barely protrude; then he would trot over to me with that trademark look of happy concentration he got whenever he had a bright idea. Would I care to try my luck at getting it? It was a game of risk, a game with teeth in fact, as a couple of friends learned to their chagrin.
No sooner had I remembered all this smilingly than I was overwhelmed again by grief, by the feelings of loss and terrible solitude that have been my companion in his stead.
It happened suddenly. Thursday he participated in an impromptu game of football with a bunch of kids, raising considerably (those teeth again) the stakes on fumbles. Friday afternoon in the course of a few hours he became ill. By Friday night he was miserable, crying and whining from pain, unable to sleep. Neither could we, and soon were camped out beside his bed, comforting him as we could. Saturday morning he was so weak we had to carry him on a rug from the house to the car to make the hour’s drive to the veterinary hospital. We left him there and returned home to await news. That afternoon I talked on the phone with the doctor as she ran through diagnostics and sorted out what was going on. Saturday evening we brought him home and said goodbye.
What they found was a massive infection. On Friday Aktis had basically collapsed as his body went septic. Early on during the diagnostic work there was a ray of hope, since a bacterial infection can usually be resolved. He’d had one three years ago that nearly killed him. (I wrote about it in the inaugural post of this blog.) But he had bounced back. Way back.
We weren’t so lucky this time. An ultrasound revealed an abscess on a difficult-to-reach lobe of his liver. This meant that even a course of intravenous antibiotics was unlikely to do more than knock down the infection for a time. At most Aktis would survive a few weeks, and he would suffer. The best alternative was surgery that went after the source of the infection; the doctor estimated Aktis had a 50 or 60% chance of surviving surgery.
But even if he survived the ordeal of surgery that removed the offending abscess and whatever else they found, the recovery would be tough, and it was hard to say what his long-term prognosis would be, except that it was unlikely to be good. After all, they didn’t know the cause of the abscess, or what else they’d find during the surgery.
And then there is this, his death foretold. Aktis was aging, increasingly stiff with arthritis, and gimpy from myelopathy and a bulged disk in the lumbar region—a battle scar from his heedless youth. Even before this crisis, I was already sad to see him slowing down, harder now to keep up with me on the longer walks, lying down whenever he could, letting me know in a dozen small ways that while his spirit was still game, his flesh was giving way. Aktis was reminding me of what I experienced with Kestra. As I wrote in my book
Aktis was out in front with Kestra slowly bringing up the rear. Occasionally I stopped and waited for her to catch up. Once I turned around to look for her and she wasn’t there. As I walked back to find her, it occurred to me that this is how friendship with dogs goes. First they’re bounding ahead pulling at the leash, then for a long sweet while they’re beside you, then they slowly start falling behind, farther and farther, until one day you look back and they’re gone.
When Kestra died I felt this same profound sense of loss, but I had Aktis, and from the wonderful necessity dogs impose on our days he and I continued those familiar and comforting practices of work and play and loving care that have defined my friendship with my dogs.
Who knows? The heroic path of surgery might have succeeded, and instead of writing this sad chronicle on the eve of Thanksgiving he and I would be out together in the snowy woods, I catching some of that infectious euphoria that was Aktis in the snow. Maybe if the planets and stars had happened to be aligned, then maybe they’d have found no cancerous tumors, and maybe the surgery itself wouldn’t have killed him in his fragile condition, and maybe he’d have bounced back by now. And we’d be friends still, maybe for a month or two, or several months, perhaps a year.
Unfortunately, this was the unlikely story. So, after consulting with the doctors (including my wonderful and brilliant sister), my wife and I decided not to put him or us through a tough surgery for so uncertain an outcome.
The choice to end his life felt obvious. We both knew it was time to say goodbye and that in his own way Aktis was telling us as much. We let him go at an unexpected but beautifully perfect time. Aktis died before he became a patient, while he was still vital, still menacing (evident during that football game), still his magnificent playful lovingly spirited self. He suffered briefly and died quickly, without enduring a long illness full of interventions. And as it happened he died on the night when the veil between the living and the dead is thinnest, on a day dedicated to remembering the dead. (You can read about his better days in my book or in this 10th birthday appreciation, or here. I wrote some reflections about grieving dogs and other loved ones here.)
Heartsick we drove back to the hospital that evening to bring him home after a day of poking and prodding, of x-rays and ultrasounds, intravenous fluids and antibiotics and painkillers. We waited in a room until they brought him in, wobbling on his own legs, with just a little support from the assistant. He looked better than in the morning, but still very weak and his face was drawn in pain. He walked toward me and had almost reached me when suddenly he turned around and headed for the door. I felt like I’d been kicked in the gut, until I realized he was doing as he always desperately wanted to do when at the vet’s: Get the hell out.
In a fierce twist, as we walked back to the car with Aktis on his way to dying we passed a man walking with his German shepherd pup heeling beside him. Life goes on.
I lay in the back with Aktis, petting him and talking to him as my wife drove us home. He felt distant, whining periodically, withdrawn I suppose into his suffering. Once home, we left him in the back of the vehicle with the gate open. He lay there, too weak even to try sitting up. [Pause to cry.] I called our neighbor-friend, a vet who makes house calls, to let her know we were home. For the first time, I experienced what it’s like to choose for a friend when exactly his life would end. When our lives together end.
We sat with him in the clearing of our driveway, talking quietly to him and feeding him tuna, a favorite treat. He lifted his head off the rug to take each handful, his warm rough tongue cleaning my hand, his eyes and face lit with eager anticipation. God, I thought, after two days of agony how bittersweet to see again his dear bright-eyed self gazing at me, awakened not by something as fragile as our friendship, but by that sturdier more elemental life force of appetite.
Our friend arrived, and we paid our last respects as she prepared two injections, the first a preparatory cocktail that included ketamine, the second the lethal dose. I held him close, determined to be a comforting presence as he died. A minute later, she had to give him a supplemental injection of the lethal dose. Vitality always was one of his great qualities.
She checked his heart again, and nothing. Aktis was dead. Laid out on a rug and blankets, he was motionless for the first time. And forever more. I couldn’t believe it. We stood there, shocked by the bleak cruel fact. In an instant our beloved friend, our glad and faithful companion, was gone. Rest in peace, Aktis.
The love of God, unutterable and perfect,
flows into a pure soul the way that light
rushes into a transparent object.
The more love that it finds, the more it gives
itself; so that, as we grow clear and open,
the more complete the joy of loving is.
And the more souls who resonate together,
the greater the intensity of their love,
for, mirror-like, each soul reflects the others.