When in her last days Roo’s appetite began to leave her the only two things she would eat were turkey and rotisserie chicken. The refrigerator in the camper was already filled with other meats I had bought. I tried cooking them, mixing them with rice, seasoning them with chicken broth. She didn’t want them. The small camper refrigerator was stuffed with them. Eventually she refused the rotisserie chicken and would only eat the turkey. It made its way past the lumps in her throat more easily.
For the last few days Roo had not wanted to get in the car, so I drove fast on the trips I made to the market and the pet stores to see if I could find something she wanted. I had lost the habit of fast driving because anything but the most gentle driving made Roo uncomfortable. I dashed in and out of the stores on my spindly legs, turning away from the reflection of my distorted body in the glass market doors on the way in, repulsed by it hurrying like a caricature of a cripple. Over the past week I had been buying a wide selection of various jerkies and treats, but the only one she would eat was one particular soft jerky when I tore it up into small pieces. Eight or ten bags of jerky and treats piled up until I had to store them in the car. Instead of going to the usual and much cheaper, but more distant discount market, I only went to the closer, pricier grocery store where they had natural turkey breast. I noticed a package of smoked salmon there and bought that. Roo had had it a few times over the years and loved it. Maybe she would eat that. When I saw it my face reddened with anger at myself for not having thought about it sooner. The same went for the goat milk and yogurt I had bought at the organic health food store a few days before. How had I not remembered sooner?
When I got back to the camper from these trips Roo would be lying in the same spot where I’d left her, waiting for me to say, “Oh, Little Bear! There’s my little girl! What were you doing? Were you waiting all by yourself?” It was the same thing I’d always said to her when I came back to her when she was waiting for me in the car in a parking lot or now, on the camper floor.
She had always liked this little joke, as if to say, “Why, yes, as a matter of fact I have been waiting all by myself, and whose fault do you think that was?” The exchange always made her wag. Lately, when she wagged her skinny tail – it had two long bald patches where so much of the long golden hair had fallen from it – it wasn’t the old hard thumping on the floor. It was a weaker and thinner wag.
Holding her I said, “Of course you’re not a little girl. I just call you that. You know your daddy thinks you’re the biggest and most ferocious do in the world. I just like calling you that,” and then, “Wait till you see what I got you. Something very delicious.” I tore the various bags open and broke the treats into small pieces, but she didn’t want them.
“Please eat something, Chigi Bear Beker. Please just eat one bite.” Even though getting a treat – usually a slice of the turkey I bought only for her when I came out of one of the hundreds of markets we had been to – was one of her bigger pleasures, now she passed it up.
“Come on, Chig, not even one little bite?” but she only put her head back down on the floor.
On Monday Roo went outside for a few little patrols in the back yard. She was walking slowly, but still sniffing around. Once or twice she went into the woods between the houses. Sometimes she perked up when I pointed out a chipmunk or squirrel. We had had a few cool days, but it was warming up again, and though that maddest more uncomfortable for her, she spent lots of time lying in the driveway near the camper. I put a camp chair beside her and sat with her. When Virginia came out of the house to say hi to Roo, Roo was delighted to see her.
One of the things I dreaded the most was the day when I wouldn’t be able to take Roo with me when I had to go to the dump to empty the camper’s tanks. Because the tanks on the camper are exceptionally small, this must be done once a week. Here, usually on Tuesdays. But Virginia was home and could stay with Roo and she was perky enough to go inside with a smile, though I don’t think she would have had she known that I would go without her. Even though this was only Monday and the tanks could have lasted another day, I didn’t know that Roo could. It had to be done and Roo stayed behind while I went alone. It was a taste of what things would be like from now on. In the car without Roo was one thing but being in the car while pulling the camper was another. I’ve only spent fours hours of one night alone in the camper without Roo, when I was in a hospital in Utah and Roo stayed at the house of a good samaritan. It has gone nowhere that Roo and I did not take it together. Every time in the past four years when I emptied the tanks, Roo either sat in the grass nearby and looked around at the surrounding woods or campground, or in the car, and I would go back to the window to have a running conversation with her about how the job was progressing. This had the feeling of the appearance of a wraith, a ghost who appears before someone dies. Notice of the end of everything we had been doing together. This concrete example of her coming absence made it hard not to weep while I was draining the tanks, especially since I had been fighting tears the whole time I was around Roo, trying never to let on that I knew she was dying. Not wanting to lie to her I had recently stopped telling her that she was going to get better and that there was nothing to worry about. I had resorted instead to telling her that she would feel better tomorrow. Even in the case of my knowing what she didn’t, that she would be made to die soon, I sought out any mechanism to protect myself and her from the inevitable darkness of lies.
I rushed the tank job and was back at the house in an hour. Roo was lying by the front door where Virginia sat with her.
Roo’s happiness when I got back was different than it usually was. She wasn’t just happy, though she was, and wagging, though she was, and smiling with her still bright eyes, though she was. She was also relieved in a way that felt different and more important to her. She huffed with relief as she greeted me and licked me on the face. She was relieved because as she became weaker and more ill she felt more vulnerable and didn’t want to be without me and seeing the camper drive off for the first time ever without her in her usual shotgun seat in the car must have been deeply disturbing to her. It wasn’t that she didn’t love Virginia, because she did. It was just that her protector, the repository of all her trust, trust that had been so difficult for her to learn and all of which I had been there to help her develop, drove away in the camper, an unthinkable worrying event. Surely she knew I would come back, as I always had from everything else, but it must have raised a question because, well, because you never know, especially if you’re as prone to worry as Roo was, and even if – if not more so – because Roo had especially loved me because, as far as she was concerned, I had never let her down. Of course, as far as I was concerned, I had let her down in many of the biggest ways, but part of the essential goodness of a dog is that they don’t see things like being consigned to a tiny camper and dragged all around the country as a stupid mistake. Things like that they are prepared to accept as a reality, and they don’t question reality in the way we silly humans are prone to.
For much of the rest of the day, Roo lay in the driveway. I brushed her gently for a long time and she loved it. An enormous amount of her fur fell from her.
While I brushed her it occurred to me that I would stop bothering her with the last of her medications. She had had enough. The low-dose chemo wasn’t working. Why take the chance that it was adding to her sickness. The prednisone was supposed to bring some relief. I couldn’t tell one way or the other that it was. There was mirtazapine, a serotonergic drug that gave dogs an appetite, in one of the two dozen pill bottles on the counter in the camper, but why make her hungry if the reason she didn’t want to eat was because swallowing was painful? Always so cooperative about taking pills that I had learned to put in her throat quickly and without any fuss, she had been grunting lately.
It was enough.
* * *
When it got dark Roo decided to come back in the camper and we spent the rest of the night either sitting together on the floor, or, when she tried to sleep, with me kneeling beside her with my arm on the floor so that she could rest her chin on my forearm to keep the swollen lymph glands in her throat from making her uncomfortable. Some days before I had tried lying her on her side, but that made something else uncomfortable, probably the pressure of some unseen mass growing in her, and she had to struggle to get back onto her belly, so I spent most of the night holding her and propping her head up so she could rest. By the middle of the night, though, I had to get some sleep. Not because I was sleepy – I felt like a deep and poisoning had taken me over – but because I thought I would be in even worse shape, less up to the tasks still to come and less there for her. I had begun to think constantly about making her death more difficult by intruding on it with my emotion. I was already seedy, dirty and sticky and stubbly. Roo was managing some sleep when I took a sleeping pill at three or four and went to bed. The pill lacked the influence to overpower my sadness. It was a quiet night. I lay there listening to Roo’s snoring. It was louder than normal because of the lumps in her throat. I lay there listening and trying not to imagine what it was going to be like when that snoring was gone but couldn’t stop. I didn’t want to make the bed creak by moving it, so instead of getting the tissues I needed I pulled a pillow over my face.
Sometime before dawn I went to sleep and just after that Roo woke me with a single urgent bark to be let outside. She only did that in emergencies. Just as Orville had done before her, she hated to wake me up because she and he understood how badly I slept and both of them protected what little sleep I did get. Orville did it to his dying day, waiting beside my bed for me to wake up in his greatest moment of need. Roo had over the years only barked to be let out when she was suddenly sick, the way she had been when she had her bout of severe gastrointestinal trouble in Oklahoma. Also, she knew that just the sound of her moving had always been enough to wake me, so she almost never needed to bark to get my attention. The exhaustion must have caught up with me. My body had been forcing some sleep on me. I sprang out of bed and opened the door and pulled my pants on to follow her to the yard.
I should have set aside any hope long before that Tuesday, but somehow I didn’t. Somehow, like a little wishing child, I never stopped hoping that something might have worked, that one of the drugs or the other would suddenly edge the cancer back enough to give Roo some more time. And then I fantasized that any tiny improvement might give the Panacur its chance to work on killing the cancer. While I wished for these things I was at once fully aware of how silly they were, the two flipsides working against each other in my mind.
But on that Tuesday I knew. I knew when I walked with Roo in the back yard. She was so tired. She sniffed a bit and squatted and then sat down. I kneeled in front of her and put my arms over her head and around her shoulders and held her and told her a few of the old things and she smiled and looked up at me and licked my face, the way she had only lately been allowing herself to do. Then she hung her head low and with my arms around her shoulders she pressed the top of her head into my chest.
I held her head up by the soft fur under her ears. “I know, Little Bear,” I said. “I know. It’s okay.”
Roo went to lie down in the cool mulch under the shrubs beneath the porch. I thought that Roo might want to be alone, in the way dying dogs often do, but I couldn’t leave her alone. I brought a chair over and sat with her. We stayed there until much later, until it began to get dark. When she decided to go back to the camper she stopped in the driveway. Maybe the idea of getting back in the goddamned camper was too much for her. Maybe she just wanted to spend more time outside, listening to the birds and squirrels. Maybe she was just too weary to make it all the way to the camper. She lay down in the driveway and waited to go inside until it was dark.
She stopped at the camper steps. The first step is a little on the high side. She wasn’t sure she could make it. Her arm might have been hurting. She might just have been too tired. I offered to help her and she gave me one last slow wag of the embarrassment she always did because it was a long-standing point of pride for her to make every climb herself with the autonomy I had made sure for her entire life she could exercise as much as possible. It was the autonomy that had healed her by reviving her sense of herself as a hunter, a predator, the autonomy that awakened in her her capacity to run free in the woods and deserts and mountains swim in the seas and rivers. That was done. It was too much of a struggle now. I slung my arms under her neck and chest, trying not to press on the lumps there and helped my girl into the camper.
I had to make the calls to find the veterinarian who would come over to euthanize Roo and to find a crematory. To keep these out of Roo’s earshot I walked to the street while Roo was in the camper. It was warm and I had turned the air conditioner on. Even with its loud noise and even at that distance, I worried unreasonably that she would hear me and I stood far away and still spoke in the low voice of some dirty conspirator, keeping from Roo the first and final secret of her life. It felt deeply wrong. It felt like I was snatching back all that autonomy, nullifying it, reclaiming it as my own. No matter that I knew better. No matter that I had seen Orville suffer and die from this same hellish cancer. No matter that I had failed him worse than anyone should ever fail anyone. But it was the way Orville died that made me not want Roo to die the same way.
The previous week I had begun contacting the mobile vets who specialized in home euthanasia but had had difficulty getting in touch with them. Business was good and either there was no answer or they didn’t return calls or those who did wanted to schedule something well in advance. Dr. Mason’s office had recommended someone and I had spoken to her the week before but now that she would be needed for the following day, she also didn’t return the phone call. I had emailed Dr. Philibert to ask if he knew of anyone else I could call. As an oncologist – by default someone with a lot of dying patients – and a partner in a big clinic I thought that surely he might be able to suggest someone. He emailed back for me to Google it.
I went back to the camper, and later that night, Roo and I had a long talk.