When she was about 75, my grandma sat for a headshot at the nearby JCPenney photo studio. She sent 5-by-8-inch prints to her four sons and me, her eldest grandchild, with notes telling us, “This is the photo I want at my funeral.”
At the time, I was in my mid-20s and found Grandma’s funeral photo prep bizarre, if not macabre. At the service 15 years later, as she smiled from a framed print of the Penney’s photo placed alongside her casket, I was grateful for her foresight. Grandma in the photo looked like I most remember her, not as she did in her final years after diabetes had ravaged her body.
The notion that we will all one day die is something many prefer not to think about, conducting life as if death will never come. While that may provide some sense of comfort, it’s kinder to those who will carry on after us to be prepared.
But sometimes death comes like Carl Sandburg’s fog, on little cat feet, and there is no time to prepare.
The humor in Steven Pastis’ comic strip “Pearls Before Swine” is acerbic. Yet it’s the only comic that has ever left me in tears. When friends post about the loss of a pet on social media, I often accompany a photo of Pastis’ strip describing the sadness he and his wife felt when they had to euthanize their dog, Edee, who had cancer.
Certainly the loss of a pet is not as grave as the loss of a human. And, yet, the deaths of these creatures, who love us with a simplicity most humans are not capable of, often leaves owners with an acute ache tinged with guilt. We have all the power and sometimes we must make difficult decisions with that power.
I adopted Goldie, the first dog of my adult life, when I was 17. I was 31 and the mother of two small boys when I had to put her down. It frustrated my then-husband when, for months after Goldie’s death, I’d randomly weep. What he didn’t understand is that grief is commensurate with love for the departed.
On NPR’s late-afternoon show, “All Things Considered,” I once heard a piece by a woman who had an irascible hound dog who bayed unbidden, chewed furniture with abandon and frequently escaped for far-flung adventures.
The woman’s description of her very naughty dog conveyed frustration, yes, but also her abiding affection for him. I suspect many commuters who heard that piece considered pulling off the road. Torrents of tears blinded my vision when the woman described putting down her once vibrant, then cancer-filled, dog.
Last fall I shared how my bi-black Sheltie, Lily, had disappeared for four days only to turn up in Cuyahoga Falls, easily 12 miles away. Lily was bred to be a show dog but was rejected because her coloring had too much white.
It’s likely Lily spent much of her first eight weeks of life crated because while sweet, she’s a hesitant dog. Where my other dogs rush in to greet me, Lily’s always a few away from the fray, waiting for a quieter moment, avoiding competition for attention and affection.
While I was in Michigan with my youngest children this summer, their father, Max, took care of my three dogs. Lily developed a GI sickness the week before we returned and Max took her to our vet, who reasonably treated her for an intestinal bug.
Two days after we returned to Akron, I went to Max’s house and found Lily extremely lethargic. She was clearly dehydrated and decompensating. I rushed her to Metropolitan Veterinary Hospital. As they still have COVID curbside service, a vet tech carried Lily inside to obtain her vitals. The vet tech quickly reappeared at my car door.
Lily, who’d turned 11 last month, had gone into cardiac arrest and died in the young woman’s arms before she’d gotten to an exam room.
Where I had expected to help my dog with IV fluids and then determine the source of her illness, I instead picked out a cremation package while waiting for Lily’s body to be brought into the exam room so I could say goodbye.
Unlike Grandma, Lily left unexpected and without any preparations. That she didn’t suffer for long brings some measure of comfort.
Meanwhile the two collars Lily wore remain on the passenger-side floor of my car where I placed them just before the vet tech took her inside the hospital. I don’t plan on moving them for a while.
This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, August 22, 2021.