Maria died this morning around 8:30. I stayed up late last night to be attentive to her. She had grown progressively weaker over the last few days and I knew that death was near. She was not in pain or distress and I put off euthanasia knowing that taking her from her home would be an ordeal for both her and me. Maria died two months and two days from the death of her son Cornbread. She was 16 going on 17. She had lost most of her sight and hearing and the death of Cornbread exacerbated her confusion. Until a week ago when her strength ebbed she would search for him often ending up in a corner she could not find her way out of.
My old friend Bubba has been staying with me and has been very helpful in Maria’s oversight. What had been an assisted living facility for old dogs had in the past several days become a hospice. He texted me last night before I left the office that Maria was still breathing and alert.
She was when I got home though through the evening she changed as the dying process accelerated. I got up before dawn to check on her and she was fading. When I got up around 8 she had started to have labored breathing. I left her briefly to make my coffee and retrieve the number of the veterinary clinic.
Maria has been with me 15 of her 16 or so years. She and Cornbread were rescues adopted from the Good Samaritans who park lost dogs and cats in front of PetsMart every Saturday morning. They were a package deal and were trouble from the beginning. It took me years to understand that because of the awful events of their early lives (Maria led Cornbread in an escape from a dog fighting ring in North Georgia) that their bond was first and foremost to each other. I was never Alpha. They always privately consulted each other and did what they pleased which included inordinate barking and irregular bathroom habits. They compensated with cuteness.
Cornbread was a clown, a pup who never grew up. Maria was a master manipulator. She knew how to give you a withering look if you displeased her and a plaintive look if she wanted something. My ex Everett who co-adopted the dogs with me called Maria “Bette Joan” after Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, two astonishing actresses who could say more in a look than most folks could spell out in a paragraph. Maria never lost this ability even when cataracts clouded her eyes.
Maria’s charms disguised a brooding introversion. She would often retreat into solitude. She was not warm and cuddly and she could
turn from a sweet little dog to a snarling demon in half a heartbeat. She did not like to be picked up and would show teeth if such an intrusion on her sovereignty was attempted. After Cornbread died that changed. She would let me pick her up without much resistance.
In the last few days of her life she would even let me hold her. I guess she knew on some level that Cornbread no longer needed her motherly defense and in his absence I was the creature she would allow to show her warmth.
I followed my intuition and her cues for the deathwatch. Bubba provided a second set of eyes and a sounding board. Should I or should I not take her to the vet for euthanasia. I had taken Cornbread just two months ago. Their old vet of many years, the late Dr George Gibson told me last February when I took them in for their shots that when one died the other would go quickly. Dr George spoke animal, a language we human animals are often unable to understand.
When I came into the room with the number of the vet in hand ready to call I could hear that Maria’s breathing had grown more labored and so I went to where she lay and stroked her and told her that I loved her. She lifted her head and looked at me though she could not see me and breathed her last breath. I sat amazed at her timing. The night before as we sat together I wrote these lines,
all that is left between us
my old dog
dying and not dying
the holding she never
wanted when she was
hungry or thirsty
So how do you solve a problem like Maria? You don’t. She does. And if you are lucky you get to witness the final act.