The past four months have been full of death. I have had to put down two dogs. Although these decisions were painful for me, they were not very difficult ones to make because I was sparing the suffering of two loved friends. In the time between putting down my dogs, an old high school friend killed himself. Some time has elapsed since then and yet I have been increasingly preoccupied in considering the differences between these three deaths.
Malcolm died on May 19, 2012 from the effects of canine degenerative myelopathy. Malcolm's health had been in decline for a number of years, not solely due to the DM. Our little man also suffered from an arrhythmia of the heart which caused a few fainting spells and often made him pant laboriously without medication to slow his heartbeat. Unfortunately, this medicine made him very lethargic and Malcolm became an "old dog" with a white muzzle years before the DM caught up with him.
Malcolm had grown unsteady in his back end and began to have trouble going up and down stairs a few years past. He started to have trouble getting in and out of the car for our drive to our favorite walking path. Even though we had to take things slow for him, he really enjoyed his walks despite his heart trouble. On one of our first walks on the spring, his back end collapsed. He recovered, unsteadily, and he never went out with Teague and I again. His decline was swift and sad to see.
On his last day he was happily begging for cornbread from my mother-in-law when twenty minutes later he collapsed on the kitchen floor. This time, he did not regain any motor function in his back end. We took him to the vet, whose diagnosis was grim. Malcolm had no feeling below his lower spine. Our little man was in no pain, quite the opposite really, but he was scared. We could not leave him frightened and alone to seek an implausible treatment in a hospital, we could not bring him home to drag his lower half about, incontinent and sore-ridden, until his bad heart took him from us. Malcolm was a good dog and he deserved to die away in our arms, which is the most important thing when you are a dog.
Teague probably had cancer by then. She was very saddened by Malcolm's absence. Ever since we brought her home from the shelter, and given her a real loving home, she and Malcolm were like peas and carrots. After Malcolm's passing, we went down to Chebanse, Illinois and bought her a new protégé in baby Lemmy. She turned out to be very gentle and tolerant of the new little bastard who was forever jumping on her and biting her neck. But as Lemmy began to loose his puppy teeth, we discovered that Teague’s lymph nodes in her neck and behind her legs were swollen.
The diagnosis was lymphoma. We were given three options. The first was chemotherapy. It would have been expensive and it would have made her sick. We would have done it in a heartbeat if there was a good chance of curing the cancer. But in dogs, Lymphoma can only be put into remission, with high success rates for the first round of treatment. But the lymphoma always returns with resistance to the chemo drugs and rates of secondary remission are poor. The second option was to do nothing and Teague would have suffered from the acute symptoms of her lymph nodes being swollen before the cancer would spread and kill her within sixty to ninety days.
The third option was to put her on a steroid called Prednisone which would alleviate the swelling in her lymph nodes making her more comfortable, but without affecting the progress of the cancer. This is the option that we took and as Teague's lymph nodes improved she was able to enjoy many weeks as the same old Teague. Unfortunately the steroid had the effect of making a good measure of her muscle mass waste away, and she gradually lost her stamina. She became an "old dog" seemingly overnight and it was sad that my favorite girl had become the slow one on our walks. Even then, she jumped around excitedly if I touched her leash or cried impatiently if I put on my hiking boots.
It was the evening of my birthday when Teague's breathing became labored. The steroid gave her a voracious appetite and thirst and she gained a bad habit of overeating and she had gotten a few upset stomachs. But in the morning, her muzzle had swelled and a bloody froth was coming from her nose. My wife took her to the vet who informed her that the cancer had likely compromised her bones ability to produce hemoglobin and that she was starting to collect fluids in her lungs. Teague was facing a rough battle, which would end in pulmonary failure. We chose to spare her that agony and she passed away instead, sedated, in the comfort of her family.
We had put down Teague only weeks after we paid our final respects to one of my high school friends who had taken his own life. Ricardo J. Castro, was affectionately known as "Ducky" for his resemblance to Jon Cryer in the movie Pretty In Pink. Rick was the sort of guy who always greeted his many friends and family with a laugh and a smile. But I believe that Rick always suffered from an inner sadness and a lack of self-worth. Or perhaps that is what I saw of myself in Rick. From the beginning of our friendship in high school, Rick often sought escape by smoking marijuana with the rest of us potheads and after passing out in the snow overnight, his parents sent him away from us to Montana for a time.
Rick spoke well of the experience and thereafter he always had a great affinity for the outdoors. When I was recently married, some thirteen years before his death, Rick was still smoking weed and drinking, but not yet to injury. He found a meaningful career as a unionized tile setter during the housing bubble of the decade. He found love and marriage in Sofie who was an au pair from Belgium. My own career put me on the road, and my subsequent troubles and recovery with alcoholism, made Rick and me strangers.
By the time I put a few of years of sobriety behind me, Rick was in a downward spiral. The housing bubble had burst and Rick could not find work. His wife left him and took his children away from him to Belgium. I am sure that I am oversimplifying Rick's struggles, but at their roots was an inability to cope with his feelings of loss and the unhappiness that he felt inside. He left me a rambling, drunken voicemail this January, expressing these things and his desire to stop drinking. I wish that I had kept that message. I wish that I had hounded him after he initially did not return my call the next morning.
I did have the fortune of seeing him once more at a bonfire this May. It is true that he was drunk that night and that he passed out on one of my dog beds. But it is also true that he spoke with me about wanting to change his life, to quit drinking, but that he could not fathom the unbecoming of the person that was the alcoholic. Those, actually, are my words to express my own experience, but Rick expressed them in his own words to me earnestly that night. In the morning, I gave him an espresso and after his cigarette, he left to bail one of his drinking buddies out of jail. I told him to give me a call and that we would work on what we discussed, but that was the last time I ever saw him.
One of his closest friends would desperately like to believe that Rick's suicide was a tragedy induced during an extreme blackout like state. That would have been one kind of tragedy. But the evidence actually suggests the opposite. His suicide note, according to another close friend, was well-written with a sober hand and suggested the actions of someone in command of his senses. It seems that Rick has gotten himself together enough in his last days to make an uncomfortable but sober decision. We will never really know, what Rick was really thinking. Rick's house was in foreclosure. He was separated from his children by many miles. He could not find steady work. He was planning on moving out to the country to take care of his father who has Parkinson's Disease. His note was full of love and apologies to his friends and family and his children especially, but did little to answer the question that we all wanted to know, "Why?"
Bob Dylan wrote, When you got nothing, you got nothing to loose" I guess that Rick's actions suggest what these words may have meant to him, and this is probably the closest to understanding his death that I can get at this time. In my dogs' cases, they were facing their demises. One dog paralyzed and frightened, the other, struggling to breathe as her lungs failed. I had the right to take their lives to end their suffering as their guardian, and I believe that it was an obligation. I loved those animals, they were my children.
Rick's life was his own to take, but does a person have a right to end his own suffering caused by alcoholism and lifelong despair, at the expense of leaving two children fatherless and two parents childless? When can we ethically make the decision to refuse our continued misery? How great or how trivial does the source of these miseries have to be and how great and extensive the damage to those around him have to be?
I do not have the answer for Rick, for his children or for his parents, but I am selfish enough to wish that nobody would refuse me the ability to end my life should I be faced with the same kind of miseries as my dogs experienced this year. Will I get that fatal shot into my vein as I cough up my blood, or will I be left powerless, paralyzed and scared without a way out?