The Other Door

inside the other door

Groom and I took our beloved almost 12-year-old dog to that other door at the vet this week. The room with the separate entrance so nobody has to see you cry.

When Heebie, short for Herbert, was four, he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and was given a life expectancy of about two years. But, the vets told us, very few young dogs are diagnosed with that type of cancer, so the prognosis was based on an older dog’s life span.

We opted to treat it.

While he was getting his chemo and his radiation, a tech noticed one kidney was much larger than the other. Upon further inspection, it was noted the kidney was full of urine and could burst at any time. We would have to remove it. Neither Groom nor I felt it made sense to spend thousands of dollars on chemo treatment to then let him die from a burst kidney a month later, so we had the kidney removed.

And thus began Heebie’s life as a miracle dog and nearly a decade of our keeping him happy, comfortable, and relatively healthy.

Over the years, he has fallen prey to hypothyroidism, canine papilloma virus, seizures, mange, hepatitis, food allergies, repeated sprained tail, Lyme disease, acid reflux, exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (for which we were required to feed him ground up beef pancreas ordered through some special farm in California or some such place), ectopic cilia (where the eyelashes grow into the eyeball), and chronic ear infections and chronic pneumonia. He went nearly completely deaf, was totally blind, and started to lose much of his mental faculties. He had been hit by a car, eaten rat poison, and devoured a bottle of Advil. He had numerous ultrasounds, MRIs, and surgeries. He was on 17,000 different types of medication and required near constant care.

But here’s the thing. He never whined or complained or even limped. He had been sick for so long, he didn’t know that he was sick. He was sweet and affectionate and curious and snuggly and quirky and funny.

I don’t get attached to things or beings. And, if I do, I have a tendency to remove them from my life. I had a cat when I was in my early 30s. I adored that cat. I worried he’d be hit by a car. I worried he’d be eaten by coyotes. I worried he’d get locked in someone’s basement and starve to death. I couldn’t even name him for fear I would grow even more attached so I called him Black Cat.

I gave that cat away to an acquaintance and never saw it again. For all I know, he’s still alive and meowing at the window.

Christ, I was dating my now husband for five years before I would even admit I had a boyfriend. It took 15 years for us to finally get married.

So, yes. I tend to keep things at an arm’s length, which might be the reason, partially at least, for my ability to write such personal things in a public forum. I can’t see your face. And, frankly, I don’t want to. I don’t require your sympathy and I don’t want you to approach me after a few cocktails to talk about loss. It was a dog. Plain and simple. But he was our dog, our constant and cheerful companion, and I adored him.

As I remember our little friend, I cram my brain with other things to keep me focused on what I need to do rather than indulging in self-pity. Oddly, commercial jingles and pop music squeeze out the image of my dog on the cold, hard floor at the vet–the last thing we saw as we closed that other door and walked back into the icy parking lot.

Mourning is boring. It’s boring for the person experiencing it because it is both all-consuming and painfully empty. It’s boring for the person’s friends because after a while, hearing about loss gets really old. How many times can you say you’re sorry about a dead dog before it’s okay to go back to talking about the fact that Jody in accounting is totally sleeping with Chris over in marketing?

(That isn’t a real scenario, obviously. Everyone knows accounting will never be in bed with marketing. Ever.)


When you mourn, everything seems to have weight: the gray day is gloomier; the crying baby at the grocery store is louder; the salt and dirt on the cars is darker; the icy parking lot is suddenly colder, meaner, scarier; my head is heavier on the pillow.

I have chosen to be happy in my life. I realize this oversimplifies and probably trivializes the chemical happenstance that occurs in the brains of pe
ople who suffer real depression. I cringe to think people might live like this every day. Getting out of bed is nearly impossible. Cleaning the house seems pointless. Going for a walk, albeit really good for every single person in the world, feels too active.

Heebie’s collar sits lifeless in the back of our truck. His leftover food and pancreas sit on the shelves and in the freezer. A chewed dog toy rests beneath the couch. Slowly, I’ve been packing things up. I’ve noticed my husband has been packing things up as well. He matches the can of food I tossed into the trash by removing the dog bed from my home office. A bag of meds hangs from a hook in the kitchen, ready to be donated for those who can’t afford to treat their own dogs.

What do you say as you drive toward that other door with the dog panting in the backseat? This animal who trusted us to do what was best for him, trusting us to the end to make the right decisions. And, in the end, his body was just giving out. He was quite simply very sick and he would not be returning to his normal self. This was it.

Emotions, like smells, can trigger memories and other emotions. The smell of pencils reminds me of the days when my sisters would return from St. John the Baptist School, their plaid uniforms thick with the smell of graphite and wood shavings. Lemon Pledge reminds me of Saturday chore days when my four siblings and I had specific cleaning tasks–dust the living room, vacuum the dining room (or dying room to match the living room), clean the woodwork around the doors. Pungent cologne reminds me of those moments on Sunday mornings when I had to shake hands with the fat guy in the pew next to ours while my father hissed “peace” at the church ladies who whispered about my mother sitting in a wheelchair near the choir so as to be closer to the handicapped ramp the church invested in once her battle with MS rendered her unable to walk.

Gun oil draws me back to my then-boyfriend’s now husband’s farm in college where he would sit at the table and fill shot shells while his roommate cleaned the guns. I was reminded this week, through this mourning, of a time when Then-Boyfriend’s sow gave birth to a litter of piglets. It was a difficult birth for this 400+ pound Mama Pig and some of her piglets were stillborn. I stood to the side in the barn, watching this unfold. I couldn’t help, other than to grab towels or water if someone shouted that necessity.

Then-Boyfriend delivered some of those piglets to the kitchen to keep them warm in the oven (yes, people do that), but he cupped the runt in his hands, kneeling next to the panting Mama.

It was so clear to me that the little piglet would not make it through the day. Then-Boyfriend refused to give up, kneeling there and stroking the near-lifeless tiny critter in his gloved hands. Finally, he rested the piglet in the hay and stood up.

“It’s over,” he said.

I had known him for less than a year at that point and I knew I wanted him to be around me for the rest of my life. That tenacity and focus up until that acceptance of loss. It was stunning to me.

These emotions now. I mourn every loss at once, pain triggered by pain. The wind outside during today’s winter blizzard reminds me of the solitary breeze that lifted my hair at my mother’s graveside. My phone buzzes and I think back to the phone calls I have received over the years in regard to friends and family members who were taken either by disease or some other means.

The timing here makes me question whether someone really is in charge. My father died the first week in February. My husband shattered his leg the first week in February. My favorite dog has died the first week in February. If I were to live by the rules of three, I could feel assured my next February will remain disaster free.

On February 10, 2014, to borrow from Arundhati Roy, we walked through that other door to leave a Heebie-shaped hole in the universe. As Groom stroked his head, I stood up.

“It’s over,” I thought.

Sarah Devlin

About Sarah Devlin

Sarah Devlin has been writing about the recreational industry since the late ’90s but ironically can’t run, swim, or bike a mile.