I have written about the loss of others' precious furry family members. And I thought I got it. I thought I would be ready.
But like so much in life. There is knowing, and there is knowing.
And until last night, I simply didn't know.
What I have always called "the deal with the devil" - the pact into which you enter when you allow a pet into your life, your heart, the fabric of every sunrise, sunset; the agreement that states, should life go according to plan, you will have to say goodbye at some indeterminate moment down the road - I knew the rules, but I did not have any way of truly knowing the cost.
Last night I learned. Last night I paid. As did Culley, Kendall, Toby, Rudy, the grandrents, my sister, and anyone who has had the privilege of spending time with our baby girl, Oreo.
After almost 14 years of giving us love, laughter, frustrations, and the need for an ever present lint brush supply, we had to say goodbye.
Oreo came into our lives because we needed hermit crab food. Let that sink in.
Yeah, we were those people.
Walking into a Petland, prepared to spend $5, we walked out an hour later with much less money and a 1 pound 4 ounce ball of black and white fluff.
It was not a hard decision for the kids to name her Oreo.
And while I now know that buying from a pet store only perpetuates the horrendous puppy mill industry, a mistake I will never make again, we have not a single regret about how she came into our lives. She was meant to be a Sharp, and she was as lucky to find us as we were to dimwittingly decide on the spur of a face lick that "Hey, we need a dog!"
And what a dog she has been. I was blessed to have a sister whose dogs have always been the most polite, well behaved, secure animals you could meet. Kim came to visit, and with her help and guidance, she taught us how to build an amazing canine companion - socializing, making her understand she was NOT the alpha, getting her acclimated to sights, sounds, textures. I will never forget building a tunnel from two chairs, a sheet, and a floor of aluminum foil, coaxing her through with an endless supply of treats.
Kim taught me crate training - that it was not cruel, but comforting. She taught me and I taught Oreo - consistency, commands, a vocabulary that would include the big words like WALK, TREAT, BYE BYE, and family words like baby (for each new cat addition), out, front (to get her to come immediately), tell me! (bark, bark, bark), Auntie Dip (Kim), Grandma Jerri and Grandpa Rudy (her couch companions), Unclepap (an endless supply of treats), Grandma Marilyn (Ro loved her shoes). And of course, the never ending supply of nicknames: Ro, Pooh bear, Pooba Doo, Sunbear, Rufus, Little Bitch (so named by Toby after pooping her crate and needing a bath at 6am when I was out of town), Ro Ro, Shithead (pronounced ShiTHEED), My Pokemon, Pooter, Poot, Pupper, Borf, and whatever other sounds fell out of our faces at the time. After all, it was the tone of the voice, not the name that she immediately understood.
Culley loved teaching her to roll over, lay down, come, sit, stay - her patience was a bottomless well, and Oreo worshipped her. She was carried and loved and cuddled, and encouraged. And before we knew it, we literally could not remember life without her in it.
She was a Sharp. She loved her people endlessly. She cared for us when we were under the weather, just knowing. If you sat near her, she would need to put one paw on you - your leg, your foot, your arm - didn't matter - just to feel connected.
Kendall called her Sunbear - and between them existed a love that miles could not disrupt. Kendall would Facetime just to talk to her, go on walks with us. Oreo would light up even brighter when Kendall would come home for a weekend. And Kendall would hear nothing of her growing older, her reply always being, "She's going to live forEVER."
And then there was her relationship with Rudy. Oy. She loved her Daddy. When he was around her feet barely had to touch the ground. He was her Paris Hilton. Her year spent living with him at Gateway was wonderful for them both. She loved just watching TV with him at the end of the day, and he adored her company.
Toby has always been her Mowgli. Toby is like that with pretty much every animal he meets, but with Oreo, he was a best friend. She was forever patient as he would dress her up, make her crowns, take picture after funny picture of them together. And it was Toby who was with her when the first seizure struck earlier this year.
Rushing her to the vet, xrays, exam - soon we knew she also had an enlarged heart. Medication became part of the routine - anti-seizure three times a day, heart twice a day. Toby and I used our normal sleep patterns - me taking the early shift, him giving her the final pilling of the night.
We did what people and pets do - we adjusted to our new normal, and life went on. Oreo loved getting little balls of cheese three times a day (only way she would take the damned pills), we created a hallway barrier to the litter boxes so she could not indulge in her truly favorite treat: cat "fish sticks" and blocked off the bottom step so she would not wear herself out trying to go up them.
And she was doing good. Living for her walks twice a day, loving the new stairs we bought to help her get up on to her favorite spot - the couch, eating well, smiling, happy.
Until a week ago.
The quick coughing that had usually been an indicator of brief over excitement, grew in length. By this past Monday, the only relief was when she was passed out on the tile. I knew she was in distress and took her in. Her vet of 11 years gave her a sedative to help pull her out of the cough spiral in which she was stuck, xrayed her, and determined that her trachea had collapsed (sadly common in small breed dogs). Every breath in and out was a struggle for her. And given her age, and other health issues, surgery simply was not an option.
We left that day with a syringe of sedative (in case she got caught in a cycle again), and the loving, but honest words from Dr. U that we were coming to the piece of road when we would need to be making that decision.
But my heart still believed Kendall - She's going to live forEVER!
Vets, pet care specialists, pet owners who have walked this awful road will all tell you that you will just know. That your pet will know, will telegraph to you that it is time.
As Toby and I hovered all this past week, we noted every thing that was somehow different. Even without sedatives, she would simply lay on the cool tile, never once going near the couch. Even the smallest movements - stretching, walking to get water, go out to potty, would trigger her coughing, gagging, fighting for air. In the backyard, she started to seem lost, unfocused.
And then yesterday, she would not eat. Not even her favorite roasted chicken. Not even her coveted balls of cheese pills. She lay on the tile, not asleep, just staring. By yesterday afternoon, I lay on the tile next to her, talking to her, listening to her breath pattern that was just different.
And looking into her little Milk Dud eyes. Her gaze said, "Please, Mommy, help me."
I hollered for Toby, called the vet, and we went in. We both just knew, even before the doctor listened to her lungs. We knew. It was time.
And love has never had such a high price tag in our lives.
We had always promised her that we would never let her suffer. That we would make it hard for us, not her. That we would be brave enough to say goodbye.
Through tears, Toby and I called everyone to let them know, to put them on speakerphone so she could hear them one last time. It was heartbreaking.
When they gave her the first sedative shot, and inserted the catheter, we held her in a blanket and Facetimed Culley and Kendall. Through tears they poured out their love to her. Her eyes, so ready to fall asleep, stayed open as she heard two of her favorite people saying her name, speaking their love.
Finally, cradled between the two of us, the doctor asked if we were ready. I know we nodded, and she pushed the final medication into the tube. As she drifted off, I said her favorite words to her, "Mommy's got the baby, Mommy's got the baby" - the reassuring words her alpha would whisper anytime she was sick or recovering from anything, as I would stand and hold her like a baby, doing the mommy rock back and forth. Toby told her over and over what a good pupper she was and that it was just time to "go bye bye."
It was the most beautiful, awful moment of our lives.
And then she was gone.
Her tiny tongue, always so pink that Toby called it "Tuna tongue" went white. And in her final offering, all that she had left to give, she peed on Toby.
Through our overwhelming grief and tears flowing like a river, she gave us the gift of one last laugh.
We stayed and held her for a while, marveling at how tiny she is, how peaceful she now was. And then, arrangements for cremation made, we kissed her one last time, and went home.
Walking into the house, the first thing I encountered was the barrier to the litter boxes, and I dissolved. I fell against the wall and just sobbed. There was no need for the wall of stuff anymore. Not the one there, not the one at the bottom of the staircase.
Sleep was not easy, and I found myself wandering the house at 130am, swearing I could FEEL her, that every dark shadow was her.
This morning, opening the refrigerator, the first thing I saw was her cheese. I again dissolved.
Because today I KNOW. I know the price. I know the pain. I know I will "see" her everywhere for a long while to come. But I also know that she needed Toby and I to love her as much as we did, to know her as much as we did, in order to help her go.
For 14 years she loved us as hard as we loved her, just as unconditionally. Her love, her presence, her smile was a gift. What will remain of her body will stay with us in a box on the mantle, but as for everything that truly was Oreo? Well, Kendall was right, she will live in our hearts forever.
Rest in peace, sweet baby girl. The Rainbow Bridge is waiting for you.