Goodbye To The Little King
We euthanized Gus last night.
In the past few days his decline was so steady and evident we realized we were morally obliged, as his stewards, to ease his suffering, and ours. We had run out of possibilities for treatment, or reason for hope. We were exhausted.
Gus was a valiant little Guy – I came to think of him as the Little King – he was loving and lively to the end, he did not ever succumb to the dread disease that was eating away at him. His spirit was very strong. It never left him.
Perhaps that was what was so difficult about this decision.
I celebrate his life, rather than mourn his loss. I feel so much gratitude at spending much of this past year with him.
It is easy enough to say Gus died too young, but that seems facile to me. Death is death, and life does not ask us when the things we love should die.
I respect life, and I accept it. Every dog is a gift to me, not a misery.
The poet Mary Oliver wrote of her dog's death: "And it is exceedingly short, his galloping life. Dogs die so soon. I have my stories of that grief, no doubt many of you do also. It is almost a failure of will, a failure of love, to let them grow old – or so it feels. We would do anything to keep them with us, and to keep them young. The one gift we cannot give."
We did keep him young in that way.
In one sense, it seemed fitting that Gus died young, we will always remember him as a puppy who acted like an adorable dinosaur in charge of everything in the world. He was a little squirt with a big ego.
It wasn't so much that the food was trapped in his esophagus – we had figured out how to get it moving through, but over the past week it became clear that he was not absorbing his food, and despite feeding him nearly two cans of high-calorie wet dog food a day, he was losing weight steadily, looking progressively thinner and older. The disease had advanced, he was coughing up bile.
Yesterday afternoon, Maria and I sat on the couch and Gus jumped into our lap, showered us both with kisses, and vomited all over us and the sofa and the floor. Even on the worst days – and there were many – Gus had fun and made us smile. I am proud of the fact that neither of us ever lost patience with him, or scolded him, or made him feel like we felt anything but love for him.
A life lesson in patience. I will not forget it.
In a strange sense, our last time together was a beautiful an appropriate farewell. That was it, right there.
In the way of dogs, he was sending us a message. Gus died on the vet's table with his head on Maria's wrist and my hand under his head. It was very quick and painless. We arranged to have his body frozen and we will bury him in one of the gardens at Bedlam Farm when the Spring thaw finally comes.
He belongs here.
We did our crying and much of our grieving over the weekend. Gus's illness had come to dominate our lives, there was sadness but also relief. It had taken up too much space, we live creative lives and we forget that at our peril. We don't get paychecks every week, we have to work every day and stay focused to keep our lives. We must always protect them.
A very good and caring person wrote that this must be a horrible time for me, but that is not so.
It is a wonderful time for me, my life is rich and full of love and meaning and work and creativity. Gus only enhanced my life, he took nothing from it. Death is a part of life. Maria often said "you love that dog so much!" She was right. Is that anything but a gift?
The photo above is the last photo I took of Gus. He had just commandeered my favorite chair, as he did often. He was, after all, the Little King, everything was his. It shows his fatigue, he seemed to age years in just a few days. He was starving to death right in front of us. His eyes tell a lot.
When I wrote the book "Going Home: Finding Peace When Pets Die," I remember interviewing a little girl who had lost a beloved chicken who followed her to school every morning. Her mother asked her if she was all right.
Yes, said the little girl, I'll miss her, but now I get to love another chicken all over again. She spoke my mind. Another thing dogs give us that people can't. We can go out and get another one.
Gus's illness cemented our love for him. And I learned so much about dogs and nutrition. For one arrogant moment, I thought i had turned it around. Maria and I never felt closer than when we left the vet and wrapped ourselves around one another out in the parking lot and held tight and cried. We are so grateful for each other.
I thought of getting a Boston Terrier as something of an experiment at first, an intellectual exercise – I wanted to learn about small dogs and write about them – but it grew well beyond that. Gus slipped right into our lives, every person and animal in our house adored him.
I love the breed and the experience. I will always love border collies and live with them, but Gus added so much to our lives and to my understanding of the small dog, and how different it really is. Gus taught me a lot, another thing for which I am grateful. Small dogs are a part of my life now. My work is not finished.
Gus made us smile many times a day, every day. I called him the Little King because he seemed to think he was running the farm, supervising Fate and Red, and using me as a seat cushion and play toy.
When he could, he loved to ride around in the car, chase Fate and steal her toys, go into the pasture, cuddle up, sleep between us in bed, mind everyone's business, sit in Maria's studio, and lie on the couch in my study when I was writing. He occupied every space there was.
Dogs are one of the joys of my life. For years, people have asked me how to deal with grieving over their dogs, and I always told them the same thing: get another dog as soon as you are ready.
And I mean it.
People who love dogs should have dogs, so many are in need of good homes. Nothing makes me sadder than when people say the loss of their dog hurt them so much they will never get another. I will not spend years grieving and marking calendars to commemorate Gus's loss. That is not what Gus is about for me.
There are so many dogs in the world, bred and mutt and rescue and shelter – that need homes. I have leaned to do the things that make me feel good and bring me nourishment and love. And why not?
I won't be phony, I won't pretend to be too grief-stricken to think about it. And if he could think like people and speak in our language, I have no doubt Gus would tell me to go for it.
He was a good time dog. Some dogs are all about work. Some are all about love. Some are all about fun. Gus has the last two covered.
I intend to get another dog as soon as soon as we gather ourselves and do some mourning, and as soon as I get the first e-mail telling me there is only one way to get a dog, which should come seconds after I put this post up on the blog.
Healing takes some time, it is different for each person.
As a steward of my dogs, I believe I did right by Gus. I worked hard to heal him, and failing that, I ended his suffering.
Karla wrote me this morning, she said the Universe can operate only because of opposition – negative magnetic pull to positive magnetic pull, light and dark, loud and quiet, water and fire.
I very much believe that.
We are all asked to live in balance, there are no perfect lives, only lives fully and well lived. There are things much worse than death.
Gus's breeder Robin Gibbons feels so badly about Gus's disease and illness even as we and the vet assure her it had nothing to do with breeding or the line. She is a great breeder, loving and honest and dedicated to making dogs healthy and sound in temperament.
When she came over to see Gus over the weekend with her son Brian, I told her that I hoped she did breed again. Gus was a wonderful dog, and I told her I would be proud to buy another puppy from her and bring him or her home. She said that meant a lot to her.
Something about that idea is very healing to me, even spiritual, a circle of life. That is my vision.
Robin said she wasn't sure if she wanted to breed again, she never wanted to lose another of her dogs. I hope she will breed again, life happens. If she doesn't, I'll start looking for another Boston Terrier from another breeder. I don't care to look backwards at what I've lost, I'd rather live in the present and rejoice in what I have.
I told Gus as he lay dying that I wished him a great journey, and I imagined him taking over some other household somewhere and bringing laughter and love into it, as he did with us. I think that is his purpose. I want to pick up on this journey, caught so short. I have more to learn, and I want as much laughter and love as I can cram into my life.
I have no idea why Gus was chosen to die, and I will not waste much time on it.
It doesn't really matter.
That is God's work, not mine. My life is too precious to take too much time grieving for something I would rather celebrate.
I know some people will ask – they already are – how they can honor Gus – he wasn't just my dog. No flowers, please :).
I would be happy if people who wished to honor Gus did so by sending a donation to the work we are doing with the Mansion residents and refugees. Small donations are very welcome – I sometimes tear up when I see those – "5 and $10 bills stuffed into envelopes from all over the country.
The work is my joy, there is so much to do. These people need so much.
I think that would be fitting for anyone who felt the urge. And every dollar and every good deed would make me smile and think of Gus.
No pressure. Jon Katz, P.O. Box 205, Cambridge, N.Y., 12816, or via Paypal, [email protected]
I am grateful to the many good people who send good wishes and love during Gus's illness. They helped a lot, we did not feel alone.
And to the avalanche of social media busybodies poised to tell me what I should have done or should do, I thank you too: you help me understand my truth and speak up for it.
Godspeed, Gus. You'll be home soon.