Loco Parentis: The End of My Leash

“You’ll know when it’s time,” friends assured me when our dog was diagnosed with cancer. If only it were that easy

WHEN MY DAD was dying, toward the end, he said, fairly often, “They ought to just let you commit suicide when you turn 75.” He made it almost a decade beyond that, but it was a decade of illness and indignity. He’d been a widower for years, and was used to doing for himself. Now, gradually, he had to rely on others. And he had to give up things he loved: travel, golf, driving. His world dwindled from a house to an apartment to a hospital room.

He was ready to die. And I remember thinking it was a shame he couldn’t legally choose to, couldn’t pay a doctor to put him out of his misery. I’d have lobbied for him, been his advocate, given my blessing.

With Homer, it would be easier. I’d have the power to tell the vet: Enough is enough. How, though, would I know when to say it?

“You’ll know when it’s time,” Wendy, our dog-walker, assured me. She came, the days I worked in the city, to take Homer out in the afternoons. I found the certitude with which she said this reassuring. When I scratched Homer’s ears or ruffled his coat, I’d look into his eyes and wonder: Was he in pain? The only obvious sign of his illness was blood in his stools. But the cancer was inside him, growing and spreading. At the one-year anniversary of his operation, I worked up the nerve to ask the vet: How long?

“Sometimes they hang on for two years. Sometimes even three.” He looked at me. “He’s getting on anyway.” I heard a whisper of hope in that. Maybe he’d die of something else first, and I wouldn’t have to decide.

Big dogs age fast. Homer went gray around the snout. His brown eyes clouded up, the way my dad’s had. He sat down clumsily, and got up more clumsily. Our walks became excruciatingly slow. He’d always been a picky eater; now it was harder and harder to entice him. It was a little spooky how his aging process mirrored what my father had been through.

He even got crotchety, just like Dad. He wouldn’t go for walks with my son, Jake, or daughter, Marcy. Or he’d go half a block and turn for home. Worst of all, my big, gregarious mutt no longer perked up at the sight of other dogs. “He’s old,” I’d apologize in the park when Homer growled. Like my father, he’d once been fastidious. Now his coat grew matted; he wouldn’t let me brush him. He no longer chased ducks. But a groundhog could still rouse him; he’d gather himself and take off running, and go a stride or two before remembering: I’m old.