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

IN THE DAYS just after Homer’s death, I felt as though I’d lost a limb. Dogs are creatures of habit. So are we. A dozen years of having him wag me home weren’t easy to get past. I’d turn the key in the front door, brace for him to come pushing through onto the porch, and … nothing. What had been for so long an occasion, the high point of his day, was now just … opening a door.

But gradually, I realized that I felt relieved. So many layers of anxiety had dropped from my life; so many hours of time had opened up to me. I remembered experiencing that same relief after my dad died. Sure, he was no longer in pain. But I was no longer spending my weekends driving to visit, sitting in his hospital room coaxing him to eat, worrying all the time whether he was hurting, was lonely, was unhappy, wondering whether a good daughter would insist he come live (die) with her instead of leaving him there.

I had lunch with Wendy. She wanted to know how I was doing. She also wanted to know when I’d be ready for another dog; she always has a stray who needs a home. “Doug won’t let me,” I lied. I was enjoying doing some traveling for work, going to tour potential colleges with Jake, without the fear that Homer was lonely, overheated, refusing to eat. And — you know? — I liked leaving my car in my Center City parking garage without being ashamed of it. (“You keep ah-neee-mals in here?” one of the attendants, an immigrant from Africa, once asked during a hot summer spell.)

Which is what made me think: There really isn’t any difference between Doug’s dad and me. Where he grew up, there were no dog-walkers. There weren’t five flavors — one “lean” — of Pup-Peroni. Dogs were utilitarian; they earned their keep. And if they couldn’t, well, nobody in the hills of Western PA had either the time or the inclination to follow them around cleaning up bloody stools. People shot their dogs when they became too damned much trouble, which was exactly what I’d done.

I feel bad about that. Sometimes I wonder: How many more walks might Homer have had in him? Could he have made it to the end of summer, and rebounded when cooler weather set in? It’s so much easier to clean up dog doo in winter than in summer. And he did have good days. His next-to-the-last was a good day; he swallowed his buffered aspirin and bounded into the backyard in pursuit of a squirrel.

I feel bad enough, in fact, that I know I don’t ever want to make that decision on behalf of a person. Once, I would have been willing. And I’m still sorry my dad suffered, toward the end. But I understand now — he endured the suffering so that those he loved could remain sane, remain human. So that pulling the trigger wouldn’t ever become routine.