Note: This post is not for everyone. It is about my beloved dog Izzy who we put down on Thursday. Izzy fills the pages of At Home: A Caterer's Guide to Cooking & Entertaining, thanks to Pascal Lemaitre's illustrations. I write this both to share with you my love for Izzy and, in some way, to perhaps help others who love their dogs (and cats too) and who are struggling with the question of what's the right thing to do for their aging pets.
Izzy and I
Izzy arrived in my life thirteen plus years ago -- a frisky black lab puppy. He left last Thursday as a tired old guy. He was a runt - deemed not show-worthy -- in a litter from award-winning Labrador Retrievers. He left his brothers and sisters and his Flemington, N.J. breeder with his AKC name...Into the Woods. A requirement of the Labradors of Broadway kennel was that their dogs be named - at least officially - after a Broadway show. On the ride home, this little plump ball of black fur sat on my son Noah's lap. Noah was nine years old. Izzy six weeks.
Two hours later, he arrived home to Philadelphia as Izzy. Noah named Izzy after the much maligned and little seen mascot of the just concluded 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics. The name fit him well, though people occasionally mistook Izzy for a girl assuming Izzy was short for Isabel. No, Izzy was a boy through and through.
Noah's mother and I had recently separated. In a new home that I shared with Noah, I needed a friend. We settled in. Izzy had no need for a dog bed. Mi casa es su casa. We watched TV together on the couch. We slept together every night on the bed that we shared. So tight were Izzy and I, that when called upon to provide a toast at Christina's and my 2008 wedding, Noah expressed wonder and concern about his dad's connubial preferences. If I had a complaint about Izzy it is that I wanted more snuggling. At bedtime, I would insist that Izzy come to the top of the bed to say goodnight, and, if possible, I would coax a kiss or two. Too soon Izzy would turn and return to his preferred place at the bottom of the bed. Yes, Izzy had intimacy issues.
I was lucky that I could bring Izzy with me to work every day. As a result, Izzy and I were rarely apart. Frog Commissary's catering offices were on the second floor of our Northern Liberties building, above our kitchens, so Izzy and food prep were separated. Mostly Izzy hung out under the credenza behind my desk. As he grew to 90 pounds, wiggling under and getting out from under my credenza became an increasing challenge. Daily he would wander from office to office, hoping to find some morsel of food that may have dropped to the floor. Staff had explicit instructions not to feed him scraps. He was frequently behind the scenes at catered events throughout Philadelphia. He especially enjoyed roaming the Mann Center for Performing Art's lawn - where we provided the food services for many years -- on summer afternoons -- listening to Bernadette Peters rehearse Sondheim or the Philadelphia Orchestra fine tune Beethoven.
Izzy lacked enthusiasm for barking. A watch-dog he wasn't. This was made most clear when one morning I arrived downstairs to my kitchen window to observe my car, parked in my backyard driveway, up on cider blocks with all four tires removed. "Izzy, where were you when this happened?!" Noah could make Izzy bark either by whispering something mysterious in his ear or engaging in teenage rough-house. On occasion Christina too could elicit a bark, but Izzy's preference was to just let the world go by without comment.
Upon our arrival at Christina's apartment and our new home some five years ago, Christina provided Izzy with a succession of comfortable dog beds. More than once it occurred to me that had Christina's apartment building not welcomed dogs, that she and I might never have begun our relationship. Izzy and I came as a package. Actually, both Izzy and I were pretty lucky to have found Christina and for Izzy to have spent this last stage of life with love from both of us. Initially, Izzy didn't get the dog-bed thing. So, at night we would cover every soft, elevated surface with all manner of obstacles to keep Izzy floor-bound. Accordion-style trivets from Target worked best. Oh, how we later rued the day when Izzy was no longer able to get up on a forbidden couch or walk up six flights of stairs with Christina after a walk in Rittenhouse Square. Izzy's change from middle-age to elderly seemed to happen suddenly.
Making the Decision
We were fortunate. Izzy had many aliments, but no life threatening infirmities. As a result, he never reached a point where pain was obvious and a decision to end his life the clear and kind choice. People said to me, "He'll let you know when it's time." Well, Izzy was never a dog who woke up in the morning with the idea that it was a good day to chase squirrels and one day his interest in squirrels gone. Izzy's recreational preference was always no recreation. An elevator building obviated the need to negotiate stairs. Getting up from his bed was hard, but once up, he soldiered forward, a limp here and there. His appetite remained constant. While it is true that Izzy's once freely wagging tail now rarely wagged, he was still and always Izzy - his essence ever present. He provided no "sign" that his time had come.
Izzy and I had a deal. I would love him and he would love me. In a world filled with complications, our relationship was simple. But part of the deal was that Izzy trusted me without qualification. He trusted I would feed him when he was hungry, walk him when he needed walking, and take care of him when he was sick. Particular about pristine drinking water, he knew I would refresh his bowl as needed. I was very good at all that stuff. When it came to the ultimate act of love and trust, I balked.
I believed that Izzy could talk and that he simply chose not to. More than ever I wanted him to talk with me about how he felt and what he wanted. We invest our pets with human feelings. Science tells us these are feelings that they don't have. What does science know!
A friend's mother recently died. His widower father has made clear that he too now wishes to die. He has a weak heart, but no terminal illness. He is not in pain. Still, he has his wish. Except, there is nothing anyone can do to make his wish come true. It's just not permitted. It seems ironic that Izzy is unable to express his wish - to live or die, but that I am free and obligated to make a wish in his behalf and carry it out.
My wish was to deny that Izzy was old and infirm. Deny my responsibility to make this decision - to delay and postpone. My wish was for someone to tell me what to do. My wish was to give myself permission. Not permission from my self that lives inside my head, but permission from my self that lives inside my heart.
Christina struggled to focus me more clearly on the declining quality of Izzy's life. I struggled not to hear her. I meet her love of and concern for Izzy with anger for making me choose to end Izzy's life. I struggled to make the decision about Izzy's pain and not mine. Intellectually, I understood my responsibility was to determine that time just before pain struck and so prevent Izzy's suffering. When is that point "just before?" But not too long before. I was willing to take care of Izzy forever.
Putting Izzy Down
What is the expression of choice? Euthanasia? Too clinical. Putting Izzy to sleep. Who are we kidding? This is much more than sleep. In the end, putting Izzy down was the one that worked for me.
Noah, Christina, Izzy and I arrived at 4 PM. This was the third appointment I had made. Each time before, I called it off. Not ready. Today was different.
The air was cold, clear, crisp and sunny. Snow from recent storms covered the ground. Izzy had taken many a trip to the vet, especially in the past several years as we worked to relieve his arthritis and manage his diabetes. For Izzy this was just another trip to the vet. He did not know he had moved to death row ten days ago. I knew otherwise. My heart ached with pain and a lingering stab of uncertainty.
Much of life is a matter of making a choice, however uncertain, and then willing the actions that follow as a consequence of that uncertain choice. As I walked Izzy in tight circles around the patio - he seemed to take a few especially deep and gratifying sniffs of the air. Then we all walked through the door. I had decided it was time and now it was time.
We were greeted warmly by the staff - who knew Izzy and why we were there. A tech came to take Izzy to place a catheter. I hesitated. Then, I surrendered Izzy as I had routinely many times before for this test and that. Izzy would not think this abnormal. This great, big, black wonderful dog trusted me. The procedure was to be performed by his long-time vet, Dan. Some months earlier I had asked Dan to describe the procedure.
We were lead to a sunny room and placed Izzy's generous, round, khaki-green bed from home on the floor. Izzy arrived and plopped down on his familiar bed. A catheter was taped to his left paw. Ever innocent and trusting, he had no idea what was about to happen. I lay on the floor facing him and facing the decision I had made on his behalf. Noah, Christina and I took our sweet and sad time to stroke and adore and savor our final moments with Izzy. Christina read a lovely poem "in Izzy's voice."
But, having made this decision, it soon made sense to move forward and get this behind us. I told Dan OK, it's time. Laying next to Izzy, looking deep into his cataract-clouded eyes, I stroked his head, and spoke softly to him and believing that, though deaf, Izzy heard me. I told him I was sorry. Sorry for us all that it had come to this. I wanted him to tell me that I had not betrayed his trust, that this was the right thing to do. I told him I loved him.
The actual procedure took about two minutes. At first Dan administered a sedative and Izzy drifted off. I expected that Izzy's eyes would close, but Dan said that dogs do not close their eyes. I continued to look into Izzy's eyes and stroke his head. A drug followed to stop Izzy heart. Dan checked Izzy's heart. There was still a faint beating. Dan administered more drug and shortly thereafter pronounced Izzy "passed." To the end, Izzy had a strong heart.
It is clear that Izzy experienced no pain. He died surrounded by his family who loved him well. We all should have it so good. And now he's gone. Not to a better place - that's just not my belief system. Just gone. Final. No do-overs. Life provides you certain indelible images of happiness and grief. Robert Kennedy's assassination, Noah's birth, a plump and black fuzzy ball of a dog sitting on Noah's lap as we drove home, meeting Christina for the first time. Add Izzy laying on his bed, lifeless and no more.
After mostly maintaining a stoic resistance to tears, I finally sobbed uncontrollably. Noah and Christina, struggling with their own grief, provided comfort. Mostly time and tears just needed to pass. They did.
Izzy will be cremated and his ashes returned.
It was not quite dark when we were done. Winter's days are getting longer. Noah, Christina and I went out to a great dinner -- nothing fancy -- great food and especially great wine. Somehow we had earned it. Returning to our home empty of Izzy would come soon enough. We talked little of Izzy. The morning after, while I missed Izzy, I could not get beyond that actual event and finality of Izzy's death.
At 63, this is the saddest thing I have had to do. I guess I am lucky in that way. That is, for the death of a pet to be the worst. But, so it is. To love is to risk loss. Dogs live lives shorter than ours. In dog years, Izzy was about 95 years old - ancient for a big lab. When he arrived in my life a little puppy I had no thought of this day. I watched him live a full life - through all of the ages of dog and man.
It seems clear in retrospect that my doubts were more about me than Izzy. It was time and it may have been time for some time. My guess is that no one ever closed a failing restaurant...or put their aging dog down too soon. Absence of pain does not equal a good enough life.
We live in an old-fashioned building with doormen and elevator operators who became part of Izzy's extended family. George would always say hello and good-bye to Izzy with the words "Izzy is." Well, Izzy was. In the last year or so it made sense for Izzy to spend the night in the kitchen. So, just before heading to bed I would move Izzy with his bed from his regular spot in our office where Christina and I spend too much time. Each night as I turned out the kitchen lights I would say, "Goodnight Izzy."
Izzy was the world's best dog. We were lucky to have one another. I am grateful for our time together and will miss him.