The first time I laid eyes on Maybelle she was behind bars, in a kennel between the two dogs I’d come to see at the Humane Society. They were big German Shepherd-mixes. One was mostly black and impressive, and the other was about as striking a dog as I’ve ever seen — yellow like a lab, but with the profile of a Shepherd. And between them was a little 45-pound cattle dog mix with oversized ears that stuck out at a strange angle from her head. While the other dogs jumped and barked, she leaned up against the bars of her kennel and waited for someone to give her a scratch.
Quality of Life
I’ve been thinking a lot about “quality of life” lately. Everyone who has ever loved an animal has to grapple with this sooner or later. Are they having more good days than bad days? Is the treatment worse than the disease? Can they still do the things they love? It’s not something we think about all that often when it comes to people, though — especially not for ourselves.
I’ve been thinking about my “quality of life” though, for a couple of reasons. One, I’ve been working on a book — a passion project really — that gives us all permission to reimagine what success looks like and make the kinds of changes — both small and large — that allow us to live a better, more simple life that isn’t predicated on deriving all of our value from work.
Second, Maybelle’s chronic illnesses suddenly became acute.
A little over a week ago I found myself sitting on the kitchen floor at 4:30 in the morning, hoping the pain meds I’d just forced Maybelle to take would kick in. This was the third time within a month or so that she’d been overcome with stomach pain that made her unable to rest. The first time — when we didn’t really know what was happening, just that she was acting weird and not eating — we took her to the vet the next day. By then, the pain was gone. The second time it happened, it was accompanied by vomiting, and I took her to the emergency vet. There we learned that, in addition to the anal gland tumor she’d had successfully removed in 2016 (and which had not spread), and the slow-growing mass in her lung that I’d opted not to surgically remove and which never caused her any problems, she now likely had a third kind of cancer. The vet described a “loss of layering” in her intestines.
In a younger dog with fewer health problems, surgery would be recommended but I got the distinct impression from the ER vet that if it were her dog, she wouldn’t put her through any such thing. She said, “If this is the end of a pretty amazing run, I don’t want to keep her away from you any more than necessary.”
Those words hit me like a ton of bricks. I’d been through this before — a scary cancer diagnosis that put me back on my heels and wondering how long she had left. But it was nearly three years since that first scary bit of news, and here we were. She was 11ish years old and still running around the yard when it suited her. But those words — ” the end of a pretty amazing run” — had me in tears instantly.
The day before we wound up in the ER, Maybelle and I walked 2 miles through the hills of Vermont. I took this picture halfway in — after dropping Brian off at his school. We encountered free roaming chickens and she drank from mountain streams. She was living her best life — and so was I.
If you want to live a better life, get a dog and then set about giving her the best life you can possibly think of — on the dog’s terms, not yours. Dogs don’t want fancy beds or sparkly collars. They don’t care how big your house is, or whether the lawn is manicured. They want you and your time. They want to go hike in the woods, play in the park, and lounge on the couch with you on a rainy day. They want someone who cares enough to teach them how to behave in polite society, but who also lets them be a dog. They want a life filled with joy and play and the people they love.
It’s what we all want. We just tend to forget.
The Goodest Doggo
For seven and a half years, Maybelle was my near constant companion. When I adopted her, I’d recently begun working from home full time. I wanted a walking buddy to make sure I got out of the house every day. I was 30, single, and probably a little lonely. Friends were starting to get married. I found myself with more and more time alone. But once Maybelle came into my life, I had the pal I needed — the one who never had to check her schedule before making plans to go on a hike, or had to rush home.
A few years in, I met Brian and to his credit, he never complained about the dog who wanted to be next me on the couch even if it meant he had to move. She grew to love him, too — which was no surprise, not just because he’s loveable, but because she showered everyone with love. Strangers coming out of the senior center. Friends who were willing to cuddle her when I wasn’t around. The mail delivery person. Vet techs. Anyone with treats.
There were so many times I thought about taking an office job somewhere but changed my mind when I pictured Maybelle at home alone for 8+ hours a day while I sat in a cubicle under fluorescent lights or in traffic. The thought made me sad, and the reality would have been worse. No amount of money was worth suffering through that life.
For the last eight and a half months of Maybelle’s life we lived in a tiny cottage in the woods with a pond view. She was able to be off leash in the yard, chasing chipmunks and squirrels with abandon, and baking herself in the sun by the water. I started to realize this was the life I’d always dreamed of — for her and for me. We had the best “quality of life” I could have imagined for us, and we’d wound up there through a series of not entirely practical life decisions.
The last few days of her life were beautiful. It was warm and sunny, and so we spent the better part of the weekend by the water. She followed her nose, and even managed to run across the yard a few times — something we hadn’t seen much of since her latest illness began. She was as healthy and happy as I’d seen her in weeks, though she was still not eating much. Monday was quieter. I was back to work, and she was back at my feet. That evening, when we went nextdoor to have dinner with our friends/neighbors Maybelle came with us — we didn’t want her to be alone during the impending thunderstorm — and soaked up some extra love.
And the next morning, she died in her bed. Her pain meds had kicked in, so we decided to spare her the hour car ride to the ER and wait for our regular vet to open. We carried her to her bed, and made sure she was comfortable. She couldn’t hold on.
It was about as good an ending as any animal can hope for. At home, in bed, with the people you love nearby. Hell, it’s about as good an ending as any human can ask for.
Maybelle was the goodest of girls, a lover of cheese, and tolerater of cats. She was just about the best cuddler I’ve ever known. She made friends where ever we went, and she gave away her love freely and without reservation. She liked to dig holes in the sand and bake in the sun. She hated the water, but climbed into a canoe as soon as she saw me get into one. She’ll be missed as much as she missed me every time I walked out the door.
She was loved, and someday, when we’re ready, we’ll love another good doggo.