Not Yet (written 7/6/21)
It was the morning of the Fourth of July, and Kola couldn't get up.
I had carried the dogs' breakfast dishes into the laundry room where they're always fed, and Kola, who usually trots behind me in anticipation of one of the best times in the entire day, had remained oddly still under the kitchen table.
I got the other dogs into feeding formation, set down the dishes, shunted each of them out the back door as they finished their own portion so they wouldn't bother the dogs still eating. And all the time, I expected to hear Kola's heavy tread plodding across the kitchen floor and scuffing into the laundry room.
But she lay still. Occasionally her paws scraped feebly on the slick laminate flooring, and then I heard the chink of her collar tags as she dropped her head in defeat.
"Come on, girl," I told her, once the rest of the horde had been siphoned into the back yard. "Are you hungry? Let's go get your food!"
I tugged at her collar, and she lifted her big head and tried to brace her front legs, and thudded like a sack of potatoes back to the floor.
Kola has had trouble getting up before. At nearly thirteen-and-a-half years old, she has even slipped and fallen a couple of times while crossing the increasingly treacherous expanse of the kitchen. But always before, she had managed to right herself and get where she needed to go, with no lasting damage.
This time was different.
By a combination of pulling, bracing, and pushing, I finally hauled her into the laundry room. There, on the huge rubber mat that covers most of that room's floor, she was at last able to stand, and she chugged down her breakfast as if nothing was amiss. Then she was out on the back patio for a refresh, and I picked up her empty, slobbery dish and assumed the worst was behind us.
Five minutes later she came stumbling through the dog door and fell, thumping hard against the washer, her nails skidding as she tried in vain to get back on her feet.
That was how the whole day unfolded. I got her semi-comfortable in the computer room where there was carpet, a surface on which she seemed more stable. With help she could stand, eat, drink, and visit the great outdoors. But alarm bells were clanging in the back of my mind. Thirteen-and-a-half years old. A giant breed. On borrowed time for so long already...this may very well not end happily.
But she was still happy herself. She was loving her food, loving her people. She was healthy: no heart or kidney issues, no cancer, no major joint concerns. She could see and hear and navigate the world. It was just that she suddenly couldn't deal with slick surfaces.
So, I thought, we'll just keep her on the carpet and the rubber matting. And as long as she's on those footings she seems okay. But by late Sunday evening she was not okay, even on carpet. She simply lay, flat on her chest, her legs splayed, and totally unable to stand.
I will not allow my animals to suffer. This includes suffering physically, but it also encompasses the tenuous realm of dignity. Kola has always been a strong, capable, even graceful dog. Perhaps not with stunning agility and athleticism (she is, after all, a Newfoundland), but with steady, assured grace and coordination nonetheless. She has always been poised, solid, and confident. To see her reduced to flopping and groveling on the floor, not even able to brace herself with her front legs, was something tragic. To hear her desperately trying to stand, not even strong enough to bark to let me know she had to go out, was heart-breaking.
Late Sunday night, I asked my mom to make the call. As many animals as I have loved and lost over the decades, this is still a phone call I just cannot make. I can make the decision, but the actual verbal communication is beyond me.
Monday morning my mom set up the appointment. It would have to happen here at home, since there was no way Kola could travel without huge difficulty for everyone, especially herself. Tuesday afternoon the vet would come. We had less than thirty-six hours.
I try not to linger over these occasions. I don't want to remember my pets that way, and there is so much other work which needs to be done, that there isn't extra time to sit and become maudlin. Besides that, my opinion is that the greatest comfort for a dog in this predicament is to have the household carry on with its normal routine. Routine provides a sense of sameness and security for an ailing dog which are otherwise totally absent. And dogs find comfort in routine. Maybe they aren't okay, but everyone else seems to be, and so they feel secure.
So carry on I did. We all did.
I fed Kola under the table, where she had apparently managed to drag herself sometime overnight. How she had gotten there I wasn't quite sure, but she certainly wasn't moving now. So she ate her breakfast, and I did milking, and bottle fed the babies, and then took the other dogs out for a short, summer-day walk.
My heart was heavy and my feet dragged. I knew it had to be the right thing, but that never makes it easy. Was I giving up too quickly? Was there something else we could try? Or was that just prolonging the inevitable and heaping more hardship and indignity on this sweet, faithful friend? I didn't know.
We got home, and I noticed that Kola had shifted from under the kitchen table to lying right in front of the refrigerator.
"How did you get yourself over here?" I asked her, leaning down to rub her bear-like head. I needed to get into the fridge to retrieve the bag of salmon brownies as a reward for the hot and tired walkers, which meant that Kola needed to move. Guessing this probably meant another grunt session for both of us, I dug out the last handful of sausage from my treat bag and tapped it under Kola's nose, grasping her collar with my other hand.
With a heave and a scrabble, she lurched to her feet, lumbered after my sausage hand like a hungry moose, and just like that, she was walking. Carpet, laminate, in and out the dog door, walking just like she had been two days ago. No fanfare, no looking back, and no real explanation. My best guess is that her back, or possibly a hip, had been out of whack, and had somehow clicked back into place at just the right moment. Either that or Vienna sausage truly is as healing and restorative as the dogs keep telling me it is. Whatever the case may be, I waited until this morning to be sure, and then had the total and never-before-experienced joy of picking up the phone and canceling that awful appointment.
No, we're not ready for that yet. Kola's next vet appointment will be with a canine chiropractor and rehab specialist, and maybe we can figure out exactly what went wrong. But for now, it has been set right, and that's all we care about. Kola still must have some work to do. It was a close call, but an incredibly happy ending. I know the final end will come. But not yet. Not yet. For now, she is still with me. All her slobber and shedding and massiveness and goofiness, and her beautiful heart and her gentle spirit, are still here.