WARNING - REALLY LONG POST -
I lost my Emma in a matter of hours. Not weeks, not days, HOURS. She was almost 15 and she was my baby. She was…is…. EVERYTHING. She meant the world to my husband and me. My heart is broken. The emptiness is so overwhelming sometimes it feels like I can’t breathe. Referring to her in the past tense feels so wrong and like I’m betraying her.
When I was 20, I adopted Emma from the shelter when she was just a few weeks old. There were lots of litters of puppies there, all squirmy and tails wagging, waiting to be adopted. And then there was one pup by herself in a cage. She was full of energy too and had a funny-shaped head. She was tiny and had the coloring of a boxer and the face of a shepherd.
Adopting a puppy was not my idea, my roommate all 4 years of college had the idea and talked me into it. I remember the shelter employees taking the puppy out of her cage and letting us play with her in a separate room to see how we liked her personality. She was the typical ball of energy, bubbly, wanting to play and meet everyone, curious about everything. It was hard not to like her immediately. I wanted to name her Daisy, but my roommate wisely said “I don’t think she’s really a Daisy-type personality, she’s more like a….an Emma!” And there it was, a perfect name for what became the perfect dog.
Emma was magnetic. SO much personality and energy. So goofy and fun-loving. She loved to play and made friends with everyone around her. She knew no stranger. In her mind, everyone was a new friend. She was mischievous….constantly digging under the fence, running amok and making new friends everywhere she went. She was that perfect mix of playful and energetic, yet calm and cuddly when you needed her to be. Every day was a new day that she greeted the world with an attitude that I envied. I like to think she approached every day with a “bring it on” gusto.
Emma was with me through my last 2 years of college, college graduation, moving to Houston and starting my first real full-time job, starting law school, graduating law school (and all the terrible dates and not-so-great romantic relationships in between), meeting my now-husband and getting engaged, moving across the country to Ohio to start a new life, getting married, buying our first house (which we made sure had a big yard for her to play in), my husband deploying overseas for a year, remodeling our house, changing jobs, my mom passing away last year…..she was there for all of it - ALL of it. Pretty much all the major milestones you go through as an adult. She adapted to every situation with ease and approached each day as a new beginning. I have never met a dog who loved life as much as she did.
She loved to swim, play in the snow, hunt for rodents and other small creatures, eat, ride in the car, roll in the grass, sunbathe, snuggle, and meet new people. She even jumped into the mail truck with the mailman one time – ready to ride with him from house to house on a new adventure! She was a barrel of fun and energy, but also a sweet and cuddly couch potato when you wanted one of those lazy days. My husband even took her up in a plane and flew around the area, with her gazing out the window with curiosity as the ground below got smaller and smaller.
In early 2017, at almost 12 years old, she had her first real injury. She tore her ACL at the park down the street. Off to surgery she went to repair her leg, and she soared through recovery with flying colors. In fact, we had to slow her down because she was pushing herself too hard and was risking tearing her newly repaired leg. She had no intention of slowing down. BRING IT ON!
In the summer of 2019, at almost 14 years old, the vet found cancer behind one of her eyes. Off to surgery she went to have her eye removed so they could remove the tumor. But this time we were much more nervous due to her age. But again, Emma soared through surgery and recovery with flying colors. It didn’t slow her down one bit - still ran, still played, still explored and loved life. Vets would always comment about how spry she was for her age, and how her bloodwork and heart seemed like that of a much younger dog. Emma was invincible….capable of overcoming anything, even old age!
In the fall of 2019, Emma started having accidents around the house. It was unlike her, so we took her to the vet, hoping that it was just a bladder infection. But it was a bladder tumor - Cancer. They called it transitional cell carcinoma. Due to the location of the tumor, they could not perform surgery to remove it, but the vet recommended an anti-inflammatory drug that was documented as slowing the growth of the tumor and even, in some cases, shrinking it! The vet didn’t give an estimate for how much time she had, as she said Emma may continue to live out her natural life if the drug proved successful. We just needed to watch her and be vigilant of certain symptoms that would indicate growth of the tumor. THANK GOD, I thought….not really thinking about the fact that her natural life wasn’t going to be years and years. I cried with news of the diagnosis, but we were very optimistic. After all, Emma had a history of beating back time, illness and injury. Why would this be any different? Emma is our super dog!
We continued to give her the medication daily and her symptoms improved. Once again, she was back at it, running around like nothing had changed. She had slowed down a bit due to some arthritis, but overall, she was the same sweet, lovable, goofy Emma.
At the beginning on 2020 when she was 14 and a half, right when COVID-19 hit, she tore her other ACL while running up the stairs at my in-laws trying to get to her boiled egg (my mother-in-law always made boiled eggs just for Emma). She missed a step and fell backwards, causing her to land awkwardly on her leg and tear her ACL on her other leg. It would figure that she would hurt herself trying to rush to get food! But this time, the vet said she wasn’t a good candidate for surgery due to her age and the existing bladder cancer. It would have to be managed with pain meds only. We were crushed as we knew this would greatly impact her mobility, but we were hopeful that she could still be “Emma”, just a more toned-down and careful version of herself.
As always, Emma pushed through it and didn’t let it slow her down that much. You could tell she was stiff and hurting at times, but she still loved to go in the yard and sniff around, still loved to beg for food, still loved to be spoiled and pampered. We carried her up and down the stairs to keep her from hurting more, and helped her onto the bed or couch, though sometimes she jumped up on her own when we weren’t looking. Sometimes I would put barriers at the bottom of the stairs to prevent her from climbing them if I had a video call and couldn’t keep an eye on her, and several times I caught her trying to climb over the barricade to go upstairs where my husband worked! Typical Emma, nothing would slow her down, not even physical barricades and a torn ACL!
Then on Sunday, May 31st, everything changed. The day started like any other day. She was excited for her morning treats (which had her pills hidden in them) and danced around until I gave them to her. She sniffed around the yard and laid around her normal spots in the house while my husband and I worked on a minor remodel in one of the rooms upstairs. Things were fine until Emma started gagging a bit and breathing a little heavy while on the guest bed. She looked tired and her labored breathing was accompanied by sleepy eyes, so we assumed she just needed to rest. We thought she just needed a bit of a break to sleep. A few minutes later, I was painting in the next room and my husband called out to me. I came into the room and he said “I don’t think Emma is doing very well.” He had taken her off the bed and put her on the floor. She was standing, but her head was lowered, she was breathing heavy and she was very wobbly. He tried to get her to come to him, but she wouldn’t walk. I got her to drink a bunch of water, which I thought was a good sign. We tried to stand her up, but she started falling down. My husband grabbed her bed from the master bedroom, set it on the floor and had her lay in it. She was alert, but was still breathing heavy. She looked exhausted. We laid her in the bed and kept an eye on her, checking on her every 5 to 10 minutes or so. She started napping, so we thought she would be okay. A few times she lifted her head to watch us go back and forth down the hall to the room we were remodeling. “She’s still alert, she’s just tired,” we thought. Then after about an hour of checking on her on and off, we checked on her again and she had lost control of her bowels. “WE ARE GOING TO THE VET NOW!” I said in a panicked voice. We took her to the emergency vet and on the way there she seemed more and more out of it. I was in the backseat with her, cradling her head in hopes that having her sit up a bit might help her breathe better. I kept telling her “Hang on, Emma, we’re almost there.” When we arrived, she wasn’t able to walk, so they had to put her on a gurney and wheel her into the building. WHAT WAS HAPPENING TO MY BABY?!?!?
Due to COVID-19, we had to wait in the parking lot and receive updates from the vet via phone calls. I hated not being able to be with her while they ran all the tests. I keep wondering how scared she must have been and how we weren’t there to pet her or hold her. Most of her bloodwork looked good, but she had low white blood cell and platelet count. Still, the vet didn’t think it explained the sudden symptoms. The vet said she didn’t know the exact cause of the low count, but whatever the reason, it was never a good one. They did X-rays and found nothing wrong. Test after test and they couldn’t find an answer. The vet said that each test that came back with unremarkable results led her more and more to believe that Emma had had a stroke. That’s the only thing that could explain her sudden and drastic downturn in a matter of hours. A STROKE?!?!?! My heart sank. I started bawling.
The vet said the only way to confirm would be an MRI, but Emma would need to be put under anesthesia to do the scan, and she wasn’t stable enough for that. She had shown no signs of improvement and had started getting worse. They wouldn’t allow us to take her home due to her unstable condition, and the vet said she was worried that Emma could pass on her own during the night. She said her goal would be to keep Emma stable through the night to see if they could get a neurologist to examine her in the morning, but the majority of the time the neurologist orders an MRI before making a definitive diagnosis, so we were back at square one. The vet said her prospects were poor. We could do everything we could, and it MIGHT buy her a few weeks, but that if Emma managed to recover, she wouldn’t be the same and could relapse and pass at any time. She said she was concerned about Emma’s quality of life at this point.
HOW DID WE GET TO THIS POINT?!!?! How is it that a matter of hours ago, she was FINE and now we’re talking about her surviving the night and her quality of life?!?! She hadn’t exhibited ANY of the signs the vet told us to look out for with regards to her bladder tumor! No, no, no, no, NO!
I couldn’t take it. I became hysterical in the car with my husband. I couldn’t breathe. This can’t be happening. This isn’t real. This isn’t supposed to be how this goes down. She’s a fighter, she can fight through anything…and she was FINE a few HOURS ago. Not days, not weeks, HOURS!
My husband, who I’ve know for 8 years and never seen him cry, started sobbing as well. We both just sat in that car and sobbed. Our sweet baby, our Emma-boo. How could this happen? How did we end up here? We were in disbelief. My husband, my rock, always thinks with a level head and managed to calm me down enough for us to talk. I wanted to throw every penny we had to try to save her, but my husband had to remind me that it’s not fair to Emma. Emma doesn’t deserve to have this drag out for possibly weeks. Then those would be our last memories of her….her not being herself, her struggling to stay alive and us desperately trying to stave off the inevitable. And what if we had her stay overnight and she passed away, alone in a hospital? Is that fair to her?
No, but she’s my baby, she deserves every chance to pull through! As I listened to myself, I knew I was wrong. I knew I was being selfish…that what I wanted wasn’t in Emma’s best interest. I just couldn’t stand the thought of her not being here anymore. Then my mind went to that dark place where I started thinking about her not being in our lives…her not being home to greet us when we walk in the door, her not going to my in-laws and eating her hard boiled eggs and laying on the couch while we all watch TV together, her not sunbathing in the back garden or hunting around the house for food crumbs….I began wailing all over again. NO, a life without her is impossible to fathom!
After a few more minutes of talking/sobbing, I knew what the answer had to be. Shaking and crying, they allowed us to come inside for the final procedure. I had vowed to myself that being there when it happens would be too much, and that I couldn’t take it. But as soon as they wheeled her in on the gurney, I knew I couldn’t leave her or leave my husband to handle this alone. I brought her into our lives, and she deserved me being by her side until the end.
When they wheeled her in, she looked awful. Her breathing had gotten more labored, and she was so out of it. She didn’t seem to be aware of much of anything, though her eye was open. That one eye that still conveyed so much expression and emotion these last few years was now glassy. We sobbed and petted her, kissed her head over and over, scratched that extra soft patch of fur behind her ears, told her how much we loved her, told her how sorry we were. Her little paws were so cold, and I held them and tried to warm them up with my hands. It killed me when my husband leaned down holding her face and sobbed saying “I’m so sorry I can’t fix this, Emma.” That replays in my mind over and over again all the time. My husband bent down and put his face right up to hers to get a kiss from her, as was their custom. But she didn’t kiss him, she didn’t seem to react. I think that broke him even more.
We held her as she took her last breath. I saw her stomach rise and fall one last time and then it didn’t rise again. She was completely still. “She’s gone guys”, the vet said. “Oh God!” I said and started bawling and bawling. In my mind I was thinking “Wait! Can we reverse it, can we bring her back?!?! Is there a way to bring her back?!?! I wasn’t ready, I NEED HER!” I knew better.
That was it, that was our baby. I felt like my heart was actually breaking in my chest. My husband and I held each other as we hugged her and kissed her lifeless body one last time before they wheeled her away. In my mind, for a split second, I was thinking “Don’t wheel her away, bring her back, that’s MY baby, she needs to go home!”
We cried and held each other in the parking lot and in the car. I’m sure other fur parents in the parking lot were watching and felt so bad for us. We cried the whole way home. We told his parents and they both started crying, especially my mother-in-law. I told my dad, who also started crying. Emma touched so many people’s lives and made such an impact that everyone felt her loss. That was the kind of dog she WAS. And that kills me even more…. she is now “was”…Emma no longer “is”…she is now “was”…Emma WAS….the most amazing and best dog…the best daughter…in the world.
Now the house feels hauntingly empty. I pace from room to room crying, continuing to think I’ll find her laying on the couch, laying on the bed, laying on her bed (she always had to have a cushion, ever since she was a puppy). I keep thinking every time I open the fridge or open a snack, I’ll hear her nails on the wood floor and see her coming around the corner (she loved to eat). Mornings are unbearable, she is no longer laying in her bed next to ours, looking up at us and waiting to be taken out…she is no longer excitedly bouncing around for her morning treats or sniffing around the yard. Every room of the house reminds me of her, and due to our offices not being open because of COVID, my husband and I are stuck working from home with the constant reminders of Emma.
We boxed up her bed, her toys, her food and treats, her meds, her sweaters and leashes and took them to my in-law’s house around the corner. I couldn’t bear to see them, knowing she’ll never have a use for them ever again. I found a stuffed dinosaur toy under her bed, one of her favorites when she was a bit younger. It has several holes where the stuffing is coming out because she always liked to rip open toys and tear out the stuffing. I kept the dinosaur and have been snuggling with it for comfort when I go to sleep. It helps a bit, but ultimately, I know my Emma is gone and there’s no bringing her back.
I feel like a part of me has died. I grieve more for her than I did when my mother died last year. Probably because Emma was a part of my daily life, she was my sidekick through everything, and loved me unconditionally and expected nothing in return. She was pure and full of life, loving and playful, goofy and patient (sometimes), headstrong and understanding, adventurous and bold. She was our everything, and now she’s gone, and I’m stuck here, devastated and constantly reminded of her absence. It cuts like a knife every time I walk into a room and she’s not there. How could someone so ingrained in our everyday lives just be gone? I’m still trying to make sense of it, but I feel like my world is shattered.
My husband and I have very different ways of grieving – he would rather keep himself busy and block the sad thoughts from his mind, while I tend to wallow in them and obsess. Keeping busy, like going about our daily lives, makes me feel like we are trying not to acknowledge her and her impact…it makes me feel terrible and guilty. Her life meant something, we don’t deserve to, and shouldn’t, go about our daily lives. Life stopped with her, at least for now, and that’s how we should remember her. We should mourn her and going about business as usual doesn’t do her justice.
But then I have to remind myself that people grieve differently. My husband explained that he knows Emma would want us to keep living our lives and making the most of every day, just like she did. And while I get what he’s saying, my heart isn’t in it. I don’t want to go for a run, I don’t want to mow the grass, I don’t want to go back to work, I don’t want to cook, I don’t want to go to my in-laws’ and watch TV, I don’t want to finish the room remodel we were working on. I don’t want any part of it. What I want is my baby to be alive and back home with us where she belongs. What I want is to see her sweet face and perky ears and adorably goofy underbite. What I want is to be able to cuddle with her again and tell her how loved she is. I’ll never get those chances again, and it feels like she’s passing away all over again when I let my mind think about it.
I know it’s only been a few days, but I’m so tired of feeling this way. I’m tired of seeing other people out walking their dogs and getting angry and resentful. I’m tired of crying over and over again, often out of the blue. Someone recently told me that we grieve in proportion to the amount we love, and if that’s the case, I’m in for a rough road ahead. I’ve had grandparents and friends pass away and even a parent pass away recently, but losing Emma has shaken me to my core. The thought of never seeing her face or touching her again sends my mind reeling. And then the crying spells start all over again. Why did this have to happen so suddenly? Why was she taken from us so soon? It isn’t fair!
The vet’s office called and said her ashes are ready to be picked up. I’m sending my husband as I can’t bear to go back to that place and think about when we dropped her off and having to sit in that parking lot and make the hardest decision of our lives. He said he finds comfort in bringing her home; but I can’t stand the thought of her sweet little vivacious body being a pile of ashes in an urn on our mantle.
I try to remind myself that there are positive aspects to this. She didn’t suffer and it was quick. We didn’t have to watch her slowly decline and lose that spark that made Emma so special. She wasn’t in pain and we didn’t have much of a choice in making the decision we made. Even if we had thrown thousands of dollars of treatment to keep her alive, it wouldn’t have helped. And because of working from home due to COVID-19, my husband and I both got to spend so much more time with her these past few months than we otherwise would have. And ironically, the weekend she passed we were supposed to be out of town for a wedding in Florida, which was also postponed due to COVID. I am thankful that we weren’t hundreds of miles away in another state, having to hear the devastating prognosis and make an impossible decision in an airport rushing to get home. I am also very thankful that this didn’t happen while my husband was deployed, which is scheduled for a little over a year from now. I can’t imagine having to make the decision alone, grieving alone, and him not being able to say goodbye. That would have been so much worse.
Together, we were able to rush her quickly to the vet (though sometimes I rack myself with guilt for not taking her in immediately), we both heard the prognosis from the vet and we were able to make a joint decision and say goodbye to our sweet Emma in-person, by her side. As painful as it was, and as helpless as we felt, I am thankful for that. She deserved nothing less.
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