My 12-year-old standard poodle, Pippi, was diagnosed with a bladder tumor several months ago, sometime last spring, although she’s been having problems for about a year and a half. The vet kept treating her for an infection that never went away, but eventually he had the talk with me—the one where he tried to prepare me for a “quality of life decision” I would need to make soon. He was ready for me to make the decision that day last spring, but I talked him into a standing prescription for pyroxicam, a drug that’s supposed to keep bladder tumors from growing, and amoxicillin to stave off infections.
People who’ve been through bladder cancer with a dog tell me I’ll know when it’s time, but it doesn’t seem that easy to me. The vet would already have done it. So would a guy I met a few weeks ago at the Sidebar, one of those bars where the $10 drinks are worth it. He’s got cats and a dog, and he was telling me hilarious stories about one of his cats. A cat he’s really sick of and would like to get rid of. He asked if I had any pets and I told him briefly about Pippi. He didn’t react quite the way I expected. He said, “Oh my god, you’ve got to put her to sleep. She’s ready to die. Just do it.”
I was stunned. Did he think it was like pouring out spoiled milk? “Why?” I said. “She still eats well. She still goes for walks with me.”
“Of course she does. She does that to please you,” he said. “She’s not going to tell you she’s ready to leave you, but she is. She’s ready to die. Let her go.”
“I don’t think she’s ready.”
“Of course she’s ready. She’s in diapers! She’s embarrassed all the time by those diapers. She lives in constant shame.” He sounded so sure of himself.
“How would she even know?” I asked. “She’s a dog. Dog’s don’t care about fashion.”
“Is she housebroken?”
“Of course. She’s quite well trained.”
“Then she’s embarrassed that she can’t control her bladder anymore.” He didn’t allow me to wedge in a response. “What does she do all day while you’re teaching? What’s she doing right now while you’re sitting here at this bar drinking raspberries and vodka?”
“She’s lying on her bed, probably in my bedroom. That’s what she does most of the time now,” I said.
“So she’s just laying around waiting for you to come home. That’s a great life, isn’t it? Would you like to live like that?”
I started feeling defensive. “She’s always glad to see me,” I said. And she is. Always. “Besides, she mostly lies around even when I’m home. She doesn’t have as much energy as she used to….but that doesn’t mean she wants to die! We still go for walks. We walk down to the river several times a week, and we explore the neighborhood….”
“Oh, come on. This is about you. It’s all about you. You don’t want to lose her. You don’t want to have to make the decision. You’re not really thinking about her. You can’t stand the thought of letting her go. She in diapers, and she’s probably in pain most of the time. She’s ready to die. You need to do the right thing….” (Note: Really nice guy. You can't tell from this small part of our conversation.)
Do the right thing. Implicit in those words is the idea that there is a “right thing.” And if you do the right thing, everything will turn out all right. Isn’t that what we tell our kids: do the right thing and everything will be OK? We tell them that because we want them to be decisive, ethical humans. If somebody is bullying you, do the right thing. Tell him to stop. And if he won’t, tell your parents and your teacher. If somebody is cheating, do the right thing. If your boyfriend is pressuring you to have sex, do the right thing. If you do the right thing, we tell them, everything will be OK. The right thing will make everything right. Right?
No, that’s bullshit. What we don’t tell them is that doing the right thing can seem more painful than doing nothing at all. I say seem because we can’t know what would have happened if we did nothing, but we can sure second-guess ourselves. We can imagine that things would have at least turned out better. The school bully might have moved away. Or a teacher might have finally noticed and put an end to the bullying. Or maybe some other kid would step in front of that bullet and have to suffer the consequences instead. Or maybe if you just had given in a little bit, your boyfriend wouldn’t have left you.
The fact is doing the right thing can cost a lot. You often lose something valuable, something you were trying to protect in the first place. People get even. Or they leave you. Or your faithful companion of a dozen years no longer walks by your side or greets you at the door when you come home. Doing the right thing can be really lonely.
Yes, doing the right thing—even if you can figure out what the right thing is—doesn’t guarantee your happiness. More often than not, it just means you will suffer consequences that you might not even be able to accurately predict. Doing the right thing can be fraught with regret and second-guessing, and you will have to live with the consequences forever. The right thing might look brilliantly simple to someone who doesn’t have to actually DO anything. For the person who has to live with her actions, it can be just one more step along a path that was already bad enough—only now the consequences are locked in and there’s no going back.
The day the vet had “the talk” with me was a rough day. I felt a sense of crisis—I was going to have to make a decision, and I needed to do it soon. I needed to do the right thing. Well, I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t sure. In fact, I was pretty sure it wasn’t time yet, but I didn’t trust myself to do what was best for Pippi and not just what I wanted.
That night someone who used to be close to me, and who used to spend a lot of time at my house, came over. As we sat on the deck, with Pippi lying beside us--when she wasn’t taking one of her frequent pee breaks--I told him what the vet had said. I was crying, of course, as I wrestled with this awful decision I didn’t want to make.
“I don’t want to have to decide when she dies,” I sobbed. “I don’t know how to make this decision.”
“Let’s look at both sides of it then and see if something becomes obvious,” he said. And then he blocked out the reasons why I didn’t need to make the decision now and the reasons why I should. He didn’t put any judgment on either side, just compared the situation through the lenses of two different outcomes: do it now or wait. Unfortunately, both sides came out pretty equal; the decision wasn’t obvious. In fact, it seemed just as obscure as it had before.
“This isn’t helping,” I said. “I still don’t know what to do.” I started crying again. “I don’t want to have to make this decision. There doesn’t seem to be a right answer.”
Even so, we both knew which way I wanted to go. Obviously, I wasn’t ready to let the vet stick a needle in Pippi and “put her to sleep.” I just couldn’t do it. And one thing seemed certain: I didn’t need to make the decision that night, but I still needed know how I would make it. Since logic didn’t work, instead he came up with a kind of rubric for me, and it was really pretty simple. He asked me three questions.
“Is she eating well?”
“Yes,” I said. “You know she eats every morning when I eat breakfast. And she usually gets some chicken or whatever I’ve grilled at night.”
“OK, is she happy to see you when you come home? Is she glad to be around you?”
“Of course,” I said. “She goes nuts when I get home. And look how she acts as soon as you walk in the door too. And she follows us everywhere, right? This is mostly a rhetorical question, isn’t it?”
“Here’s the last question,” he said, not answering any questions for me. “Is she in pain?”
“I don’t know.” I wanted to answer yes to the other two questions and no to this one. “She pees and pees and pees and either nothing comes out or it’s all bloody…I think she might be in pain, but don’t know. She doesn’t whine or cry or anything. The vet gave her a pretty strong anti-inflammatory though that’s supposed to help if she is…..but I don’t know.” This question had the potential to become the deal-breaker. We both stared at Pippi as if pain would glow in the dark.
“Pippi!” he said. “Pippi, are you in pain?”
She thumped her tail—cropped to five vertebrae like most standard poodles—against the deck, and then got up to get some pets from each of us. He even let her lick his ears, which she did with obvious joy. It was only out of pity that I allowed such a disgusting behavior to continue.
He had one more thing to say though. He said, “It seems pretty obvious that you don’t have to make this decision right now. But you will have to do it in the future and you’ll have to be strong then. She loves you, but she also knows how much you love her. You’ve taken care of her most of her life, and she trusts you to do the right thing for her when the time comes. You owe her that for her loyalty and companionship. You owe her that because you love her and she loves you.”
Well, shit. I cried some more. And I didn’t make the decision that night. Nor did I make it after my conversation at the Sidebar a couple of weeks ago. I just waited. Yes, the diapers are disgusting—really awful sometimes. And it’s heartbreaking to watch Pippi squat and pee a few drops of blood and then do it again and pee nothing because she never feels relief from the pressure. Anybody who’s had a bladder infection knows that feeling. Sometimes when we’re walking she has to stop and wait for some feeling to pass before she goes on, and I wonder how uncomfortable she is the rest of the time.
I still ask myself those three questions though, and the answers to numbers one and two still trump the answer to number three—even though I’m more sure now that often she’s in pain. I don’t really know if I’m making the right choice. It’s like a lot of back-against-the-wall decisions. If you wait, you have to watch the decline, the pain, the slow death and know you could do something about it—you could help, damn it--but you don’t have the surety, or maybe you don’t have the courage. Other people can see what you should do, but you just can’t do it.
Or you can “do the right thing,” but you’ll still live with the consequences of not only losing someone you love, but also of always knowing that you were the one who did that thing. You did it. You. And you can’t really ever know if it was the right thing…or if it was just wrong and nothing will ever be the same because you fucked up. And even if it was the only right thing, that doesn't mean you will easily live with the outcome.
My experience with doing the right thing hasn’t always been so happy. What I’ve learned is that it doesn’t matter how smart you are, how kind, how funny, how compassionate, how loving, or even how certain you’re right. It’s not who you are or what you’ve given of yourself in the past that matters. It’s that one final act of “doing the right thing” that trumps everything else. It’s all that matters. And it won’t matter how many people tell you it was “the right thing, and you had to do it. Somebody had to do it!” It doesn’t matter because they won’t have to live with the same consequences you will. They won’t have to live with the sleepless nights when you lie awake and wonder what you could have done better. They won’t have to imagine someone looking at them and saying, “How could you do that to me? I thought you loved me. I trusted you.”
It’s small comfort to reply, “I thought I was doing the right thing. The other options seemed even worse. I was trying to….I was just trying to do the right thing.”
Once the deed is done, there’s all the rest of time to second guess whether the right thing was really the right thing or not. So I wait. People tell me I’ll know when it’s time. I hope they’re right.