It’s the end of an era for my household. On Tuesday, nearly midnight, we were forced to make the hardest decision in our 20+ years together. We had to say goodbye to Kumar.
In 2010, we moved into our new house, got a dog, and got married—in that order. When we looked around the SPCA shelter, we couldn’t agree on any of the dogs there, and it was only by chance that a dog who’d been outside for a walk happened to return, just as we were leaving. We knew instantly that he was our dog.
Kumar was a year and a half old, full of energy and love for every person and dog he met (though he gave the cats a wide berth). We had trouble finding a harness that could hold him, at first, and he slipped his lead more than once, chasing after turkeys or deer in the forest, while I ran after him, cursing. But once I caught up to him, one look from those soulful brown eyes swept away my anger in an instant. We could never get mad at him.
He was the inspiration for the character, Shadow, in my first successful novel, Billy’s Bones—his love of stuffed ducks, which he used to communicate with us in ecstatic honks, his epic battle with stairs, and yes, even the running off into the woods made it into the story.
He stayed with us for eleven and a half years. During that time, he grew old, of course. His muzzle turned gray and his back legs began to give him a lot of trouble. He seemed unaware of it for a long time. He would slip, but recover and go back to chasing his brother, Nelson (an American Foxhound pup we adopted three years ago) around the living room or playing his favorite game, tug-of-war with a stuffed animal. The first time his back legs gave out completely, landing him flat on the ground, both legs splayed out, unable to get up without help—that shocked him as much as it did us. We started taking him to physical therapy and he ended up on more anti-inflammatories and painkillers than we liked. But unlike with Nelson, pills were never an issue for our intrepid Labrador, who doubled as a vacuum cleaner and food disposal unit. We carpeted the stairs, so he wouldn’t slip on them, and life went on.
Then one day last summer, Kumar could barely walk and his belly was shockingly bloated. We took him to the emergency vet and were told his spleen had cancerous tumors all over it. He was bleeding internally, and though they could remove the spleen, his chances of survival were very, very low. Erich was too distraught to deal with the doctors, so I held myself together and authorized the surgery while trying to hold my husband and Kumar’s anxious “baby brother” together.
Kumar surprised everyone. He came through the surgery fine and when we picked him up, despite warnings that he’d have to be carried to the car and up and down stairs (all 85 pounds of him) for several days, he refused any assistance. He walked out to the car under his own power and jumped over the ramp I’d bought for him to get into the backseat.
We took him to the best oncologist in New Hampshire, by all accounts, but the prognosis was grim. He had a very aggressive form of cancer, despite the tumors having been removed. He was unlikely to survive more than a few weeks. We authorized chemo-therapy, a course of five treatments over the next several months—though we were warned he might not even make it that long.
Again our boy surprised the doctors. He handled the chemo well, only feeling nauseous for a few days after each treatment (they were spaced two weeks apart) and bouncing back to his usual, energetic self after that. Whenever people asked how old he was, they were shocked to learn he was going on 13. His stamina wasn’t great, but otherwise he still ran around like a dog half his age. He got through the chemo treatments (the photo was taken by the oncologist when he “graduated”) and was his usual self throughout the holidays. I had hopes he’d stay with us until the spring.
But on Monday, he was feeling sluggish and had a low appetite—a definite warning sign with Labs! We’d walked in the forest twice that weekend and the weather was bitterly cold, so we kept an eye on him, hoping it was just that he was feeling some aches and pains from that. But it grew worse, until he wouldn’t walk more than a few feet before plopping down on the ground Tuesday afternoon, even outdoors. We took him to the emergency vet again and found out that he was bleeding again. The tired feeling he had was from anemia. His belly was once again filling up with blood and an ultrasound revealed masses all over his liver. This time, surgery wasn’t an option.
Erich could barely speak—Kumar was even more his baby than mine—so I spoke to the doctor. They took us into a warm, cozy room with dim lighting, soft couches, and an electric fireplace. Then we cuddled our beloved pup and made him feel loved, while he slowly went to sleep forever. Nelson was with us, and though he’d earlier whimpered and tried to follow Kumar into the back room for the exam, he seemed to know when Kumar was gone. He didn’t even look back as we left the room with Kumar still there.
After the serene brutality of that night, we’ve had to relive the pain several times as we called to cancel vet appointments, doggie daycare (we kept Nelson home with us the following day—more for us than for him), and physical therapy. The sight of Kumar’s dog bed and bowl are difficult, but we can’t remove them yet. Besides, Nelson likes to sleep in Kumar’s bed. He did that night.
Life goes on. But it’s going to be hard, every time we think about him. Still, if we hadn’t walked into the SPCA shelter that particular day and seen him by the slimmest chance, our lives would have been so much less. We were there for him right up to the end, and he knew he was loved.
Despite the pain of our loss, we wouldn’t change a thing.