One of my favourite moments when my mother-in-law was dying was when she—
I should back up.
My mother-in-law dying was not a good time. It wasn’t like there were so many good moments that, here hold my beer while I tell the best one!
It’s just…there was this really funny moment when my mother-in-law was dying.
Her name was Jen Byers and she really knew how to light up a dark room. She passed in our home, from Pancreatic Cancer, just weeks after we all bought and moved into a house together in 2019. It was a devastating time and also a very good death.
On this day, her best friend, brother-in-law, son (my husband, Andrew), one of my dear friends and I are all gathered around. She’s no longer able to eat or move much. Her eyes are mostly closed. The veil is thin. We burn incense and play chants on repeat, pray and leave the window open for when her spirit’s ready to leave.
We weep at her bedside and turn her body and administer medication. A particularly hard day this day, our hearts are heavy with grief. Our baby is six months old, we’re barely sleeping or showering. All that needs to be said has been said. We’re in a moment-by-moment sacred ritual, an extended pause, the final exhale.
She has a sudden need for very cold milk and through a croak of a whisper asks me to get ice for her milk. Shame floods me when I realize I hadn’t filled the ice cube tray. The anticipation of and tending to her comfort needs has become a poetic dance of devotion. I trip my way back to her bedside.
“I’m so sorry, Jen, I forgot to fill the tray, we don’t have any ice.”
Her head lifts up and her eyes pop open and in a clear boom she says “C’mon, Chela, get your shit together!”
Uproarious laughter fills the room. She lays her head back down, eyes closed, a satisfied smile spread across her face. She forgets about the milk.
Given how hilarious she was right until the end, I’d like to think that all of the jokes I’ve made about waiting for her dog to die would be appreciated from the beyond. But I feel kinda bad about it now.
Missy, a Chow Chow, was a small, blonde puff of cuteness.
When I first meet her, 9 years ago, I rename her Missy Muffin Ears because her little furry ears look like pieces of muffin tops. I fall in love. I delight in our visits and joyously dogsit when Jen needs us to. While Missy isn’t blind yet, her eyes are cloudy blue to Jen’s piercing blue. Her fur is the same blonde as Jen’s hair and they totally have that – wow your dog looks like you – thing going on.
Before Jen rescued her, Missy spent the first two years of her life in a box, so her eyes didn’t develop quite right. She feels safe in small spaces so she wedges herself into the weirdest spots. We have pictures of her crammed under small tables and into baskets and tangled in the legs of furniture.
She’s noisy. She rarely barks, but she sniffs and snorfles like a pig hunting for truffles and hoovers anything left behind. She snores louder than your loudest snoring uncle after a night of drinking. Her play noises sound like angry growls. Other dogs steer clear. Except for our dog. When we get our Aussidoole puppy, we dedicate training time to socializing them together. Missy becomes his grumbly, snorfy, dog aunty. She’s noisy but kind, patient and slow, stuffed in small spaces like a beige shag pillow with a groaning motor in it.
Missy was seven thousand years old when we inherited her.
We don’t actually know how old she was. Twelve? Sixteen adjacent? Old. So old in fact that when Jen first passed away and my husband suggested we keep her, he was like “Che, she’s so old, she’s just got a few months in her, we can’t rehome her, let’s just love her to the end.”
And I was like “this dog is going yoda the shit out of this life. She’s going to live another four freaking years. I cannot care for this animal.” Maybe you’re thinking, You already had a dog, clearly, you’re a dog person, what’s another dog?
Listen. I spent an embarrassing amount of money on our designer dog despite having rescue values because I can not with shedding dogs. I don’t just mean I don’t like dog fur like normal people don’t like dog fur.
I’m claustrophobic to your this-small-room-is-nice-and-cozy. I’m celiac to your fashionably-not-eating-gluten. I am legit allergic to many dogs, which is why we took out a small car loan to buy a hypoallergenic, anxious doodle. Itchy eyes, inflamed sinuses, closing lungs allergic. But it’s not just the allergy, dog fur is the grossest of all the gross things.
Some people hate the sound of nails on chalkboards. Some people can’t stand the sound of someone chewing. Others pass out when they see blood. Some can’t stand potty talk. There are people who freak out when they see holes (this is a thing, google it, but cautiously).
Me, it’s dog fur. And dogs licking themselves. Dog fur on my body or on furniture feels like I’ve been soiled by all the gross things in the world. I would rather eat bugs and worms and cardboard than live amongst dog fur.
Don’t get me wrong. I am very much a dog person. I love dogs. Dogs are great.
I’ll celebrate you and your dog in all their dog glory. I pay more attention to the dogs at the Farmer’s Market than the artisan cheeses. I’d rather share my artisan cheeses with dogs than with people.
I’ll wait outside and keep your anxious dog company while you go into the bank, even if we just met. I’ll dogsit for you. That’s a lie, I probably won’t. But I will dogsit for my sister. For ten freaking days right before Christmas. I even knowingly let my friend’s dog sit in my lap when she was menstruating (that was a bit gross though, honestly).
If you have a dog and we pass in the street I’ll ask to greet your dog. I’ll cross a busy street to meet your dog. I’ll ask if I can give a treat to your dog. I have dog treats in every pocket of every jacket. I say ‘no problem!’ when your dog growls or nibbles, lunges or humps or jumps up on me with muddy paws. It’s just mud! Dogs will be dogs! So much room in my heart for the dogs!
I will pet and scratch and cuddle and get right on the ground with your dog. I will even do all these things if your dog has gross fur instead of hair because dogs are joy incarnate and the most delightful creatures.
But when I am done petting your dog, I will smile and say thank you and then throw up in my mouth. I will walk to the nearest water source to wash that disgusting fur off my hands as soon as possible. I have washed dog fur off my hands with ocean water, lake water, water fountains, mud puddles, oil-slicked water under a car and even sand. I can not stand it.
I have tried to explain to people that it’s in the same class as excrement for me.
But alas! The dogs are worth the disgust. Unless…they live with me?
How do you possibly tell your husband that he cannot keep his dead mother’s dog? His mother’s dog that has not one, but two coats of very long, smelly fur.
I’ll tell you how.
You say “Honey, Missy is the sweetest, loveliest, loving little ball of muffin ears that’s ever been. She will make some other senior a very nice companion.”
You simply muster all of your compassion and say “I know she is a tether to your mom, and that you lost your brother recently too, and that you’re consumed by grief and this dog makes you feel close to your family, and that you’re literally surrounded by all my family who are very much alive while yours are either a plane ride away or gone, but honey this dog is used to living with a quiet senior and we have children and chaos and people coming and going and I’m allergic to her and also this wonderful, chill, delightful, angel of a dog is so fucking gross I can’t live with her. Please consider re-homing this dog.”
And then you keep the dog.
My husband assures me she was never allowed on the furniture and that she knows the rules. I assure him I wasn’t allowed to do drugs or skip class in high school, but we both know how that turned out. She sneaks on the couch every night. When I come down in the morning, I hear her slither and thunk off that sofa, like a drunk teen slinking through a window. She looks up at me with a satisfied smile.
I try to set boundaries and refuse to do the dog care things, but there will be dog care things. Often, infuriatingly, the dog care things intensify when my husband’s out of town. And this creature, after all, is a living, breathing being. A dog! The sweetest dog! Jen’s dog!
I live in a loop. There are two doors, behind one door is acceptance. Behind the other door is resentment. I must choose the door. Missy is constantly scratching at the door, going in and out, in and out, in and out. I am getting up to open the door. I am choosing my door.
She’s happy with us. She’s living a good life with us. She likes the activity and children and chaos and people coming and going. I reluctantly admit that we’ve done the right thing, but also it’s kind of awful.
I’m not exaggerating about the snoring. I learn how to sleep with earplugs. I learn to live with gross things. Gross carpets and couches and floors. She can’t walk steadily on the laminate, so we have carpet runners everywhere to help her get around. And yes, they’re gross. I stop walking barefoot and put chairs on the sofa so she doesn’t sleep on it at night. I give up putting chairs on the sofa. I give up trying not to sit where she’s slept. I wash the throw blankets incessantly until I give up washing the throw blankets incessantly and I curl into the fur. I avoid touching her as much as I can, but also sometimes she just really needs to be touched.
Everyone who meets her thinks she’s the cutest. The honest ones admit she’s pretty gross, but they still love on her unreservedly. I would never wish her harm. But also, isn’t this dog like 25 now? We’ve had her FOR FOUR YEARS, and she still skips across the lawn. How long is this going to go on? I feel like a monster. I am a heartless, dog-hating monster. I feel guilty for not loving her more. I vacillate between offering myself grace and judging myself mercilessly for fantasizing about the day I can roll around naked on a fresh-smelling, fur-free area rug.
Her decline is slow, marked not by major events but eventual noticings. It’s been a couple of years since she’s slept on the sofa. We stopped walking her months ago, she can’t do the front stairs. It seems like she’s gone totally deaf now, or has she reached the gives-no-fucks age and just stopped listening to us? Seems she’s pretty blind, and can’t see the food in front of her face. But she still loves to eat!
She’s still hoovering everything in her path. But instead of just food items, did she just eat that crayon? Is that a Lego rocket ship in her poop? We joke, well that’s bound to kill her. It doesn’t. She seems to forget she can’t walk on laminate and starts prancing wherever she pleases. She seems to not quite know where she is sometimes. She scratches on the door and then walks away when we open it. She still seems happy. No signs of pain as far as we can tell.
At this point, my cousin Amy and her partner BJ live with us, with their dog Coopy. Coopy sheds too, but whatever, I’ve surrendered. Amy and BJ are real dog people. Not like me, who is a fake, heartless monster of a dog person. They both love and care for Missy. They brush her and bathe her, their tenderness for this creature triggers more shame, but I’m grateful for the help.
Missy starts peeing in the house. Instead of starting my morning to the sound of her slumping off the sofa, I walk down to a wretched odour and the laminate bubbling under a puddle of urine. The fur that’s being shed is now pee fur. This fur is truly in the class of excrement. I want to die. I can’t do this. I say to myself I can choose acceptance or I can choose resentment. We set up blockades to keep her contained at night. Sometimes she gets out.
I want to blame my husband for how hard this is. He’s overwhelmed by it too. We fight about Missy. We take turns washing feces off her. We don’t talk about putting her down. She seems happy. She’s still prancing through the yard. She’s eating. She’s a dog! A lovely dog. Jen’s dog! An old dog. I muster compassion and patience. What must it be like to watch your dead mother’s dog decline?
In late March, Andrew and I go on a couple’s retreat. We have heartfelt conversations about Missy while we’re away. We’re connected, and close. We get a text from Amy, there’s blood in Missy’s urine. We’re out of town. Very on brand, Missy, very on brand. When we get home we take her to the vet. We discuss the lengths and costs we’re willing to go to. Jen didn’t want us to spend money to extend her life. But we won’t let this animal suffer. We guess it’s her kidneys and get blood work done. It’s just a UTI. Her blood work comes back. She’s in astonishingly good health. We give her antibiotics. She stops peeing in the house for a few days.
My mother says “wow, when I heard about the blood I thought, this is the end!”
“I know!” I say. “But no such luck!” My mother looks horrified. I’m joking. Am I joking?
5 weeks later, there’s more blood. We get more antibiotics. My husband goes out of town.
This was a much-anticipated weekend. Over several weeks, I help plan my friend Dominique’s 50th birthday party slotted for Saturday night. She requests her friends bring entertainment pieces. I write fun emails and help organize the entertainment. I will co-emcee with her husband. We shall be the party goblins! I encourage people to dress up in “burning man vibes” and get ready to self-express. I memorize the opening monologue of my solo show, which I intend to debut. I secure child care and plan to wear a gold sequin jumpsuit with foliage in my hair. I start making magic wands out of sticks and sea glass. I haven’t been this excited about a party in a very long time.
Missy has her first seizure on Friday. I’m not home. Andrew is in Boston, nerding out at Harvard and sends me an excessive number of pictures of the library. Amy and BJ are with Missy. I don’t think much of it, because Missy has had seizures for years. Two to three a year. They last a few seconds and then she runs around, full of adrenaline and pep. This one was not like those ones, Amy assures me. Longer, harder, lost her bladder and her bowels. Later that night she has another.
Saturday morning, it’s evident she’s had more and another comes as I’m cleaning up. The vet on the island is closed on weekends. We don’t think it makes sense to get her on a ferry and rush her to an emergency room. What would they do for her anyway? We don’t know she’s dying yet. She dozes and seems peaceful. I prepare for the party. BJ is kind of losing her shit, really quite sad. I search for my heart. I’m not freaking out. Am I a monster? Am I in denial? But Missy seems kind of okay and this dog intends to live until 2053. I keep Andrew up to date but don’t want to worry him. He can’t believe he’s not home. I can.
She crawls into the room Jen died in and lies down. It’s a sign. Amy opens the window, lights a candle and sets a picture of Jen next to her. It’s after the next seizure, when her back legs start to give way that everything in me cracks open. Oh my god. I heave sob. It seemed funny to joke about her eventual death when she was a prancing death-defying ball of fluffy resilience. I cry steadily for the next several hours. My sister is out for the weekend and says she’ll stay. She’s also a real dog person. They’ll stay with Missy, and I’ll go to the party. We take her outside for a pee and some air. She crawls toward a hole under a tree. What is happening seems to tumble from one moment to the next as my mind tries to catch up.
Of course it’s natural for a dog to crawl away to die. But is that what’s happening? Do we let nature run its course? This could go on for days. Her breathing is wild. She’s in pain. Do we take her on a ferry? I’m not afraid of her death. I trust death like I trust birth, but her suffering is intolerable. We’ve found codeine to help with her pain, but it’s clear now, she needs to be put to sleep.
I try to track down the vet’s personal cell phone number like an entitled small town asshole with no boundaries. The website instructs you to go to the mainland if they’re not open. I find her friend’s number. She says she’ll text the vet. The vet is not on the island today, I’m so sorry.
Perhaps she will die quickly and peacefully under this tree. We light candles. She’s still for a while. The other dogs are all gathered around, somber and watching. Then she’s up, trying to move. I call every mobile euthanization vet in the lower mainland to try to get someone to come to our home. I’m obviously not going to that party. I’m not leaving her side. My husband says he’s so sorry he’s not there. He’s so sorry this is happening while he’s gone.
I sob and feel so disappointed I’ll miss the event. I think this must be karma for all those times I used weak excuses to get out of things. Now this. Sure, sure your dog is dying, you just don’t want to go to the party. Some friends encourage me to come anyway. Come as you are, we will love you up! It will be nourishing. I’m not leaving her.
My cousin posts to Facebook, seeing if there’s anyone on the island who can help. If we catch a ferry now, we won’t make it back before the last boat. We sit with her outside until the sun goes down and then we bring her in. We make the most comfortable nest we can and start wondering about the night ahead. Do we sleep with her? Do we leave her alone? Will she be scared?
The vet messages us. She’s just arrived back to the island. She can meet us at the clinic in twenty minutes. I wrap Missy in a blanket. My cousin drives and I cradle her like a baby and send a selfie of us to Andrew. Amy says, well, I guess she chose you to die with. I bury my face in her soft, sweet fur and sob. I tell her I’m so sorry for joking about her dying. You’re the sweetest, brightest, grossest dog in the world. I love you Missy Muffin Ears and you’re going home to Jen real soon.
We walk into the vet’s office and there’s a wall of candles and a red blanket on the floor. It’s a temple. It’s beautiful and dignified and I sob and thank the vet. My gratitude for her kindness is overwhelming. My mother meets us there and Andrew FaceTimes in. Amy assures him we can all pee on the floor for him to clean up when he gets home so he’s not left out.
The procedure is fast and painless. She drifts away. She’s gone, the vet says, as she checks for a heartbeat. It’s silent. Then she lets out the loudest, snorfliest snore. We all jump surprised. Then an extended pause. Another snorfle. Her final exhale. A good death. Goodbye, Missy Muffin Ears.
I find out later that without knowing we’d made it to the vet, at the moment of her passing, my friend Dominique, had everyone at the party gathered in a blessing for Missy.
We walk out of the vet’s office. I’ve been crying for hours. I’m wearing my sweatpants and a tattered sweater that smells like it was left in the washing machine for two days. I go to the party. A come-as-you-are party. Burning Man vibes. I see my radiant birthday girlfriend. I’m greeted by her radiant guests and watch incredible pieces of entertainment. We make a human pyramid. It’s otherworldly. I’m weary. I’ll save my piece for another day. I’m not feeling brave. I see a guest who says he wants to sing an Irish blessing, but he’s working up his courage. I say, “I’ll go if you go”.
I open with a dead dog joke. Too soon? We conjure Missy’s spirit. And Jen’s. The room is blessed. I’m brave. I do my show, raw and unabashed. I feel alive and real and present. I’m grateful to Dominique and her ask to be gifted with the performance gifts of her friends. To be pushed to share something real. I miss Jen with ferocity, wishing she was here. Grateful that she is here. Look Jen, I got my shit together!
When I get home, Amy is sitting on the stairs, holding anxious designer doodle dog Arbor. For a second, I think it’s Missy. My heart sinks. The floor is clean. I walk to my room with bare feet. I lay down. I put in my earplugs. I take them out. I cry myself to sleep in the silence.