I first heard of Dr. Kevorkian during the first of his highly publicized murder trials in the mid 1990s. I was twenty years old and uncompromising. What he did was wrong, inexcusable. I could only see it from my perspective as a young, seemingly immortal girl who saw illness and age as a concept. Think of the families, I argued. I was positive they would want to spend every last minute with their loved ones, and this guy was taking matters into his own hands. It isn’t right to play God, I said.
My father had a different perspective, one formed by experience and a familiarity with death.
He did his internal medicine residency in 1970s New York. It’s where he did his first lumbar puncture, an abysmal failure that ended prematurely with a screaming patient running down the hallway as the spinal needle bumping wildly against his exposed backside. It’s where two drunk fraternity brothers pulled up to the emergency room doors and rolled their unconscious friend into the snow before racing out of the parking lot. It’s where a woman in the final stages of cancer showed up emaciated and with unmanageable pain. Her screams filled the emergency room. She begged the attending physician to take her out of her misery. It’s where he heard someone plead for death for the first time.
She was a regular who was coming in more often as she approached the end. Her pain was a near constant thing, and she was tired. My dad assumed his role as resident and started reciting to his attending the patient history, prognosis, treatment. He was anxious to help this woman. Her screams were awful.
His attending turned to him and with a dismissive wave of his hand said, “I’m thirsty. Go to the cafeteria and bring me a coke.”
My dad was stunned, and maybe a little belligerent. After so many years of study and sacrifice, his attending–with whom he thought he had a good relationship–was placing drink orders and treating him like a candy striper. They had a nonverbal, motionless standoff that ended with the attending saying over the din of screams, “I told you get me a coke. Don’t make me ask you again.”
So that’s what my dad did, walking out of the emergency room and towards the cafeteria dozens of yards away from all the action, all because his attending wanted his soda in a cup with ice.
When he returned, the emergency room was quiet, or at least the patient was no longer screaming. My dad went to her bed, curious to see what combination of medication they used this time. Instead, he found the attending charting his notes. The patient had expired while he was in the cafeteria.
“What happened?” he asked. “She was fine when I left.”
“She wasn’t fine,” his attending replied. “She was dying and in an incredible amount of pain. You just didn’t realize it.”
My dad looked around to see if anyone else was losing his mind along with him. No, everyone seemed fine; no one seemed scared or shocked or even curious. Later, he looked at the chart. Everything seemed in order. When he asked, no one had much to say, other than the patient died after a long battle with cancer. To this day, he doesn’t know what happened when he left to get the coke, “But,” he says, “I know I didn’t know crap about what it meant to be a doctor.”
He didn’t agree with everything Dr. Kevorkian stood for, but he did say that if he was ever diagnosed with a terminal illness, he wanted to go out like a dog: peacefully.
Buster responded well to steroids for the first few days, but by the 6th day we were back to coaxing him to eat. He was always close to me, laying at my feet and following me around the house. When the Mister was out of town, he always slept with me. Last week, he didn’t want to sleep with me. He wanted to be by himself or, on the one day it was cold, huddled up against Buddy.
On Saturday he refused to eat breakfast and later woke up from a nap panting. I walked into the kitchen to see if I could tempt him with people food while I called the vet. He followed me with his head down, still panting. I knew.
I went outside and told the Mister, who was clipping roses. We agreed he would take Buster to the vet while I ran errands with the boys because of the probable outcome. I yelled at him for clipping the roses all wrong and then he clipped three more roses as if each long stem was my neck.
An x-ray of Buster’s abdomen showed a mass in his stomach larger than a baseball. It was one of the largest masses they have seen in their practice, and this mass along with his bladder and his age…
There have been many times over the last 4 weeks that I felt silly getting so worked up over a pet when there are people watching human loved ones suffer from a terminal disease. I understand all this is trivial when compared to that, and if it was between my boys and my dogs, there wouldn’t be a choice. I get it. I get it, but I can’t help it. “I’m not fat,” I joked to the Mister last week before Buster got so sick. “This is just my really big heart leaking into my extremities.”
I wouldn’t wish the loss of a beloved pet on children, but I’m so happy I got a glimpse of the compassionate men Mikey and Nico will one day become. They took care of Buster without complaint. They fed him by hand and cuddled with him constantly when he would allow it. They got up from the couch a million times a day to let him out to go to the bathroom and gave him cookies when they thought I wasn’t looking. They prayed for him relentlessly.
If there is a silver lining, that is it.
On Saturday I cried so much that I got a terrible migraine. On Sunday, I cried when I allowed myself to think about Buster. I’m sad, but I know we did the right thing and I’m happy we let him go out like a dog: peacefully.