Aspen Princess: To be brave enough
On Saturday, brain cancer patient Brittany Maynard took her own life in Portland, Oregon, one of only five states with laws protecting terminally ill patients.
“I can’t even tell you the amount of relief it provides me to know that I don’t have to die the way it’s been described to me, that my brain tumor would take me on its own,” Maynard told CNN.
I first read about Maynard around the same time we were dealing with a serious illness in our German shepherd, George. I thought about how ironic (and maybe tragic) it is that our animals have always been entitled to a humane death, yet human beings are forced to suffer through the trappings of modern medicine that can often prolong life at a hefty cost, both metaphorically and literally.
I find it mortality terrifying and can’t even imagine the courage it must have taken for Maynard to swallow that lethal dose of pills. But she was adamantly clear about the comfort she felt in having control over her own death, over her ability to choose when and how she would die, over choosing not to suffer the staggering pain and debilitations of her disease.
When it comes to our animals, that burden of responsibility falls on us. We have to schedule the appointment and then deal with the impending doom of that hour as it approaches, that definitive moment you must say goodbye, the sheer dread of a ticking clock. It’s so painfully and utterly selfless.
“You just know when it’s time,” people say. “You can see it in their eyes.”
I don’t think it’s ever that simple.
George’s illness was a tough one to define. When the test for lymphoma came back negative, we all breathed a sigh of relief. We thought, just maybe, he would get better.
Still, I knew.
I took him to the river every day so he could swim and chase sticks and dig rocks from the muddy river bottom. I would sit on a big log on the bank and take a video to show to Ryan when he got home from work. I took that video to measure his quality of life, to reassure us we were doing right by this magnificent creature who was part of our family.
But in my heart, and in my gut, I knew he was dying. He’d collapse in his bed for hours after those short outings to the river. He was weak. He couldn’t jump into the car on his own anymore, even though he insisted on trying, battling me every time I set up the ramp, trying to jump over it so we both got knocked down in the process.
I would lie with him when it became too hard for him to lift his head and could hear a little rattle in his chest when he breathed. I did see a look in his eyes. It said, “What is happening to me?”
Still, I second-guessed myself. I worried that I was overreacting, that I was being neurotic or playing the hysterical female.
It wasn’t until Oct. 30 that we got a confirmed diagnosis for leukemia. By Friday night it was clear George was in distress. We did our best to soothe him. We finally gave him Benadryl, hoping it would help him go to sleep. Ryan slept downstairs on the couch by George’s bed, just in case. It was Halloween night.
Ryan knew as soon as he woke up that George had died sometime in the night. We found him lying in his bed on his side like he always does, as if he were just resting comfortably.
In all my tears and heartache and heartbreak over the next two days, I cried as much for those few hours he suffered than I did for our loss. I turned the details around in my head, trying to think of how I could have done things differently, but came up with nothing. People kept telling us how lucky we were that he’d died at home. He went on his own. He seemed to exit the world with the same dignity with which he had lived. He was still protecting us, preventing us from having to make that painful decision.
I thought about life and death and consciousness about what happens when you die. It’s nice to say, “He’ll be up there in the big dog park in the sky,” but all I knew when I saw his body was that it was nothing but a shell. He was gone.
I thought a lot about Maynard. When I first read about her plan to die on Nov. 1, I wondered if she’d have the courage to go through with it. She did. I am in total and complete awe of her bravery.
Ryan told me to think not about George’s death but of his life. To look at the photos of him when he was young, to block out the haunting images that play out in my mind of his suffering, his racing heart, that look in his eyes.
The day after George died, the warm weather turned cold. The sun disappeared as all the color and light drained from the sky. The snow began to fall, autumn having made a clear and abrupt departure. We drove up the Fryingpan and into the mountains. The farther we went, the more my fear began to fade. We got out of the car on top of Hagerman Pass. Surrounded by wilderness at 12,000 feet, I was reminded of the endless, boundless cycle of energy in nature that never ceases to exist. Ryan threw a ball for George. It felt like we were close enough to think he might be able to catch it.
Maybe people are right — they do let you know when they are ready to go. You just have to be brave enough to see it.
The Aspen Princess promises to write about a more cheerful topic next week. Email your love to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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