A few days ago I had to put down my dog, Kyra.
She was suffering, and it was the only choice.
She had become sick suddenly with little notice during a time when I was traveling a lot for work and often not home. We’d been told it was ultimately fatal, but she would likely have several good months. Kyra was 13 and had lived one year longer than her life expectancy. So we brushed this off as the normal, if sad, part of living with a pet. We would miss her and would invest time in these next few months to make happy memories with her and making sure she knew she was loved.
But it didn’t play out quite like that.
I was traveling for work a lot during this time, and was gone two and three days at a stretch. I would come back to a Kyra who was visibly slipping away. It was upsetting to see my usually enthusiastic dog sad and quiet, moving stiffly, and not interested in the cats next door or the kids playing in the street. But still, I left on the next trip. I tried not to think too much about it. I mean, after all, she was just a pet. And yet I felt guilty leaving her.
Finally, when I was gone for several days to visit an important client I got a call from my boyfriend. It had become clear to him that her death was imminent. I put down the phone at the client’s office. I was late for my next meeting and I had a full plate of work and important meetings scheduled over the next few days. People were expecting things from me. But in my mind’s eye, I could not stop seeing her sweet sad face and how tired she’d been. Or recalling her lack of interest in the fresh hamburger I hid her pills in and how she turned her face away from the aromatic puppy treats she adored. The reality of her condition had suddenly become real to me. I was faced with a choice that seemed in some ways ludicrous:
Would I cut short my trip, cancel meetings with clients, and add delay during a critical time in our project to give a pet her best final moments on earth?
This could potentially be embarrassing to me and could impact my reputation and future jobs. What if my clients thought me unprofessional or unreliable? She was, after all, just a dog. This would also be costly; last-minute tickets home are not cheap. And yet, I hardly hesitated, I bought the plane ticket, canceled the important meetings, and returned home to give her the death I knew she deserved.
I explained the situation to my clients and they all were supportive and accommodating. In retrospect, I can see how this could have gone very differently. But as I talked about Kyra to them, my anxiety was clear, and each person offered sympathetic reassurances that I was indeed doing the right thing. They could see how there was only one decision I could choose, and I was profoundly grateful for their support. I felt like I had finally dropped an enormous burden that I had been carrying for weeks but not consciously acknowledging.
And since I am a writer, I spent time thinking about this.
I’d been aware, in a way, that Kyra was having a progressively harder time doing the things she loved: playing with Henry our other dog, barking at the dogs next door, and protecting us from the looming threat of the UPS delivery person. Each time I left, she looked sadder, and when I returned, seemed thinner and more fragile. But she was game until the very end and tried to put her best face on it. She put on a good enough show that it allowed me to fool myself into thinking that she was not really that sick and that we had much more time together. But inside I very much knew that each time I left, it might be the last.
With each trip, my internal conflict grew, and I refused to face it.
After all, she was just a dog, and I had obligations to my clients and my family. This conflict was something that never really left the back of my mind. I struggled to enjoy anything while I was on a trip, and had to work harder to keep my focus. Nothing made me happy, and I withdrew from friends and family. I tried to shake it off, but even if I managed to appear happy for a few hours or days, the dark mood crept back. This conflict was so deep it constantly lived in my subconscious and colored everything I did. I was profoundly unhappy any time I was away from Kyra, but I felt it would be irresponsible for me to put aside vital work to be with my sick pet.
Think about that as if I were a character in a story.
Before Kyra was sick I never thought about whether or not I should schedule a trip based on her health. That would be silly. She would be here barking and hopping around when I returned just like always. But with her illness, which I knew was progressive and fatal, the entire dynamic shifted. The external conflict, her illness, forced an internal conflict in me:
My obligations to clients and work vs. my desire to stay with Kyra and my perception this desire was irresponsible.
As the external conflict grew so did my internal one, and each step I made in any direction increased my anxiety. I couldn’t do anything during those weeks that did not put me in conflict with some closely held belief about how I should live my life. When I was at home with her I worried I was neglecting my work when I was away for work, I feared she would die alone, and I would have to carry that for the rest of my life. No matter what happened, the conflict would not resolve until she either got better, which I knew was not possible, or died.
Yeah, pretty rough, right?
We writers are taught to torture our characters. I think, maybe for the first time, I understand what that means. The best conflicts are organic, intertwined, and feed each other. External conflicts must drive the internal ones. Internal ones must make the external ones more complicated and feed character motivation. The best external conflicts play on a fear your character has about some closely held belief or some great loss. The internal and external combine to make any decision increase anxiety. She literally has nowhere to turn save move through the conflict to the bitter end. To be really awful, all this should play out against some ticking clock to add another source of external conflict.
Now, I finally get it.
Kyra was a fantastic dog, companion, and friend. She loved me unconditionally, and with a goofiness, I will always remember. She gave me so much and even at the last, her death came with gifts. Kyra died as I held her. The last thing she saw was my face and heard my voice telling her she was the best dog ever.
I hope that was enough.
Kyra, Thank you.
- The site director and owner of SavvyAuthors.com where she sits behind the curtain most days turning interweb knobs and twisting network dials.
- A complete and total slacker-writer who, if she does not get off her laurels and WRITE, is going to be flayed by the very talented writers who keep SavvyAuthors going.
- A rabid hiker who, when not on the trail, pours over the REI catalog, Sierra Trading Post website, and tries to justify buying more gear to shave another 1/2 ounce off her base pack weight.
- A medical device consultant who, when not hiking or thinking about hiking, occasionally works helping companies bring exceptionally cool and useful medical devices to market.
- A biology and chemistry Adjunct Professor at SouthMountain Community College. GO COUGARS!
- An enthusiastic grandmother of the two cutest babies on the planet!!!!
OK, I’m out..time to sort the latest crisis is to afflict SavvyAuthors ;-).