Our dog Charlee Girl is fourteen and a half years old. She’s a sweet, compassionate personality and adores her family. When she’s been laying down a long time, she struggles to stand up—being the old lady that she is—but she pushes through her arthritic pain anyway just to greet one of us when we arrive home. About a year or so ago she lost her hearing, but she still looks to our faces when we talk to her, trying to read our body language. Dutifully she barks when she realizes someone is at the door, often after the fact since she can’t hear the doorbell. Despite her old age and accompanying health issues, she regularly proves she still has a will to live when she rolls around on her toys or attempts to chase a bunny in the yard.
In the past couple of years Charlee has had a number of ailments, but the most serious were pancreatitis and bladder stones. We thought each would be a fatal blow, but she survived. The pancreatitis was especially troublesome because Charlee is a very finicky eater. Unlike other dogs who will vacuum up anything you put in front of them, Charlee won’t touch most foods. It’s a struggle on a good day to get her to eat. So when she’s sick, it becomes much more complicated. As a result of the pancreatitis, we have to make sure she never goes more than eight hours without eating something. You’d think it would be easy to get a dog to eat. If she’s not in the mood to eat, Charlee will run away when she sees one of us preparing her food. She’s a small dog—something she despises in moments like these—so we’ll go after her and drag her out of her hiding spot and carry her over to her food bowl. Often we hand feed her every bite, sometimes shoving the food into her mouth. It’s not a fun struggle.
Around Thanksgiving Charlee came down with a bladder infection—common in old lady dogs—that just wouldn’t go away. The first antibiotics she was prescribed hurt her stomach. We understood this only by her moans and the fact that no matter what we did she refused to eat. There was a great debate in our house about whether this was Charlee’s last stand. Why force food on the poor old dog if she’s ready to be done with her struggle? But as we argued this, she would go charge into the living room and roll around on her toys and crouch down asking us to play with her. Her will to live is as strong as ever. So we gave up our fight and gave Charlee exactly what she wanted. Chicken and ground beef. It was a relief because she wants to eat it and we no longer have to hand feed her or shove the food down her throat. The vet said to mix in rice with it, but Charlee quickly learned to pick out the meat from the rice. So now we don’t even bother with the rice. She just finished up a second round of antibiotics and got the all clear from the vet.
Our family has agreed that Charlee is at the end of her life and our duty now is to make her last days—whether they be weeks or months—as comfortable and as happy as possible. Even though we know a diet of chicken and hamburger will cause a return of the pancreatitis, that’s what Charlee wants to eat so that’s what she’s getting. And we’re putting her on a doggy anti-anxiety med to help her manage her separation anxiety when we’re at work during the day and her “sundowning” behaviors at night. So long as Charlee continues to roll on her toys and chase bunnies, we’ll do our part to keep her alive. She has a strong will to live.
Life is a struggle. Literally.
On the other hand, in contrast to Charlee, is the daily struggle with my husband who thinks he’s dying and who is on the fence about whether or not he wants to live. Granted he is 73 years old and has a lot of health issues, some of them very serious, but he’s a long way from dying. That doesn’t matter because he has given up. He sits in a chair all day watching TV, smoking cigars, drinking sugar-filled sodas, and eating anything he wants. I stopped buying most of the foods and beverages he likes a long time ago but that only caused him to go to the store and buy those foods on his own. (Hey, at least he got out of his chair and away from the TV.) But it also gave him cause to complain that I no longer love him since I won’t give him what he wants. He has pointed out on numerous occasions that I give the dog what she wants but not my husband.
This last year has been one of the worst for my husband. He came down with an upper respiratory infection in April that turned violent and eventually the infection affected his heart rhythm. All these months later he’s still being doctored for it and has to take several pills each day to prevent a stroke or heart attack. At the time he was prescribed all these medicines he was too sick to manage the details so I did. I bought him two pill boxes—one for morning, one for evening—to make it easier for him. He often forgets to take the meds, even though the pill boxes are always right next to where he eats his meals. If I remind him, he complains that I’m “hen pecking” him. When he does remember, he loudly complains about how he hates to take pills. To me, him taking his pills is a matter of life or death.
It’s obvious he battles depression and he is being treated for that. But what happened this year is he was faced with his mortality for the first time in his life. Amazing given how old he is. But when others slam the door on Death’s face, he seems to have decided to leave the door open and think about how easy it would be to just step across the threshold. I cannot begin to understand the value in contemplating that thought when the truth is there is a lot of life left to live, but it’s going to take a little effort. It’s the effort part that prevents my husband from getting out of his chair.
Right after Thanksgiving he came down with a chest cold. It was a common cold, nothing near as bad as what he had last spring. But with his heart issues, any sickness can quickly become life threatening. With all the meds that he takes, he’s limited in what he can buy over the counter to treat a cold. I suggested several times that he go see the doctor to get something for his cough but he refused. He did go to his regularly scheduled checkup with his cardiologist and learned his heart was not in a correct rhythm again. His meds were changed and now he’s back in a regular rhythm but he still has this cold. In the evening when we’re watching a movie on TV, he’ll sit in his chair and open his mouth and wheeze loudly to get my attention. I reached a point of having no patience and asked him, “What do you want me to do? Do you want my pity? My sympathy?” He didn’t answer. Later he told me he doesn’t think I love him anymore. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I want him to have a strong will to live. I want him to rise above all his aches and pains just to see another day come. I want him to have the same character that Charlee Girl has. But I can’t force him to go to the doctor and get an inhaler to make it easier to breathe. I can’t make him get out of his chair and exercise. I tried controlling the food brought into this house and that didn’t work. I can’t change his behaviors any more than I can force him to want to live. It breaks my heart that he doesn’t feel motivated to make his life better so he can live longer and we can be together longer.
My parents died when they were young so I’ve never witnessed these end of life issues up close. It’s a daily emotional struggle to watch my dog desperately fighting nature and illness in order to have one more roll around the floor with her toys while my husband sits in his chair whining about how life is unfair and he wants it all to be done so he can feel better.
This last year has given me a new appreciation for caregivers and for people who truly are at the end of their lives. I pray my heart withstands the loss of my Charlee Girl when the time comes. And I pray my patience and love will be strong enough to foster my husband into a better frame of mind so we can have many more years together.