When I read Marley & Me a few years ago, I was prepared for a weepy ending. What I didn’t expect was that I would be sobbing for the last thirty pages in that pathetic way that humans can cry—all gasps and snot and shaking shoulders. I warn everyone I see reading that book in public to save the ending for the privacy of their home. I can’t imagine watching the movie version—it would be like subjecting myself to Beaches all over again. You know Hillary’s going to die and you’re left with the sensation of a soccer ball stuck in your throat from the moment she meets bold and brassy CC Bloom under the boardwalk, minutes into the movie. By the time Bette sings “Wind Beneath My Wings,” I’m emotionally spent.
And here I am at the last thirty pages again, but it’s not Marley, it’s Mila, our ten-year-old yellow lab. The news that she had three months to live was like a sucker-punch that has winded me for days. She’s only ten, god, I’ve known labs that have lived until 15 with great spunk and vitality.
We noticed her slowing down, and that was to be expected. Mila has always been a lollygagger, poking about the dandelions and getting absorbed in a sniff. Her back legs were getting progressively weaker though and jumping into the back of our Santa Fe became an issue. This was easily solved—we bought a ramp at PetSmart that allowed her to walk up her very own red carpet into the back of the truck with ease. We bought her a step stool so she could climb into bed at night as well, without a daunting jump to intimidate her.
Just when we began to seriously worry about her getting older, Mila would rip around the backyard like a puppy, charging at Bently, our golden retriever, full-tilt. At Hayward lake, she would make ambitious swims out into the frigid January waters to retrieve the rubber Kong, and we cast our worries aside. Clearly, Mila was going to live forever. We smiled to see her nipping at Bently’s heels on the Downes Bowl trails, leaping over fallen trees like an agile bunny. Her perfect triangle lab ears would be parallel to the ground, like an airplane coming in for landing. When Mila was three she had pins placed in both her legs to reattach her hamstrings. Her running gait has always been a bit comical because of this. With her restricted mobility, it was like she was bounding along with her hind legs working in tandem, like in a potato sack race.
Three weeks ago she began throwing up on a daily basis. We could justify most of it—the bones from the Mad Butcher, the neighbour’s cat’s shit, goose crap at Albert Dyck park. But the morning she didn’t have the will or strength to make it up the stairs triggered alarm. She stopped at the landing and seemed to be shivering. Her back legs trembled and as I stroked her she lowered her body to the floor and began breathing erratically. I thought for sure she was going to die in that moment. She closed her eyes and heaved and panted. My ribs ached from holding back the tears.
The next day she was flipping a pig’s ear around the yard like a pup. She was in every garden, digging her way to China, spraying dirt and just-planted seedlings across the lawn. Her snout was filthy, as though she had dunked her nose in hot cocoa powder.
Wanda took her to the vet who said she had vaginitis again. The lumps on her torso were mobile, which was a good sign. She was given another prescription, but she was still throwing up and emptying ever y water bowl that was set down on the floor. We wondered if she was diabetic with her unquenchable thirst. I worried about renal failure.
We took her to a naturopath next who immediately discovered a large mass in her abdomen. The tumour was apparently as big as a grapefruit—this would explain her vomiting. The growth was probably pressing against her stomach. The naturopath recommended x-rays, and the next morning Mila was scheduled for surgery.
She left the house in the morning with Gillian as though she knew. This was the same dog who would run in the opposite direction when you called her name to take her to daycare in the morning. We all felt better knowing what the problem was, and that in a few hours, the tumour would be removed and Mila could begin healing.
When I came home from work, Wanda was in the backyard, lying in the grass with Mila. Her shaved abdomen had six inches of staples along it, and she was heavily drugged on morphine. They couldn’t remove the tumour, and it was cancerous. It had engulfed her kidney and wrapped around her vena cava, a critical blood supply, and was so invasive that it had grown into the muscles of her back as well. It was inoperable.
The vet gave her three months to live, maximum. Three months? I watched Mila struggle to get up and try to squat to pee, but having no control over her voluntary muscles she would squat and shake until she gave up. We talked about putting her to sleep, because it seemed like maybe we were keeping her alive for us. An appointment was made for the following night, and the vet said she could do a home visit the following day if we preferred that.
Time seemed to stop and accelerate at the same time. I had that Green Day song in my head: “It’s something unpredictable, but in the end it’s right, I hope you’ve had the time of your life.”
I think she has had the time of her life. Mila is the only dog I’ve known that’s had her very own passport. She has lived in Spain and California and her love of the ocean is obvious when we drive to White Rock. Just as we turn off the highway, Mila’s nose is raised in the air—she smells the salt water long before the rest of us do. She grunts and moans and is practically talking by the time we find a parking spot near the beach. When we let her out of the truck, she’s like a bull rushing out of a pen. She gallops to the ocean and is the first one in, her body alive and young, her memory taking her back to those sunny days in Spain and Cali.
My hope is that we can take her back to White Rock. I want her to be around in the fall when we go to the Island to the dog-friendly bed and breakfast, Cougar’s Crag. She loved that place too. Hell, last year she took off on us on French beach and nimbly climbed up a rock face like a mountain goat to get to the ocean. At Teapot Hill in Chilliwack, she pulled the same stunt, choosing her own way up the mountain on loose scree with barely a foothold. We didn’t breathe until she reached the top—and we couldn’t call her back because coming back down her ‘trail’ would have been impossible.
On her last visit to the naturopath, Wanda was told that sometimes just “opening up a dog can let the evil air out.” She thought the tumour felt smaller. She recommended whey protein powder, Vitamin C, egg whites and acidophilis. There’s no question that Mila has been thoroughly enjoying her breakfast and dinner entrees of rice and salmon, stewed beef and gravy, chicken and broth and pills tucked into liver pate and cheese. Bently has also reaped the benefits of the new diet as we have to ensure that he gets proper attention too, and that comes in the form of pate and steak hand-outs for him too.
And this is who I worry about the most. Mila is Bently’s best friend in the world. He knows something is up, but it’s all a bit puzzling. They wrestled for the first time in months yesterday, and Wanda and I were blinded with tears. Later, when we took them for a walk around the neighbourhood, I turned around with Mila just a block from home as Bently and Wanda carried on. Mila looked back at Bently every three steps and it was sheer torture. I think the dogs wisely know that one day they will separate and not see each other again, and like us, they just don’t know when that awful moment might happen.
If Mila needs to go sooner, if she needs to leave this earth to be comfortable before three months, we will help her do that. We will help her go. I hope that she slips away on her own in her sleep, gently, full of dream. Dreaming of White Rock with the ocean air in her nose, with the taste of her favourite treat, chocolate-glazed Timbits, on her tongue. Dreaming with our arms tightly around her, and Bently’s wet nose against hers.
As Gillian says, she will find one of us in her next life. But I want her here in this one, longer. Three months? I am devastated to be away for six weeks of that three months. Every day with Mila is precious. I can’t begin to think of the emptiness in this house without her. She has given us such incredible love, provided much laughter and beautiful company that the loss will be palpable for a lifetime. Mila, the very best dog in the world, is an integral part of us. And even if it is her time to go, she will remain a part of us for always.
Mila, I hope you ‘ve had the time of your life.
Please hug your dog, the days that you can are never long enough.