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facts & arguments

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It was time.

Five months earlier Heidi, our family’s beloved 11-year-old golden retriever, had been diagnosed with inoperable liver and pancreatic cancer. The veterinarian had assured us that she was in no discomfort and could live quite happily for several months. He also told us to watch for signs of hard, laboured breathing, as with a person struggling for breath at a very high altitude; this would indicate a massive leakage of blood from the sarcoma into her abdominal cavity, effectively draining her life away. At that point, we should have her euthanized promptly.

At home that night, my wife Linda, our two adult children and I had made a pact: For as long as possible, we’d maintain Heidi’s regular routine and activities, we’d tell no one else about her condition and we’d do our best to keep her environment bright and cheery.

For five months, we’d collectively maintained our veneer of normalcy while spoiling Heidi mercilessly with special treats, lots of walks in the woods and a glorious long weekend in late October at her favourite place – our summer rental cottage on Georgian Bay. Of course, some minor changes in routine were required. I had been accustomed to lifting Heidi into the back of our SUV, but now picking her up would risk disturbing the malignant tumours and triggering a fatal internal hemorrhage, so I made a ramp for her (one of our largest, fluffiest bath towels was transformed into the ramp’s “no-slip” surface). And, after four months, when she began to have difficulty walking upstairs, we moved her bed to the family room on the ground floor; I began sleeping there on a moderately comfortable sofa, in case she needed help in the night. Each additional day with her was a special gift, darkened only slightly by the certainty that we were one day closer to bidding her farewell.

And now, that time had come. Heidi’s breathing had grown increasingly laboured throughout the day, and it was apparent that her strength was failing. It was a Saturday evening and our veterinarian’s office was closed, so I phoned the local emergency veterinary clinic and explained Heidi’s situation. I was instructed to bring her to the clinic and assured that everything would be ready for our arrival.

Celia Krampien for the Globe and Mail

Linda and our children said their tearful goodbyes to Heidi, and then I led her out of the house and across the lawn to the car. It was early February and a chilly drizzle was falling through the darkness. At the edge of the lawn, Heidi suddenly stopped and looked back toward her home for several seconds, as if saying her own goodbye. Her gesture crushed my efforts to “keep it together” and hot tears streamed down my cheeks as I stood beside her. Then she padded up her ramp and into the car, ready to resume the journey.

At the clinic, I was asked to complete some paperwork in the reception area while a couple of veterinary technicians took Heidi to another room to prepare her for the lethal injection. I printed and signed mindlessly, and then hurried into the room where the prep work was being done. There I found Heidi sitting on the floor, alert and in no apparent distress, happily begging for treats from one of the vet techs. My resolve shattered.

“I’m sorry,” I choked. “I can’t do this yet. She’s not ready to go. I know it’s only a matter of hours, but I can’t do it now.”

Silence – then the technician who’d been feeding Heidi treats walked over to me.

“That’s okay,” she said softly. “If she was mine, I couldn’t do it now either. Come back when you’re ready. We’ll be here all night.”

Overcome with gratitude for her kindness, I mumbled a few words of thanks and left as quickly as possible, with Heidi at my side.

And so, I brought Heidi home. I had given no thought as to how my family would deal with my unilateral (and possibly selfish) decision. They were grieving, and I was about to rip the scab off their emotional wounds. Happily for me, their shock and surprise when we arrived (Heidi announced our return by giving herself an almighty shake to get rid of some accumulated rain once we were inside, and the melodious noise of her tags jangling reverberated throughout the silent house) turned to understanding as I described what had happened at the clinic. Nobody questioned my judgment – or my sanity.

Stupidly, I felt relieved – almost elated, as if I’d resolved Heidi’s problems rather than merely giving her a few more hours. But they were very good hours. Heidi spent the evening lying on the family room floor in her usual frog-legged manner, surrounded by her family, flashing her goofy golden grin, her bright eyes twinkling at the sound of our voices. Just after midnight, her breathing became laboured again – much worse than earlier. Linda and the kids spent their final moments with her, and then Heidi and I were alone, sitting on the floor, looking out our patio windows at a few sad, heavy snowflakes drifting onto our deck. Then I pulled on my coat and shoes, and we left the house together.

This time, neither of us looked back.

Peter Stone lives in Burlington, Ont.