Coyote is sleeping now, and I’m resting more easily as I watch her draw slow breaths in then let them out in a puff that moves the bits of hair clinging to the cushion on her bed.
I’ve been struggling for weeks now with what to feed her. She’s always been a tad finicky about food, clearly communicating what she doesn’t want or her body doesn’t need but only getting me to understand what she does need with great difficulty, if at all. Now, as the renal failure incrementally shuts down the rest of her systems because of the toxins building up in her body, I find it harder and harder to navigate the path between allowing her to die on her terms and simply giving up on her.
Months ago, when it became clear that this was the last leg of her journey, I committed to allowing her to choose her own way. Sachi, the Golden Retriever we lost to cancer over two years ago, had no such choice. Her final diagnosis came at a crisis point, and the only clear path was to end her suffering as quickly as I could. With Coyote, I’ve had the luxury of time, a double-edged sword that has forced me to surrender by tiny degrees to her death.
Several weeks ago, she started refusing to allow me to give her the subcutaneous fluids — electrolytes — that had been flushing her system over the course of several weeks. Rather than hold her down to administer them, I set them aside, offering them to her now and again, in case she’s changed her mind. I’ve gotten a clear “no” every time. Although they provided her relief while she took them, she will no longer come, lie down quietly, and patiently wait for them to drip into her body. She is done with that.
The food has been harder. At first, it was a matter of hand-feeding her. Sometimes it would take a couple of tries, holding a morsel out to her to take and mouth and spit out — holding it out again so she could repeat the process until her appetite had been primed and she could chew and swallow it. And the next one. And the next. Lately, though, even that hasn’t worked. She still comes to the bowl when I call her, but she merely sniffs the food, then turns her head and walks away — only to return after I’ve cleaned up, looking for something…else.
I’ve moved from canned dog food to human food. Roasted chicken, pot roast with gravy, lamb. I’ve tried anti-nausea drugs, antacids. But for several days, the most I could get her to take was a mouthful or two before she walked away. Was this the last throes of the disease claiming her life, the final destination — refusing nourishment as she prepares to leave us? I agonized. She still wants to take walks. She still wags her tail and smiles at me when she sees me. She still has life in her. But what else could I do? Where was the line drawn between letting my dog go and starving her out?
Then, yesterday, she took a treat from the mailman’s hand. And another. And another. And looked for more. This is a dog who rarely takes food from anyone’s hand. When I asked what they were, Blaine told me, “Salmon.”
As we slowly continued down the street, a neighbor stopped us to pet Coyote and ask after her. I told her about Coyote’s long fast and about the strangeness of her taking the mailman’s salmon treats.
“Cat food,” Mary Lou told me. “Give her cat food. Cats are finicky eaters, so they make it extra-stinky. I did that with my Patsy, and it bought us a little more time.” I dropped Coyote at home and set out to buy cat food. Salmon, three cans of it.
Coyote licked the bowl clean after the first can and ate half of the next. This morning, she ate the rest.
Deep gratitude has buoyed me. I can accept Coyote’s decline. I can accept it when she clearly communicates that she doesn’t want or doesn’t need something. I won’t force anything on her. But the fear of missing something, of misunderstanding drives my pain and angst.
We are doing the best we can, Coyote and I. For now, cat food.