Thursday, April 03, 2008

"The Tedium Of Decrepitude"

I just read Anna Quindlen’s latest offering “Good Dog. Stay.” All eighty two pages of it. Thirty one pages of print, fifty one of photos. Not exactly a daunting read. But she got me thinking. Pulitzer prize and best selling novels notwithstanding, she is never intimidating. She could be my sister, my next door neighbour, or me. She writes about the plain topics that concern ordinary people like us.

In this instance it is the putting down of a beloved family pet, Beau, a black Labrador who has been part of her family’s life for fifteen years.

“I’ve put in my time around people whose bodies were failing, who were clearly marooned in some limbo between illness and death. I hated the way the medical profession felt obliged to continue to poke, to test, to treat, even when cure or comfort was not in the cards. With people, it’s assumed you’ll do everything; with animals you have the luxury of doing the right thing. A Supreme Court justice once said that one of the most important rights is the right to be left alone After nearly fifteen years of loyal companionship, Beau had earned that right.”

My mother-in-law has also earned that right. She is eighty eight years old. She weighs about ninety five pounds. Her back hurts, her bones are riddled with osteoporosis, her hearing is shot, her false teeth don't fit properly and her heart is weak. And you could eat, not only off her kitchen floor, but off the floor in her garage. Her windows sparkle, and dust is barred from entering. She makes me look like a wimp, though I do not even aspire to such paroxysms of cleanliness. She has good insurance, so doctors continue to poke, to test, to treat, and to prescribe more pills, and she goes along with it all, hoping, if not for a cure, for at least a little comfort, a little respite from pain.

She had a recent alarming jaunt to the hospital in an ambulance when her lungs were filled with water. She’d thought it was the pollen in the air that was making it so hard for her to breathe. It wasn’t a sure thing that she was going to make it. They dried out her lungs in the ER and hooked her up with a mask to help her breathe. I waited with her until they had a room for her, and while we waited she talked, yes, even with the mask! She wanted to be sure I knew some things, wanted to be sure things would be done the way she wanted, and she kept coming back to one thing......

She wanted me to tell the doctor to just give her a shot, to hurry things along!

“They’re not allowed to do that Grandma! That’s what got Dr. Kevorkian thrown in jail!”

But she wasn’t convinced. It seems to her such an eminently sensible solution. She’s in pain. She’s elderly. Nothing they do will make her better, or restore her to her former, legendary vigour. So, if she’s ready to go, and they have the means to make the going painless, her attitude is “Why not?” It could never be that black and white for me. I'd hear the voices of the nuns in my head, insisting---
“God gives life, only He is allowed to take it away.”

But she has things she wants to see resolved before she goes, so she rallied, with the doctors' help. Her lungs are working reasonably well again. She’s home now, enduring what Garrison Keillor waggishly calls “the tedium of decrepitude” for another while! Her windows sparkle still, her floors are spotless, and the dust flees in terror before her broom. Life is good again, for now. She will see her Pride and Joy, the OC, this weekend, and life has no greater pleasure for her than that!

Anna Quindlen’s book also reminded me of a sad day when I had to take our first child [pre-Liz!], our beloved black lab, Suzy, to be put down, and of yet another when the OC and I both took our Maggie to the vet for the same purpose. It felt strange to be making life and death decisions for other living creatures. But it felt right too, to put an end to the pain and misery old age had brought them. After all the joy they’d brought to our lives that seemed like the least that we should do.

21 comments:

peppermintpatcher said...

Your mother-in-law sounds like an amazing lady with a reasoned logic. We continue to have problems listening.

Lily said...

Anna Quindlen couldn't hold a candle to you if you started churning out novels!

thailandchani said...

I'm with Lily. You could easily write books. I wish I could remember the name of the author you remind me of.. so much. Joan Anderson comes to mind.

Tanya Brown said...

Oh dear, oh dear. What a difficult situation for both you and your mother-in-law. The candle burns low but the flame continues to be bright. She sounds very rational.

Poor Suzy and Maggie. Having beloved pets killed is one of the most horrid decisions one has to make, yet it can also be one of the kindest gifts we can give them. I dread the day when it's clear that the next one of my little feathered friends is terminally ill.

Kacey said...

The difference is --- we humans have a concept of death and the desire for self preservation. We want relief from pain and decrepitude, whereas animals don't understand the pain --- whether it will go away or not. When we euthanize them, they go peacefully into that dark night. I am old, but don't feel old in my head. People tell me that I look 10 to 15 years younger than I am. I had surgery on my neck eleven days ago. It was done under a local and I was under a bunch of surgical drapes --- alone with God and pleading for another few days to get myself and my family ready for whatever my lot. But, even sitting on a timebomb (my body is trying to reject a Dacron graft to my carotid artery) I want to beat it and have another fifteen years or so. I am human --- therefore, capable of fear and willing to fight the good fight another day.

Stomper Girl said...

We had a very old cat, must have been 24, who started to sicken. My mum took her to the vet and made sure she had enough money on her to pay for the inevitable euthanasia. Instead the vet sparked up at the 'amazing geriatric cat' and threw her best effort into saving her. The cat lived on till she was ready to die, curled up under her favourite camellia bush.

Thimbleanna said...

Gosh Molly. You always make me think. And what a paradox we humans find ourselves in. I'll never forget that sad day we took our first German Shepherd to the vet for "the shot". I was stunned at how fast it was -- I didn't even have a chance for a proper hug goodbye. I swore I'd never go again -- a statement which tortured me as the next dog was incredibly attached to me and as her time drew near I worried constantly about the big day -- she'd been such a faithful friend I couldn't send her off without me. She thankfully went on her own so we didn't have to make that decision. You always write so beautifully!

Zanna, travelling tart, back home in Central Queensland said...

Molly, what a wonderful thought provoking post. I've always been of the genre who says that if you can save your pet pain, why on earth can't you help your loved ones the same way. But .... just read all your comments and particularly Kasey's - well I'm off thinking again. Take care Z xx

Molly said...

Tracey --- You've nailed it. Listening is what makes the difference. I've been learning to listen more and argue less, even when I disagree with her. She's not going to change her mind at this late stage.
We've had our issues --- she was never shy about pointing out my shortcomings in the mother and wife department. And I bristled and seethed. We don't go there anymore. But I understand now she always operated from wanting the best [albeit her version of the best!] for us. Because she doesn't hear very well now, it is easier for her to talk and me to listen. Which is excellent discipline for me---Woman-Who-Loves-To-Yak!

The thing is, Lily, I still haven't lived long enough to know the endings!

Chani --- Must check JA at the library! With you and Lily egging me on, I may have to try....

Tanya --- Love the image of the candle burning low, but the flame still bright! That's my M-I-L exactly....

Kacey --- Sorry to hear of your suffering. I hope you beat it and soldier on....I think, most of all, we need, as Tracey said, to
L-I-S-T-E-N, and to allow people to die with dignity. One of the med. techs. told me that night to be sure they had her DNR papers on file. If they did not, and she started having trouble, the law would require them to keep her alive by whatever means. The measures they would have to take would break every one of her brittle ribs! So, even if they succeeded in keeping her breathing, she'd have to be on oxygen for the rest of her "life!" Definitely not what she'd want.

Stomper --- Everything I've ever heard makes me think cats have more of a clue than dogs! Suzy and Maggie just didn't know enough to go find a nice, comforting camellia bush. They looked to us to make the pain go away....

Anna --- It really is scary.
One second you have the head of a loyal, trusting friend in your lap, the next, a dead weight. Amazing how light life makes us....Glad it was easier the second time.

Zanna --- There's just too much in the fine print of our contract with the Big Guy....

riseoutofme said...

Molly, this post resonated with me ... and also got me thinking. Maybe Maria's journey isn't finished yet because she still has something to impart to others. Maybe what you are learning through journeying with her is the reason that she is hanging in there? I think the compassion that you now feel for her now is Maria's gift to you. And at the risk of being an uppity sister ... Be thankful for her gift.

riseoutofme said...

A surplus of "nows" ... i know! This is what I get for not editing!

By the way, the car quilt????!!!! Only in America!

Molly said...

Rise --- I'm sure you have many interesting thoughts to share on this subject, what with your duties at the palace and all! M may be physically weak these days but mentally she's strong as an ox. My F-I-L is quite sure that he's the boss over there, and she lets him think that! One determined little lady.

As for the car quilt --- not guilty! I saw it at the Pasco [awesome!] quilt show and had to get a pic! But I'm not so far gone yet that I'd make a quilt for a car!!

meggie said...

"They shoot horses, don't they?"
We have talked about this often in our family.
I just cannot bear the thought of a pet suffering pain. Nor a human. I do know, however, that I don't feel I could withhold life.

Avus said...

A beautiful, thoughtful post, Molly. As a "dog person" I know that feeling - the final,loving, greatest gift that can be given to a faithful friend in pain - the gentle injection whilst one talks to him and strokes him to sleep. And yet the terrible finality as that needle goes in and is squeezed home - there is no going back, yet one is aching for it not to happen.

Kapuananiokalaniakea said...

Oregon has a right to die law. "Earning" that right is rather a process, and one that must be started long before one thinks one might want to exercise one's right to die, but it is there. (Kinda awkward sentence with all the "ones" there!)
A thought provoking post that got me musing about an "older" in my life.
Thank you.

Isabelle said...

Very thoughtful post and one I sympathise with. A year ago my dad had just died after months of half-life. And it really made me think.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

When my gray wolf, Baby, got cancer, the vet insisted that she must be in pain although she never complained.

Somehow, despite the fact that I am of normal intelligence (I think,) I got the idea that doing the unthinkable deed would restore her to health. (Can you say "denial," children?)

A few years later, our Samoyed, Angel, whose diabetes we were dealing with, suffered a broken back when an old barn beam fell on her and we had to do it again.

It doesn't get easier.

I am sure that you are your MIL's greatest blessing, Molly. I'm just sorry that her twilight years are so painful.

Kelli said...

Molly, I finally - finally got around to doing the Where I'm From writing challenge you sent out months ago.

Better late than never I guess!
http://kellismusings.blogspot.com/2008/04/thats-where-i-come-from.html

fifi said...

Yes, you could write a wondeful novel or memoir.
This made me wistfully sad.
I think sometimes we deal better with animals than people.

sMC said...

You knew what happened to Twinsey and Louie. But but by gosh I see to have hit on the same wavelength as your little sister :) Keep strong, you do a wonderful job

eastcoastdweller said...

We had to do that two years ago or so with our lab-chow mix. He was such a wonderful dog, a former stray.

As far as people, it certainly is a sensitive subject. The last pope wrote a book on that very topic, Culture of Life.