I suppose I’d been saying goodbye to Cinnamax for at least 10 years. Since the time he came into my home as a four-pound puppy, his life has always been an uncertain thing. Cinnamax has battled violent epileptic seizures, mast cell cancer, periodontal disease, cataracts, zinc deficiency and a host of other nasty infections and inflammations. In his last years he was blind and practically toothless, with various growths and skin tags. But he was as beautiful to me as the day we brought him home. Perhaps even more so.
It's hard to describe the loss of a friend in a logical way. When I try to tell the story from beginning to end, it blurs in a pool of emotion. I can only convey my truth as best I can, and hope the story falls into place.
Cinnamax has always been a mixture of toughness and vulnerability. Nothing pleased him more than being under a blanket with someone he loved. Each night when he got into bed with me, he’d dive under the covers and curl into a tiny ball between my chest and my knees. Then he would breathe a sweet little sigh of utter contentment. His entire body became so soft, so completely surrendered, that he would mold himself to me, no matter how I shifted positions during the night. Every morning was like an emotional reunion for him. He would emerge from under the covers as if he hadn't seen me in ages, put his paws around my neck in a gentle hug and nuzzle his face against my cheek tenderly.
We had countless close calls with Cinnamax but he always pulled through. Even the horrible cancer surgery became just another thing that couldn't beat him. I used to say I should ask the veterinary office for a volume discount since we were such regular customers. A part of me really believed I would never lose him. So when the strange angry looking sore appeared on his back in August, I told the vet, "He'll be fine. Cinnamax is a fighter."
I don't really know if it was the sore that killed him. The biopsy said it was not malignant, but somehow that sore was the beginning of the end. He started collapsing to the ground when he was walking. It might have been a stroke, a brain tumor, liver failure or a brain infection.
He was on antibiotics for the sore and possible neurological infection, and at least he could get up when he fell down. Then one day I came home and found him lying stranded on his side on the hard kitchen floor. It was like a sick parody of those commercials where someone has "fallen and can't get up." I scooped him up in a blanket and rushed him to the vet, barely holding back tears, begging her to please not put him down and to try to help him.
The vet was wonderful. We both knew Cinnamax was dying, and she was so respectful of my wishes to let him go naturally while keeping him as comfortable as possible. She gave him a fluid injection along with stronger antibiotics and milk thistle for his liver. We were also given special prescription high-calorie dog food and jars of baby food for him.
Cinnamax just seemed so tired. He wouldn't even pick his head up. I was sure this was "it." I told him I loved him and not to be scared to go to the other side. That he would be healthy and strong over there, able to see and run and jump like a puppy. I encouraged my kids to say their goodbyes.
But then he seemed a bit better in the morning. I could get him to eat some food on a spoon if I brought it to him. He was still falling down when he walked, and his head was hanging strangely, but he was taking more interest in things and trying to get around. Perhaps there was hope.
Cinnamax and I are outside in the yard, and he keeps collapsing to the ground. Time and again, I help him to his feet and tell him it's okay. I'm beginning to panic. Finally he lifts his leg, which knocks him off balance and he keels over onto his side. His stream of urine continues to flow across the grass. There is something almost surreal about it. I carry him inside with tears stinging my eyes, feeling inadequate.
Something has to be done. Frantically I begin digging through my belongings to find something I can rig up to help Cinnamax walk. Eventually I devise a sling made from a dog coat with two key rings stuck in through the material, one just above the shoulders and the other closer to the tail. My boyfriend adds a plastic coat hanger so I don't have to stoop over to hold him. Now I can hang onto the hook of the hanger and support his weight from above as he moves his legs where he wants to go. It looks ridiculous, but it works! Cinnamax can "walk!"
Cinnamax seems very pleased with this arrangement. When he's ready to go out, I put him in his sling and hang onto the "handle." He goes wherever he wants and when he loses his balance I pull up to keep him from going down. Cinnamax "walks" endlessly through the yard, around and around the big evergreen tree, just to prove he can.
He’s gotten his days and nights confused. During the day he sleeps a great deal and then at night he's restless and uncomfortable. I’m up with him around the clock, offering him water almost every hour and food almost as often. I turn him every few hours so he won't get bedsores. All my clothing and linens are stained with blood and ooze from that damned sore on his back. We make frequent trips to the vet for medication adjustments and more fluid injections.
Eventually the vet teaches me how to give daily fluid injections at home. My living room takes on the appearance of a hospital with the fluid bag and line hanging from the curtain rod over Cinnamax's favorite chair. The waterproof pads on all the furniture and bag of needles up on the shelf only add to the institutional atmosphere.
One night Cinnamax begins to cry as he lies next to me on his waterproof pad in my bed. I'm not sleeping soundly—I've always got an ear open for him now. My days and nights are blurring too. "What's the matter little guy?" I ask. I stroke his fur and turn him on his other side. He doesn't seem to want to go back to sleep, so I carry him downstairs and hold a bowl of water near his mouth. When he can't manage that, I offer him water from a dropper. He takes some, but is still restless. "Do you want to go outside?" I ask.
It must be three or four in the morning. I put Cinnamax in his sling and open the door. Each time we come to a step or obstacle, I tell him and tap with my foot so he can hear the change in the surface since he cannot see it coming. Together we navigate onto the grass.
My yard almost glows in the moonlight. It’s eerie and mournful and also quite beautiful. Suddenly I understand all those corny old songs about moonlit nights—I had no idea that the moon alone could shine as bright as a streetlamp. The late summer breeze has that subtle, cold bite of changing seasons. Cinnamax "walks" around and around the big tree as I support him in his sling. When he falters, I catch his weight and pull him up before he can hit the ground. Each time he regains his balance he gives me a tiny swish of his tail. I’m reminded of some skinny boxer who’s gone three rounds with a much better fighter, bruised and shaken but managing a wounded smile and a thumbs up sign for the crowd. I realize these little tail wags are for my benefit and I am touched to the bone.
After what seems like forever, Cinnamax lifts his leg as I support his weight. He seems more relaxed now. We stand together in the moonlight and I wrap my sweatshirt tighter around me as the wind kicks up and blows my hair around my face. Cinnamax gives me another one of his little "thumbs up" tail wags. He gives me strength, my little prizefighter. "We can do this," I tell him, "It's going to be okay." I scoop him up in my arms and he collapses gratefully onto my chest.
As the days pass, I notice that Cinnamax needs less help in the sling. Perhaps I'm imagining it. But then one day I go out, leaving him sleeping comfortably in his favorite chair. When I return a few hours later I'm amazed to find him sleeping comfortably on the couch! How did he get down from the chair? And how did he get up on the couch? The whole family is elated. Even my other sweet dog Blue, who has been avoiding Cinnamax since he got sick, is beginning to take notice of him again. Often he comes over and lies down next to Cinnamax like he used to.
I keep finding Cinnamax in new places: the soft, carpeted stairs, a warm patch of sun in the music room, the couch or the chair. One day he even walks shakily to his water bowl and takes a few sips! I begin to take him outside without the sling. He often falls, but now he can pull himself up and is willing to keep trying. His tail wags and wags. On his next visit to the vet, she tells me in disbelief that Cinnamax "seems to be rallying!" She warns me that he has lost a great deal of weight and I have to "make him eat" now. I can't help but smile. Good, I think, yell at me to make him eat. That means you think he's going to LIVE!
One late afternoon in September, Cinnamax and I are in the music room. The sun drizzles in, spilling lazily across the rug. Cinnamax is exploring. He weaves in and out of the piano legs and around the perimeter of the room. Every so often, he falls down and pushes back up. I sit on the floor and lean back to watch him, hugging my knees. Cinnamax is so purposeful, I can almost see the wheels turning as he reacquaints himself with the old familiar room. There is no more random bumping into things—he taps each obstacle with his nose and carefully moves around it. Sometimes he takes a short break to bask in the sun before returning to his "expedition."
He is so intent on figuring out the lay of the land, he doesn't realize he stands less than an inch from where I'm sitting. I'm reminded of the childhood swimming pool game of "Marco Polo." I can feel the tears welling up in my eyes. "Polo," I whisper. And Cinnamax moves his head ever so slightly to rest it against my cheek.
That afternoon hangs suspended in time like some magical oasis. By the next morning, Cinnamax began to fall more often, and have trouble getting up. It broke my heart to put him back in the sling. And even with his sling, he wasn't walking well. Sometimes he just dangled pathetically from it. Blue began keeping his distance again.
We tried steroids, but the small improvement was short-lived. His movements were random, uncoordinated. I marveled that this little guy still wanted to go outside and wasn't having accidents. This was all for my benefit, I realized, like his "thumbs up" tail wags.
It is late one afternoon and I’m lying down on the living room couch. Cinnamax is draped across my chest, weak but utterly content. I have a small bowl of vanilla Pediasure and a dropper nearby. I reach over to fill the dropper and hold it near his mouth. I kiss the top of his head and stroke his back. Cinnamax sips slowly at the dropper, gently yet eagerly like a nursing baby. His whole body is relaxed. After a while he is too tired to drink and drifts into a peaceful slumber. I feel the rise and fall of his breath against my chest. There is nothing left to do but surrender to the moment. There is nothing else to offer but my love. I am beyond exhausted. I pull a blanket over the two of us and allow myself to sleep.
One night the kids and I are having dinner at my parents' house. It's good to get out of the house for a little while. I mention at the table that I wonder why Cinnamax is still hanging on when that I have assured him time and again that he will be okay on the other side without me to take care of him. "He isn't staying here for you to take care of him," my father says, "he's staying here because he thinks he has to take care of you." I am stunned. When I get home I tell Cinnamax that while of course I love him and never want him to leave, I don't want him to suffer on my account either. I tell him I will always love him and I will be fine when he is gone. I only hope he can understand and let go.
Cinnamax has forgotten how to swallow. All the food and water I try to give him just runs back out of his mouth. I can no longer give him his medicine, only the fluid injections to keep him comfortable. I wonder how long he can go on like this.
He can no longer go outside. I can't even pick him up anymore. When I try to lift him, he is just limp. I keep him on his favorite chair on a waterproof pad during the day. At night I bring the entire chair cushion with Cinnamax on it to the floor next to my bed. I admit I’m feeling guilty for not putting him in my bed, but he is dripping all kinds of substances. During the night I speak softly to him, stroke his fur, turn him and dribble water in his mouth to keep it moist.
It is about six a.m., the morning of October 18th and the sky is still black. I’m lying in bed, eyes closed, not quite awake, but not quite asleep either. Cinnamax, in one last considerate gesture had managed not to die on my son's birthday yesterday. From behind my lids, I suddenly see him rise unsteadily from his cushion on the floor and stand. He is shaky, but not in a way that would indicate sickness. He looks more like a newborn lamb, taking its very first steps. His skinny legs look longer than usual and his fur looks slightly curly and damp. He takes one last look back toward me and then just walks away into the darkness.
My eyes shoot open and I bolt up in bed. Cinnamax! When I check on him, he’s soiled himself and has some strange foam coming from his mouth, but is still breathing. I believe I have just seen his soul walk away. His body seems no more than a shell now and I feel oddly distanced from it as I clean him up and moisten his mouth with water.
So I taught a piano lesson that morning. When I returned, Cinnamax was exactly where I left him in his chair. His breathing had an odd rattling sound to it, but it was steady. I dribbled more water into his mouth and pet him and sat with him for a while. I was glad my kids were in school so they could have some respite from this sadness. When my boyfriend called and invited me out to lunch, I admit I jumped at the chance for a short break from just sitting there, waiting for my friend to die.
As soon as we got back to my place, we checked on Cinnamax who was pretty much in the same condition as when we'd left. We both pet him and talked to him a little and I moistened his mouth again. I walked my boyfriend to the door and returned to Cinnamax.
Cinnamax had soiled himself again. "Its okay little guy", I told him, "let me get something to clean you up." I ran upstairs for some toilet paper and when I returned, his side was no longer rising and falling. Just like that, my friend was dead. No great profound, spiritual moment, just this sad mess. Death is lonely and ugly. It made me feel robbed of my innocence and far away from God. I was grateful that Cinnamax's soul had the sense to get away from here before it would have to endure this final indignity. Good for him.
It was over. I admit I was profoundly relieved and kind of numb. I had the sudden realization that there was no rush now; I had all the time in the world. I don't know how long it was exactly it was that I sat with his little body. Carefully, gently I washed each leg and foot, his side, his face. "Goodbye, old friend," I said to his empty shell, hoping his soul could hear me. I stroked him and lay my head against his side, the eternal optimist in me still searching for a heartbeat. I kept thinking I could hear something faint, but it must have been my own pulse in my ears.
My eyes were dry until I called the vet. When I heard the receptionist's voice, I just lost it. "I think Cinnamax is dead," I told her tearfully. My voice started shaking. "He's not breathing at all. I'd like to have him cremated but I need to be sure he's really gone. I keep thinking I hear a heartbeat when I put my head on him and I don't want him to go in an oven if there is any life. Can a doctor look at him? I need to be sure." I guess the receptionist has heard it all. She told me to bring him right in.
I brought an old milk crate up from the basement—it seemed about the right size. In it I lay an old, soft pillow. When I lifted Cinnamax, his body dangled at such macabre angles, I actually felt squeamish for the first time during this entire ordeal. I put him down too quickly in his makeshift "coffin" and the way he landed it made it look like his neck was broken. All his limbs stuck out at hideous, distorted angles. Lousy mortician I would make. I took a deep breath and tried again.
It has been a warm autumn. Kitchen scissors in hand, I wander my yard and clip every remaining blossom, scattering them over Cinnamax in the milk crate. Their moist petals with vibrant pinks, oranges and violets contrast sharply with his thin, still body. I only hope wherever he is, he can see how much I love him. I cover the milk crate with a soft brown blanket and somehow we manage the 20-minute drive to the vet. The receptionist lifts the blanket gently. "Oh honey, he's gone," she tells me. And in an incredible moment, she pets my dead dog.
In my music room, the bright sun falls in long warm patches on the rug. A mild late spring breeze drifts in through the open window. Time has been merciful, restoring a sense of innocence and wonder to each day. Yet somewhere just past the horizon of my understanding, the childhood swimming pool game continues without rest. I can feel the presence of my friend here, gracefully weaving his way around the legs of the piano and bench. But the tables are turned. It is Cinnamax who moves freely, somewhere beyond the earthbound veil of my eyes. And I am the one left blindly to call out "Marco" into a world just beyond my vision.