LISTENING FOR PIPPINRead Now
I listen for him, even now. The click he makes when he walks the floors of our home; the thud when he falls.
Old age did not come creeping up on my boy. It came on him quickly, first affecting his brain, then taking his muscle mass. He has the equivalent of nighttime Alzheimer’s. We leave two lights on for him when we go to bed, and leave our bedroom door open, but it makes no difference. As soon as he senses that we are getting ready to turn in, he gets nervous.
Sometimes he can control it. He’s asleep in his bed when we wake up, eyes closed, tongue stuck out between his teeth, peaceful. Those are the best mornings. When he hasn’t walked.
The crying nights are the worst. I get out of bed to comfort him. Often Pippin doesn’t know me or that I am there. On those nights I hold him against me, stroke his head, say soothing things. Sometimes I carry him upstairs and sleep there with him. He seems to like the room he occasionally shares with his sitter. Other times he’ll settle and fall asleep in his own bed. But there are nights when he just walks and walks. We lie awake listening for a minute or two, hoping he’ll stop. Then I get up.
If Pippin has a string of restless nights, getting up to be with him, to calm him, is hard. I go through days when it feels like I have severe jet lag. But it doesn’t matter. He’s my special boy.
Eventually we get too tired. I find myself sleeping through the clicking. Other times I hear him and lie awake listening, without getting up, hoping he will settle. If I fall back asleep before he does, I feel guilty the next day.
We’ve tried to help him with medication. Gabapentin, Melatonin, Clomicalm. It’s supposed to calm him, make him sleep. And once we get the dosage right, the drugs work well for days or weeks at a time. At least he no longer cries in the night.
But then his muscle mass begins to diminish, followed by his hearing, then his eyesight.
Pippin starts to walk at night again. Sometimes in the early morning, other times in the middle of the night. We hear the clicking, the thuds when he falls. I get up to calm him. Some nights he’ll stop walking and let me stroke him. I tell him what a good boy he it, that everything is OK. If we connect, he’ll lie down near me, close his eyes and be still. Other nights, he’ll walk himself into exhaustion.
We first met Pippin when he was just a few weeks old. He was the little boy with the purple collar, his ears and tail still down, his eyes recently opened. He came home with us four weeks later, with a long list of instructions from his breeder, a favourite toy, a piece of his mother’s blanket.
Pip started to cry, then threw up on the drive home, so my wife took him out of his crate and cuddled him on her lap. What else could a mother do? Our boy was so cute, so precious.
For the first few months, as per our instructions, we put Pip to bed at nine, first giving him two tablespoons of Greek yogurt, then settling him in his crate with a hot water bottle, his toy and the scrap of blanket we’d been given.
We’d made a sleeping area and playpen for Pip in the hall outside our family room, using a baby gate and the glass door at the entrance to the room to create a small enclosure. At night and when we were out during the day, we’d put his crate in it, leaving the crate door open, and place newspaper on the exposed tile floor.
When Pip went to bed, we’d turn the television’s volume way down to avoid disturbing his rest. It didn’t work. Within thirty minutes he’d be awake, standing on his back legs, tapping at the glass with his front paws, asking to be with us. How could we resist?
For the first few months, until he’d had all his vaccinations, I’d carry him under my jacket when we went for walks. We’d give him enough grass and sniff time to take care of business, while keeping his contact with other dogs to a minimum. It was January, damp and cold where we lived in the Lower Mainland. My boy and I snuggled. We bonded.
At puppy training, Pippin was too clever to learn. Treats were used to teach pups the basics, from walking on a leash to coming when called. Only Pip would typically find the people with the best treats, and gravitate toward them. On more than once occasion, it wasn’t us. He had an independent streak, even then.
Pippin wasn’t a dog who liked to play. He had his favourite squeaky toys – first a rubber black cat that he’d sometimes run around the family room with, then a plastic green hippo with a deep squeak that he loved. Playtime was usually brief and, with one exception, always indoors. Our boy neither fetched, nor ran after thrown balls, outdoors. He only played with one friend – Dasher – chasing after him through the park.
But he seemed happy. Pippin loved strolling down the beach and dipping his feet in the ocean. He liked walking in the park, and scoring biscuits from his people friends.
When I came home in 2013 after spending six weeks in hospital with internal bleeding, there was nothing Pip liked more than lying on a chaise longue with me soaking up the May sun. We’d nap for hours at a time, happy together.
Our boy had his quirks, from periodically gnawing holes in our wallboard, to burying his dental chew in plain sight. He’d find the perfect place to hide his chewy – on the cushion of his favourite chair or in the corner of a room – then use his nose to push imaginary dirt over it until he deemed it to be sufficiently covered. Pippin was happiest when he snuck a chewy outside to cover with real dirt in the garden. He’d come back in with a satisfied look on his face and his nose covered in earth. My contented boy.
We assumed that his holes in the wall were fear related, caused by the racoons that made nocturnal visits to our garden pond. Pip went ballistic when they came. He wouldn’t settle until I’d scared the racoons away, told him they were gone, and let him look through the patio door window to verify that for himself.
That assumption seemed logical, since Pip never made wall holes after we moved from B.C. to Ontario. He settled well in our new open-concept home. Maybe it was because he had the run of the place at night, rather than being confined to the family room. Maybe it was the absence of racoons. Perhaps it was because our bedroom is on the ground floor, near his favourite chair, and he knew we were close by.
After our move, we found new places to walk. He loved strolling along the Niagara River with us, stopping at every bench along the way to demand a treat. The line of trees beside the soccer fields was a favourite haunt. I can still picture him in the daffodils along the Niagara Parkway, and running though the fall leaves on the Common. My white Westie.
But it didn’t last. Pippin started walking the floors at night. He’d cry. We tried leaving lights on for him – my boy had become afraid of the dark – we left our bedroom door open. We moved his blanket and bed into our bedroom. It helped.
Then things progressed. Pippin’s back legs started to weaken. I built ramps to help him get down onto our deck and into the garage. Then he lost his hearing. One of his back legs would not stay under him. His eyesight dimmed. At night I’d hear the clicking of his nails, the thuds when he fell. It was time to let him go, to help him die. But it was so hard.
Our boy became increasingly reluctant to get up in the morning.
We tried to help, took Pippin to the clinic, got liquid Tylenol to ease his joint pain. It worked for a few weeks, until the side effects forced us to stop using it.
I was awake the night he fell down the basement stairs. The crash brought instant guilt. I jumped out of bed and ran to the landing, angry at myself for not going to his aid sooner. Pippin was on his feet, dazed, peering down the remaining stairs into the basement. I carried him back upstairs, put him down gently on the kitchen rug and stayed with him for the rest of the night.
Pippin seemed OK in the morning. A bit stiff, but otherwise his usual self.
We started blocking the basement stairs at night. If he started walking, I’d wait a minute, then, if he hadn’t settled, I’d get up and sit with him. He’d usually go back to sleep, or try to. But only if I stayed with him until morning. Pippin didn’t like the night.
In his last week, Pippin’s anxiety and pain got the better of him. He’d always been stoic, but he could not hide his nighttime fears nor, lately, his joint pain. We made an appointment to provide him medical assistance in dying. It seemed like the right thing to do. Yet, our remaining time with Pip was surreal. We loved him. He was so much a part of us. How could we let him go?
Pippin was only just coping. One night he started walking at 2:30 in the morning. I listened, heard him fall, got out of bed to be with him. It took me several minutes to calm him. I stroked his head, scratched his back and spoke to him, although he probably couldn’t hear me. Finally he settled beside me on the kitchen rug. He picked his head up and looked toward me every few minutes, or he may have been looking at his back legs – he might have been in pain. It took him a long time to sleep. I stayed beside him till morning, then got out of my chair to make my breakfast. Pippin got up with me, and walked over to the cupboard where his food was, letting me know he was hungry.
My boy had a wonderful appetite in the last few months of his life. Pippin often asked to be fed when I got up in the morning. That was first breakfast. He’d often have second breakfast when he got back from his morning walk, followed by dinner after his afternoon walk, and a treat-stuffed Kong when we were sitting down to our own meal.
But Pippin’s world had become so diminished. Our little West Highland terrier, who had romped through parks with us just a year before, now often had trouble walking more than a block down the street and back. Some days it was all he could do to walk across the street. Occasionally he seemed lost.
On the day of his MAID appointment, Pippin had a bad morning. He didn’t want to get up, and he bared his teeth at me when I tried to help him. We took our time, stroked him, encouraged him. Finally he made it to his feet. His walk was brief, a bladder emptying pee in the grass immediately adjacent to the driveway, then down the sidewalk beside our house, across the street, a poo in the grass there, then back home, up his ramp and into the house. He seemed disorientated.
When the time came to bring him to the vet, Pippin wanted to repeat his morning walk. I took him, but when we crossed the street it was clear that he did not know where he was or why he was there.
My wife sat in the backseat with him on the way to his appointment. It felt unbelievable and tragic that we were making this drive, even if it was for him and we knew it was right. Neither of us can contemplate life without him.
We repeat our usual routine when we arrive. I lift Pip out of the car, put him on the ground and ask him if he needs a panic pee. The two of us march down the sidewalk to the grass boulevard adjacent to the road. He has the poop that he’d wanted to do before we left home. It struck me as we walked back to the vet and I dumped the poo bag in the trash that it would be his last one.
Pip starts to tremble as we approach the door to the clinic. It’s something he’s done on past visits, and I do what I always do: pick him up in my arms, snuggle him to my chest, and carry him through the door, telling him he’s a good boy, that it will be OK. Only I know it won’t. Nothing will ever be the same.
I get down on the floor with him after we’re in the examining room, scratching his ears, stoking him, talking to him. That’s where I am when he’s given a sedative to calm him, when he gets an anesthetic to ensure he will not feel anything at the end, when the vet injects the drug that will stop his heart, when she says he’s gone, when his skin starts to turn cold to the touch. He was so perfect, so special. Our Pippin.
My wife is down on the floor with us now, sobs wracking her body. Her rock, her always there friend, is gone. I continue to stroke my boy, my Pippin, my grief stuck high in my throat. He still looks perfect.
It takes several minutes before we’re able to leave the room. I put his leash down beside him. Say goodbye. It’s almost impossible to go without him, but we must. With tears streaming down my wife’s face and me choked up, we walk out of the vet’s office, get back in the car and drive home.
The house feels so empty.
We leave Pippin’s bed in its usual place. I clean his bowls and put them back down where they normally go on the floor. We leave our bedroom door open for him that night when we go to bed. His body has died, but not his spirit, not the force, the energy that made Pip special, that made us love him like a child.
I listen for him, hear the click of his nails on the hardwood.
He is gone, but not gone. Our memories of him are vivid, his essence lingers.
I listen for him, even now.