Nothing prepares you for ending the life of your best friend. Let alone making that unthinkable decision twice over the span of three weeks.
I told Honey’s story shortly after it happened. And I worried about her little brother Rusty. How would he deal with the loss, always watching the door for her to come waddling back through? How could I explain Honey wasn’t coming back when he’d never known a life without her for over 16 years?
Turns out Rusty’s heart was broken in too many pieces. It couldn’t hold his old body together anymore. In a bit of morbid poetry, Rusty’s kidneys began to fail just like Honey’s had weeks earlier. He was always her shadow — followed her everywhere, did everything she did. Bathed her in kisses for hours until she finally lost patience and made him settle down. Though depressingly ironic, it also makes beautiful sense that Rusty died in the exact same fashion as Honey. A perfect cycle.
The first few days after Honey’s death, Rusty seemed ok. Once it began to sink in that she wasn’t coming back, he started to get despondent. Eating less and less as the cracks began to fracture his gentle heart. We tried fresh cooked hamburger, boiled chicken, rice, different kinds of dog food, all forms of treats. The novelty of new foods seemed to hold his interest for short periods of time before he quickly ignored his bowl again. I thought it was just depression. And I understood, though my own personal depression typically takes the form of eating (and drinking) more, not less. Finally though, no new food could whet his appetite. After going a full day without eating anything, just like Honey, I knew it was time for the vet and I had a sneaking suspicion the outcome would be just as dire.
When I turned 30, I woke up different, new. Both young and old at the same time. I remember thinking how old 30 sounded as a child, but actually turning 30, couldn’t help but feel like I was only starting a journey. Maybe it was an existential crisis, age ain’t nothing but a number and every other cliché. I’d done a lot of amazing things in my teens and twenties — things I’m still hugely proud of, but 30 became a concrete milestone. And it spurred me to move in directions that I’d previously been too scared to fully commit to.
I got my first tattoo for my 30th birthday and proceeded to get many more in rapid succession. I’d always wanted them but held myself back: how will you feel when you’re older? Well I was older and still longing. What was I waiting for? I removed myself from a toxic personal relationship. Life was too short to stay feeling unhappy and trapped. And, finally, I decided I wanted to be a dad. To a dog. Not children. Never children.
I grew up with dogs all around me. My mom rescued animals throughout my formative years, many of them becoming permanent family pets. But I’d never had a dog of my own. It was time. I searched pet ads and narrowed the search to dachshunds, my favorite breed. I was looking for a younger dog, preferably already house trained. However, almost immediately I came across a picture of two reddish-brown wieners cuddling together in a bed staring longingly at the camera, sharp glare in all 4 eyes from the flash.
Those two little fuckers were the cutest things I’d ever seen and I felt my Grinch-like heart grow 30 sizes bigger. There was nothing in particular different about them than the other dogs that popped up in the search. It was just how they clung to one another. The love they seemed to be searching for and holding on to. The hope they seemed to be able to harness. Turns out, they were 11 and 9 years old — no spring chickens…or young wieners in any season. They were bonded together and couldn’t be adopted separately.
Suddenly, I needed two dogs, not one. And I needed old dogs, not young. These two, with just one look through the camera, the internet, and my computer screen, had their hooks in me. There was no question in my mind: these were the dogs I wanted and needed. I filled out an application straight away, not knowing if I had the ability or capacity to care for two senior dogs, but confident it would all work itself out. We were connected already.
Honey and Rusty had been through a lot I found out through the application process. They’d been locked in a tiny bathroom for years and abused by 1 owner. They’d been adopted and re-surrendered or abandoned multiple times since being in rescue for various reasons: they were cranky, they had accidents in the house, they were anti-social. These excuses only served to endear them to me more thoroughly.
I’m cranky. I have accidents in the house (not that kind…but I can be extremely clumsy). I’m anti-social much of the time. What the rescue saw as flashing neon warning signs, I took as additional selling points. I didn’t care how or what it took, I was going bring them home. And I did. In Spring of 2011, my thirtieth year on the planet, Honey and Rusty moved in. Their foster mom warned me they would be hesitant for weeks and maybe months, but they were on my lap on the couch hours later content, comfortable, and at ease. True, Honey took a tiny moment longer to open up, but they knew they were home the second they crossed that apartment threshold.
Since that day, we moved together in Boston to another apartment and then ultimately to Brooklyn. We had adventures and lots of lazy days on the couch together; countless snuggles in the queen-sized bed they often pushed me to the edges of and a few health scares where I stayed awake calming them down and nursing their wounds. I rarely spent a day away from them, save when I had to travel for work in short bursts. We were the three musketeers and though I knew they were already old, I could’t imagine life without either of them. They would live forever.
The decision to end a life is agonizing, no matter how much my logical brain registered it would simultaneously end suffering. But how do you let go of your best friend when that friend can’t tell you they’re ready to go in words? With Honey, any limbo was out of the question. She deteriorated so rapidly and immediately while at the vet’s office, it was clear she was ready to go. It was like a light switch abruptly turned off behind her eyes. I tried to take her home in order to say goodbye but we didn’t even make it out of the waiting room. Though devastated, I understood there was no ifs ands or buts about what needed to be done right in that moment.
With Rusty, a confident decision was harder to pull out of the air. What needed to happen was in the back of my head, but there was a tiny — 2% according to the vet — chance that what was ailing him could be reversed. He wasn’t just depressed. He was in kidney failure just like Honey had been, but the fact that it came on so quickly could mean it was acute and not chronic. Fluids and antibiotics might — might — make him feel better. And he wasn’t as despondent as Honey had been. He still had that goofy, endearing Rusty spark in his eye. And so I believed. Because I didn’t want to not believe.
I didn’t want to prolong any pain, but I got on my knees and asked Rusty what he wanted to do. I told him I was hoping for a miracle but I would respect his decision to go if he needed. I asked if he wanted to go be with Honey or if he wanted to try fluids. Yes, talking to a dog like this might sound silly, but you don’t know the connection we had. Each time I repeated the question, he licked my nose when I said “fluids.” Each time I left space for reaction after asking about Honey, he gave no reaction. He wanted to put up one last fight. I know now that he agreed to fight for me, selflessly. But there was still too much of Rusty there to justify putting him to sleep that day.
So, we gave him fluids for his dehydration and we planned to return for out-patient dialysis over the next couple days. Flush his kidneys, give him antibiotics, and see if his behavior changed. See if we had one more miracle to cash in. The fluids did appear to do him good. He was more alive after coming home from his first treatment the next day. After the second treatment, he seemed almost back to new. He had a small appetite and gobbled down some rotisserie chicken I bought just for him (I’m a vegetarian after all). He gave my leg and arm his signature bath of kisses and there was so much life in his eyes.
But then things took a horrible turn. After a snuggle, he woke up whining and crying through the night. He couldn’t get comfortable or settle into a lazy sleep like he so loved to do. He didn’t want to be next to me, but didn’t want to be alone in his bed either. He’d always had mobility issues — a wonky back leg made it hard for him to walk at time. I never knew if he was born like that or if it was a break that healed wrong before I knew him. Regardless, it wasn’t ever painful and he never let it get the best of him. He adopted a trot that avoided putting too much pressure on it. But that night, he could barely move on his own. I knew it wasn’t good.
Back at the vet the next day (our 4th day in a row), I had a pit in my stomach. Though his blood work had slightly improved, it was nowhere near better. We could try more fluids, but he was living on borrowed time, and all those cries meant he was now suffering. And probably more than I knew because he had been trying to keep a brave face. He had rallied for some last good hours together the night before, but he was so tired. He had fought hard for me, hoping to give me the miracle I asked for. I told him it was ok. We’d already had enough miracles. He had been the miracle. Honey had been the miracle. Just stumbling across them, adopting them, having 6 years with them both had been the miracle. Asking for more was greedy. He could go, rest, be with his sister. I would be ok without him. I hadn’t told him that before. And I think that made the difference.
I think Rusty and I both knew it was a lie. I wasn’t going to be ok. I’m not ok. When I lost Honey, at least I had Rusty, at least Rusty and I had each other. Without either of them, I’m shattered. I’m drinking too much. I’m lost, though I know I’ll find myself again somewhere. But it was a necessary lie. And Rusty needed to hear it in order to let go. The life was fading in his eyes; he had trouble holding up his precious head, and he wanted my permission. I wanted another night more than anything. More than one. But doing anything other than letting him go would be selfish. I made the impossible decision to end his life of almost 17 years that afternoon.
I know he probably agreed with my decision and was grateful to be out of pain, but I’m still beating myself up. We could’ve had more time. We could’ve had one last snuggle. He could’ve given me one last kiss after perking up from the fluids, if he perked up from the fluids. But I think that’s what the night before was about. He gathered up all his strength to spring back to his old self for one last happy collection of hours. Too short, but it’s always too short. And then the pain came back for good. That afternoon, Rusty went to sleep slowly on my shoulder while I rocked him back and forth wrapped in one of his favorite blankets, tears raining down on his perfect little face. His other dad huddled next to us offering words of comfort and more tears.
I think I’ll remember the quiet times together with Honey and Rusty best. Lounging on the couch watching TV. Rusty burrowing in the blankets at my side. Honey resting her head on my arm while we took a nap. Those two old nuggets — who had ever reason in the world not to trust anyone — trusted me and loved me and let me take care of them when they’d only known a life of taking care of themselves against so many that hurt them. They’d done it their whole lives. They knew, though, I needed them more than they needed me. They saved me. They gave me purpose and a reason to keep going. Because no matter what happened, at the end of the day, I got to go home and be greeted by the two cutest stinking wiener dogs known to man (and sometimes their breath really did stink but I couldn’t have care less!). If I was lucky, I’d get some kisses, whether or not I felt like I deserved them. Honey and Rusty taught me how to love, truly.
I could’ve been a better dad at times. Sometimes I lost my patience. Sometimes I yelled at the 14th or 400th pee stain I found on the couch. But I couldn’t stay mad at either of them for more than half a second. I always loved them until I thought my heart would burst. Sometimes I craved time away from the stress of taking care of two senior dogs, but always immediately wanted to be back on the couch with them snuggled next to me the minute I escaped the apartment. Always. I held both Honey and Rusty in my arms as they left me for good. I had to make the decision for them. But I wouldn’t want it any other way really. They did everything for me. It was the least I could do for them to let them go gently and lovingly. Even though that letting go will never stop hurting.
I hope they’re together again now. At least that would be a small bit of comfort. I know Rusty couldn’t go on without Honey and I know that now I have to go on without either of them. And I know it’s not fair. I hate life for never being fair. But I’ve loved being alive so I could love those two dogs without abandon. I hope Honey and Rusty are barking and jumping and rolling around and kissing each other and peeing on things and causing a commotion together now. Together always. I hope they loved their life with me. I hope they were happy. I hope they are happy. They’re already gone and I’m still not prepared to lose them. Nothing prepares you to end the lives of your best friends. Nothing explains it either.
I tried my absolute best. I loved you with everything I had. I gave all of myself. It still wasn't enough. I couldn't make you live forever. I've never been prouder than I am to be your dad. You're my best thing.
Sweet dreams, Honey.
Sleep tight, Rusty.
Save a snuggle for me. 💔