We had to say goodbye to my girl when she was 14.
We had her since she was one, and she was every bit a family member as I was. Her name was Maddy, and she was a big, happy, sweet redheaded lab (her dad was yellow, and her mom was chocolate). We adopted her from a family who couldn’t take care of her anymore. She’d been with us through two moves, three states, elementary, middle, high school, and college. Maddy was a constant source of joy, laughter, comfort, companionship, and love. She was my best friend- my sister (just a…really hairy one).
As the years passed and Maddy got older, she didn’t really change that much. Sure, she slowed down a bit, and we couldn’t really take her on walks through our hilly neighborhood anymore. But she didn’t seem to mind. She grew white around her eyes and nose, but that just gave her a wizened look, and it made us love her even more. Nothing ever altered her personality. She was always just as sweet, just as dopey, just as loving, just as loyal.
But in the last several months of her life, she really did start to change. She grew very thin, and she had trouble getting up on her own. For the first time in her entire life, she had an accident in the house. She wasn’t energetic anymore, and her tail didn’t wag as much. Her sweet, gentle eyes seemed clouded with worry.
You would think that I would have had a keen awareness of her condition, that I would have known that her time with us would soon come to an end. You would think that I would have been making sure to savor every single moment with her. Maddy was my best friend, after all. My sister.
But I was 20, and I was stupidly distracted by so many things. It was summer, and I was home from college, working full-time. Life was fast paced, and the slow and steady decline of my girl was not really on my radar.
In the last few weeks of her life, her personality was markedly different. She was still so sweet, but she had none of her dopey spirit; she seemed a little anxious, and nervous. My dad thinks she had dementia. In my silly, selfish mindset, she just wasn’t that fun to be around.
In fact, there were moments in which I would become frustrated with her. I would be lying on the couch, trying to relax, and she would park in front of me and breathe her stinky breath in my face. So I’d push her face away from mine in disgust. Or she would try to “hold hands” with me (as she always did). Her claws would painfully dig into my leg, and I’d move her paw as fast as I could.
Or we would try to let her out to go to the bathroom, and as she struggled to get up and make it to the door in time, she would accidentally go on the way. Rather than acknowledging the look of embarrassment and shame on her face, we would be annoyed that we had a mess to clean up.
If I had only paid attention, if I had known then that our days with her were few, oh how differently I would have spent them.
I was in the middle of my workday when my dad called me. He said “Chelsea, I think Maddy is really struggling now.” He told me that our vet was afraid that one of these days, we would let her out to go to the bathroom and she would injure herself badly. She struggled to stand as it was and could hardly hold herself up when she went out. An injury or a bad fall were likely.
I couldn’t even process what he was really saying, but I hurried home on my lunch break. When I arrived, both my parents were home. Maddy was standing in the garage, looking confused and anxious. I walked over to her, while my dad tried again to explain what was going on. She was not doing well. She could no longer support her own weight, despite how thin she had become. She was confused. She was in pain. We needed to take her in.
I was upset and overwhelmed, and I didn’t fully grasp what was happening. I petted her briefly, and I stood next to her as I numbly tried to process what my dad was saying, but I didn’t realize, even for a moment, that this was my only opportunity to say goodbye.
I only had a few minutes at home, and then I had to hop in my car and hurry back to work. I worked with children, and as I drove, my focus was more on trying to look like I hadn’t been crying then on what was happening with my girl.
When I got home from work that night and walked into our empty house, reality finally hit me. My sweet Maddy was gone forever. She’d never again greet me at the door. She would never again try to “hold hands.” I could never again lie down on the floor with her and take a nap. I would never be able to stroke the white around her eyes, or kiss her soft head, or tell her how very much I loved her.
And in that moment, my regret was born.
In that moment, I would have given anything to have her stinky breath in my face again. Or to hold her hand. Or even to clean up her accident and hug her and tell her it was okay, and that she was the very best girl no matter what.
In that moment, I wished I had said goodbye. I wished I hadn’t cared so much about being late for work. I wished that I had bent down and held her face in my hands and whispered a thousand “I love you”s.
I wish I had gone with my dad. I wish I had been there with her, kissed her, and held her as she left this earth.
I wish I could talk to her now. I wish I could tell her how much I miss her, how much she meant to me. How much she still means to me. I wish I could tell her that I am sorry. Sorry for hating her stinky breath and sorry for rejecting her attempts to hold hands, sorry for not cherishing every single minute with her. And sorry for not saying goodbye.
She was my best friend. She was always there for me. And I wasn’t there for her.
It has been almost 8 years, but I still dream about her. Often. Sometimes I dream that she is alive and well, like we’ve gone back in time and she is only 10 years old, and “reality” was the dream the entire time. Sometimes I dream that we find her after all these years, and that she is somehow still alive, but very very old. In these dreams, I have a chance to show her just how much I have always loved her, and I know that when it comes time to say goodbye again, this time I will do it right.
These dreams are always eerily vivid. I awake, certain that it was all real, that we did find Maddy and she is alive and well and there was nothing to be sad about! And then as the dream fades away, and as reality heavily sets in, I feel the grief and regret all over again.
I tell myself that I did my best. That I didn’t do any of this on purpose. That I did love her so much and tell her all the time, and that she knew how much I loved her. That she spent 13 beautiful years in our family, and she adored every second. I tell myself that at the end, she was already confused, and she probably wouldn’t have remembered or understood what I said to her anyway. But no matter how many times I tell myself these things, my regret remains. Sometimes it is as fresh as if it all happened yesterday.
But I know that this regret, this guilt that I carry with me, is felt by so many who lose a dearly loved one. If we could have just one more day with them. If we could say just one more thing, or if we could take back that one thing we said.
I think what makes the guilt so strong when we lose a pet is that our sweet pets are so pure and perfect. They can never utter an unkind word, and they live their lives devoted to us, whereas we flawed humans are capable of so many mistakes. Our animals close their eyes after a lifetime filled only with love, but all we can think about is what we did wrong in the short time we had with them.
But the truth is, we can be assured that our pets knew how much we loved them. Goodness knows we told them all the time. And we gave them beautiful, happy lives as a part of our families. We gave them walks and toys and snuggles and treats- so many things that sent their little feet dancing and their tails wagging. They knew. They always knew, and in the end, in their final moment, they knew.
My sweet Maddy knew. Though I wasn’t there to tell her, she knew. And though her mind had begun to wander away as the end of her life drew near, I know that it wandered away to a place free from pain and discomfort, a place full of her very favorite people, and all the “I love you”s we ever said.