by Beth Burrell

It is mid-morning when I glance over at my dog Frodo lying in his bed, momentarily alert as he notices my movement — expecting, maybe, that I will pick him up and carry him outside.

Instead, I bend down and pet him, some of his belly fur still damp from wetting himself sometime in the early morning hours, not far from where he also pooped. I found him just before 7am on the hardwood floor — not on one of the many non-slip mats covering the kitchen floor. Most times now his back legs can’t lift off a slick floor.

His fur is becoming long and unruly again, and his body is soft and warm where I rub his back. But he is dying. His fur growing, his life shrinking. Yet he’s alive at 18.

On occasional nights, he will yelp until I (or my husband) hear him and come downstairs where he is often splayed on the floor, and I gently put him back in his bed. Other times, he has soiled his bed and wants to get away from it but can’t. Whatever has happened, I move and soothe him because I know he’s not long for this world. I used to lose my patience; now I just get to it so I can get back to bed myself. I’d bring him upstairs with me, but it seems to distress him when his routine changes. He’s slept in the kitchen all his life.

Sometimes I lie in bed anticipating another yelp. Sometimes I wonder how long this can go on. Sometimes I fall immediately back to sleep not knowing what I will find at sunrise when we, and he, begin again.

***

In a strange way, watching him these last couple of years reminds me of caring for my dad the last months of his life – on bad days, he was confused and mostly sleeping, and like Frodo, would wander from room to room. On better days, I’d try to keep my dad alert by playing word games (he’d always loved crossword puzzles) or asking for stories from his past. I’d help him out the back door to sit with the birds, among the trees. Sometimes he rallied, just as Frodo will take a short walk to the neighborhood park, meandering around and sniffing, shocking us when he takes off and jog-hops home as if he’s exorcized his old self and replaced it with the young.

If Frodo can do that, isn’t he fine? Have I doomed him before he is doomed? Have I assumed he can do nothing because that’s all he is being offered?

Just a few weeks before my dad died in 2022, I pulled into his driveway after a quick trip to the pharmacy. There he stood in the front yard leaning on his cane, having gotten out the locked front door and down the stone steps without his walker, and no one helping. I gaped. “Daddy, what are you doing out here?” I yelled from the open car window.

“Waiting for you,” he said, as if he did this every day. And maybe in his mind, he did.

***

Is Frodo waiting for me too?

My grown kids and husband feel it’s largely my call. I’m closest to Frodo and know him best. We all agree he’s had a good, long life. In people years, he’s upwards of 120, and he just keeps going. His appetite is good, he drinks plenty, with nothing serious apparently ailing him, like cancer, or diabetes, or heart disease. All the things that should have killed him by now.

So, we’ve adapted our lives to his, carrying him up and down stairs, and all around. It’s not much of a life for Frodo, but isn’t it a life?

As I ponder this, I scroll quickly through my inbox. A headline catches my eye, “Which Dog Breeds Live the Longest?” I click open and imagine finding Frodo perched at the top of the list. Instead, I read that the top average lifespan is 15.4, for a breed I’ve not heard of, the Lancashire Heeler. Our vet said she doesn’t have other dog patients who have lived as long as Frodo without major illness. We say he’s living like the hobbit he’s named for. He’s unflappably calm, seemingly peaceful. And I think again: Frodo, how are you still with us? Have you wanted to be gone for a while and we’ve just ignored you?

If he could talk, would he tell us that his best days are behind him? That there’s life left, yes, but not much joy? I believe this is what I’m hearing from him now. I don’t feel I’m imagining it, or that I’m tired of being inconvenienced by his demands.

I sigh. I don’t like playing God, and don’t want to, either. I know that if his pain and suffering were blatant, letting him go would be hard but obvious. I also know that his dignity matters — and that in his right mind and body, he’d never choose to wake up in his own waste. Many would have opted to euthanize by now.

I know all this, and yet I know nothing. I want things clear cut and they’re not. I want to do the right thing, or at least the best thing, for Frodo. I remember wading in this gray world with my dad and making mistakes. In the end when given the choice to head to the hospital or remain at home, he chose home and died there. It was the right call.

Today I believe I know what’s best for Frodo (will I tomorrow?), and that I won’t miss carrying him up and down stairs multiple times a day. But I will miss the weight of him against my body, the softness of his fur, the steadfast wisdom in his now tired eyes.

For today, Frodo — or some version of him — is here in the kitchen with me, waiting for what comes next. I wonder too. Then I get up and carry him outside.