When the Wagging Stops
This year I was preparing my Christmas card list. As I went through the list from last year, there were so many changes because of friends, family members and clients passing away. It reminded me of an article I wrote over three years ago that I would like to share with you today.
My best friends have been two Labrador retrievers—Star, the mother, and Maggie, her daughter. This year, they turned 14 and 12 years of age. Both are famous for their friendliness and vigorous tail wagging—greeting family and guests with a nudge and their whole bodies shaking back and forth from the wag of their heavy tails. Most mornings, my alarm clock was Maggie’s tail striking the wall as she waited for me to get out of bed.
Both Star and Maggie fell ill the end of July. Star had two stays in the veterinary clinic. During Star’s second stay, Maggie died. When my son picked up Star from her second stay at the veterinarian, she was so excited to go home. Though she was quite weak, she managed to wag her tail. After she walked through the house and could not find Maggie, she climbed onto the couch with help. She never wagged her tail again.
A couple of weeks later, I was speaking out of town. Throughout the day, I would get reports on Star. Late that night, I got home and Star was on the couch. I sat on the couch beside her, putting her head in my lap. There was little recognition. I started reading my own article reprinted in The Hays Daily News about letting an old dog (Star) hunt for as long as possible and about enjoying life, even as you grow old. I realized at that point, sitting on the couch, Star and I would never hunt together again—that she had stopped enjoying life.
The most emotional part of my practice as an elder law attorney is working with families facing end-of-life decisions. As prepared as families think they are, it is the most difficult of times.
Unfortunately, it can be much more difficult if there has not been “the talk.” What quality of life is important to them? Do they want feeding tubes or other life support? Do they want to donate organs? Who will be the decision maker if they cannot speak for themselves? What happens if they lose cognitive abilities on a permanent basis? What type of health services do they want or not want?
Many of these decisions need and must be conveyed in legal documents—a living will, powers of attorney for financial and health care decisions, and perhaps a do-not-resuscitate order.
But more important (or at least as important) is that these wishes need to be communicated to your family. You need to have “the talk.” Let them know what you want or do not want.
Please understand that the journey is not yours alone. Dying is not just the journey of the ill person; it is the journey of many who love and care for that person.
When I assumed the care of my grandmother, she had three to six months to live. That went on for ten years. I smile at that because we had ten great years together. Through the years, we had several discussions about end of life. When Mam-Maw did die, I knew what she wanted and that she was ready. I knew what health services she wanted and did not want. I knew she was ready to go.
As my sister and I stood at the grave site of my grandmother, we were able to make the transition ourselves—transition to a world without Mam-Maw—a world we had never experienced. It was an important transition for my sister and I, as it was for my grandmother.
So, that night with Star’s head on my lap, I knew it was time for the transition. The next day, my wife, my son Josh and his wife Andrea, and my son Ben all accompanied Star to the veterinary clinic. As she laid there, we all held her. She was able to muster a final raise of her head, looking to all of us with those great, kind eyes – eyes that trusted and loved us. She closed those eyes and then passed with her family leading her through the transition. Part of all of us went with her.
I cannot overemphasize how dying is a transition for the dying, but also for family members and friends. It is hard to let go—darn hard—the hardest. Having “the talk” allows for the transition. But when the wagging stops, it is time to let your loved one pass. Hopefully you can be there, in person or in spirit.
Somewhere, I know Star and Maggie are wagging their tails, waiting for me to come home, so that we can continue our journey.