Christine Gardner Photography | Losing Ruby

My name is Ruby, and I’m a seven-year-old golden retriever. I live in the countryside with two and a half humans, a poodle and a cat. I’m an agility dog by trade, and my hobbies are eating, swimming, chasing squirrels, swimming, digging holes, swimming and baiting the neighbour’s dogs. However, I’ve also been observing human behaviour for several years and consider myself to be something of an expert. In my blog, I’ll be exploring a few of the more bizarre problems dogs are likely to encounter with their humans, and proposing some solutions. Please feel free to contact me if you need advice.

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Losing Ruby

March 18, 2016  •  Leave a Comment



This is Ruby’s human speaking.


Sometimes it’s a good thing we don’t know what life will throw at us next.


Two years ago, in January 2014, my arthritic knee collapsed and had to be repaired. At the time, I couldn’t imagine anything worse. Four months of inactivity, followed by a prognosis of permanently reduced mobility, in a year where my goal was for Ruby and I to qualify for and compete in the National Agility Championships in August.


In the end, we achieved that goal and more, in spite of my injury. My wonderful dog was more than equal to the challenge, taking on her own job and most of mine as well. At the end of 2014, as I photographed her with the trophies she had won at both the provincial and national events, I remember thinking: What would I do without this amazing dog in my life?


Never, for an instant, did it occur to me that I’d only have her for another few weeks.


Ruby died suddenly and unexpectedly of cancer, on March 18, 2015. She had just turned eight years old.


You’ve no idea how long it took me to be able to write that. She was such a vigorous presence, flinging herself at life and enjoying whatever it brought her. An early death for such a dog seemed then – and still seems – too unspeakably cruel to be true.

Cruel or not, death snatched her away with no warning and no time to prepare. Apparently healthy on the Friday, she was gone by the following Wednesday. She became very sick over the space of a weekend, and the diagnosis, when it came, was unforgiving: inoperable cardiac hemangiosarcoma. The tumour had ruptured, filling the sac around her heart with blood. It would rupture again, and soon. The specialist vets – all four of them, because a second and third opinion weren’t enough – told me that without treatment, her life would probably be measured in days. With chemotherapy and slews of drugs, we could expect a few weeks, perhaps two or three months if we were careful and didn’t over-exert her heart. Our choice was simple: euthanasia or palliative treatment. There was no middle road. And whatever we decided, she would die before the spring was over. I was stunned.


It wasn’t the first time life had thrown this kind of curve ball my way: I went through something similar, many years ago, with my dad. Apparently healthy, still working full-time, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given a couple of months to live. The doctors pumped him full of drugs. When his kidneys failed as a result, the hospital (against everyone’s wishes) took extraordinary measures to restore life and “bring him back”. He spent much of the next few weeks – his last – in a drug-induced haze, saying things he didn’t mean, helpless because his hands and arms were paralyzed by a secondary tumour. I remember telling his doctor: I wouldn’t put my dog through this.


I thought long and hard about those words more than a decade later, when I had to make that excruciating choice for Ruby.


We sat together on the floor, Ruby and I, for several hours after her brutal diagnosis. She slept soundly, her head on my knee, grateful to be home after a night spent in the hospital, away from her family. I thought about the options I’d been given: let her die now, painlessly, surrounded by the people she loves, or give the “treatment” and let her die in a few weeks, perhaps in pain, perhaps alone, perhaps altered by secondary tumours.


My dad didn’t have these options. At the time, for humans, life at any cost was the only choice. And sometimes the cost was very high: our family will attest to that.


Living with my dad in those final weeks of his life changed the nature of our relationship. It’s hard not to see a terminally ill person as being diminished, and hard, sometimes, to know how to be and what to say. And there’s the fear: fear that the inevitable will happen when you’re asleep or at the hospital cafeteria, or sometime when you’re out taking care of life. Fear of what comes next. Fear of what things will be like when the other person has gone. Impending death becomes a wall, with them on one side and you on the other.


Sick humans are rational beings, able to grasp and accept these things. They understand and make their own choices. But sick dogs aren’t like that. They don’t realize you’re putting them through the pain and unpleasantness in order to give them another few weeks of being alive. Dogs are creatures of the present. They only know life as it is: in Ruby’s case, it would be life with a sad and fearful human who cried a lot and took her endlessly to the vet for injections and other tortures. Would she even remember the fun-loving human who used to throw tennis balls, play agility and walk for miles in the forest?


Would it be fair to do that to Ruby? Or would it be unfair to deny her the extra time? Would my dad have chosen a different end, if he’d had the chance?


In the early weeks after my dad’s diagnosis, before the treatment took its toll, we had some conversations about death and how to face it. He had an interesting perspective, having always feared old age, dependency and disability. “I would,” he said, “have turned into a very unpleasant old man.” He felt this early death – he was younger than my husband is now – was in some respects fitting. “People will be sorry to see me go, instead of sorry I’m still around. I like that better.” But did he really? He never got to meet my daughter or his great-grandkids. He never got to build his dream house, or take three months off to travel the world, or reap the benefits of his life’s work. Were the “advantages” of dying early truly worth the sacrifice? I sometimes wonder how he’d answer that question today, if he could come back and talk about it.


I flew to England after his diagnosis, to spend some time with him. In the early days, we made memories doing things he enjoyed. We went to his favourite café for ice cream, we visited a relative he hadn’t seen for years, and we drove his Land Rover at full speed over flooded fields, mud and water spraying in our wake. We also toured his farms, so he could talk about the plans he’d had for the future.


Oddly, it wasn’t always a sad time. Some days, it felt more like we were celebrating his life.


I thought about all this when I sat down with Ruby on that terrible day to decide her fate. How carefully I’d planned the rest of our lives together: another two or three years of agility, her “last run”, and a well-deserved retirement when I could give back to her all the things she’d given to me. The best-laid plans … Cancer was cheating us out of this, just as it had cheated my dad. I don’t think Ruby would have agreed with him that an early death was somehow fitting. On the contrary, I think she would have howled in despair. I think, like me, she would have raged against the lost life and the lost love she should have had.


But the vets had given us only those two, stark options: death now, or death soon. It came down to a simple question: Would Ruby want to spend her final weeks doing things she hated? I’m still convinced her answer to this would have been a resounding “no”.  She wasn’t an animal to die slowly, inch by inch, dragged from one vet to the next, injected with drugs, unable to do the things she enjoyed most in case the tumour in her heart ruptured again. She would have railed against it, this life diminished. It wouldn’t have been a fitting end for a dog who lived so intensely. She deserved better. I felt then, and still feel, that she deserved to go out in a blaze of glory, on her own terms.


So that’s the end I chose for her. Twenty-four hours doing all the things she loved most: chasing squirrels, eating unlimited quantities of steak, chicken and home-made goodies, sleeping in her own bed alongside mine. In the morning, a final walk on the forest trails, where she caught snowballs and jumped for joy at being alive. Then some quiet time together, sitting in the snow in the agility field, under the tree where we used to pitch our shelter at trials, leaning against one another as I said my final goodbye.


An hour later, she died at home on her favourite cushion, surrounded by her family, her head in my lap. The last voice she heard was mine, telling her how loved she was, and what a privilege it was to have been her human. To this day, I have no doubt it was how she would have wanted things to be, given the hand we were dealt. Cancer may have stolen Ruby’s life, but it never got a chance to steal her joy. She was Ruby until she died.


It wasn’t the way either of us wanted our story to finish. But I’m glad we made the choice to write the ending in our own words. And at least we did this one last thing together: we were a team to the end. For her, it was the right choice. I’ve never doubted that. For me, though, it was … indescribably, wrenchingly unbearable. My own fast-track to a life diminished.


The immediate aftermath, of course, was a nightmare. Watching as her body was carried out of the house, the unnatural silence when I went back inside. Waking suddenly, in the middle of that first night without her, thinking: they will burn my dog tomorrow.


This new life was a raw and joyless affair, in a world where the sun had gone out. Gathering up Ruby’s cushions and crates and putting them away.  Vacuuming hair shed by a dog who was no longer there, resisting the urge to gather it all up and keep it safe. And worst of all, going to recover her ashes, carrying the remains of my beautiful dog home in a wooden box.


Then there was that first agility trial: waking early to drive my daughter and her dog, knowing that Ruby would not be waiting anxiously by the door, bouncing up and down, tail wagging, eyes shining at the prospect of a day doing fun stuff with her human.


Watching that trial from the sidelines, fighting off the tears and trying not to be angry that other people still had their dogs when mine was dead.


And that terrible first walk on the forest trails, with images of Ruby bounding around corners, smiling joyfully. I went alone for that one, and had to stop several times on the way, to sit by a tree and wait for the wave of grief to go away.


I’ve watched other human beings come to terms with indescribable losses, much worse than mine, and still rebuild their lives. So I knew what to do. One step at a time. One day at a time. Eventually, the world would come back into focus: it always does, no matter how it seems in the beginning. I learned to talk about Ruby, look at photos, and let the memories in. But I couldn’t write about her. Not then, and not for a long time. Even now, a year later, it’s hard.


I’m probably not the only one who’s felt some guilt at grieving so hard for an animal – as hard, in fact, as for the humans I’ve lost. This isn’t something I feel comfortable admitting, but on the other hand, it shouldn’t come as a big surprise either. Ruby was such an integral part of my life, my constant companion 24 hours a day, every day. In many respects, her presence defined what I did with my time. She came with me to the office, rode in the car when I had errands to do, dragged me away from the computer every afternoon for our walk, kept me company when I was sick or injured, and threw herself wholeheartedly into anything I wanted to do. And, of course, there was agility. Chosen to be an agility dog, she tackled her job with a level of exuberance and enthusiasm that took several years to harness, and she gave me so much more than I would ever have thought to ask for. I was her life, and much of my life was built around her. We were partners in and out of the agility ring. The sense of desolation that followed her death was overwhelming.


But if there’s one thing in the world that shouldn’t need justification, it’s grief. When it hits, you just have to work through it, regardless of who or what you’re grieving for. Someone once wrote that when a dog dies, it tears away a small piece of its human’s heart. Well, this particular dog, when she died, ripped out a huge, vital piece of my heart and left a gaping hole that seems impossible to fill. People tell me she’ll always be close, but I’m not sure it’s going to work that way, at least for me. That wooden box and its contents are cold comfort at best. This was a dog who gave me everything she had, and she’s gone. I still miss her.


It has helped to be part of a community that understands. It has helped enormously to be part of a community that rallied round my fundraising efforts and allowed me to make a large donation to canine cancer research, in Ruby’s honour. The overwhelming support I received is something I’ll never forget, and it became the most significant staging post on the journey back from the dark: the tipping point between sadness and hope. When I put that cheque in the mail, in honour of Ruby’s life, I knew I could stop looking back and start looking forward again.


I can, at least, take the memories with me. Young Ruby, desperately retrieving small children from our pool (much to their dismay) in case they drowned. Her tail, banging loudly against furniture. Broken lamps and plants, wagged off a shelf or table in an excess of golden enthusiasm. Smiling Ruby, emerging from the ocean with a tennis ball in her mouth.


Her paw, resting on my foot as I worked at the computer. The way she would run to join me during our walks, to trot alongside me for a few seconds and rub her head against my hand: here I am, here you are, life is perfect.


Memories, too, of our last agility trial – the one we didn’t know would be our last. Her final qualifying run, a Gambler: 126 points, and her 100th Gamble Q. The Queen of Gambles, coming full circle. As though the universe knew …


A dog like Ruby leaves an indelible imprint on her human’s life. Not just through agility, but through everything else: her joy, her wild and untamed personality, the way she lived every instant to the full. She was the dog I always wanted and never thought I would have. As an eight-week-old pup, she trotted into our home and into our hearts as though it was meant to be, and appointed herself “my” dog from the very beginning. She became my shadow, a constant and adoring presence. As anyone who’s involved in dog sports will testify, the relationships we build with these animals are often more intense than those we have with the humans in our lives. We shape and mould our dogs’ personalities, transforming them into the partners we want them to be. It’s a process that takes years, with hard work and sacrifices on both sides. When we lose our dogs, we lose all that as well. When we lose them suddenly, we become … untethered. When Ruby died like that, with no warning, it threw the whole world out of balance. The road back has been hard.


And yet, here I am a year later: sadder, warier of what life might have in store, but moving forward. There’s another Golden Retriever under my desk now, watching intently as I work at the computer. Not a replacement: he’ll leave his own set of pawprints in my life, alongside Ruby’s. But I still look up, sometimes, and see Ruby’s photo on my office wall. I’m sorry, I whisper. It shouldn’t have ended like that. You deserved better.


I’ve kept Ruby’s collar, the one I unclipped gently from her neck after she’d taken her last breath. It’s blue and bears the slogan “Life is Good”. When I first saw that collar in the store, I knew it was made for her, and she wore it for the rest of her life.  There were days in the aftermath of her death when it seemed like a bad joke. Now, however, I see it as a reminder of the way she lived: brashly, entirely, uncompromisingly, making the most of every second. There isn’t a single moment of my eight years with her that I regret or would change, and I wouldn’t have missed them for the world. Life with Ruby was indeed good. It was such an honour and privilege to be her human. The imprint she left on me – that indelible pawprint on my heart – will always be there. That, more than anything else, is what I’ll take with me into the future.


Ruby, my best friend, companion and partner, who took me on an adventure I’ll never forget. A one-of-a-kind dog, a wild and untamed spirit, a gift I never expected to have. In eight short years, she gave me a lifetime of joy and exuberance. She changed my world and I’ll miss her forever.




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