We were one block from home when I felt the tug on the leash behind me. I turned back to encourage Merlin, who sometimes stopped to sniff every blade of grass on a walk. His breathing was labored, and he looked at me with a question in his eyes.
The pups and I walked my toddler to daycare three days a week. It was a 2 mile round trip, and on Monday Merlin was exhausted at the end of the walk.
I chalked it up to old age. Merlin was losing muscle tone in his rear legs, and at times his rear legs trembled from weakness. Exercise would be good for him, and I’d make a vet appointment for him later.
But on Tuesday the problem started after less than a block.
“What’s going on buddy? Do you need to turn around?”
He turned, relief in his eyes, and walked slowly in the direction of home.
As we passed our neighbor’s house I felt Merlin slow even more. When I turned around to check on him, my world froze.
I saw my dog gasp for air, his eyes going wild as the back half of his body fell over onto the ground. His front legs skidded out in front, unable to support him.
I dropped everything, almost forgetting to kick the brake on the stroller. I fell to my knees next to Merlin, tears streaming down my face. Was my dog actually dying on the sidewalk?
For 10 minutes Merlin lay breathing but unable to move as I pet him, reassuring him.
Fortunately he finally stood and hobbled into my neighbor’s house. I had a baby in a stroller, a bouncing poodle, and I don’t know what I would have done if he hadn’t gotten up.
Later that morning Merlin was diagnosed with a complete AV block, a type of acute and sudden heart failure that is irreversible. The only treatment is surgical implantation of a Pacemaker.
At 14 years old, and with kidney disease and other geriatric issues, we didn’t feel that invasive surgery was the right choice. Once Merlin was stabilized, we brought him home to spend his last days with us. The doctors warned us that his heart might stop at any moment, but we didn’t mind, as long as he wasn’t in pain.
“Is it possible Merlin was misdiagnosed?”
I was on the phone with the cardiologist who treated Merlin on that fateful day in February. Merlin’s fainting spells had subsided and he was excited to walk around one square block with me occasionally. He was doing so well that we questioned the accuracy of his diagnosis.
The cardiologist assured me that Merlin did, in fact, have the fatal heart condition – he was just one of the lucky ones who can get several good months with his “backup generator.”
Merlin did have other issues starting, such as worsening kidney disease and incontinence, but we were thankful to be getting extra time with him.
Four months after Merlin collapsed on our morning walk, we took him on his final visit to the HOPE center. He had stopped eating and was having too many attacks of heavy, labored breathing. They happened even when he was sleeping.
We entered the all-too-familiar room where we’d said goodbye to Charlie and Doctor Pepper. We sat with Merlin on the floor as the doctor explained the procedure.
But she didn’t have to. We knew the drill.
As the doctor injected the first liquid, a sedative, I squished my eyes closed and ran my hand over Merlin’s bony head. The pink liquid that followed would stop his heart, and even though it was a gift to end his suffering, it still felt like I was betraying him.
The tears made rivers down my cheeks, and, just like with his siblings before him, I fantasized about snatching him away and running out of there before it was too late.
But I didn’t. And soon the doctor soon said “he’s gone” as she listened for a heartbeat one last time.
The Day After
I found peace as I collected the photos of Merlin’s life. I had forgotten what a vibrant, energetic, shiny-coated dog he was. I had forgotten that yes, he did in fact play with Amber the Poodle when we adopted her 3 years ago. I had forgotten that he used to follow me around the house with enthusiasm, rather than laying on beds looking forlorn all day.
It feels like the end of an era.
Merlin and Charlie were the pups that found me during my confused college years, walked with me over many bumps in the road, and eventually inspired me to launch my business.
But when I close my eyes and picture Merlin, it’s not the listless, gray-haired dog of the last few months.
It’s my angel puppy with the blue and brown eyes, cocked head, and happy ears. His epic head tilt will forever symbolize his enthusiastic approach to our adventurous life.
If you'd like to read more about my pet adventures, here's the story of how I found Merlin, my Christmas puppy.