Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Reflections on Life Choices

He no longer stands erect. His rear legs give way, and he collapses into a prone position, which is how he spends most of his day. Gone are the days of running through our yard, barking at every nearby noise. He is now quiet and immobile.

Cheddar, the yellow lab who has lived with us for thirteen and a half years, has reached the age where he no longer looks forward to each coming day. His eyes and ears have diminished, and he can no longer control his bodily functions, causing us to move him at night from an interior bathroom to our partially covered patio, where he can move at will when nature requires.

Many have suggested to me that it is time. Cheddar’s life is clearly not what it once was, and it becomes increasingly difficult to care for him. Perhaps they are right - perhaps the humane act would be to hold him and comfort him while his vet eases him into a deep sleep. But it is difficult to make that decision for someone whom I have loved and who has loved me unconditionally for over a decade.

His vet tells me that the act is painless and humane. He is administered a sedative that quickly puts him under. Then he is given a drug that, within seconds, will cause his heart and brain to cease functioning. I can be with him through the end or not; the choice is mine. I can have his ashes or simply have the vet discard them; again I get to choose.

My principal concern has always been ensuring that I am making the correct decision for the right reason. I do not wish to end Cheddar’s life as a matter of personal convenience. If I am to make that choice, it will be because his “quality of life” is gone. He suffers only pain and prolonged inertia.

Perhaps we are there now. I look into his eyes occasionally for signs of the joy and curiosity that once were there. But they are gone. His eyes are sad and listless, the life within them superficial.

Someone recently suggested that dogs are lucky. When the life of a dog reaches the stage where pain and apathy pervade, we can bring an end to his discomfort by administering a couple of painless injections. Euthanasia is acceptable for animals, but not humans. A person in Cheddar’s condition would likely be hospitalized for months, suffering the indignity of total helplessness, with doctors striving to prolong what can barely be considered “life.”

I can bring Cheddar’s pain to an end, and perhaps I should. But whether out of love or selfishness, I am having trouble facing what is likely inevitable. How does one decide between life and death for a living being? Who gave me the right to play God?