Volume 28, Number 4

The Right Way

David Weiskircher

In the decade that we had been going to see him, Genie’s oncologist had never been at a loss for words… until that moment.

But let me back up. Years earlier, when she was 19, and before we knew one another, Genie had been the sole caregiver for her mother who had breast cancer. In the mid-to-late ’70s, medicine’s understanding of cancer was in its infancy. Still, Genie’s mother, having confidence in her doctor, fought hard. She had faith and hope. Here’s what Genie saw and heard in the two years her mother battled: agony. Thirty years later Genie could remember precisely how her mother had screamed in pain. It wasn’t like hitting a finger with a hammer. It was blood-curdling. As Genie said, it was the sound of her mother’s soul dying, slowly, piece-by-piece, day-by-day.

There was so little comfort, her mother started wishing, and hoping, for death. And, finally, death took her. For Genie, it left a mark.

On a particularly hot day in June 2010, we sat in Dr. McVie’s office. He had been treating her breast cancer from 2001, when first diagnosed, to it spreading in 2007. That’s a long time, and we’d formed a good relationship, and he had no problem with us speaking our minds, and we had always instructed him to never pull his punches. We needed to know what he thought. And he needed to know how we felt. For us, there was no hiding from metastatic cancer.

It was then that Genie said, "We had a dog. She was fine on Friday, then dead on Saturday."

A non-sequitur? Anything but.

For as long as we’d been seeing McVie, Genie had told him stories about “our tall red dog.” Ruby was a red-and-white border collie that Genie discovered in a litter of seven puppies. Since we already had two young dogs, we weren’t looking for a dog that particular day. But, in retrospect, maybe we were. Genie looked at a few of the puppies, but when she picked up Ruby, I not only saw the connection, I felt it. I saw two noses—and two hearts—connect.

By the time summer of 2010 had rolled around, we’d seen several cancer regimens fail. There were only a few drugs still on the table, and they were viewed poorly. There were no clinical trials on the immediate horizon. All radiation had done was create more problems. Numerous side effects from all the drugs she’d taken through the years were pulling Genie down to a level not seen before. Organs were failing. Medicine was failing. Religion was failing. Her life was failing. After a long, tortuous ride, we were at the end of a box canyon, with a well-armed enemy in position above us. There was no way out.

A few weeks earlier I’d e-mailed McVie a list of hard questions. We wanted to know if, in the opinion of science, we were running out of time.

Genie and I had decided that when that moment came, we’d turn our horses and ride off into the sunset to enjoy what we could in whatever way we could in whatever time was left. We wanted to watch the last dancing rays of the sun as we held the other’s hand.

After all, Genie had watched her mother linger and suffer. It was torture for her mother, and it was torture for Genie. In that, she saw a way not to die.

Years earlier, in 2003, Ruby died. She was young and had shown no signs of being sick. One Friday, she was our tall red dog. Come Saturday, she was dead. Cancer took her before we even knew what was happening. A wonderful piece of kismet came into play, though. That Friday, Genie, instead of being at work, was at home with Ruby. In the glow of the summer sun, Genie watched Ruby play as if nothing was wrong. She watched our tall red dog run like the wind through the treetops. Ruby enjoyed life to its fullest in the hours before death stole her.

Through the years and knowing that cancer was inside her, Genie would say: “Ruby died the right way.”

Then as time wore on, with proving unstoppable, she would say, “I want to go Ruby’s way.”

She wasn’t being fatalistic, merely realistic. Genie had seen too personally what cancer does to a person in the last weeks and months. She wasn’t scared of death, but she was scared of that. Genie saw how our tall red dog had skipped all that, how she seemed to slip over the edge of the horizon with no muss, no fuss. Although we had no idea what Ruby actually felt, and though we acknowledged she was a dog and not a person, the way she died became a blessed symbol for Genie. Genie saw a “right way” to die.

We sat in the Dr. McVie’s office. Genie tried to clarify. “Ruby died the right way. No lingering, no suffering. She was fine on Friday. The next day—she was dead.”

Flustered, the doctor put us off by saying it wasn’t time for this conversation. And maybe it wasn’t… then. But it wouldn’t be for long.

Genie felt medical science—again—wasn’t going to help with what she needed. That left me. She looked at me as if to confirm, and said, “Ruby died the right way.”

“I know.”

“And that’s what I want.”

“I know.”

She went silent, then added, “I’ll see the line of the horizon. On one side will be you. On the other will be Ruby. Together the two of you will do what I’ll need you to do.”

We didn’t speak of this again. We didn’t need to.

When Genie went into hospice in 2011, she was understandably confused.

Early one morning, sitting on the edge of her bed, I watched her sleep. I’d always loved watching her sleep, and I’d always been afraid that I’d lose her in the morning.

She stirred a little. When she saw me, a smile played on her lips. Smiling had been her calling card, and it’s because she excelled at it. That smile had brightened many days for many people. But now cancer was taking that away. Before I could say anything, she said, in a weakened voice, “David, I don’t know what to do.”

My heart stopped. She was saying she didn’t know how to die.

I leaned so close my lips touched her ear. “Look for Ruby. She’s there. She’s waiting to help.” I kissed her forehead, and said, “Remember.”

She nodded her head, and said, “I remember.” Then she smiled.

That was the day I told my wife it was okay to die.

Anyone who knew Genie probably heard her speak of Ruby’s death, probably more than once because she found it so moving, but most who heard it probably didn’t fully appreciate why she did.

In all the times of telling the story, though, Genie left out one thing. To me it’s an important thing.

That Saturday—the day Ruby died—our vet knew from looking at our red dog that things were worse bad. She told me to leave Ruby for some tests. Reluctantly, I did. Then I rushed home to talk with a frantic Genie.

When we went back, as soon as we saw our vet’s face we knew things were worse than bad. She said we should put her down.

We agreed, but as we made the progression into the back room, I changed my mind.

“No,” I said. “I’m taking her home.”

Everybody, including me, was shocked. Yet when they saw the look on my face, I guess they knew not to argue.

I thought—foolishly, arrogantly—that I could somehow… save her. When we got home, I had to pick Ruby up to get her out of the car. I couldn’t remember the last time I had to pick her up.

When I sat her down, she couldn’t find the strength to stand. My tall red dog who just the day before had run so beautifully, gracefully, effortlessly, now couldn’t even stand.

I looked into her eyes, the eyes that had always brimmed with determination. I suddenly saw the pain she was in. Her eyes focused on me, and I could see that she knew what I was trying to do, but I also saw that she knew I couldn’t do it.

Despite the love, hope and prayers, despite the strong drive and deep-willed determination we both had, despite my belief and wishes that I could bend time to where I could stop it for just a little while, I sickeningly realized I couldn’t stop death from taking her.

In Ruby’s old-soul eyes I saw her say: “I need to go.”

I heard her. I loved her. I felt Genie’s hand on my shoulder, but she didn’t say anything. She didn’t have to. I knew what I had to do, and I couldn’t let any more time pass.

We rushed back to the vet’s office, which by now had closed. Our vet had waited.

In bitterly cold silence, I held Ruby one last time.

That was the day I told my tall red dog it was okay to die.

That was the day Genie saw the right way to die… and that was the day I saw the right way to help.

Genie never forgot. Nor did I.