Why I Gave My Dog a Bucket List
Living while dying is a topic I know inside out
Thanks to some faulty genetics, I grew up with an expiration date hanging over my head. I managed to hold that expiration date at bay until I was thirty-eight. Housebound, on oxygen, and in respiratory failure, I existed in the purgatory of the transplant waitlist for months as my clock rapidly wound down. It was a time when simple pleasures became the focus that allowed me to cling to life by my fingernails.
So when my Blue Heeler, Pepsi, was diagnosed with terminal canine cancer, I sat and wrote her a bucket list. It was a full, varied list with much to see and do—both outings and treats galore.
But Pepsi's bucket list didn't turn out the way I planned.
With no concrete life expectancy estimate, finishing the 5kg of dried kangaroo treats that arrived on the day of Pepsi's diagnosis was the only long-term item on the list. But a seemingly endless supply of dried kangaroo treats does not a bucket list make. So, I planed long walks and trips to the river to play in the water.
Pepsi was a typical Blue Heeler, loyal to her people and surroundings. Although never a social dog that would romp at the park with the other canines, Pepsi enjoyed her daily walks, and playing fetch was one of her favorite activities.
Soon after her canine cancer diagnosis, Pepsi's behavior changed. The tumor sat located between Pepsi's brain and her skull. It's an area with very little wiggle room. Each time the tumor expanded, it pushed on her brain and increased the pressure on her skull, causing a little bump to form on the top of her head.
My confident boisterous dog became reluctant to leave the house. Inside our four walls, she felt safe, secure. The outside became scary. I sat down with Pepsi's bucket list. I crossed off the trips to the park and the beach, the long walks. At home activities, it would be.
Pepsi and I played a lot of ball games in the backyard. Pepsi would belt after the ball so fast that if it weren't for the growing bump on her skull, you'd never know she was dying. One day I threw the ball, and Pepsi skittled after it. Pepsi snatched the ball mid-bounce and immediately dropped it. She bent, picked up the ball, then dropped it again. She shook her head and gave it a third attempt. My heart sunk. I knew what this meant. The pressure on Pepsi's jaw would no longer allow her to hold the ball comfortably in her mouth. The tumor was a little larger.
The ball went back into the cupboard, and I crossed Pepsi's favorite doggy activity off her bucket list. Next playtime, instead of a ball, I pulled a box of tissues from the cupboard. Pepsi was hesitant at first. As much as she loved pulling tissues from the box, she knew it was naughty. It was an activity to be undertaken with planning and stealth—not out in the open. Slowly, one by one, then with reckless abandon, Pepsi pulled every tissue out of the box. It was a poor cousin to playing ball, but it was still a great game.
Although playing ball was off the bucket list, I wasn't ready to cancel it altogether. Giving Pepsi a balanced diet to keep her healthy was no longer a priority. Pepsi was about to become the best fed dog.
On the day I came home with a chicken, cheese, and bacon burger, Pepsi snuggled up to me, no doubt hoping she could con a mouthful or two. When I opened the wrapper and offered the entire burger to Pepsi, her eyes opened wide, and she gobbled it in three quick bites. I'm pretty sure that burger disappeared at such a rapid rate to prevent me from changing my mind!
The burger was followed by pizza. Pepsi had an existing fondness for pizza crusts but had never experienced the taste sensation of a whole slice before. Like the burger that disappeared in the blink of an eye. Over the following weeks, Pepsi's menu expanded significantly.
The treat of licking the "empty" ice cream bucket was replaced with an ice cream in a cone. Pepsi's eyes lit up, and her tongue worked frantically, trying to keep pace with the rapidly melting ice cream. When even the cone had been snaffled up, she sniffled about in the grass to make sure not even a drop of ice cream evaded her tongue.
Her special sausage sizzle (without the obligatory Australian onions) was snaffled up so quickly I missed taking a happy snap. The steak dinner also suffered the same fate.
On Instagram, I'd made friends with several people and their canine cancer warriors who were also completing bucket list challenges. Rex was one of the first dogs in the group to succumb to cancer. Rex had a cast-iron stomach, and food was all over his bucket list—cheese was a recurring theme. In his honor, Pepsi scoffed down a double cheese toastie in triple quick time, proof that Rex's tastebuds were on the pulse.
Unwrapping her own parcel of fish and chips was a bucket list winner. (Yes, she even got to eat with her paws on the table!)
"That's some sub you've made," the guy at Subway said, as he handed over a meatballs, cheese, and bacon subway.
"It's for my dog," I said.
He frowned at me, probably wondering if I'd meant to say it was for my dad. Pepsi, however, had no delusions about who the Subway was for. I laid it out carefully and turned to grab my camera. As I turned, Pepsi grabbed her Subway and hastily took care of business. Apparently, the smell of a three meatball Subway meant there was no time to mess about with photos.
The day Pepsi "borrowed" my fingers to test out the Finger-Lickin' Good slogan from KFC as she consumed a 12 pack of chicken nuggets is still one of my favorite bucket list items. With eyes as big as saucers, Pepsi gobbled each nugget, following through with a swipe of her tongue to clean up any crumbs that might remain on my fingers.
One evening soon after the KFC nuggets, Pepsi's behavior radically changed. There is an unmistakable moment that every pet owner fears, and with an exchange of glances, my husband and I knew we'd reached the end; we could no longer control Pepsi's pain. The right thing to do was to ease Pepsi's suffering, even though it would mark the beginning of ours.
The next day would be Pepsi's last.
I made sure Pepsi had the best last day possible. Starting with pancakes for breakfast, followed by a special family lunch that everyone shared, the recipe coming straight from a Jamie Oliver cookbook.
There was only one item left on the bucket list to complete. I'd known the final item since the bucket list began. Of all the human food forbidden to dogs, white chocolate held the most fascination to Pepsi. On more than one occasion, she'd gleefully stolen a discarded wrapper and charged about the backyard until it was sucked clean before yielding the stolen bounty.
On the grass outside the vets, Pepsi polished off a block of white chocolate—savoring one square at a time.
I have videos and photos to look back at, reminisce over, and laugh at — especially the chicken nugget video. I know that I did my best to provide Pepsi with an abundance of love and happiness while indulging her with foods usually forbidden in her last days.
These memories bring me comfort.
Sometimes bucket lists are for the living.
Sandi Parsons is the author of "Pepsi the Problem Puppy," a chapter book based on the real-life shenanigans of her own puppy, Pepsi. She lives with her favorite husband and a house full of problem puppies.
"Why I Gave My Dog a Bucket List" was first published in an abridged format in Inspired Writer