For Karen…and Toby
Note: If you can’t stand sad animal stories or if you’re at work, “x” out of here quick like a bunny. If on the other hand, you feel in need of a soul-soaking tear flood, read on. I’m running this post-from-the-past at the request of a dear friend. She recently lost her furry best friend and asked me to resurrect this story for animal lovers everywhere.
I don’t want to get out of bed. Actually, I’m afraid to.
If I get up, I’ll have to look out the window. Then I’ll know, if she’s alive or not.
“If she doesn’t make it through the night,” Husband said the night before, “I’ll put her in the Honda and take her to work. So you don’t have to… You know…”
The thing is, I never heard a car—mine or his—start and leave. What if he’s down there right now? Trying to get her sixty pounds out the back door without the other dog getting loose? I should help, put on slippers and a hoodie and go downstairs. Instead, I hold his pillow parallel to me and draw it against my hollow parts.
At 7:30, I wake again. Get up, coward!
I fling back the flannel sheets and two-ton comforter, tap my toes on the berber carpet. Shiver. Stand. Rearrange my jammie britches. On my way to the window, I hold my breath. Silver SUV? Gone. I exhale and my lips flap.
I creep down two flights of stairs and hesitate outside the kitchen. Please be alive, and better, back legs healed, in Jesus’ name.
I bend at the waist and peek. The white dog is in a nose-tucked knot by the door. Brown dog’s flopped on her side, the way I left her last night. I smell then see the streak of urine on the floor by her tail.
I approach and crouch. “Hi, baby. How’s my Painty Lou?”
Her power tail does not pound. Instead, a long quavery moan begins in her belly, works its way up.
“I know, sweetie. I know.”
I fetch a shallow bowl off the dish drainer, fill it with water. Lap, lap, lap. I balance her food dish in front of her nose. She turns her head. “But there’s grated cheese on it. You sure you don’t…”
At the sink I soak a rag with warm water. I return to my brown girl and slide her away from the accident, wipe her back end, then the floor. Beside the back door, Daisy May the white dog dances a jig.
“I’ll be right back,” I tell Paint. “Let me put Sister out.”
When I return, Paint’s by the door, dragged herself there with her front paws. “You want out, too? Do you need to do business again?”
I ponder how this will be accomplished. Maybe I can somehow carry her outside, then support her by her rib cage while she—
First things first. I locate a plastic tablecloth and towel, arrange them in the area of the back yard with the most grass, least mud. I slide out the gizmo that holds the screen door open, then hoist the girl who weighs almost half of me. Dear Jesus, please protect my back. She’s a difficult burden to bear, half living and active, the rest almost dead-weight. Off the porch we go, into the grass, onto the makeshift bed.
“Baby, you can lay down now. Relax.”
Instead she’s caught in a sit pose, upright only because she landed that way. She seems happy though, to be anything but flat and not likely to go anywhere soon. I take a seat nearby and enjoy her accomplishment with her. But then her front legs, stiff with determination, start to tremble. Aftershocks from that earthquake in Japan maybe? Her front paws skitter across the vinyl.
My girl’s like an ill-fated swing set, anchored in quicksand instead of certainty.
I catch her around the chest and ease her to the ground. My watch says it’s 7:51 a.m.. Does the vet open at 8:00 or 8:30?
I consider going as is: soft blue jammies, black hoodie, red Crocs. No, I really should get dressed, put on a bra and undies at least.
All of a sudden, my chest stutters with a fear breath.
The Dobie Brothers—two Dobermans—plus Sergeant Oz, a Pit Bull, live next door. What if they come out to do their business and catch sight of her? Smell compromised canine? Surely they’ll come over the fence and have at her, especially Ricco. Even though he squats to pee instead of hiking a leg, I’m sure he’s vicious. His ears, scalpeled and docked into tiny triangles, make him look like a devil dog. I’ve seen him hang onto his red, suspended-from-a-tree rubber donut for five minutes or more, thrashing, attempting to kill what is not alive.
My next door neighbor on the other side, a pastor, helps me lift Little Paint into the back seat of my car. He shuts the door and promises to pray.
Driving down Grand Street it occurs to me I haven’t cried yet. Not even when husband carried Little Paint Lou into the kitchen last night, all mud and poo-striped, almost black against his Oxi-White Iron Man running shirt.
I called out from inside the house. “Why are you—”
“Because she can’t move her back end, that’s why. Now open the damn door!”
I spent the next three hours on the floor beside her. After I gave her a sponge bath, I spooned water into her mouth, begged her to eat her cheesed kibble. I covered her with a towel and a blanket because shivers like little electrical currents seemed to be holding races beneath her fur.
I read parts of Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! out loud. “A red baby alligator. Isn’t that interesting, Painty Lou? I think the alligator needs a name, don’t you? If I were Ava, I’d call it Ruby Slipper Bigtree.”
At 10 I made my way upstairs. Husband was watching basketball highlights.
I paused in front of the TV. “I left a light on—”
“Okay. I’ll check on her before I come to bed.” He caught my hand as I started for the steps to our attic bedroom. I turned and waited. In the end, he didn’t speak.
What do you say when something very bad is close at hand and you know, “It’ll be okay,” is a lie?
That night—was it only last night?—I dreamed of my Aunt Lo. I smiled at her faded copper beehive hairdo, heard her happy machine gun laugh—“eh, eh, eh, eh, eh,” watched her Revlon “Cherries in the Snow” lips turn up. I knew why she’d come, to tell me to do something. The thing I didn’t do when—
“Be with her when she dies,” my aunt said. “Because no one should go from here to there alone.”
In my dream, I licked my lips and nodded. “Yes, ma’am, I will. And.. I’m sorry. That I didn’t, that I wasn’t…”
“Hush now. Go back to sleep.”
The tears begin their serious work on the second speed bump in the middle of the flat part of Grand Street.
I keep my left hand on the steering wheel and bat around for the glove compartment latch with my right. Click. I pinch at the contents, score a Dairy Queen napkin, drench it with one nose blow. I crank up the radio. “Blessed be your name, on the road marked with suffering—”
I hiss at the windshield. “This road, rename it. Call it ‘Suffering Street.'”
After I park at Paw Prints Veterinary Clinic, I inspect my reflection in the rearview mirror.
My face looks like I’ve been bobbing for something in thinned-out ketchup.
Hope maybe? My eyes are squinty and feel as if I swam all night in an over-chlorinated pool.
I heave the clinic door open and throw myself across the counter. “My dog—L’il Paint—you all know her, she can’t move her back half.”
After a brief exam the young vet comes back up to Painty Lou’s head. She holds out her knuckles for Paint to sniff. “How old is she?”
“She’ll be fourteen on April Fool’s Day.”
The woman focuses on the print of a sunflower field that hangs over my head. “There are so many things this might be: cancer, a herniated disc, a blood clot. I could recommend an MRI or back surgery, but with her having no deep pain response, and at her age, I don’t…”
I wipe my nose with my wrist. “So we should . . . You know . . .” I mouth the rest.
“This is so hard,” the young woman says. “Telling someone to—”
I press my finger to my lips. “Shhhh. Whisper.” She fondles Paint’s ears. I fish in my pocket for my cell. “Can I call my husband? See what—”
“Oh, gosh! Of course,” she says, scrambling to her feet. “I’ll leave you alone. You can phone whoever.”
I hear my husband before I see him, slide my fingers under the exam room door and wiggle them. I’m in here. See my hand? Look down.
The minute Paint sees Husband, she struggles to stand, fails. She gives him her paw—again and again, the one with the catheter that will deliver the… Her strawberry Laffy Taffy tongue lolls out the side of her mouth. Her glossy black rickrack gums swing up in a grin.
Husband’s eyes skim with water. He lays his cheek next to hers, blinks when her tongue comes close.
“Hi, girl. Who’s my girl? Who’s my girly goo?”
The door cracks open. The jolly blonde vet tech that helped get Paint out of the car peeks in. “Take all the time you need, hon. Just open the door a smidge when you’re ready, okay?”
I nod. When we’re ready? And when might that be? Right after she disappears, I spot it. The sign in the Plexiglass pocket on the door. MASS. I squint. What the… Do they think we’re having church in here? Then I get it: not church MASS, but mass cremation MASS. A pet funeral pyre.
My insides compress like a tin foil ball—squeeze, crush, compact.
I shut my eyes tight, try to erase the vision—the metal shed with smoke coming out of a little rusted chimney pipe. I grimace at the stack of pancake-looking pets, piled high. For crying out loud, open your eyes! So you won’t see!
I caress L’il Paint’s ears again. And sing her a song: “How much is that doggy in the window?”
When I finish, I whisper to Husband:
“Should I… Should we…open the door now?”
He flinches, shakes his head, shrugs. Finally, he nods. I let in an inch of light.
No one comes for the longest time. In the next room, someone burps, excuses himself. A girl collects lunch orders and money. A machine buzzes. Is it a nail grinder or a tooth polisher? Or maybe a bone saw. Please don’t come. Ever.
I have a thought:
What if we make her a skate board contraption to get around on? Build a ramp down the back porch steps, have her wear puppy pads to collect pee.
Rig her with a poo-pouch like the carriage tour horses wear in Charleston, South Carolina. That could work, right? And at night— No, no. That’s no good. It’s not right! It’s only me patching together another week, one more month, trying to keep her alive, for me. I’d just be postponing this… this…
The tiny, gentle vet returns, cups the weapon of MASS destruction in her small, elegant hand. “You’re fine. Don’t get up. I’ll just squeeze in here. Keep loving her.” She settles cross-legged on the floor in our midst. “Oh, yes, girl. That is your paw. It’s a beautiful paw.”
I’m pretty sure my head might explode, from sinus pressure and grief. Guilt.
I press my hands against Paint’s ears. “It seems so wrong,” I say, “to do this when her top half’s just fine.”
The vet purses her lips, pushes the plunger on the hypodermic needle a tiny bit. Squirt.
I rub L’il Paint’s ears like a rosary, not that I’ve ever had one, but hey, this is MASS, right? I place my forehead against hers. Lord, please stop my shaking. Don’t let her see, or suspect, what’s about to…
The girl vet inserts the needle into its starting gate. I sing into Paint’s ear. “Go to sleep, go to sleep, go to sleep, Lit-tle Pai-nt.” My voice stumbles, stops, starts. Painty Lou’s head drops between her paws.
My words seem to come from behind me. “It’s so weird, doing this on purpose.”
I wonder if everyone wants me to shut up.
It’s like I have Tourette’s, or diarrhea of the mouth—logorrhea—that was one of my word-of-the-day words once.
I scratch at a piece of dried mud on my girl’s neck. Dust falls to the floor. Paint’s eyes are at half-mast now. My teeth clench and I pull a long inhale through them, release it through my nose. I line up my cheek with hers. “I love you. I love you. I’m so sorry.”
Husband strokes the ridge of stand-up fur on her snout, closes her left eye then her right.
I whimper. “Is she gone?”
The vet listens with her stethoscope to Painty Lou’s side. “The heartbeat is very faint now.”
Placing my ear against Paint’s ribs, I try to hear her last…
The girl straightens, tugs off the stethoscope. “And, she’s, gone.”
I moan and turn away. The vet stands, rests her hand on my shoulder and moves around me. “Take all the time you need. When you’re ready, I’ll show you the back door.”
Husband unbuckles Little Paint’s collar. After he stands, he shines her bone-shaped name tag with the hem of his t-shirt. I massage the warm ruff around L’il Paint’s neck one last time, lift my fingers to my face, sniff, then kiss them.
Husband offers his hands to help me up. I pause and glance back at her. Her, and yet, not her, not any more. I roll my fingers.
“Sleep tight, baby. Don’t let the bedbugs bite.”
Outside in the parking lot, we both cringe against the sunlight.
Husband opens my car door. “Well, that about sucked.”
Nodding, I blot my face with my eighteenth soggy tissue. When he’s in and buckled, I share what just occurred to me:
“That wasn’t us putting her to sleep. That was us killing her softly.”