Short fiction (Guest Author Series)
Today, D. Mann weaves a story of a man as he grapples with the heart-wrenching task of saying goodbye to his beloved old dog, coping with his own sorrow, and the profound impact of the loss of the dog on his wife and child.
There she lay, on a cream colored cotton blanket, bracketed on one side by a wooden privacy fence and tall arborvitaes, and on the other by green grass and a gray brick patio.
It was early evening—a hot, muggy night; mid-summer in a mid-Atlantic suburb. There were mosquitoes and summer night sounds—pre-teens and teens running and playing in neighboring yards, traffic from the highway half a mile away, a blast of music from the radio of a passing car, the occasional siren.
Moments earlier she had been breathing. It was a labored breathing, but she was alive. Now she was lifeless. Sandwiched between those two states was an injection of a barbiturate—administered by a veterinarian he’d found who made house calls to euthanize animals—followed by involuntary muscle spasms and a shrill yelp that sounded like a dog in the middle of a nightmare.
Her owner responded in turn, sharply screaming, “No!” in a voice that did not seem to be his own, that seemed to come from a dream. The veterinarian’s explanation that this was a normal reaction—a result of the release of chemicals from the animal’s nerve endings—and that the animal was not in pain, was comforting, but didn’t make it any less upsetting. He felt as if his heart was in his throat, and his eyes welled with tears.
All pretense left him. He knelt and lowered his head, laying it to rest on her body. He pictured her running through a meadow, her ears flopping and her tongue hanging out of her mouth. Pepper—God had never created anything finer. She was perfect in life and death. A sleek, muscular body, wrapped in a rich coat of soft, jet black fur. A smiling, happy dog, loyal to the end.
The next four hours would be a test of endurance as he battled heat, flying insects, exhaustion, and heartbreak while he labored in the dark to prepare her final resting place—a rectangular hole in the earth, large enough to hold a 100 pound animal.
Just before midnight he lined the hole with large plastic trash bags, then he lay her in it as gently as he could. He placed a favorite stuffed toy alongside her in the hole, placed his hand on her chest one last time, then lay the cream-colored blanket on top of her. He said a small prayer, then covered her with the same earth that he had just dug out of the ground.
When he came inside through the basement door, he heard muffled sobs and soothing words, then spotted his wife and teenage daughter hugging in the family room. As they concluded their embrace, his daughter looked at him, red faced, swollen eyed, cheeks wet with tears, her mouth screwed up into a painful, mute grimace. In her grief, all she could say was “Why?” Not so much a question, but an accusation that left him defenseless and feeling as though an arrow had pierced his heart. She then raced upstairs to her room.
He and his wife moved to the couch, where they took up places next to each other, holding hands, silent. Playing through his mind were those last days when he would sit up with the animal through the night, comforting her through the last stages of liver failure, when she had almost no control over her bladder or bowels. Guilt gripped him as he wondered if he had given up on her.
His wife spoke after a long silence—“Did we do the right thing?”
He spoke. “She was suffering.”
To which she replied, “When Dr. Shermer got here, she actually got up and walked to the door. Her tail was wagging.” The last sentence was spoken with bitterness, something close to anger, anger at herself for not asking if the procedure should be called off in light of this encouraging sign.
Her husband comforted her, saying, “Sweetheart, dogs can overcome great pain in their effort to please us. She was suffering. It was hard to see her like that. If we’d put it off we’d have just prolonged her suffering. We’d have been questioning our decision the next day and would have been right back on the phone with Dr. Shermer.”
After a moment, his wife just said, “Life is suffering.”
They were silent for many minutes after that. Then his wife said that the pain of this loss was too much. She said she could not endure the prospect of facing such pain again. She asked him to promise that they would never have pets again, even as she knew she would ask him to break that promise some day.
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