When the doctor called and explained the bad news – and I started crying then, because of course I did, because it was you – he had one question for me. There was one decision I needed to make about you. For us.
“Should we wake her up?” Because, he said, you would never walk again.
You made me cut my hair, when you were a baby. I had long hair my whole life, down to my hips, long enough to accidentally tuck itself into my jeans when I put them on. I kept it in buns and braids; I remember wowing a college class into silence one day before you were born, when the heat broke and I pulled the sticks out of my hair. They had no idea.
But you saw it as a toy, and me rightly as your playmate, and that one morning I woke with you standing on my back, with my braid clenched firmly in your jaws, and you were shaking, shaking. Wake up. It’s time to go have fun. I cut it, not long after that. I haven’t had it long since. I doubt I will again – I like it better this way.
I want to shout at someone, or at something. I want to scream. I want to throw a chair through a window. I want to break things. I am angry, not at you, never at you, but because this should not have happened to you, because it is wrong that you are gone, and there is nothing I can do to make it right.
I am angry because you shouldn’t be gone. It’s too soon. It’s all wrong. It’s wrong and it will never be right, never be okay, never again.
Close to the end though I didn’t know it – I thought we had time, I thought we had so much more time left – I remember rubbing your neck where the pain was, where the tumor was hiding, and I told you: if I could take the pain out of your body and feel it myself, instead, I would. I suppose I have, because whatever or wherever you are now, you’re not hurting, and I am nothing but pain.
It’s so strange that the tumor hid like that, in your spinal cord; I think the vet said C-23, but I probably misheard, maybe C-two-and-three, maybe that was it instead. That’s the only place it could have escaped my notice. I knew your body better than my own: I knew the little skin-tags on you (left leg, left shoulder, right side over the ribs), I knew how many spots were on your skin underneath the white fur on your chest (eleven, or thirteen, if I counted that one as one or three); I knew where the quicks in your black claws were; I knew the texture of the scarred skin at the docked end of your tail. I knew that one spot on your right cheek, where no fur grew in a pinprick circle, was because one day as a puppy you had something sticky in the fur there, and I tried to pick it out, but I tore the individual hairs with it, and it never grew back. I knew where the scars were on your belly from that mysterious puncture wound; where your navel was; where the extra nipples were (left armpit, ish); the weird rippling fur texture along your right shoulder; I knew the marks where your dewclaws had been removed. I knew, as the woman who bred you had said, precisely how “her butt pops out a little right before she goes.” I knew exactly how your snub face fit against mine when I kissed your forehead. I knew those weird growths in your mouth, extra flesh on your gums like a goldfish’s wen, that came and went. I knew all of this because that was my job, that was one of my parts of our partnership, to keep track of you so that I could take care of you.
If the tumor had been in any other part of your body, I would have found it.
When you were a baby – and it only happened once, that I saw – you managed to catch your own ear in your mouth. Writing this I do not remember which ear it was. I remember rubbing your ears, constantly, compulsively – rolling the flesh between my fingers, never harsh, just because my hands need something to do and your head was so often pressed into them. I never considered cropping them. I couldn’t do that to you.
“So what I need to ask you is, do we wake her up?” I don’t know if I made the right decision. I didn’t want our last memories of each other to be you watching me watching you, as they wheeled you away into the back, after I kissed your face and for once in your life you didn’t tongue-smack me in return. You were so tired, so tired. So hurt. I think you knew it was the end, but I didn’t. I told them to wake you up, and I listened while the doctor told me you might be sedated and disoriented, and I said that was okay.
When I got there, when I sat down in that kennel with you and I called your name, clicked my tongue against my teeth, you glanced up at me. You still knew me, I think; you still knew enough to respond to me. I don’t know if that makes things better or worse.
You were breathing heavily, from pain or sedation or both. You had a catheter in you, and an IV in your right foreleg; you were covered with a ballooning blanket that had hot air pumped into it to keep you warm. You had a shaved square on your lower back, I assume where they had done the spinal tap. I had to look under the hot blanket to see these things; I had to reach down into darkness to pet your side, your belly, your back. Your tongue, which usually hung out of the left side of your mouth, hung out the right instead. There were no licks, no kisses. Breathing was hard and hot and heavy, and you were limp, though your eyes met with mine when I called your name.
“Their momma broke her puppy teeth, chewing on her crate,” said the woman who owned your parents, who caused them to make you happen. “So her tongue hangs out the left side like that, even after her grownup teeth came in.” Yours did too, and I thought that was so funny, that you took after your mother that way, even though you never broke a tooth.
I remember when your milk teeth fell out, you would grab a toy, and try to shake it, and it would go flying because both of your top canines had fallen out at once and you couldn’t get a good grasp on things. That was so funny. So many things you did were funny. You loved it when I laughed; you’d wag so hard that the entire back half of you shook, and you’d lick whatever you could reach, and sometimes you’d bark or yodel or whine, and your mouth would fall open in a dog-smile.
It feels like there’s an empty space inside me, like I left a piece of myself on the floor of that kennel with your body. I hope you kept it with you, wherever you’ve gone. It’s yours. That part of me is for you. It is you.
You sucked at fetch, and at catch, and thought retrieval was beneath you. We played a game that was not unlike Calvinball, or OMG THROW THE STICK, and I’d go outside barefoot in the back yard and kick around a shredded soccer ball for you. You liked to chase. I’d say Immagitchoo and you’d dodge off in the other direction, lightning-quick; you could turn on a dime and leap six feet without a thought. You were all muscle and bone and tongue. You liked it when I hid behind the a/c heat pump, or in the bushes, and you had to look around to find me; you wagged and panted so happily when you did, like it was the best, funniest trick ever. I’d stomp through the house with my arms waving above my head, making grr-rargh monster noises, and you’d run off, only to turn and chase me once I retreated, and then I’d monster-growl at you again and you’d rear up and swat my knees with your forefeet: do it again, you’re so funny.
You weren’t my first dog. You knew my other dogs; they were all there when you arrived, and you watched them go one by one. You were my first puppy, and my first purebred dog, my first pup chosen from a litter. My first Boxer. I’d always wanted one, and I got you, and what I got was better than I ever could have imagined. You were the first dog that was entirely mine. I could swat a bug over your head and you didn’t flinch, because you never learned to fear an upraised hand.
I sat down on the floor of that kennel with you and I pulled your unresisting head onto my leg, because that’s what you did, you’d put your head on my leg for comfort, or to get my attention. Because that gesture was uniquely yours, of all the dogs I’ve ever known, and I wanted it one last time, the weight of your head on my leg. You panted heavily and drooled and soaked through my jeans to my skin. It was the last time you’d slobber on me, and I knew it, and I remembered all the times I’d gotten annoyed and told you to stop it, and I regretted every one. All those times you’d fill your mud-flap flews with water, after having a good drink, then come wipe your chin clean on my jeans. It left such funny spots: this blob was the left lip, this was the right.
You liked car rides. When you were a baby, I had a small two-door car; I’d taught the other dogs to jump through the front into the back, or squeeze through the space between the front seat and the car’s wall. You didn’t like that. You wanted to sit shotgun, you wanted to be up front with me. And I allowed it, because I loved you, and I’d think “Dog is my copilot” and smile to myself, and I’d drive with one hand on the wheel and the other petting your head or your neck or your back. I bought you a seatbelt so that you could ride shotgun safely. People stared, smiled, waved. I would pet your head and smile back.
The top of your head was so soft, velvety fur on loose skin, and when I wrapped myself around you before they gave you the shot to end your life, I rubbed my left hand against that fur, and I focused on it because I want to remember that feeling as long as I can, the feel of your head under my hand.
I had to tell them to do it, to kill you. They didn’t put it that way, of course; there are words like euthanasia and putting to sleep to make it sound easier, to make it sound humane, to make it sound like a good thing. And maybe it is, or was, for you. But the truth of the matter is that you were alive and would have stayed alive, albeit a half-life, a hurting confined motionless life, until I told them to do the thing to kill you. I didn’t give you the shot, but I told them to do it; I might as well have done it. I told them to kill you. I can only take comfort in the knowledge that I did everything else that possibly could be done, first, to keep from having to do that to you.
I counted it up, in the last week of your life; if you count the halves of pills individually, I was cramming seventeen objects down your throat every day. Prednisone, AM and PM. Tramadol, methocarbamol, guy.. guyabera, guanacaste, whatever, all of those three times a day, one point five tabs for the first two. I didn’t wrap them in bread or treats. It was easy, and I’m almost embarrassed I only figured it out during this last part of your life, that was all pills: it was so easy to hook my left forefinger behind your right top canine tooth, and press down on your undershot jaw with my thumb, and your mouth would pop open so I could tip the pills past your tongue and into your throat. I wrote it all down, in a little notebook, the meds and times, every day, so I wouldn’t forget. I missed a few doses, but not many. I wrote them all down every day for two months.
I am not quite sure what to do with myself now that you don’t need me anymore.
When you could still walk, during the early parts of it, I took you outside and walked with you on leash, with the leash clipped to your seatbelt because that was the only harness I had and I didn’t want to hurt your neck, so you could relieve yourself. I had you on the leash because the early vets who didn’t know it was a tumor told me to keep you as quiet as possible. “You do realize we’re talking about a Boxer,” I think I said to one of them, at some point. Then walking got harder, and I would lift you up: one hand under the wasp-waist end of your belly, the other under your deep chest, and hoist you up to be at a level with my own chest, and carry you outside: to the deck, at first, and then helping you walk down the stairs; later, I’d go down the stairs with you, and put you on the ground. Sometimes you walked back to bed on your own power. Sometimes not. Sometimes you climbed into my bed from your bed on the floor.
I don’t remember what the last night was that I slept with you pressed against my leg, shoving me for space as always. I wish I knew; I don’t wish I knew. I remember you waking me up, so many times: as soon as I made a sound, as soon as my breathing changed, you knew I was awake and there was no time to lose, because there was an Outside outside, and territorial peeing to do, and squirrels to chase, and food to eat. You’d roll onto me, with your noisy snorting face in my face, or pressed into my ear, madly licking my neck or my eyes or my hair, until I got up. And then you’d stand on the bed and brace, and I’d push against you as I stood up, because I keep my bed low on the ground so that it is easy for dogs to come and go.
For the last week, when you couldn’t walk, when you could barely lift your head, I would feed you in handfuls, one at a time until you ate it all. You never nipped or bit, never even chanced it, because I’d taught you how to be careful with your teeth, how to avoid human skin, and because of that it was easy to feed you, to medicate you. I would lift you and brace you against me, in a sad reversal, so that you could drink from the bowl yourself. Sometimes that hurt. Sometimes it didn’t. I would press on your bladder to get you to urinate, catching as much of it as I could in a plastic coffee tin, which was dumped into the toilet, rinsed with soap, and left in the bathroom until I needed it again. I’d change out the pee-pads under you, and collect the feces you tried not to leave, and swab you down with baby wipes if you needed it. Every time once you were cleaned up you looked like you felt better, and I’d pet you and talk to you, sing sometimes, encourage you.
You liked my singing. You were weird like that. I have a voice only a dog could love. I would sing to you all the time: in the car, in the bath, while we were outside, while we were snuggled in bed, and you’d wag your body and lick me, because you liked it when I sang to you. And I did, Beatles and Zeppelin and Spearhead and the St James Infirmary Blues, because I can’t help but sing to a dog who loves me.
After it was all done, and the vet apologized and left, I stayed and kept petting you, because I knew I never would again, and my hands were fearing the emptiness that was coming. The tech who had kissed you so much that day — “Every time I gave her a kiss I’d say, that’s from your mama,” she said — got a piece of clay, and we pressed your lifeless paw into it so that I would have your pawprint. A piece of you. I asked for the right paw, because it was the left that was the first sign of trouble, the left foot that knuckled and dragged and failed you. I didn’t want to remember you by that paw.
I taught you how to shake with one paw, and then the other, and though I gave you specific words for each — “shake” for your right, “paw” for your left — you got it hopelessly muddled and never did untangle it. Offer one paw, then the other, then the first, because you knew I wanted one of them.
I do not regret a single bit of it: the meetings and appointments and hanging-out I canceled; the people and things I didn’t see; I don’t care that I missed protesting at a convention; you had been there every time I needed you for my whole life, and I could do no less than to be there for you and with you, do everything you needed, keep you comfortable, keep you company, take you to the vets, give you the food and medicine, clean your body, rub the muscles under the thick loose skin of your neck, over that fucking fucking tumor, until the spasms stopped and you’d relax, and wag your little nub tail at me to show that I had done something right. I did it all willingly, and I never got angry or frustrated, I was only ever patient to you, and I am glad that I could do that. I would have regretted it if I hadn’t.
I don’t know if there was wagging at the end; you were covered by that blanket, to warm you. I know they kept coming back and asking if I was ready yet, or if I needed more time: what they were asking was if I was ready for them to kill you. I kept saying no, and they told me to take as long as they needed, and they went away — and that other woman came in and took the pictures of us, I wonder if she’ll send them to me — and I kept saying, I’m not ready yet. I need more time.
I needed much more time. I needed years. You were eight. You would have turned nine next Wednesday, four days from now. You were only eight years old.
When I brought you to the hospital that morning I was cheerful: we had managed to land the best damned animal neurologist in the state, and he was confident about how everything would go, and that confidence had infected me. I wonder if you felt it. I was scared underneath, of course, but I tried not to be. You probably saw it anyway. It was all planned out: a CT scan, then the surgery, because we thought there was a problem with a disc between the vertebrae in your neck; after that you were to be in ICU for one day, then general observation for two, and I would have collected you and taken you home on Sunday.
I was going to bring you home tomorrow. That’s what should have happened.
When the vet called, it was late enough after the last time I’d called to check on you that I thought he was calling me to let me know everything was done and you were quietly healing. I really thought you’d be okay. I didn’t expect to hear what he told me. He didn’t expect it either. He did as many tests as he could, but there was a tumor in your spinal cord, hidden inside the bones in your neck, and there is nothing that can be done about something like that.
“Do you want us to wake her up?”
When I finally told them to go ahead, to do it, to kill you, I wasn’t ready for it. It was clear somehow that I never would be ready, and in light of that, they might as well go ahead, now was as good a time as any. You were so out of it. I don’t know if that was pain or sedative; I hope it wasn’t pain. You looked up at me when I called your name, your eyes met mine. I know the vet clambered into the kennel, behind and over the two of us: I know he told me what to expect. I pressed my face against your face and told him to go ahead. I didn’t want to know when it would happen, exactly; I didn’t want to know when the needles emptied. I didn’t want to anticipate the stilling of your body. I wanted to share the suddenness with you.
“She can still hear you,” said the woman who brought me water and tissues, who told me to take as much time as I needed, who pressed your paw into the clay for a print I could keep. “Keep talking to her, she can still hear you.” I did, until you were gone.
I love you I love you I’m sorry I’m so sorry Riley I’m sorry I love you I’m so sorry. I love you. You come back someday, you come back to me somehow. I love you. I’m sorry. I love you.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. It’s all wrong, and it will never be right. You shouldn’t be gone. We should have had years left. I did everything I possibly could, because you deserved it all, because after you gave me your life, cleaning you and carrying you and feeding you was so very little in return. Giving you that two months was the least of what you deserved in return for what you gave me. My wrist and back hurt from carrying you around, and I didn’t care; I spent hours on the phone with vets and pharmacies and I didn’t care; I staggered across the house, sweating and panting, after carrying you in and out during the hottest parts of swampy Floridian August, and I didn’t care. You earned it all.
I finally hauled myself to my feet, pulled my sweater back on, and that woman who was so sweet, who told me to keep talking, looked pretty shredded herself, and I told her: “You need a hug,” and she clung, so hard. She put your pawprint in a padded envelope, and told me how to bake it in the oven later. Some more people already had the gurney waiting, I suppose to move you to…. wherever… and I ran back for the box of tissues, and then I left that place. I didn’t look back because I knew what I was leaving behind: you, and the piece of me that you took with you.
People keep telling me, as though to comfort me, that now you’re not in pain anymore. Of course not, because now you’re dead. It must have been so bad, the pain you felt from that monstrous tumor inside the swollen cord of nerves in your spine, because you were such a stoic dog, it must have been so very bad to leave you incapable of walking, of lifting your head. I told them to do it, and now there is no more pain for you, and so much pain for me. So I kept my word, I suppose; I took the pain from your body into what is left of my self, whatever that is without the pieces that were you.
There aren’t many things I believe in anymore; if there is an interventionist god then he or she or it and I are no longer on speaking terms, certainly not after I had to tell the vet to kill you. But I still believe in reincarnation, for some crazy reason, and I mean what I said to you when they killed you on my order, when you left me, when you finally stopped feeling that pain.
I’m so sorry, Riley. I love you. Come back someday. I love you. I’m sorry. I love you.