“Miss? Where are you going?”
I darted past the receptionist with my elderly dachshund, Heydog, tucked under my arm like a deflating football. I passed the photographs of obscenely healthy dogs and a placard reading, “Free Puppy Chow,” which you got each time you spent a grand on veterinary care, and which I’d earned twice. I didn’t stop when a second, more authoritative voice joined hers, “Ms. Menlove?” Instead I pushed out the door and into the gray landscape of the Michigan winter, Heydog wheezing in my arms.
The veterinarian had left me alone to say goodbye to her before the euthanasia, this dun dachshund who had been with me since before my diagnoses of lupus and mixed connective tissue disease, the rancor of my parents’ divorce, and my various burnouts in college. Heydog was all that was left of better days, and now she had congestive heart failure, damaged kidneys, and so much pain she had become a biter. A few months earlier she had sectioned my friend’s lip, necessitating plastic surgery, and had since ripped open a mailman’s ankle.
It was time to let her go. And yet in this, the eleventh hour, Heydog had licked my hand and I had caved. Not in this stainless steel tomb, I thought. Not on this table with a drain in it. No way.
So here we were, speeding along a side street, me squinting through tears, she, all ten pounds of her, growling at nothing at all.
It wasn’t that Heydog was ever all that good. But she boasted a certain flare. A Russian friend had spotted her waddling along a freeway outside Detroit. “Hey, dog,” she’d shouted over the whizzing traffic. “Hurry. Get in car!” And Heydog, with all the dignity and speed of a Sunday walker, approached to investigate. Then she hopped into the car and eventually into my life.
She was protective, too. Once, when I was newly sick and relying on (prescribed) pain pills and vodka, I passed out mid-bath, and it was her trout breath as she licked me awake that saved me from a likely drowning. Another time, her barking alerted me to a threatening figure by my car, a sexual predator, it turned out, who later went to prison.
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And now this petite lion-heart did nothing but cough. She coughed all day and night. She hacked and gagged, wheezed and drooled. She was blind and could hardly walk. She soiled herself with red urine. Mornings, as I waited for the coffee pot to yield its first merciful cup, I sensed her rebuke. “What are you going to do about this?” she seemed to ask. How did I know? She was the one who did all the saving.
As I drove now, I reached to touch her. I couldn’t cure her. But I could make her passing more personal, couldn’t I?
That night I reasoned it out between vodka-sodas while she wheezed beside me.
It was necessary to end her suffering. If I wouldn’t let the vet and his capital-punishment needle do it, I had to do it myself. I reasoned that since she was so small, a few of my nighttime pills would allow her to nod off peacefully beside me. I could even read to her. Play music. After three vodkas this sounded good. After four, I sliced open a hotdog and pressed the pills inside. I took one too.
Heydog wolfed it down with no sense of occasion. I settled us on the couch for a last cuddle and a good weep. After a while I dozed off. I dreamed of the time Heydog nipped my mother’s philandering boyfriend, of when she critiqued one of my own boyfriends by defecating between his feet every time he walked in.
I was awoken by a crash.
I started up to find Heydog somehow on her feet, crouching before me. Sensing me awake, she leaped, puppy-young again, twisting at her zenith like a prize fish. I stumbled up, dazed, tremulously reaching for her. She yapped and darted through my feet. She raced back again. Her nails tore carpet. She jumped, wagged, panted, leaped, barked.
“Let’s just calm down,” I said. I did not understand, but I was happy, confused, not a little stoned. Heydog was back! “Heydog!” But she was beyond listening. She had gone somewhere else, somewhere glorious and sunny. She was running races, retrieving phantom tennis balls, nipping enemy shins, tearing apart baby rabbits in the garden, fur flying like dandelion seeds. She was happy and high as hell.
After an hour, Heydog shifted to a different mode. She paced the room, pressing snout and shoulder to the wall as if searching out a weak spot. I followed her round and round, begging for forgiveness. “I thought it was a good idea,” I said. “In the sixties they did it all the time. I read it in a Patricia Highsmith story.”
But on she walked, slogging through some interior landscape, ignoring me. She didn’t seem to be in pain. Would it end soon? What should I do? There were no all-night veterinarians yet in the midwestern city where I lived. I called my mother.
“I tried to kill Heydog.”
“Are you drunk?” my mother asked, her voice thick with sleep.
There are some things you can’t explain to a mother, especially things you don’t understand yourself: the lengths an idiot will go to delay pain, to fetishize death with ceremony (or criminal behavior), and to avoid the simplest, sanest solution in favor of something grandiose and selfish.
“What did you give her?” she asked wearily, after my tearful explanation.
We soon learned that the pill I used, so effective in calming me (and unspecified here as this isn’t a how-to, but a how to not), sometimes had an opposite, though essentially non-toxic effect on dogs: I had dosed my best friend with a kind of puppy amphetamine.
The next day, sober and terribly penitent, I made the journey up US-23 with my 72-year-old-father, who cradled the restored Heydog (wheezing, leaking) on his lap. We drove past Domino’s Farms, with its enormous Christmas display of snowmen and a giant illuminated baby Jesus, to the local Humane Society.
There we lifted Heydog onto the indicated platform. This time there was no going back, no dithering or dramatizing permitted: this veterinarian was firm that there was nothing else he could do. Heydog had run her last race. There would be no waving banners, no pomp and circumstance, just a cold needle and a walk back to the car. My father held my hand.
“You’re doing the right thing,” he said.
Was I? She had grown old and we just… disposed of her?
Heydog didn’t thank me. She didn’t even look at me once the injection was in. Instead she fixed her eyes on the wall and took a forceful step to nowhere. Right out of my life.
The sun was already behind the trees when we reached the parking lot. “She went with dignity,” my father said. He passed me his handkerchief. “I’d like to go as easily, some day.”
As my dad limped around to the driver’s side, I thought of that stray, starving dachshund skittering along a highway, buffeted by wind. A sedan stops. A woman’s urgent voice: “Hey, dog!” And Heydog doesn’t hesitate. She simply jumps. Maybe I could do that too. I could make a leap into my future, into something better. I could survive disease, divorce – even life. Even death.