Yesterday I came home from my parents’ house in New York; I went to take the dog to the vet to be put to sleep. It would be an understatement to say that I am a wreck, my mother is a wreck, my father is a wreck. We are the Wreckorians.
Winston was an English setter, and fifteen, barely two months away from sixteen. He was in bad shape. He could neither see nor hear nor walk properly, let alone consistently make it outside to pee. He had testicular cancer and probably prostate cancer, his body was covered with little growths, his hair was falling out, and his eyelids were droopy and rimmed in red and overflowing with something that looked like snot, or slugs. He hadn’t eaten in days. He couldn’t poop. He lost a pound in less than a week, which is a dream for people and dangerous for dogs.
Logically, I know that putting him to sleep was the right thing to do, but my God, was it indescribably awful. It’s impossible to prepare for. Lately I seem to be encountering a slew of dead pet stories, most notably “My Dog Days Are Over” by Doree Shafrir and “We Were Kittens Once, and Young” by Anna Holmes, both from The New York Times. Both are well-written, but neither braced me for what was coming.
No one tells you how quickly a body can go cold, for example, or that a euthanized dog both looks and doesn’t look alive, and that your brain will have a hard time coping with that. No one tells you that when it is over you will stare at your dog’s abdomen like you have so many times for the past few years, waiting for the drop-and-fall of his breathing, because even though you know it won’t happen part of you is convinced that it will. No one tells you that you won’t listen for his nails against the hardwood floor when you go back to the house. No one tells you how quickly you will fall asleep that night, or how hungry you will be that day, or how guilty you will feel for both. No one tells you your father won’t stop talking about it with you, or that the two of you will often start crying for no reason even though you’re both supposed to be tough, or that neither of you will be capable of driving. No one tells you that a sunny day is best for something like this because that way you will feel justified for wearing your oversized sunglasses and using them to hide your face while your tiny mother directs an embarrassingly-large SUV towards the vet’s.
Winston was a great dog, but at the same time, he was a terrible dog. He couldn’t walk on a leash, he jumped all over anyone who walked in the house, he begged at mealtimes as though he had never been fed before. He rested his head on your thigh while you ate, leaving a damp horseshoe of drool behind when he moved on to the next thigh under the table. He nudged your arm with his nose during dinner if he wanted your food, he nudged your arm with his nose while you read a book if he wanted to be petted, he nudged your arm with his nose while you did your algebra homework if he wanted to play. He darted out the front door if you didn’t close it fast enough, then ran ran ran down the street and into strangers’ gardens.
He knew exactly when I would come home from high school, and waited behind the fence for me. Once the bus got me home early and so I spied on him while he sat with perfect posture on the other side of the yard, facing the driveway intently. Not even a squirrel could distract him. Only when I whistled did Winston bound across the lawn towards me, barking.
He loved salami, and eating honeybees, and the spongy insides of bell peppers. He was particularly fond of vanilla ice cream, so much so that he would huff at my father and sit next to the freezer when he wanted some. The only way anyone could eat dried mangoes in the house was by sharing half the bag. Cucumber peels were another favorite, and Honey Nut Cheerios.
Winston’s first winter was a doozy — foot after foot of snow hidden under inches of ice. We spent hours digging tunnels in the backyard for him to run through; the sides were so tall we couldn’t even see his feathery tail over the tops, in spite of how high he happily held it. He barreled through the walls sometimes, lunging through the snow like a swimmer doing the butterfly. At one point he slipped on the ice and slid full force into the house. He yelped, and did it again. Then he ran on top of the frozen swimming pool, eating snow.
I don’t know what he liked more, plowing through the snow or swimming. We taught him to climb up the ladder out of the water on his own; even though my parents had a separate fence put in around the pool, Winston figured out how to open the gate. Sometimes we came home to a wet dog, his white hair bleached brighter than bright by the chlorine. As soon as we removed his collar he raced around the pool, deciding from which side to jump in. If we were swimming, he swam alongside us, using his tail as a rudder.
I can’t believe I’m doing this, my father said to me. He held Winston’s head in his hands. I don’t know if this is the right thing.
I thought I’d be able to stay in the room while the vet gave Winston a series of injections — This one will make him woozy — but as the vet inserted the first needle, Winston yelped just as he had as a puppy when he couldn’t get any traction on the hardwood floor and skidded into a mirror. Then, as the needle slid out of his skin, a drop of blood swelled at the injection site into a globule that the vet tech accidentally smeared across the length of Winston’s back amidst the few bald patches he had there. That’s when I realized I wouldn’t be able stay, so I rubbed his ears and kissed the pointed top of his head and sat in the waiting room next to my mom, as an African Grey Parrot looked at us with a yellow eye.
Keith didn’t understand why I had to go home for this, and the best I explanation I could give was this: I held Winston in my hands when we first brought him home as a puppy, and I slept next to him in a sleeping bag on the floor his first few nights in our house, and until I went away to college it was me he ran to. I had been there in the beginning, and even though I had missed so very much of the middle, I had to be there in the end.
Ask me why I want Winston back so badly and why I miss him so much and I’ll say, Why do peaches make me happy? Why do I like the feeling of grass beneath my bare feet? Why do I enjoy lying in bed with Keith, looking at the ceiling on a sunny weekend morning?
These things are lovely and simple and they’re what makes living so special sometimes. We don’t need fancy cuisine or extravagant trips to feel alive. We need comfort, and love, and the feeling of warmth on our skin. And I got all that from a dog.