Friday, March 18, 2011

Let us now praise famous wo/men

We debated waiting until after school to bring Vargas to the vet, pondering how disruptive the weight of what was happening during the day might be on each girl, but then, if it was looming at the far end of the school day, I doubt there'd be much release or relief in school work. The prospect of bringing them along to the vet was entertained then jettisoned. I think they'd have handled it well, but if it didn't go well, I don't think that's really fair, or helpful, perhaps. So they went to school, having pet and kissed Vargas goodbye (and, of course, later, it wasn't enough time to say a full goodbye, wasn't sufficient breadth of parting: sorry, my dears, it never is, it never is), and I returned home to do meaningless tasks, spilling time until it was time to stop her time. Poor dog, unknowing. But then, we are all poor dogs, unknowing.

I gave her a final walk, half hoping she'd have bounce enough in her step to dissuade me, then half-hoping she'd teeter and sway, reinforcing my decision. She did both, and neither. Once she got a head of steam, she could lope-limp along nicely for ten feet or so. At rest, or moving slowly, she tottered and swayed. The rear legs were shaking and straining--not failing, quite; not yet failing, but coming closer. We made it four houses before turning around. It was time.

The vet is undergoing some renovations, so there's a tiny all-purpose room for entry, exit, waiting, paying, with persistent construction clanging and whirring on the other side of the drywall. They'd been evacuated yesterday during the gas leak, so they were running behind. I sat down and there was a guy with a nice husky sitting across from me. I pondered: I got Vargas when Watt was decrepit & starting his decline. She'd been young and perky when his legs were failing. I'd brought him to the vet and, stopping at the dog park for a private moment, had seen a young, vigorous husky, and that had helped reassure myself that I'd done right by old Watt. Now, eight-plus years later, here I was with Vargas, and here was a strong, proud equally blue-eyed husky. It could be an omen, if one were looking for augury and cosmic conversation. Was it a good omen or a bad omen?
We started chatting, the guy and I, about huskies. While we talked, I kept Vargas still on a piece of carpet. He asked what was the matter with her leg, then extended his well wishes for her recovery. I thanked him.

At that point, I wondered if perhaps the vet should reconsider this waiting room arrangement. I'm not the most sentimental person, and I'm pretty sure I'm not the most emotionally jacked person to bring a dog to be put down, but I was feeling a bit odd sitting there: for me, I had that strange and perverse impulse to apologize to the husky dude, and the malamute-heeler mix gal when she sat beside us, for bringing the specter of death into the (cramped & construction dusty) room. However, I could have in all right begun wailing and sobbing, making a grief circle in the dusty floor, and they would have felt horrible--and worried the death curse might be contagious, and they'd pull their dogs away from Vargas. Just in case...

But I felt all right about the decision and had no need for their generalized sympathies or concern, so we chatted away amiably about dog stuff (living dog stuff). Until the receptionist asked if I wanted to keep her ashes. And then the other two got quiet and looked a bit pale. Fine, it's part of life, this dying thing. And it sucks, and it's what happens, one way or another. Generally, it's the other ways... They got me into a room eventually, and I squatted beside Vargas on the floor, stroking her gorgeous head and her much diminished flanks. She'd lost ten pounds in the past month, even without any activity and more-generous feeding. The doc came in, after more than a little time. As I said, they were interrupted by yesterday's fireball, and I wasn't distraught, but it felt like a goodly amount of time to be sitting awaiting the executioner's sing-song greeting. He came in, we talked about what I'd noted in her decline; he looked at her even briefly and nodded. Last month, he'd felt she was doing all right. Now, the decline was clear. He bent and stroked her, cursorily examined her, prepared the tourniquet, and brought in the big pink-liquid-filled syringe.
She was tired out from her walk and lay on her side. He secured the tie-off, poked a couple times before getting good access with the needle. He looked at me and said it would start. I stroked her and said goodbye, told her to take care, and I thanked her. He pushed in the liquid. I could feel her breathing slow, slow more, then she was still. Like that, she was gone. He took his stethoscope and listened for a few secs before pronouncing her. Which seemed strange, or redundant. But that's the biz. I kept my hand on her, stroking still or resting it on her head. She was gone.

The stillness is what gets me. Perhaps it's the void where someone's life-energy is. Soul, life force, spirit--whatever you wish to call it. I told the doc that it's always a strange feeling to declare someone dead at work. We rush into a room, find life interrupted--by seconds or days--and make it official. There's always the mind-trick, where we think we see a movement. Our impulse is for life, is to live, is to believe people are alive. Being the arbiter of existence, even so tangentially, is strange. I always expect the deceased to twitch, or sit up. The stubborn bastards... But they don't. They're dead.

Vargas' electrical circuits were winding down, a twitch here, a toe flick there, but she was gone. As we stood there, watching her and talking about death, I remembered the Belbers had a horrible at-home experience with Abby, their old Corgi. Bring enough juice to do it the first time, if you're going to do it.

The doc had things to do. He expressed a genuine condolence--a good spirited, friendly lug like Vargas is a sweet thing--then told me to take my time before leaving. I knelt again, stroked her a bit more, and said goodbye. I scrunched down and gave her a kiss, and whispered thanks.

The all-purpose room was empty, so I poked my head back into their work space. The receptionist was startled, then worried I was bereft. I smiled and told her I just wanted to say thanks, and added they might want to consider a separated waiting room, as I hadn't wanted to bum out the others. She said that's what the construction was for, to provide a private side for bereavements and a separate exit. Have a good weekend, I said, and left, the useless leash wrapped around my fist.

I got home, did some cleaning--brought her stinky bed downstairs, scrubbed a bit of the floor, scraped the flaky caked drool from the chair we couldn't use lest she climb up and destroy it w/ her funk and claws. I went about my day, then picked up Harper from school. We talked about it as we drove home. In the rearview, I watched her eyes swell and spill, but/and we kept talking about what it was like as she (Vargas) drifted away. Once home, the poor kid erupted. She sat in my lap and cried for half an hour or so. Then we talked about other things and she got a snack. We've had three other dogs during V's tenure, four counting Watt, and she was the only one whom Harper didn't perceive as a physical threat--being the smallest is a pain. Even though Shrike was more dynamic (! to say the least) and actively loving, he was an overzealous menace. django was bully and Lux was tiny then. Even little Moby is a spazz and Harps is the only one who moves when he slams her, so that's his game and her headache. Even the cat picks on her. So, Vargas the stolid, slow, lumbering, lazy, loving: that was gold for Lux.
I've appreciated all the condolences and well-wishes folks have sent today. I appreciated Vargas, even as I didn't particularly enjoy her. I am grateful that, through her, I stumbled into dog training and met all the amazing people I've met in past seven or eight years. Funny how that works. Bad clicker training for a dog that had no drive for toys, tugs, or treats: I end up in Hudson, Wisc., meet the Vyatkins, then Mark K, then Cat, then all the Red Star crew, then Michael E, and so it went, like dominos or a phone tree... For that, I'm deeply appreciative.

For the record, I didn't have her stuffed.


  1. Thanks, Ray, but, really, her race was run. The only thing left was a bad fall to 'justify' it was time; why make her suffer to assuage our hesitations?

    We're having a memorial service tomorrow night. Family only. No press.