Tuesday, June 5, 2012

No Such Thing as the Death Fairie

This is older but the song remains the same...

Killing My Dog  

Several years ago I took a community creative-writing class. It was swell, largely innocuous, a gaggle of adults who had the time and money to sit in a room discussing stories they’d written about themselves. The first meeting the instructor apologized for being a bit distracted; she informed us she was struggling with a serious personal crisis. Her dog was sick. A pall fell over the room. We were empathetic and respectful of her possible loss. We were writers, after all. The specter of sick-dog trumped everything and we all mourned, uncritically. In subsequent weekly meetings, class discussion circled back to her dog. Always. Before class, during the break, afterwards: One or two people would hover and bend her ear with their sympathies–which flowed seamlessly, and quickly, into their own personal sick-dog stories.
Everyone, it seemed, had lost a faithful companion. Here was a universal theme.
The class became less about writing than about communal canine grief. No matter the topic of discussion, the mention of a dog crisis, or the sentimentally righteous testament to the unassailable Truth about Noble Dog, and literary merit be damned. We had a circle of nodding, knowing heads filled with love for man’s best friend. 
Now, I’ve had dogs all my life. Likely I’ll force dogs on my family forever. I love dogs, prefer them to most people. But I had some issues with the class: Hey, what about Writing? The word dog isn’t a substitute for critical thought or feeling.  Spending seven grand to replace an eight-year-old beagle’s hips is NOT a given, not in my world. I felt like Scrooge, or a seal-stomper. Parading the images of dead, sick, or suffering dogs around a room does NOT make one more compassionate, nor a better writer. 
My objections had plural roots, the first of which was my childhood dog. She was a great, sweet, goofy, wholly untrained Golden retriever, the first to make it more than a year with us. Our first three or four met untimely ends before Holly, who arrived when I was in seventh grade. She lived fourteen years, but she should have gone at twelve. My family loved her too much to end her misery. Nothing complicated: We couldn’t bear to be the instrument of her death, so she struggled on, limping, wasting–suffering. It takes a deliberate mental jump to collectively ignore the sick dog in the living room. She fell at twelve, breaking her leg. Yet instead of ending it then, mercifully, in the vet emergency clinic, we spent hundreds of dollars to ‘save’ a dog who dragged herself around for another nine months. Embarrassing. And by the end, when we could accept it was time, the painful truth was that it was far past time. More embarrassing. 
I swore I’d never be so lovingly blind again–not for a dog, not for a person.
Another issue I had with the uncritical support group was that I’m a Minneapolis firefighter and EMT. Most every shift for the past twelve years, I’ve seen, heard, touched, and smelled the undeniable truth of life’s end. Death. Not only death: dying. My job–the human suffering and loss I encounter and must deal withclarifies my perspective on life and death. Thrust suddenly into the ghastly or tragic or absurd points on the spectrum of human experience, we do what we can, absorbing the victims’ or the survivors’ grief, fear, and pain. Then we leave and wait for the next call. 
It’s a great job, an honor, but it changes how one views the world.
My first day in the stations, early summer of 2000, I was a wreck. More nervous about fitting in than the emergencies to come, to be honest, I sat at the table listening to the coarse rhythms of station banter. I leaped into a conversation about dogs. A safe topic, men and their dogs. We commiserated with a guy whose prize lab pup had gotten plowed by a three-quarter-ton pickup out in North Dakota. Though my dog wasn’t trained to chase buck-shot fowl, Watt was a husky, macho and impervious to the elements. So, dogs. The guy and another firefighter had been scouting for the upcoming bird season. Three dogs in the back of the truck, two guys chewing Skoal and telling tired jokes. The pup had bolted. Smushed right in front of dogs and men. 
‘Sad,’ we said. ‘That really sucks.’
The guy shrugged. ‘Would of been a good bird dog, dumb son of a bitch.’ He shook his head. ‘Then Lucky got cancer. Had to put her down, too. Just got back last night.’
More commiseration. ‘Two in a month. Fucking sucks.’
‘Yeah. Kids won’t stop crying. The wife’s upset, too, like it’s my fault or something.’
I asked about the older dog, how old she’d been. Lucky was only six. Watt’s ten, I said. I dreaded the day he got ill. The guy shrugged again; he said his dog took it pretty okay.
‘The ride to the vet?’ I asked. ‘Watt hates the damn vet. Gotta beat him into the truck to get him there.’
He stared at me a moment. ‘No, the whole thing. We were up to the cabin, I took her for a walk along the lake. I knew which clearing I wanted, back from the shore and any kids playing.’ He chuckled to himself. ‘She took it easy on me.’
My turn to stare. ‘How so?’
‘Didn’t look back. She sat, I stroked her head a couple times, then that was it. I had the pistol under my shirt. Luck didn’t turn around. If she had, one look and I’d have shot myself.’ He stared through me, his face tight. ‘One shot, down she went.’
Everyone murmured firefighter’s version of condolences:  ‘She was a good dog.’ 
‘That sucks.’
‘Well, too bad.’ 
‘Always hard.’ A pause. ‘So, who’s cooking dinner?’
‘That’s you, Rookie. Better be good.’
Dinner. My next biggest fear: Cooking for this devoutly meat-and-potatoes crew. A grown man with a college degree and a decade working as a professional, I was keenly aware that at this job, one fits in, or one doesn’t. It mattered what these folks thought of me. Not that the crew would let me die in a fire, butthe shifts are long. A hostile crew could make life hard. Yet all I could think was, ‘Oh, I see. They shoot their dogs here. We shoot our dogs.’ 
It wasn’t the time to debate arms control or my fervent opposition to the NRA. These guys owned guns. They used guns. They shot, cleaned, and ate animals. I shopped at the organic market. They put their pistol to their dog’s head and ‘put him down clean.’ My family had ignored our dog’s misery while waiting for the Death Fairy to come in the night and leave a puppy on the hearth. 
This was a new world for me. I sipped my coffee and tried imagining shooting Watt. And because it’s the fire department, without missing a beat someone built on this story, ‘Better than what happened to Smith.’
‘Same deal. Old dog, deaf and half-blind, couldn’t drag itself to piss. The bastard finally admits it’s time, takes him out to the woods. They stop and right as he puts the barrel against the dog’s head, the damn dog turns and looks at him. Smitty starts to bawl. He pulls the trigger, Bang! but he just wounds it. Dog goes screaming through the bushes. Smitty has to chase it down. Fat fuck nearly had a coronary. So he catches the dog, it’s a bloody mess.’ The guy paused, snorted, ‘He was so gassed from the chase, he ended up shooting three more times to kill that poor mutt.’
People chuckled and cursed Smitty’s bad aim and Bud’s worse luck. I nodded again, half-wondering who in the room was armed. I decided it wasn’t the best time to mention I was a vegetarian.
Three years later, I’d survived rookie probation and landed with a good crew in a bad area. Poverty, ignorance, despair make for hard living; violence is generally the first resort. The majority of our calls were ugly. Seeing the dregs and dross, the endless despair, I came home hungry for my family–I cherished my wife and daughters. We’d adjusted to the schedule. Life went along, busy but good. Except, my dog was failing. 
I bought Watt from a sled-dog guy in the backwoods of Colorado. I was living there while looking for teaching jobs. Got a sled dog, then promptly moved to Chattanooga, TN. Not much dog sledding in the Bible Belt. I was twenty-three and trying to get my life together. The name is from a Beckett novel and the bass player from the Minutemen–not Reagan’s toady. The dog ran me ragged while I got sober and became either my new self or just my better self. Tennessee was hot, and full of ticks and fleas. And poison ivy. And snakes. We survived, though, and I moved to Minneapolis largely to make it up to him. Watt certainly thrived in snow and sub-freezing temperatures–which meant I did too (sort of).
A gloriously stubborn prick for 13 years, there was no reason to expect him to go peacefully, in his sleep. He couldn’t reliably manage the stairs. His life was limited to lying on a rug near the door, lying in the dirt outside, eating, sleeping, waiting. He could walk up the block, but much more and his hindquarters would fail him.
I worried that, despite my vows after Holly’s death, I’d become one of those people, the desperate dog people who refuse to admit Time has claimed Fido. We’re so adept at rationalizing, at denying what’s right before our eyes, limping and sighing along. ‘Oh, he’s just tired today...’ Those people who construct sleds, carts, and hoists, dragging the all-but-deceased canine around, steely in their grim determination to stave off death. Dropping thousands on supplements, homeopathic remedies, holistic massage, Chinese herbs, crystals, steroids, amphetamines, voodoo–anything to keep the dog going. ‘I owe it to him,’ they say. ‘Seven grand is nothing if it gets us another year.’
These people love their dogs–without question. But that love and its blinding sentimentality can overwhelm humans’ humane logic. The more technology advances, the more distorted our understanding of–our connection to–the natural process. Buying a pet is not an obligation that supercedes the bounds of nature.
Watching the old boy totter across the yard, I told Annie it was time. Meaning, we had to admit Watt was close to dying; meaning, we had to prepare to put him down. Annie found the concept–putting him down, deciding it was ‘time’–disturbing. ‘It seems cold,’ she said. ‘Heartless. How can we just decide when he should die?’ 
I shrugged. 
‘Well, what if we weren’t around?’ She stroked his head. ‘In the wild, what would happen?’
I pointed at him, splayed on the ground. ‘He’d get eaten.’ 
She frowned, ‘Or left for dead. Starving would suck.’
She couldn’t lift Watt alone. If he went down hard while I was working–what then? He’d shriek in agony, lolling on a failed haunch until Annie could find a neighbor to help hoist him. But what about the girls, she couldn’t leave them alone to run for help. How could she get howling dog and terrified kids all the way to the vet? What could the dog, or Annie, endure? What about our daughters?
Talking over this scenario that night, and I muttered, ‘I’d strangle him. End it fast.’ 
Annie looked at me. ‘You’re joking, right?’
‘Well–’ I shrugged. ‘What else?’
‘He’s your dog. After so many years...’ She frowned, tracing an idea in the air. ‘The last thing he’d know or feel would be you–his beloved master–choking him to death. That’s just horrible.’
‘If his leg’s snapped, or his back, he won’t know a thing. It’ll be the most awful, the most gruesome noise imaginable. What’s better for him: ending his suffering fast or driving all the way to the vet, him insane in pain and fear, just so they can stab him with the fatal needle?’ At work, I’ve held people’s hands as they take their last breaths. Natural causes, where they drift away, and trauma cases, where their life blood literally drains away. I stroked his head. ‘If he’s that hurt, broken-hurt, he won’t know anything, only pain.’
Hmmm. We were in ugly-truth territory. I got a “just how well do I know this person sharing my bed?” look from Annie. We left it unresolved; I promised not to garrote anyone overnight.
How could I kill a dog that wasn’t obviously suffering? Euphemisms abound, but they are weak: put down, assist to die, mercy-kill. I was waiting for the catastrophe that would justify the needle–the final accident that rendered permissible, necessary, the ending of his life. That galled me. Needing a near-fatal fall to justify putting him down, so I could call myself humane. Watt himself was the final reason I objected so strongly to the class mantra of Holy Dog. Watt: I’d raised him by myself and traveled the country with him and gotten sober with him and become a ‘real’ adult with him. He was old, he was failing. It was time. If anything, the bromides and emptily universal truths about dear-old-doggy clarified my belief that we are too disconnected from life, that we think medicine should cure everything. In that writing class, one man made a point of stressing the mercy part of mercy-killing. He said it frequently, with the emphasis heavily up front. I objected, finally, observing it’s killing regardless. Irked, the man tried to bludgeon me with good-will semantics, ‘That’s utterly different! Killing is bad. Mercy-killing is an act of mercy, of love. It’s merciful. Don’t you understand? Mercy!’
‘I understand that, to you, it’s important to stress the merciful part,’ I replied. ‘But you’re taking a life–thus, killing–no matter your motivation. The dog is dying, however you choose to label it.’ I wasn’t calling him a murderer; I also wasn’t accepting the avoidance of responsibility for a hard decision. He was the one needing benediction for his guilt.
As firefighters, we show up and deal with what we find. It takes common sense, focus and calm. We are trained to expect the worst-case scenario; disaster is inevitable. Life is precious, although for many, many people it’s brutal and squandered. Death is certain. I am privileged–and forced–to see life as a process, a cycle.
There’s still no antidote to death, yet we act surprised. 
I doubted I could actually strangle Watt, either physically or emotionally. In the moment, it would be too much. Yet, imagine enduring the canine equivalent of someone begging to be killed. My various dog-owning friends agreed the equation was a balance between Watt’s pain level, his quality of life, against our patience and resources. Wait and watch, basically, knowing the circle was closing ever tighter. 
While I conducted my polls about what constituted or justified a mercy killing, one point came up: ‘Man, it’s hard, but do it before he’s miserable with suffering. That’s one thing you can do for a dog that we can’t for humans. End it mercifully. Better than with my –’ And each person would tell of a relative or family member’s horrible lingering end. 
Many have experienced the agonies of a long-suffering relative’s decline. Daily our crew visits the hellish limbo of understaffed, underfunded nursing homes, where we provide absurdly irrelevant care to festering souls. They are alive technically, but suffering until the release of death. Their families endure months of agony. The person who once-was is long-lost; what remains is the shell. We’re raised to think that doctors, that ‘medicine’ will help. The reality is, medically we can keep a body functioning. But is that Life? 
People are surprised by death so frequently, it’s startling to me. Recently, we had a call where a 54-year-old man with terminal cancer fell into a seizure. His anguished family hovered about, devastated, while we looked at this poor fellow. No paperwork had been completed: no living will, no advanced directive, no DNR/DNI. We were required to work this body. It was horrible, ghastly, inhumane. The family mourned and wailed, their grief massive and palpable. We asked why no one had done anything preparatory. ‘He’s been doing all right,’ the wife said. ‘We didn’t want to upset him.’ 
We nodded and continued our pointless, invasive, distressing ministrations. What we didn’t say was, ‘It’s TERMINAL cancer: There’s no mystery, only a clock. What do you gain by denying it’s coming? Have you made him feel better? How about yourselves?’ Not to be cruel, but when one sees it repeatedly, the stalling and denying and ignoring just get tired. Wholly avoidable abuse. Sparing his feelings, at what expense? 
Nobody intends this.
When it comes to a pet, it’s easier, perhaps–a clearer decision, but then so naked it’s painful. We can act for them; they can’t say what they want, ever.
I doubt I’ll want to live when I should be dead, when I’m half-dead. I hope Annie or our kids will have the courage and sense of humor to cut me free sooner. They won’t ‘spare’ me the awkward conversation about my imminent demise. My wishes will be in writing, in triplicate, stapled to my chest.
I took Watt up north later that autumn, deep into hunting season. I wanted to see the top of Minnesota–International Falls, touted as the ‘Nation’s Icebox.’ I grew up in DC, where a five-hour drive got me to NYC. Here, that’ll get me to the Dakotas, Iowa, Wisconsin, almost to Canada. I had to lift Watt into the truck now, and he could descend only with difficulty and my encouragement. Open trails would be a good change. It would be, I knew, our final trip.
We were going for a three-day jaunt, driving, hiking, roaming the woods. The trees were radiant with fall foliage, the land mostly open and flat. I could see a storm coming and I drove on, hoping to get somewhere before it settled in. I had a tent, and the truck. We’d be fine, like old times.
Every mini-mart was festooned with wind-whipped plastic banners proclaiming Hunters Welcome! and product placement for beer, chewing tobacco, or ammo. I had nothing in blaze orange or tree-toned cammo; Watt certainly wasn’t a retriever. I had no weapons to speak of. I didn’t stock up on beef jerky and Skoal. I failed at standard hunter chit-chat. Inability to make hunting jokes while perusing munitions called me out as a fraud. Just a guy passing through.
A couple hours along, I realized I wasn’t going to find anyplace that wasn’t wet and chock full of hunters. Hunters and deer hiding on all sides of me. I was just dumb enough to get shot in the woods–dumb enough to go for a ‘nature hike’ without a speck of orange on my body. Serves the bastard right, I imagined them saying at the firehouse, dumb-ass vegetarian takes a slug to the lung, drags himself five miles into the brush, then his dog eats him.
We pulled down an old logging road with No Hunting signs posted (Yeah, right, I thought). I drove in a mile or so. By the map we weren’t far from several unincorporated towns, small hamlets amid the trees. It felt like fifty miles from anything. I parked in a clearing and coaxed Watt out of the truck. We stood knee-high in scrub bushes. In the drifting cold rain. He stared at me with that familiar enduring contempt: ‘What now, you idiot?’
‘Okey-doke,’ I said, laughing at myself. ‘Let’s go get wet.’ I began walking vaguely north, thinking, This is dumb. I looked back. Watt was unable to get his balance on the knotted shrubs; his legs couldn’t support him. I waited for him to come my way. We looked like two turtles pacing ourselves in a marathon. 
Ten minutes later he got close enough to me that I could pet him. ‘Good boy.’ I turned west. ‘C’mon, old man.’ He sort of followed, lurching and limping. I stopped again, waiting. ‘Okay,’ I announced to the cloud-mottled sky, ‘this really sucks.’ I cut back southeasterly. In thirty minutes I’d completed a fifty-yard circle. A decade previous, he and I had climbed Mount St. Helens. Watt barely made it to the logging path. His face was blank, eyes neither unhappy nor engaged. Pain and exertion drained his expression. I watched him, forcing myself not to look away. It was awful.
It didn’t matter if we walked five miles or five feet. We weren’t going anywhere. I knelt, stroking him. ‘Sorry, boy. I’m so sorry.’ He didn’t respond, too spent to lick me or move away. I spied the carcass of a mid-sized creature, a racoon or woodchuck perhaps. Only slightly scavenger-torn, its bones retained their basic imprint in the ragged grass. Watt sniffed it but couldn’t investigate further. He looked at me vaguely. My dog, I thought. Oh, my dog.
We were alone under a rainy sky in late-autumn. Snow would come soon, the long brutal winter inconceivable to people not from cold places. Watt used to thrive at five-above to fifteen-below, making me suffer for his pleasure and birthright. He wouldn’t get any pick-up this year. With the ice and snow, just getting down our front steps could be lethal. I sighed. My old man limped toward me. ‘I’m sorry. Sorry, sorry, sorry,’ I cried. I pulled his head to mine. That familiar, pungently unwashed smell. What did he have left? My head was pulsing. Should I put him down, now, here, far from everyone and everything? I was dizzy with the weight that he would die–that certainty–and the cold truth that I could do it now. The shift from thought to action. We could end it now. Be free, skip the painful, grotesque end-game. No human would witness the act.
Had I been planning this? I must have known we’d end up like this, far from anything, just me and him. How could I not? My friends had even jokingly warned, ‘Don’t you come back alone.’
Was dying in the woods better than on a vet’s bleach-scrubbed linoleum floor? Would I be doing him a service putting him down out here, rather than dragging him home to wait for him to slip and crack his hips?
Maybe I had intended to kill Watt. I didn’t run from the thought. I sat with it, wondering at the perversity of human behavior that could half-conceal such a plan. I tried to figure out how one would do it. Not ‘one,’ but me. How I would go about killing my dog. Mercy killing: it held both parts, the mercy and the killing. 
No gun. I had a knife–which seemed a messy, low-percentage option. 
I could try talking him to death, but if he’d survived 13 years of my blather, not likely. 
Tie him up and drive away fast? I laughed at myself: Why tie him? He couldn’t walk more than fifty feet. 
I looked down at him, hoping he might offer some suggestion, even a nod that let me know it was all right. He’d rather go this way.
Was I more worried about the implications on me as a supposedly compassionate person than about the practicalities of the act? You’re cracked, I decided. Ditching the dog is cowardly. Either do it or don’t: You planned this shitty trip into the woods in the rain, what else could you have been thinking? I looked at my battered, slumped old friend. ‘Oh man, it’s a hard road.’ 
Maybe because I’d tricked myself into being ‘surprised,’ I wouldn’t do it. I hoisted him back into the truck and we went home. Screw the state parks. It was raining and my dog was hobbling. We would wait for whatever came along, so-called natural causes.
‘How did it go?’ Annie asked, knowing it hadn’t. What could I tell her, that I almost killed him? That there’s no point to any of it? That we kid ourselves, both about our virtue and our courage?
He made it another four months. I found a vet who did at-home euthanasia. Funny initial call. ‘Hi, you don’t know me but I want you to come over and kill my dog.’
‘Okay,’ the woman said, ‘well, hmm. Generally we like to, you know, meet the dog first. Have some experience with him–before, you know, before we just...’ 
We arranged to meet, and she agreed on the severity of his condition. Final plans were drawn up. And here things got complicated. Try explaining death to a three-year old. My older daughter is sharp, scarily astute the way kids are. Like dogs, they can smell fear and deceit. ‘Watt’s old, and soon, one day real soon, he’s going to go to sleep and never wake up.’
‘Grammy’s old. Will she die, too?’
‘No. Well, yes. Not yet. See, we all do, but not any time soon.’
‘I don’t want Grammy to die.’ Fair enough, who does? But that became, ‘Are you gonna die tonight? I’ll be sad when you die. Who’ll be my new Papa when you die tonight?’ Which became, ‘I don’t want to go to sleep–I don’t want to die!’ 
And we tried to parse that semantical sandwich, doggy-death foretold vs. parents won’t die tonight. Then the pickle of explaining to her how Watt was going to die. You can’t say Vet, Doctor, Shot, Needle, Pills, because any connection–literal or figurative–between the vet euthanizing an old dog would wreak havoc on any future trips to the pediatrician. Plus, we’d gotten a puppy, both in expectation of Watt’s passing and to give him some puppy love at the end. Wouldn’t the pup be traumatized by the scent of the vet showing up to kill her big brother? 
Soon we were talking about Annie hiding with both the pup and the kids upstairs in the bathroom so we could put Watt down without triggering long-term mental anguish for pup and children. I balked, finally. ‘For all this, why not just do it at the vet?’
  Which we did. We gathered around him at home, gave him the sedatives, let him loll in the snow until I trundled him into the truck one last time. He was pretty much out already, and the shot took him quick. I held his head, saying goodbye. For once, Watt took it easy on me. Within a minute he was gone, the tremendous body drained of life. I sat a while holding him, smiling through my tears. I wasn’t sad, though. He got a good end. No mystery, no myth: He’d lived a good life, he got old, he was dead. It hurt like hell, of course.
The vet was solicitous, asking how I was, reassuring me Watt was in a better place.
‘Well, that’s for sure.’ I laughed. ‘We had a great run,’ I said. ‘C’mon. He was old and hurting. I couldn’t have asked for more time or a better dog. I’m lucky.’ 
Driving back from the vet I stopped at the dog park, a sudden impulse. I kept to myself, not wanting to bring dead-dog juju around the dog-lovers. I definitely didn’t want strangers’ heartfelt but generic sympathies. I wanted to see their dogs. Amid the canine frenzy a young husky ran wild. Gorgeous, lanky, almost feral–blissfully ignoring his owner as Watt had ignored me. I recognized the beyond-frustrated tone in the owner’s futile commands. And the dog was beauty in movement. I had to smile: That was a husky. My dog had been gone a while. He’d limped and shuffled about long enough that the ‘real’ Watt was a memory: a memory contained in the aged body. I’d looked through the hobbled flesh and fur to the living ghost of my youthful dog. Now, he was free, too, and it was all memory.
Biographical: Jeremy Norton lives in Minneapolis, MN with the performer Annie Enneking and their two daughters. He is a Fire Captain for the Minneapolis Fire Department and trains dogs as a hobby. He has an M.A. in Fiction Writing from Boston University, which certainly comes in handy on emergency response calls.

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