The day your dog dies you wake up happy and put on furry slippers. You walk out across your room, across the hardwood, down the stairs and onto the tile. The sun beams through huge bay windows past the leafless bean-pole trees that cast skeleton shadows. Look outside. You see how the morning winter cold makes everything still and static, everything frozen in place, unmoving like the listless surface of a foreign world.
You walk into the kitchen and get a glass of milk or orange juice or coffee. Maybe you make yourself breakfast: 3 eggs scrambled with toast. Or maybe you aren’t hungry. Walking to the sliding glass door looking out, you call her name. You call Champ or Nala or Lilly. You call Butch or Olive or Rudy. You shout Penny or Snowball or Rosie. But you don’t hear anything. She is not coming. You don’t hear the familiar jangle of her collar, the clamoring identification tags that bear your name and hers.
You remember a few days back, the veterinarian’s office and the grey walls. He said you had a choice. He said you could end her pain or wait it out, wait for life to disappear on its own accord. This, he said, would take three days or a week, one of her kidneys had already failed. More vitals would soon follow.
You tell yourself not to be selfish as you look at Dr. White in his big white coat. In your head you say “No don’t be selfish, think about her pain.” You look at her brown eyes, big and confused, darting around the unfamiliar space. You know you can’t do it. You just can’t. And so you curse yourself, you tear up, and your shoulders go limp. You tell the kind doctor “no” and he nods just once because he understands completely. He sees this every day.
So now just stare out at the giant icicles hanging low on the porch roof. They drip slowly, one drop of water seconds after the next. Looking down at your feet, you sigh and you walk into the family room past the couch and TV, past the browning Christmas tree. You track dead pine needles across carpet until you reach her. She’s tucked away behind the blue leather chair on a makeshift bed of blankets and pillows. She breathes heavily with half open eyes.
Whisper “Hey girl,” softly you say “it’s me.” But she’s not listening and she doesn’t care. She’s beyond all that now, putting all her energy into ignoring her pain. She’s been lying in the same spot for two days and she barely eats what’s brought to her. First you tried dog food. Then you tried to bring her treats, little doggy bones. When she wouldn’t eat any of that you tried pasta. Then you tried bacon and then steak. She wouldn’t eat steak.
So you kneel beside her and look at the shuddering body, a black mass of entangled fur against soft white pillows. Her stomach moves up and then down in a weak rhythm and you notice, barely notice, two dark trails from her eyes. Dogs cry?
You pet her. You sit there all day and try to be there for her. You sit there and sigh and to take your mind off of it, the inevitable looming despair, you read. Sit and read. You’re on a short story binge. You read Irving and Austin. You read Hawthorne and Melville and Vonnegut and Poe. You read Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Faulkner and Hughes. You read Baldwin and Bradbury and Updike and Oates.
You read the uplifting, the terse, the unbearable, the euphoric, the frightening and the dark. You read anything to take your mind away from her body, crumpled and sad in the family room. The den that is supposed to hold the warmth of a thousand happy memories only radiates solitude.
She’s shuddering now with every breath and somewhere in your head you begin to rationalize your despair. Try to cope. Your brain is working overtime like a safety valve analyzing every aspect of the sadness you feel. To understand it, overcome it, to destroy it. She’s only a dog for Christ’s sake, so where is this black hole coming from?
You tell yourself you’re only crying because she’s a symbol. You’ve had her since you were seven so her passing is the hallmark end of your childhood, the final picture in a long line of photos. This one your head is too big for your child’s body, the next you grew and so did she. Even further and you even have facial hair. You repeat to yourself – she’s just a symbol. She’s just a dog. Don’t repeat this too many times, before you realize tears will be running down your cheeks to form tiny pools in the cracks in your palms.
Look at her body, covered in black matted fur, feathers from the down pillows lay carelessly on her side as she strains herself to move. She can’t even pick her head up to make herself more comfortable. It’s pathetic. The waves of pain are crashing upon her now, on her head, her legs, you can see it immerse her body in a murky tide. The pain is so sharp that every breath is an ardor – she contemplates if the next is even worth trying for.
Your eyes are as moist as her wet black nose. Something triggers in your memory as you look at her proud, dark face. You remember the time your mother came home with her in her arms and you thought she was a stuffed animal, a little doggy toy. You remember when you stayed inside with pneumonia and she sat next to you on the green couch for a week. You remember when you fell off the high stone wall and she licked the gash in your arm clean. You remember the tears you cried when she ran off and didn’t return home for three days. You remember when you found her in the backyard with her leg gnarled in the black fence. You remember when she bit the girl who broke your heart but came over to your house anyway.
Tears fall softly to your hand from your face. You remember the nights she slept with you in the basement, bundled and warm. You remember when she swam with you, creating ripples in the summer lake or when she stole your last puck when you were playing hockey in the winter yard.
You are sobbing now, tears spring forth like an unstoppable rain, the kind that you don’t dare go out into. You remember when she was so excited the first time you came home from college she jumped on you and broke your mother’s favorite vase. You remember a month ago when she started limping and you remember the vet and his grey office. You remember her brown eyes, big and radiant, reaching every corner of the room, closed now and perhaps forever.
You watch her closely. Her breathing is so faint, so slow and weak, that it takes you a moment to realize that she’s breathing at all. It slows with each inhalation until it stops. You stare and whisper “Champ” or “Rosie.” Her eyes remained closed and her nose is dry. You say “Rosie, Rosie c’mon girl” Her body lay still, an unmoving black mass. You yell “Wake up Rosie.” Through salty stinging tears you shout “Rosie, Rosie please.”
Outside the sun still beams brightly, reflecting off the snow. Trees sway, tall and bare, the gentle wind pushes them back and forth as their shadows follow with a calm indifference. On the side of the house her prints make a trail in the snow leading through the backyard beyond the black fence. Her tracks twist and curl, covering the lawn as they bathe in the warm light. They stand soft and perfect, the last evidence of her passing existence. They melt slowly.