This is one of several essays from my private cancer journal. It is not intended as anything than a record of my states of mind as I struggled with the disease and the effects of the treatment.
A Small, Furry Puppy
January 30, 2000
I have never watched a person die, let alone hold someone as they passed. In that way, I considered myself lucky, being spared the experience.
But Fate dealt me a different lesson, by holding animals when they passed, dozens of them.
True, they weren't "people" and so some can wave off any comparison. But I can't. It is as if I was to be taught something about Life from another quadrant, especially now with my own condition, that Life is not the exclusive domain of humans, that there is something we can't learn if we think of it only in human or our own terms.
I remember my first, a young, furry puppy.
It was in 1960. I was working at a veterinarian hospital during my summer break from college studies in Huntington Beach, in Southern California. When I was a small kid, the first thing I had wanted to be was a vet, simply because I liked animals. But for whatever reason, I wasn't pursuing it. I was just a "liberal arts" major. But when it came to looking for a summer job, I thought about working at an animal hospital and was lucky enough to find one just a few blocks from our apartment.
My job was to clean the kennels in the morning, putting the dogs into the outdoor runs, then to feed them. I also gave baths and even came to learn how to clip cockers and poodles.
When the vet needed assistance holding an animal during treatment, I was there. I helped on enough spays and neuters that I felt I could have done them, although I never would have tried.
One day he called me into the examination room. A small German shepherd puppy that couldn't have been more than a few months old was on the stainless steel table. The vet was holding it gently by the collar. It still had that soft puppy fur and was showing all of the exuberance of its age, wagging its tail and yapping happily at my entrance and trying to escape his grasp to play.
"Would you hold him?,"he asked.
That was my job so I did while he stepped to the cabinet and brought out a small bottle and then a syringe that he filled with the clear liquid. I asked what the puppy was there for, since he was a bit young for vaccines.
He laid the syringe on the counter and lifted the clippers from a hook on the wall. I knew that routine, shearing some fur from the leg so a vein could be found. It always preceded the operations. I wrapped my arms around the puppy and held one front leg for the clipping as the vet told me that some people couldn't keep him so he was going to be put to sleep.
I said nothing. I was too stunned.
As the clippers lifted the soft fur from the leg I was holding, the puppy struggled under me, his movements changing from playful to nervousness. It was as if he knew but he didn't know what to say. He thought he was here to play with these new friends and now this thing was making a racket on his leg and someone was holding him too tightly.
The vet put the clippers back on the hook and took the syringe and then slid the needle into the large vein on the top of the front leg and pushed the plunger slowly forward as the puppy tried to escape. The vet placed a wad of cotton over the entry and withdrew the needle. I automatically put my finger over it to keep the puncture from bleeding as I had so many times as the puppy went limp in my arms.
I will never forget that sensation.
I had held many animals while they were anesthetized. I felt them relax as they slipped into unconsciousness for whatever procedure was needed.
But this was different. I felt his life leave.
I straightened up and rolled him on his side. His eyes were open and his tongue now lolled from his mouth. I ran my hand over that soft brown fur as the vet's voice brought me back.
"Okay, if you'll take care of him," he said matter of factly as he rinsed his hands.
I nodded and looked back at the puppy on that cold, metal table, trying to comprehend what had just happened as the vet left the room. The pup was dead. Minutes ago he was barking and wanting to play and now he was dead because someone didn't want him. Tears welled up in my eyes as I stroked him, trying not to cry. I might have to work the front desk in a few minutes and I couldn't be crying.
I knew what I was expected to do next. I had done it a few times before with dead animals, but only when I was called in and the animal was already gone. But this time, I changed my routine.
I went into the back where we kept towels for drying animals after their baths and got a large towel that I wrapped the puppy in, still fighting my grief and confusion. Then I picked him up and walked into the hall and out the back exit.
There was no name for the place where we put them. It merely appeared as a three-foot-wide cement dome that rose perhaps half that distance from the dirt about 50 feet away. on the edge of an empty field. I walked to it and cradling the limp, bundled puppy in my left arm, I reached down and lifted the solid metal door.and swung it to the side. I don't know how large the container was that was buried in the ground or how many it contained. I didn't want to know. I tried to wrap the towel more firmly around the puppy and then slid him into the black hole. It took perhaps a second before I heard the soft thump. It was done. I closed the lid and looked out across the large, empty field and tried to regain my composure. Then I closed the lid and went back into the hospital. I had to clean up the table where he had been killed, wiping it down with a disinfectant, to prepare it for the next animal.
It was "only a dog" but I was disgusted with the event and my role in it. I kept thinking how he looked so happy when I entered the room and then his fear and finally feeling him die in my arms. Dumping him into that communal pit made me sick. Pictures ran through my mind of dead people being thrown into open pits on top of other bodies in Nazi death camps before the bulldozers buried them. But unlike them, I had a choice. I could refuse. But I didn't. Nor did I quit. I stayed on through the rest of the summer and never mentioned my feelings to the vet. To my relief, it never happened there again. as far as I knew.
But it did happen again nearly 40 years later, as I was about to contract cancer.
My wife Stacy and I were living in West Seattle. She had been volunteering at a large rescue center and began to bring her work home, so to speak. Our small house became a haven for homeless cats who joined the few that we already had and our golden retriever Maggy. As the feline population grew, so did our trips to the vets. We learned to get them tested first and that was when we learned about FIP, an ugly terminal disease, and other vicious killers. Despite the expenses, we fought the odds. No cat was ever put down for financial reasons. We had the blind, the lame and the ill. Sometimes the vet would call and tell us about a healthy cat that someone had dropped off to be killed for some ridiculous reason and we would take them.
Sometimes we had to make that decision, based on the vet's diagnosis. It was always our last choice. We would try every possible avenue, no matter the expense. Some cats literally cost us thousands of dollars but it just became our attitude: no cat would be killed because we couldn't afford to treat it.
We usually won but sometimes we ran out of options. There was nothing else to be done and the cat faced a painful, degrading death. It was never an easy decision.
I don't remember the name of the first cat we put down. Stacy would. I just know there was no question that we would abandon a cat in those final moments. Sometimes we were there together with the cat. Sometimes there was just one of us. Each one was precious, even if they had been with us for only days. We held each one and felt the life drain from them and we always cried our guts out and talked to them afterwards. We hated the responsibility of being God but we turned it over to no one else.
Some like aged Sebastian died quietly at home. He had been failing for months and I sat with him in those final hours, in front of the fire so he was warm, and talked to him as he took his final breaths. The next day, I buried him in a part of the property he enjoyed and said goodbye, which was more than I did for that puppy.
To all who were with us, especially those who left us, thank you your gift.
Thank you for teaching us the value of Life, that it is not the domain of humans only.
It is time that I integrate it now into what I face with what remains of mine.