Alison Berkley: The Princess’s Palate
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
My heart is in my throat like a grapefruit, and with every step it gets harder and harder to breathe, until I can’t hold the sobs back any longer. They escape from my chest, a guttural sound that’s unfamiliar. Not a cry or a yell but something in-between, the sound of my heart breaking.
It’s the day before we’re going to take my dog, Sebastian, to the vet to be put to sleep.
We’re in Steamboat where he’s been living with my parents since June, hiking in the Zirkel Wilderness on a cloudless afternoon. The trail meanders along a creek bed overgrown with ferns and super-sized wildflowers, waterfalls cascading over ink black rocks in the stream below. It’s almost too pretty, mocking me with every step I take that only brings me closer to my dread.
A million questions run through my head. What happens when you die? Do dogs have a soul? Does he know what’s happening to him?
The truth is, my dog Sebastian, an all black 80-pound chow/lab mix with a black tongue and a boxy head and the build of a linebacker was kind of a bad dog. He had a criminal record. He was on anti-depressants. He sort of bit a few people and mauled a few dogs who were nice enough not to press charges as long as I paid the hospital bill. Wait, there’s more.
He had this little separation anxiety problem, so whenever I left him alone for more than four seconds, he freaked. He chewed through virtually hundreds of doors in his lifetime, eating windows like a side dish, tearing up car upholstery, and flossing his teeth with rear view mirrors just because he doesn’t want to be left alone for seventeen minutes. This is a dog who has caused thousands of dollars in damage, leaving his mark on the cars and homes of everyone and anyone who ever made the mistake of offering me to help take care of him.
This is a dog that bit my former coworker in the butt, as if he knew that’s what everyone wanted. “It’s about time someone bit her in the ass,” is what my boss at the time said.
This is a dog that let me know what he thought about the guy I was dating by escaping from my car when it was parked outside his house only to turn up on my ex-boyfriend’s doorstep three miles away.
This is a dog that stumped even the best, most renowned dog trainers. “He must be your karma,” one of them said.
This is a dog that was aggressive, not just toward dogs but animals in general.
The best was when other dog owners would be like, “My dog is super friendly,” just as Cujo would charge at their pure little purebred full speed like an NFL quarterback about to score a touchdown in the final seconds of the Super Bowl. After that it was a blur of fur and paws and tails and teeth and dust with me still holding onto the leash for dear life, in the hopes that if I don’t let go I might not get sued.
I especially loved it when he’d try to attack an innocent passer-by as he sat leashed to my chair on a sidewalk cafe, the chair screeching against the pavement as he dragged it – and me – 50 feet as he charged his next innocent victim.
This is a dog that came home with the neighbor’s fat black furry cat in his yap, my mom screaming, “Your dog is a murderer!” at the top of her lungs.
Then there was that time the dead fox turned up in the driveway.
“Why would a fox come to our driveway to die?” my dad asked, as the Feline Killer sat behind him licking his bloody chops.
Then there was that time he showed up on my doorstep with the entire leg of an elk skeleton in his yap, knee ligaments, shin bone, thigh bone and all.
“Drooooop iiiiiiiiiiiit!” I screamed when I saw the Little Horror standing outside my front door, his jowls stretched to the breaking point. “You drop it right now!”
He got into it with a porcupine not once, but four times, turning up with a face full of quills so he looked like a character from a horror movie. When we took him to the vet to have the quills removed, he tried to kill the cat that slinked innocently into the room and that was after they tried to sedate him.
He never killed any kids, but we always assumed that leaving a baby around him unattended would probably not be a good idea.
I kept him anyway. I kept him almost 10 years, through knee surgery and stomach surgery and acute arthritis and even diabetes, through home and car repairs and many vet bills (the other dog’s and mine).
The truth is he kept me alive as much as I did him, through the turbulent decade that was my 30s, through all that heartbreak and shattering disappointment, confusion and pain. Sometimes the sound of his snoring was all I had in the world beside me, filling up the empty space created by my loneliness and despair. He licked my tears and put a reassuring paw on my leg and accompanied me on hikes and mountain bike rides and runs and road trips. And damn did that dog love me, loved me through it all.
His last two days were a doggie’s dream, swimming in a high mountain lake on a perfect summer day. In that dreaded moment at the vet, he licked my face just before he went to sleep, to lick my tears, to let me know for the last time that it’s going to be OK.
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