Stone: A painful moment, accepted in advance
Editor’s note: I originally wrote and published this column 20 years ago. I ran it a second time 10 years ago. And now, damn it, I have to run it again. I have resisted updating the details, because details change, but the story is still the same.
I finished dinner the other night and carried my plate to the kitchen sink. Halfway there, I started to cry.
What pulled the tears to my eyes was a brief instant in which I started to take the last few scraps from my plate and give them to the dog.
That impulse lasted no time at all, because I know all too well that three weeks ago we had our dog put to sleep, just a month short of her 14th birthday.
And so my eyes filled with tears, as they have in many moments over the past weeks when some small corner of my mind, stuck in its long-standing routines, expects to find the dog waiting inside the front door when I come home from work or reminds me to take her for a walk before I go to bed.
Her last months have been difficult; her last moments were not. The vet came to our house to put her down. He is a kind and gentle man who did his best to help us keep our dog healthy over her last few years and who came to perform this one last service when neither his drugs nor her courage could delay the inevitable any longer.
The process was simple and quick. A shot of tranquilizers to ensure the last minutes were calm. Then, after perhaps 10 minutes of gentle talk and soothing strokes, a lethal injection that killed her within seconds.
And then my wife and I hugged each other and sobbed.
I have known people who have cried uncontrollably for days after the death of a pet. One friend was inconsolable for nearly a week and finally emerged from his tears with a rueful shrug.
“I guess I had a lot of things to cry about,” he said. “It felt good to get it all out.”
But for me, the tears were brief and in no way pleasurable. My grief was not cleansing or cathartic. It was simple and direct and terribly painful. Something too large, too sharp and burning hot wedged within my chest. It was, I realized later, the payment of a debt I had incurred, without thinking about it, almost 14 years before when I took that tiny handful of fur home from the pound.
I remember that moment well. I told the animal-control officer, “I’ll take this one,” I signed a few papers, and that was that. I was in my mid-30s and single, and what I was worried about was commitment.
“Geez,” I thought as I cuddled the tiny puppy, “I’m going to have this dog till I’m damn near 50.” I couldn’t imagine being that old, and I wondered if I’d taken on too much.
I didn’t realize then what it was that I had really taken on. But now I know it all too well: When you get a dog, you accept years of unconditional love and you accept, as well, a moment of paying it all back in unconditional grief.
That bargain — with a dog or, perhaps, with almost any pet — is a unique one, a relationship that, in the natural order of things, includes the acceptance of death. A child accepts no bargain, makes no deal, when he or she is born. We grow up and we eventually realize that some day our parents will die. It is a shocking realization, and when those deaths happen, they are deeply, rendingly painful. But that is, at least, within the natural order of things.
When you marry, you flip a coin. One of you will experience the death of the other, but there’s no way of knowing for certain how that coin toss will work out. And, again, the experience, when it comes, is a complex and deeply painful one.
But within the realm of our lives’ domestic tragedies, it is curious to consider that, yes, when we pick that puppy, that one, we are accepting the grief of its death some unknown day in the future.
My wife and I will get another dog. Commitment will no longer be an issue for me. I’m 50; I’m married; I’ve got a 30-year mortgage. I’ve got commitments that will outlive any dog I choose.
But this time I will know, even as we laugh at the puppies squealing and writhing in a pile at the pound, waddling across the floor and yelping, even as our hearts go out and we pick one, that I have accepted a moment of almost unbearable pain that waits perhaps a decade down the line.
My heart will be broken. That’s the deal. Agreed in advance.
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is email@example.com.
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