By Scott Ross
I wrote these initial ruminations on 2 December 2012:
Thirteen years ago today, a gentle dog came into my life. Two days ago, he left it.
Late in 1999 I decided it was time I had a companion animal — if possible, a beagle. Because of the restrictions of the apartment complex in which I was living then, I had to find a dog that wouldn’t get much larger than 30 pounds. The first time I checked the Wake County Animal Shelter website, in early November, I found a listing for a beagle-mix. I don’t know whether their procedure has changed, but at that time, animals listed in the pick-up section had no photos accompanying their description. This one was listed as being about 20 pounds, and had been listed two weeks prior.
I jotted down the dog’s number, but for various reasons, I was unable to get to the Shelter until Saturday, the 2nd of December — dangerously close to the 6-week time limit for pick-ups. I walked through the kennels, with a close friend, searching without success for the number. I had checked the site periodically to make sure he was still listed, but had begun to suspect he’d already been destroyed when, finally, in the last set of cages, we found him.
He was painfully thin; his ribs showed through. The Shelter has, or had at that time, two “get-acquainted” areas — one inside, one outside. The Shelter volunteer suggested we take him out, then bring him back to the interior room. He was more interested in relieving himself than in chasing a ball, so we took him inside. My friend was sitting on a bench and I was on my knees, on the floor, petting and scratching the dog, which was facing away from me. Suddenly, he turned his neck, put his head on my arm, and looked up at me with what I took to be trust.
Had I not already decided to adopt him, that little gesture would have clinched it. (I joked later that he had been practicing it, and the timing, which was just about perfect.)
When I went to the desk to complete the adoption forms and pay the fee, the attendant asked in which section I’d located the dog. When I told him it was the pick-up area, he was surprised.
“He wasn’t supposed to be there,” he explained. “He wasn’t a pick-up; he was a drop-off.”
It occurred to me then, and I’ve often thought in the years since, that had his photo been posted on the website, someone would have snapped him up long before I got the chance.
The attendant said the dog was approximately a year old, and was called Angel.
Not for long, I thought.
Sunday evening I was still trying to think of an appropriate name for him. I wanted it to be the recommended two syllables; it’s more difficult for a dog to distinguish between your commands, which are generally of one syllable (“Sit,” “Stay,” “Heel”) and its own name if it doesn’t have at least two. I tried out various names that meant something to me, none of which seemed to fit. I suddenly reflected that, the previous June, I had written and performed in a revue of Johnny Mercer’s songs. I said the name to him. He perked up, and wagged his tail. So Mercer it was.
I have no idea why his previous family dumped him at the Shelter. He needed neutering, but he was quite obedient, gentle — he rarely barked which, for a beagle owner, is an unexpected benison — and understood basic commands. He did fear tile floors, so I suspect he was penned up in some sort of utility room, perhaps as “punishment.” Well, their loss, my gain. And his.
Being a mutt, as opposed to a thoroughbred, he was essentially a very healthy dog. This autumn, however, he developed a condition his vet called end-stage renal failure. Through medication and some emergency procedures, he was able to bounce, more or less, back. Until last week, when the symptoms returned, quickly and decisively.
As much as I loved him, and as much as I wanted to keep him with me, I couldn’t watch his quality of life continue to decline. The matter was decided for me when, on our last walk as we were heading across the busy street on which I live, he stopped and sat down in the middle of the tarmac. I picked him up and, as I was carrying him home in my arms, knew that he’d just given me the sign that he was in pain sufficient enough that it simply had to end.
Naturally, I debated with myself over this irrevocable, and wondered whether I was making the right choice. Thankfully, my good friend Melanie gave me the words I most needed to hear.) And which, sorry, I’m keeping to myself.) And so, on Friday, we visited his vet one last time.
I was with him to the end. I was not about to forfeit being in that room or giving him the last measure of comfort I could. That was — to me — part of the unspoken bargain between us.
I outfitted Mercer in the sweater my ex sewed for him (see photo) and gave him my final hugs… and more tears than I even suspected I had in me. The vet explained the humane euthanasia process; I held Mercer as he was given the injection, stroked him and murmured to him as the drug took him away. I felt his life ebb as it drained from his little body, which is something I never want to experience again, with any creature. And when it was over, I wept over him again, until I could get it together long enough to prepare him for the desolate trip back.
I took him home and (thanks to Melanie for loaning me a shovel) dug Mercer’s grave in the unused flower beds by the front steps. The activity, thankfully, took my mind from my grief, for the time it took to accomplish. Afterward, when I’d placed Mercer in and covered him, I felt completely drained, physically and emotionally.
Losing a pet is never easy, for anyone. For a single person who lives alone — especially one who lives with un-treated, chronic major depression — it is agonizing. I thought I’d wept myself out, twice at the vet’s and once on the drive home afterward. I refuse to cheapen the experience by observing that which does not kill us, makes us stronger. Too many of those things that wound us to the core but don’t finish the job completely can either bite deep, or leave one dangerously numb. That’s certainly not the case with Mercer; just as I think I’ve cried myself out, something reminds me, and I’m in tears again. I walk in the house expecting to see him asleep in his spot on the sofa. (He was growing increasingly deaf as he aged, and he often didn’t wake up when I came in.) I go to the kitchen to make coffee or prepare a meal and expect him to come in, demanding his share (of the food; I’m not such a fool as to give a dog caffeine.) I go into various dark rooms and hallways careful, as always, to avoid stepping on a sleeping beagle, and remember he isn’t there. I go to bed and wait to hear his tags jingle as he settles in the doorway. (He slept with me until, I assume, the renal pain became too great for him to make the leap,) My last words to him before sleeping were always, “Goodnight, Sweet pea.” And now I catch myself about to say it.
Goodspeed, my darling Sweet pea. You left my life with the same gentle grace with which you entered it.
Two days later, this addendum:
Just when I thought I might pass an entire morning without bursting into tears, Dogbook sends me an email wishing you a happy birthday.
Mercer, I was looking forward to marking your 13th Adoption Day anniversary. Instead, two days ago I said goodbye to you. You were my companion, my solace and my joy. That I am incapable of belief in an afterlife is one of the reasons I find this so terribly hard to bear. I would love to entertain the fantasy that you’ve crossed the fabled Rainbow Bridge, and that I will see and hold you, and smell your sweet sleeping-scent again one day. But I can’t. Death is too final, which is why I cherished your life while you had it. I will love you forever, Sweet pea, and I suppose I will miss you as long as I live. Thank you for rescuing me, darling boy.
Post-Script, January 2014
The comedian Elayne Boosler, who has taken in, and lost, more dogs than I will ever know, told me via Facebook that it would take about a year for the pain to ease. At the time I couldn’t imagine going through that much time with that much anguish. But she was right. December marked the anniversary, and the ache is infinitely more bearable, if still there, buried beneath the annealing prosaic factors of the every day. I still look for Mercer at his space on the sofa when I come home after work, and when I sit down to read in the evening, but the stab is less acute now, the knife-point grown duller with time.
Occasionally I think I hear him. I mentioned this to my psychiatrist — how I could sometimes swear I’ve just heard the sound of his ears flapping when he shook his head, occasionally with the corresponding tinkle of his ID tag, or the muffled thump he made when he leapt from the floor to the couch. It seems this is not an unusual phenomenon; a sound, from inside (the house settling, for example) or out, can be amplified and distorted by memory, or may simply be an aural figment, some vestige of recall activated by a subconscious trigger. Not being a believer in afterlives, spirit visitations or the Rainbow Bridge, however comforting the latter may be to the grieving, at least I know I’m not going completely mad.
This past autumn I nurtured a half-dozen or so sweet pea plants, intending to transfer them to the little garden plot where I buried Mercer last December, as a tribute. In this region, early winter is alleged to be a good time to plant them, so I did, a couple of weeks ago, hoping the nutrients his body has added to the soil, which has already spurred a groundcover of ivy — subsequently removed by the yard workers employed by my landlord, who tend, reflexively, to treat as weeds anything that grows and is not grass.
Dependency, with humans and pets, is mutual, and beneficial. I do not say that Mercer “loved” me, because I am not persuaded that animals experience, or project, that slate of emotions as we understand them. What we anthropomorphize is, more often than not, instinct and natural behavior: Pack protection, which we provide, and to which a dog responds, can look and even feel a lot like love, or affection. And Mercer was not an especially affectionate animal. Whatever horrors attended his first year of life, before mine touched his, made him somewhat aloof. He showed instant discomfort with being held, or cuddled, although at times he had to resign himself to them, when a hug was what I needed. I hope the following thirteen years made up, in some small measure, for some of what he went through and which I will never completely know or understand. I think it did.
I would rather not have watched the life seep from him after that irrevocable euthanizing injection. I would rather someone had forcibly broken my arm instead. The experience of holding a dog one loves as he drifts, with agonizing swiftness, into the final oblivion does not, as some maintain, inure one to a fear of death. At least, it didn’t for me. The process was absolutely and insupportably horrific, and it’s a vision that haunts me. But I owed Mercer that much — that last full measure of my own devotion to him.
The sweet pea tendrils do not, on examination, appear to be thriving, but so be it. If they die, I may try something else — a shrub of some kind, perhaps, something hardy that does not require much preparation by this non-gardener — or I may let it lie. For a chronic depressive, intention, and the actual physical execution of it, often trump outcome.
More than that, is this: I don’t really require a living memorial for Mercer. Or rather, I am that living memorial. As long as life, and memory, course through me, he lives. The pain, however much it recedes with time, is also a tribute; it reminds me that there was once a creature on this earth I loved without boundary, and which depended wholly upon me.
If that isn’t enough, it will have to do.
Copyright 2014 by Scott Ross