At about a quarter to five Mom took Gaila outside and washed the majority of the blood off her leg. Gaila tended to bleed from her mouth onto her leg and then lick at it, smearing it all over. Once she was clean Mom (or somebody) spread a blanket in the floor of the van, and then everyone–Mom, AJ, Ben, and I–started out the door. No one actually said “Let’s go”. We just all sort of went.
I had thought I wanted to take a picture of how Gaila’s face looked, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. As the boys moved towards the door, I picked up my purse and left the camera where it was.
“Come on, Gaila,” we said, and she obediently followed us outside and around to the van, and then climbed right in. I sat on the chair near her (Connor usually sits in that seat these days, so I had to move the booster seat) and brushed her to get rid of all the hair she was shedding. She eventually relaxed and laid down on the blanket.
The trip down 169 to Harrodsburg and then up to the vet seemed really long, and the winding bumpiness of the roads didn’t help. “Maybe it’s your shocks,” AJ said when Mom commented sarcastically about how nice and flat the road was.
I just brushed and petted Gaila as much as I could. She was alert, and it seemed like her pain and discomfort weren’t bothering her, but I knew that was because she was nervous and excited to see where she was going.
When we got to the vet, she wouldn’t get out of the van until I did, and then she wouldn’t follow me in. She tried to hobble away, and AJ had to pick her up and carry her. I had been imagining that she knew where she was going and what was going to happen, and that she accepted it, so seeing this made me feel a little sick. I didn’t want her last moments to be filled with fear.
For some reason the vet had her weighed–54 pounds–and then AJ lifted her onto the exam table, where a towel had been spread. At first Gaila sat down when we told her, but as time passed with her on the table (with the vet making what to me was unnecessary small talk), she grew more and more nervous, and finally stood and refused to sit again.
“I guess it won’t get any easier,” the vet said finally. He’d been talking about how he was there when Gaila and her brothers and sisters were born, and how no three dogs from such a pitiful beginning could have found more love. “I wish you could have seen her when I first did,” he said. “She was this big.” And he held his fingers about four inches apart. It seemed pretty unbelievable…but I have a hard time believing that when she was still just a puppy, and I picked her out for my very own, I was able to–and did–carry her around inside my shirt. (Back then I wore flannel shirts over T-shirts, so I would button the bottom of the flannel and carry her in it like a pouch.) Eleven years later, I could still pick her up (awkwardly), but there’s no way she would fit in my shirt.
I had been standing close to Gaila, my hand on her chest to keep her from leaping off the table, but then the vet eased her to her haunches and his assistant moved between us, lying Gaila down and holding her. I squeezed back in so that I was close to her face, and stroked her head. The vet shaved a patch of hair on Gaila’s remaining front leg; she trembled, but didn’t escape the grasp of the assistant.
“Don’t worry,” I said as the vet slid the needle under her skin. “You’ll feel better soon.”
The vet said something encouraging along those same lines, but I was startled by the sight of Gaila’s blood wisping out into the pink liquid in the large syringe and didn’t listen to him. To be honest, I was pretty much ignoring everything he said anyway.
The overdose worked faster than I was expecting. The vet’s assistant let go of Gaila and I pretty much collapsed on top of her, wrapping my arm around her and pressing my face into her neck and just stroking her. Mom and my brothers petted her and rubbed my back. I heard Mom crying and the boys snuffling.
“Cancer is a terrible thing,” the vet said. “In humans and in animals.” For a moment I was incredulous. Why did he have to say that? was all I could think. I have long drawn parallels between myself and Gaila, and for some reason, at that moment, the thought that cancer had caused all this was unbearable, even though it’s true and always has been. I had been calling it a tumor. Somehow to hear it called by its true name was shocking and hurtful.
I knew when she was gone even though I wasn’t looking at her. I was holding her, and one moment there was still life in her, and the next there just…wasn’t. I drew back out of some instinctive distaste at embracing a corpse. My fingers plucked awkwardly, pointlessly at the hair around her ears. She couldn’t feel me petting and loving her anymore.
Shortly after that, a final shudder of breath passed out of her body. I didn’t want to be petting her anymore, there didn’t seem to be a use to it. She was gone. I started crying harder, and I wrapped my arm around AJ and turned my face away.
The vet waited a little longer before checking for a heartbeat, and then said, “I’ll give you some time alone with her.” He and his assistant left.
I was hugging AJ and clinging to Mom’s arm and crying, but I wasn’t sobbing yet. I turned back to the corpse and knelt into it and kissed her head and whispered, “I love you, baby.” And then I sobbed. I collapsed onto the table, face in my arms, and wailed. Someone just beyond the room murmured something sympathetically. At some point, AJ said, “You did the right thing.” But I wasn’t worried about that. My dog had to die. My dog was dead. There’s no blame. There’s just total helplessness.
I let myself cry for as long as I had to, but was able to compose myself quickly, for the sake of my family and the people in the other room. When I raised away from the table AJ dragged me into a fierce hug and held me for a long time. Then I hugged Mom, and then Ben.
Mom said we’d go ahead and go, and said for me to come out when I was ready, and left the room. I looked at Gaila’s body. It oddly seemed to be moving. It was so still that my brain was compensating for how unnatural she seemed. I evaluated her clinically, walked around the table and gazed into her lifeless eyes.
My dog wasn’t there anymore.
She was at peace–however stupid that sounds.
I felt like I had to say something, and I wanted to let AJ know that I didn’t feel guilty, so I kept gazing into Gaila’s eyes and said, “I’m glad you can rest now.” One of the boys murmured something in agreement. But that wasn’t enough, it wasn’t right to just say that, so I went on, “I wish it didn’t have to be this way,” and again one of the boys made a noise. “But I’m glad you can rest.”
And that was pretty much all I could say–no great speeches came into my mind about what a great dog she was, how much I loved her, how beautiful and devoted and competitive and strong she was. I knew they would come if I looked for them, but I also knew that with them would come more sobbing, and I didn’t want to stay with her body anymore. Her body wasn’t her. It was time to let it, and her, go.
“Goodbye, sweetheart,” I said, and kissed her head. New tears burned and threatened to fall. I thought that maybe the boys would leave me alone with her a little, and said, “Okay, we can go now.” But they didn’t move, so I preceded them out of the exam room and through the front office and out the door to the van. I thought as I left that I should turn and look at the people behind the counter and maybe say thank you to them, but I didn’t want to, so I didn’t.
On the ride back I did not need to focus on comforting a sick, frightened dog. I would never have to worry about that again.
I looked at the beautiful green rolling hills of my native Kentucky and loved them. I thought of Gaila. I thought back on the experience of her death as much as I could without reliving it. Then I thought that someday Mom would die, and that I didn’t know if I would be able to handle it. Mom is the type of person who seems like she should live forever.
I tried to stop thinking about death after that. Towards the end of the ride, I even engaged in some small talk about how a Lowe’s is being built at the intersection of 169 and the bypass.
We got back and spent some awkward time in the office together. We talked about morbid and silly things like how we wanted to be taken care of when we died. I said I wanted to be cremated. AJ said he didn’t know. Ben said he wanted to be stuffed. AJ reminded Ben that once he’d said he wanted to be set ablaze and sent off on a ship like a Viking, and a discussion ensued about whether Ben or the boat would burn up first. A metal boat was suggested by someone, and AJ remarked that it would then wash up at England with nothing in it. Ben concluded, “Well, if I’m stuffed, like this–” and he struck a horror-show Frankenstein pose “–then when I wash up on England, I’ll look like this–” and he made the same pose. I had to laugh.
Gaila’s ashes will be ready sometime next week. I had planned to drive home tomorrow. Based on how I feel tomorrow, I will either go with that plan, or stay a little longer. Logan’s birthday is tomorrow, and his party is Saturday, so it would be nice to be here for that. I would just have to call the internship and tell them I can’t make it this week.
I don’t know what I want to do yet.