I would bet that the majority of people have their first (if not only) experience of witnessing death with a pet, just because of the sheer statistics. You know when you adopt (or god forbid, buy) a pet, the chances that he/she will die before you are quite high.
It happened to me when I was 23. Just married and trying to negotiate the first year of young marriage to a citizen of the U.K. who still didn’t even have a work visa. In a variety of ways, I was learning a lot about growing up and living without the security one has when living with her parents–the security that’s so easy to take for granted before you know what a clusterfuck it is to be an adult.
Beauty was my childhood dog. We adopted her when I was 12, a one-year-old Shepherd/Collie mix who was very sweet but, as we found out, also had severe separation anxiety. The people at the SPCA told us that she’d been abandoned in the basement of a house. Apparently, her owners had moved out of the house, leaving her chained up in the basement. A neighbor called Animal Control when he heard constant, distressed barking coming from the empty house.
The first time we left Beauty alone in the house, as we were putting on our shoes, she started panting nervously and trembling, and she wouldn’t let anyone leave her alone in a room. As comforting as we tried to be, she found no comfort in our appeasing. But we hoped that after a few minutes of us leaving, she would calm down, or at least that once she saw that we came back, she would start to trust our return as a rule (which, as it turned out, never happened). When we got back home, she greeted us as if we were arriving home from four tours of duty. Elation is the only word to describe her mood at our return. We soon found that while we had been out, she chewed the front panel off of the VCR in the living room as well as every available shoe in the house.
In the warmer months, when the windows were open, she would somehow smash through the screen of whichever first-floor window she found and escape the house. We’d come home to find her wandering around the yard or sometimes a few blocks away. And she wasn’t very street smart, so it was an incredible bit of luck that she never got hit by a car. We of course learned to close the windows on the first level of the house but in those hot New York summers, we had to leave something open upstairs to let the heat out. Then we found out just how determined Beauty really was to escape her perceived abandonment. One day, I came home from wherever to find her wandering the yard, looking a little shaken. She was very pleased to see me, naturally. I took her inside and immediately went in search of the evidence of how she’d escaped. As I went up the stairs, I knew what I was going to find, and I was propelled by amazement more than anything. Indeed, she had ripped through the screen of the window in my mother’s room, above the porch. I poked my head through the hole mostly out of shock but also to get perspective. She had jumped from the window to the roof of the porch, and somehow convinced herself to jump from there to the ground. And she had no injuries except, perhaps, a little more PTSD. But in some ways, I was hugely proud of her even as I was terrified by the realization of just how far she would go.
Beauty was a wonderful companion–my best friend–throughout my childhood. She saw me through bullying, through being alone in the house on the weekends when my mother was working as a nurse in South Dakota and my father went to Atlantic City–when it seemed like ghosts were constantly closing in on me in that old, noisy house with creaky radiators. When I’d come home from school crying and no one was home, she would sit with me and lick my face until I couldn’t help but giggle. She was also an excellent guard dog, no doubt due to the German Shepherd traits she’d inherited. The house was set back from a quiet road, so if there was any suspicious activity, she went absolutely fucking berserk, and in some ways it was awful but mostly it was hugely comforting. There’s not a doubt in my mind she would’ve shredded anyone who meant any one of us any harm.
After I got married and my husband and I got an apartment in Hyde Park, we adopted our own dog even though Beauty was still alive. There were discussions of Beauty living with my husband and I, but she not only had arthritis and the separation anxiety, but she’d lived in that house her whole life. We all agreed that it might be traumatic to move her, so she stayed. I don’t know why I thought that, somehow, her not living with my husband and I granted me permission to betray her in the worst way. Beauty was not good with other dogs, so I knew the two of them would never be able to meet. And when I went to my parents’ house to visit, Beauty would sniff my clothes and look at me with those eyes. The ones that said, “You filthy whore,” and then she’d limp to her corner of the room and mope.
And indeed I was a whore. I couldn’t even wait for her to die before getting my next dog. It was immediate gratification for the hole that not being around her all the time left. It was selfish and awful.
One summer day in 1999, my parents were away in Charleston and had hired some woman from a paper ad to take care of Beauty and the house. When I got the call from the pet-sitter that Beauty was lying on the floor unable to breathe, my husband and I dropped what we were doing and made the twenty-minute drive to the house in ten minutes. My face was white the entire drive. I had known that one day she would die, of course, but in so many ways, I had denied that it ever *really* would. This injury sounded grave from what little information the pet-sitter had given me on the phone. When we burst through the back door of the house, there was Beauty, lying on the kitchen floor on her side, her breathing labored. The pet-sitter babbled something about being out and coming back to find Beauty lying on the floor like this. Her theory was that she’d fallen down the stairs. I tried to understand why Beauty would be in the kitchen if she’d fallen down the stairs on the other side of the house, but the most important thing to address was getting Beauty to the vet’s office. My husband and I carefully carried Beauty out to the car. She lay in the backseat looking confused, her eyes glazed, breathing heavily. As we got close to the vet’s office, she started to convulse and her eyes rolled back in her head.
The Xray revealed that Beauty’s trachea was broken. She was slowly dying. They worked on her for a couple of hours, but they couldn’t stop the convulsing and they felt that she had already lost some brain activity. They felt that the only humane thing to do was to euthanize her to prevent any more suffering, so I agreed. I don’t know if she knew I was in the room with her when they injected her. Her whole body was jerking nonstop, her eyes were rolled back, and her tongue was hanging out of her mouth. I leaned my head against hers and told her it was going to be okay, stroked her back, and gave her a kiss. And though it was a heartbreaking moment when she finally went still, it was also a relief because at least she wasn’t suffering anymore.
It was very difficult for me to go home to our new dog, the one with whom I’d so betrayed Beauty, so I stayed at my parents’ house for a few days while my husband went home. I felt guilty, horrible. I’d done a terrible thing to her, and if I had only insisted on her living with us, she wouldn’t have died in such a horrid way. It wasn’t until several months later, when as a family, we scattered her ashes in a creek in the woods, that I started to feel some relief from the guilt. She had always been such a loyal family member, and in that moment when I saw her ashes ribbon down the creek towards the river I felt something release–a relief that I can only attribute to her spirit being freed.
Though no one (but Beauty, and probably the pet-sitter) knows what really happened that day, I have always suspected that she found a way out of the house when the pet-sitter was running errands and ran out into the street, perhaps, and got hit by a car, then somehow made her way back home. In my imagination, the pet-sitter found Beauty outside in the yard when she returned and just didn’t want to admit that our pet had escaped and thus been gravely injured on her watch.
I still think sometimes about Beauty standing on the hot roof of the porch that one day in the stifling heat of summer, looking down at the grass below, understanding how far it was and feeling terrified. Yet somehow the idea of being inside that house one second more–and the memory of being abandoned in the basement of an empty house by people to whom she no doubt had been as loyal as she was to us–was infinitely more terrifying than jumping. So she found the courage to jump. And I just can’t imagine anything braver than that.