to the last breath

There it stood, hunched on all fours, guarding itself in an enduringly defiant position. Every scar on its back telling a story of the sick and of the dying: A calico with cancer, a hound dog with heart worms, a greyhound with gout.

The posture of this veterinary table was rigid, as if it had been tortured by its history. It had taken its share of lashings - been gouged by teeth and claws. Cleaning agents were stinging its wounds now, eating the rust out of the corners of its mouth, but I could still smell blood and urine in the air. I sat and looked at it, focusing on how resilient it was.

I glanced up at the veterinary school diplomas and credentials hanging on the wall above the table and memories flooded my mind.

So much had been building to this moment. All of the memories coming back to me now. All of the trips home from college to watch Barney drag his arthritic back legs across the floor. I’d sit with him for hours as he lie by the vent on the kitchen floor to keep cool. It was harder than I thought it would be - watching my childhood dog slowly die. He was my best friend, after all.

I remembered coming home from elementary school, from cub scouts, from little league, from high school, from college. He was always there. I remembered having my heart broken and breaking the hearts of others. He was always there.

I remembered bringing him home from the puppy mill and watching him hop around like a droopy-eared bunny rabbit. I remembered my sister Lauren calling him “Bawney” because she had a speech impediment. I remembered liking that.

My mind had presented the memories as an escape, but they just made it all more painful.

Now, we were in a small, dim lit room that felt smaller and darker than usual. I stared at the metal table. Barney was lying still on top of it, the barbiturates already coursing through his veins. I forced myself to look up at him. I wanted to pick him up off of that mauled metal table and take him home - toss a tennis ball into the yard for him to chase. But I had already tossed him the last ball he would chase some months ago without knowing it.

These would be his last moments. His sagging skin dripping onto the metal surface like a rainstorm. This time around he wouldn’t leave any claw marks on the table, but he would leave the deepest of scars on me.

The patches of black and white hair all over him reminded me of the gray areas in this world - the areas most people don’t like to talk about. His face had been dark brown with a white line straight down the front of it at one time, but had nearly turned completely white by now. His ears covered all the other parts of the table that had been neglected by his large body.

The hard part about watching a Bassett Hound die is that they never fully close their eyes. I could see right into Barney’s deep, dark pupils as his eyebrows twitched about. A bit of life dancing around death in these final moments.

The manila paper-colored, cinder-block concrete walls kept the sounds of frightened animals in other rooms to a minimum, but I knew Barney could still hear them.

I looked up at the wall in front of me. There was a poster that read “Pets age faster than people” with “dog years” and “cat years” reference charts on it. I’ve always hated dog years, but I’d say that the impact a pet can have on a person seems to match the rate of death at times.

I glanced at the cheap, particle board, built-in kitchen drawer set, where Dr. Wallace would enter his notes. On top of the laminate counter top was a glass jar filled with the dog treats that Dr. Wallace would always give to Barney after a bordatella shot. In is sixties or so, Dr. Wallace resembled a human hound dog in a way.

From the corner of the room, my father gave the final command. It came out of my peripheral like a fatal blow should. I closed my eyes as Dr. Wallace administered the final dose of anesthesia. For thirty seconds I kept my eyes closed, as Barney fell silently into cardiac arrest. When I opened them, Barney stared back at me.

He stared right back at me, and he always will.