Yesterday morning I decided to euthanize my dog. Within an hour of my decision, she was limp on the floor of the vet’s office. I kept grasping and ungrasping that thick roll of fur and fat that substituted for her neck. It was always a pre-meditated decision to pet Stitch. She shed obscenely in summer and she had unusually greasy fur that never felt clean. Her death, ironically, had involved very little mental preparation or forethought. I sat next to her body and continued her favored show of affection until I had adjusted enough to the fact my dog was dead that I could leave the building.
I never wanted Stitch, to be honest. I did have dreams of a dog when we moved to our first house, but I dreamed of a brilliant dog, a conscientious cross-breed of fine bloodlines, smart and noble.
I’d known Stitch. Some people we knew owned her, had brought her from a shelter on the other side of the country when they moved. Stitch had been found wandering the highway as a puppy. She was damaged. The people we knew kept her here in the Northwest like I assume a lot of rural Southerners keep their dogs; outdoors, fenced in a pen. It was a good pen, with a shelter and a self-serve food dispenser. But it kept her undomesticated; hardly more fit to live among people than the raccoons she spent all night barking at.
I never made much effort to interact with her when we visited. She was a nervous and fearful animal; a squat basset hound mongrel, fat cylinder body on four stumpy but powerful legs. She jumped on any human who entered the pen in frantic, desperate affection. Soon the couple had a baby, and keeping the lunatic dog that greeted a person’s approach first by peeing then pummeling into their abdomen with mud caked claws was no longer tenable.
When I heard they intended to send her to a shelter I said, “Aw. That’s too bad.”
Gus had a thing for dogs back then. He said, “No one is going to adopt that poor mutt. She’s going to be put down.”
I nodded sympathetically. His jaw set, which it almost never does.
“Oh god,” I said. “Are WE going to take her?”
We were. My husband’s passion for the underdog caused us to end up owning a literal one. A fat, barking, untrained tweeker of an underdog. We tried keeping her in the yard but the barking was near constant. In the house, she peed, and I once again patted myself on the back for tearing out all the carpet when we moved in. I got a dog training dvd from the library.
Children, dogs, and many adults love discipline because it represents safety. When you learn that there is a right and a wrong, and someone looking over you to punish and reward your choices, you can be calm. The world is sure now, black and white. Stitch changed fast. In two weeks we had a house-trained, reasonably behaved mutt who didn’t bark but did jump on the couch whenever we left the room. Which I could not have cared less about. But Gus would nightly cover the sectional in large toddler toys and even chairs to keep her from curling up in the corner nook of the brown couch. He wasn’t much of a fan of Stitch once she actually got here.
Even though she was calmer, housebroken and obedient, Stitch wasn’t much of a dog for a family. She ever wanted to play. If you threw her a toy, she’d fetch it and then run past you into the house with it, to hide it safely somewhere where no one would take it away from her again. If she got a hold of our daughter’s stuffed animals, she carefully chewed only the eyes off, then lined her dog bed with them. If the kids tried to wrassle with her, she’d scoot up and trot away, with a “I don’t want no trouble,” look in her eyes.
Her eyes. I don’t know if dogs can communicate their five or six emotions through the set of their eyes, but if they can, Stitch had two emotions. “Immense Worry” and “I’m safe for right now.”
Seven years later. I got the dream dog, the Australian-German Shepherd mix puppy. Stitch wanted nothing to do with her even for the single month in which Elke was actually smaller than her. Elke was everything Stitch couldn’t be. Stitch’s affection, always of the, “please don’t hurt Dobby, Master” variety never charmed liked Elke’s jaunty “You’re my monkey-people-family and I love you and gonna nibble on the little boys tummy cuz he giggles and swish goes my big happy tale and my snoot is furry and GIVE US A KISS bouncy bouncy bouncy!!!”
Seeing the dogs together made me understand my responsibility to Stitch. She did not enjoy the challenges of body and intellect, or even the attention that Elke needed. She wanted safety from fear and abuse, a full tummy, and love as best she could understand it, whether it be a tossed chicken skin or a tummy rub out of the blue.
In the end, Stitch’s entire life involved moving her arthritic twisted trunk and staggering stump legs from one hidey-hole to another, depending on what room I was in. She never left me, and no one else in the house was aware of her except as a tripping hazard. She existed as a shadow. A shadow that labored to breathe and had a huge fatty tumor growing weekly under the skin of her belly. She got an infection; her left eye always coated in green mucus, that wouldn’t go away for love or money. In the last week she peed on the floor every day, even though the back door was open.
I didn’t tell anyone that morning. Gus was having a rough day and the kids, honestly, would barely notice she was gone unless I made a production out of it.
After my father’s lingering death, I knew nothing under my care would ever suffer the living hell of being forced to stay alive through medical intervention. Joyless and hopeless and riddled with pain. I pulled the plug on my mother without hesitation. I talked through tears to Stitch like this was another trip to the hated vet, except this time she had a big Andouille sausage to enjoy on the way. She lurched herself up to the open window for the last three minutes of the car ride, one of her favorite things to do.
We waited on the floor of the exam room, and I corralled my voice out of tears into as normal, strong and deep, as I could make it. Not knowing what death is, or that it is coming, is one of the most wonderful things about being an animal and I didn’t want to corrupt it. I even scolded her for trying to hid under a chair like she always does. “Sit. Stitch, SIT. Good girl.” I let her hide in me instead, her dry nose and crusted eyes plunged in the crook of my elbow, her body sheltered by my legs. And when I said firmly, “It’s ok, girl, you’re fine. You’re gonna be fine.” I did not feel like I was lying.
Euthanasia is quick. One shot in the leg vein. Or it would have been. Stitch suddenly found enough strength to kick when only half the barbiturate had been plunged into her blood. She fell deep asleep but a whole new needle had to be prepared to stop her heart and lungs. If anything will haunt me it will be that kick. That “I don’t want to die,” last kick, trying to throw off me and her other killers. You could easily argue that’s not what it was…dogs know fear and pain but they don’t know they can die. Most humans barely know they can die. But still…
Stitch could have lived untold months longer, even without medical intervention. She still ate, she still walked, however pained. I chose her death, drove her to meet it, and held her down while it came. I cried throughout. But I didn’t falter.
I never wanted her. But she was mine. Not Gus’s, not the kids. I was the only one she cared about and the only one who cried over her. She was mine.
Others would have done better by her. If she’d gone to the pound she might have been well adopted and be robust and healthy today.
Instead she was mine. And I loved her, in the deeply flawed way I was able to.
To the end.