A week ago today I was seated in an exam room of The Avenues Pet Hospital with Cody across my lap. The veterinarian, kneeling on the floor at my feet, withdrew the chestpiece of her stethoscope from a spot on Cody’s rib cage just under his left foreleg. She sighed. And then she whispered, “He just wants to take one more breath.”
And I remembered a moment from an evening near to Thanksgiving almost 14 years ago, when I knelt next to my young rescue, watching his chest rise and fall as he slept after a day running, running, running, over the grass of Pinelake Park, and over the sand and into the breakers of Ocean Beach. Until that moment, I had never been responsible for anyone other than myself, had indeed been accused more than once of being damaged, too selfish and irresponsible to be of any value to anyone.
I had spoken his new name to him. “You’re Cody now.”
I had given his ear a scratch and a gentle tug, eliciting from him a heavy sigh of either contentment or exasperation, or maybe simple assent to being the subject of my experiment to produce living proof I had it in me to care and provide for something other than me.
Or maybe – and yes, this is a stretch – maybe a reassurance, an expression of his faith in me that I would do right by him.
But most likely it was exasperation. He opened his eye and gave his chops a lick. I let him be.
So last week when the vet said my rescue, now old and enfeebled, was wanting to take one last breath, I hoped for another deep sigh, which I would exercise great license in interpreting as his expression of gratitude for, and a satisfied punctuation to, the good life I’d given him. I curled over him. I hugged him. I laid a hand across his protruding ribs and closed my eyes. I listened.
And I tried persuading him, telepathically, that my purchase of this euthanasia service, competently and compassionately delivered, was the best I could do for him now, and that his acquiescence to it was the best he could do for himself. I said into his ear as though coaxing him through a door I held open for him and into a sunny expanse of grass and sand and saltwater waves, “Go on now, buddy.”
The vet pressed the chestpiece against him again. “He’s gone.”
Indeed he was. The rigidity of his wasted muscle, in unrelenting flexion for months, had dissipated. He was at last as relaxed as he had been in his bed all those years ago.
The vet stood, stroked his ear. “Take as much time as you need.” She left.
She and her assistant had spread a blanket on the floor before my chair at the start of the service, expecting that he’d lie down for the procedure. I tried coaxing him down, but he couldn’t go. He licked his chops as dogs do when they are frightened or anxious. He turned, resisting lowering himself, probably because “down” meant too much pain to him. After a few of his turns I couldn’t bear it anymore, so I gathered him up, hoisted him into my lap, and while he was clearly uncomfortable due to the arthritis and whatever was bleeding from inside him, he stopped licking his chops and he lowered his head. There he lay, taut, tense, shuddering.
The procedure over, I held him in my arms over that blanket. His corpse lolled toward it as if seeking to lie on it. I laid him upon it, and then I bent over him, and then I sobbed.
I happen to be at a place in my life where I am regularly informed of others’ adventures, which generally involve zip lines over a jungle canopy, or rafts on whitewater, or parachutes, treks along ancient mountain passes or into caves, the measure of these adventures being the sum of an adrenaline surge and the acceleration of a pulse. I listen or read respectfully, but am guarded because in my estimation, that measure is indicative of not much more than the degree to which a creature’s consciousness has been distracted from its comfortable habits; it doesn’t square with my idea of, “adventure.”
If it didn’t change you, it wasn’t an adventure. Cody changed me, so by that measure stands among the few real adventures of my life.
I finished sobbing. I sighed. And then I left.