When I was eight, I played Sega a lot. I sat under my brother's bed and tooled around with Sonic the Hedgehog. I had a very serious vendetta against Doctor Robotnik.
That's what I was doing when Teddy came into our lives for the first time, a fuffy white thing with dark eyes and a black nose, a face like a polar bear, bounding through the house.
Fifteen years later, I am coming home in the evening and mopping up the mess on the kitchen floor, wrapping him up in a towel and carrying him outside because he can no longer walk. I am draping his muzzle in his food bowl so he can eat without lifting his head. I am bathing him and blow-drying his fur so he doesn't get chilled, tucking a fleece blanket around him and lying on the floor cuddling him because I know that time is more fleeting than I want to admit.
On Wednesday, August 31st, my parents made the decision to euthanize him. I had been rallying for this decision for weeks or months, but getting a text message with stark, empty words -- "We are taking Teddy to the vet at 6:15 tonight." -- two hours before his departure made me feel much less ready than I'd felt the day before, pushing for his parole from the prison his body had become. I felt more crushing heartbreak than relief -- and no victory at all.
I drove to Dover and my father met me in the driveway, deliberately keeping his head down so I couldn't see the evidence of his struggle. I walked to the rear of the vehicle and flipped a latch to remove my back seat and create cargo space for my precious cargo. Dad did the same on the other side of the bumper. It would take two people to remove the seat.
"Are you ready?" I asked.
I heard a sniff. "No. This shit sucks." There was a weakness in his voice from hours of crying alone in the house with my mother and our dog of fifteen years. I couldn't imagine the agony he had been through that day.
Mom came outside carrying Teddy in a dark blue towel. She set him in the yard near my van and walked back into the house, looking empty and broken and tortured. Dad folded a thick quilted blanket on the floor of my van, and I covered it with navy fleece.
"Go get him," Dad said.
I went into the yard and bent down to scratch behind the dog's ear. "Hi, buddy," I whispered. "Let's go."
I scooped him up into my arms for the last time, carried him to the van, and set him down on his right side on top of the blankets. He didn't look confused. He looked resigned, peaceful -- trusting. I felt stronger for his expression, confident that this was what he'd been waiting for, and that we were doing the right thing.
My parents both cried on the way to the clinic. I drove. I wanted to run every other car off the road. I wanted this to be over already. I wanted this to never happen at all.
I backed up to the entrance of the clinc as my sister and Gavin walked around to meet us. Laura was wearing sunglasses and had been a walking disaster area, I knew, since she'd gotten the news. Gavin bounded around to the side of the car and tried to open my mother's door; at seven years old, his energy and exuberance cannot be restrained by grief.
I pulled him to the side of the car while Dad went inside to sign the paperwork. "The hardest thing I've ever had to do was sign my name authorizing the doctor to take the life of my family member," he would later say.
Meanwhile, I knelt on the ground in the parking lot and held Gavin's hands.
"Listen, kiddo," I began.
"Whoa, girl. You really need to cut your nails."
"Pay attention," I reminded him. "You need to understand that right now, Memom is very sad." I had been neutral and brave until I said that to him. "And--" my voice shook and my eyes filled, "Pop is very sad. And..."
Gavin smiled at me. "And you are very sad, and Mommy is very sad."
I wiped my eyes. "Yes. So you need to calm down and be respectful of the fact that we're all very sad right now." I looked up at his face and saw his eyes were rimmed with redness. "Were you crying?"
"Yes," Laura interjected.
"Well, maybe just a little." Gavin shot a Look at his mother, and I hugged him, glad that his age would protect him from what we were going through. I let him go into the van by himself and I put some Queen on the stereo, then met the veterinary technicians as they exited the clinic with a black stretcher. I opened the door so they could take him out.
"Oh, he's a beautiful dog," one of them said. I felt like losing it right then and there. "What a good boy."
Gavin, climbing over the seats like a chimp, said, "You guys gotta be careful with him. He's like, a million years old."
They carried him inside, and I trusted them. I turned off the van and was the last of the family to follow him inside.
We moved -- gravitating, lost, filled with dread -- into a small room where Teddy was already lying on the large metal table. My father was as far from him as possible. My mom looked pititful. Laura looked scared. The technician asked if any of us had ever euthanized a pet before.
My father wiped his eyes. "Does it look like we've ever done this before?" He managed to sound more apologetic than rude, which was a blessing.
She explained the procedure as sympathetically as possible, gently, as though explaining it to children. "It's usually very quick," she said comfortingly. "Within five or ten seconds of the injection. But I'm going to leave you here for a few minutes and while I get everything ready. You all take your time."
We stood in an awkward semi-circle, and everyone tried to find the right things to say.
"Look at him," my father said, barely able to speak. "He has no idea." It was a bizarre and unsettling concept for me, one with which I had wrestled earlier in the day. I had a difficult time accepting that he had an expiration date, and that, as humans, we were more intimate with his fate than he was. It felt like an invasion of his privacy, an invasion of his rights. He lay there with no knowledge of unnatural death, no expectations of overdosing on an anesthetic, and no way to communicate his wishes to the people in control of the remainder of his life. He didn't know what a minute was, or that he only had a few of them left to live.
I rubbed the fur at the top of his head, flopped his ear around and tried to communicate warmth and support through physical contact. I tried to say, "Don't be afraid," with a brisk scratching under his collar. His foot twitched with bliss. We laughed in a watery way, between the whispers about things that (don't) exist beyond death -- reunions with the deceased, restored health and youth, infinite supplies of Christmas ornaments and plastic bottles to eat.
Two technicians came in, both so caring and sympathetic that it brought tears to my eyes. One of them was young; she held Teddy's head in her arms and cradled his face to her chest to comfort and still him while the older technician inserted a catheter into his left forearm. He whimpered so softly that I almost didn't notice it.
It didn't take long. My father regaled them both with stories of Teddy's better days: surviving getting run over by a truck, then barking so loudly at the vet that he had to be picked up early because he was bothering the other dogs; eating glass ornaments at Christmastime; and chasing our cat, Scotty, around the house.
Then she posed a difficult question.
"Is everyone going to remain in the room during the procedure?"
Mom was the first to respond. "I'm going," she said.
"I'm going too," Gavin said, and inched closer to my mother.
Dad said he would stay, and I looked at him, already so guilty, so devastated, and asked if he was sure. He was. My sister also nodded and said she was staying. I put my hand on her shoulder and said that I would stay as well.
"I'm going to go get the veterinarian, then," she said. "You take all the time you need. Don't try to rush. We'll be a few minutes."
My mom said goodbye one last time, and escorted Gavin out of the room. We were talking amongst each other when the technician and the veterinarian -- a man with facial hair and piercing blue-green eyes -- entered the room. The vet ducked his head respectfully as he stepped past us to the table. He had a syringe in his hand. He asked us if we were ready. We said yes.
My sister had been petting Teddy's head. She removed her hand when the vet began the injection. I could see her being uncomfortable being that close to death.
But I couldn't pull away and I couldn't let go. My hand stayed on Teddy's right side during the eternity that it took for the anesthetic to evacuate the syringe. The dog's eyes stayed mercifully closed while the drug coursed through his veins, and I waited until I could feel a change in his posture. I thought I'd let go when he did, but I was wrong.
His head, resting on his right forearm -- face turned to my sister and me -- slumped off to the left. There was no muscle spasming, and no visible loss of control or movement other than that small gesture. He looked like every dog who ever fell asleep after a long romp. I kept my fingers sifted in his fur while he bridged the gap between living and dying. I couldn't have forgiven myself for letting him leave us forever without feeling one of us there with him when he went.
When Teddy's head slumped, my father said, "That's all I can handle, I've got to get out of here." He moved so quickly to the door that it might have been a run. Laura and I stood together, refusing to look away.
As the syringe emptied, the vet looked up, first at my sister, then at me. "That's it," he said softly, comfortingly. "No more suffering." He and the technician touched lightly around Teddy's eyes to check for any reflexes or sign of consciousness. I watched as his lifeless face refused to submit an action. A stethoscope, placed lightly to his rib cage, confirmed there was no heartbeat. In that instant, I wished for time to turn back ten seconds -- just ten -- so I could hear his heartbeat one more time. It hadn't occurred to me that the sound would go away with him.
The vet dipped his head again to acknowledge our pain, and told us that we could have as much time as we needed. He and the technician stepped out gracefully, and Laura and I stood together, looking at something that didn't quite strike me as a corpse or a body -- just our puppy, sleeping in front of us. I had felt almost clinically detached for most of the procedure, and hadn't felt many tears drip down my cheeks.
I managed to remain collected for about four more seconds after the door shut behind the vet and the technician. There was a bar on either side of the table Teddy was lying on; thankfully one of them was one in front of me. I grabbed onto it with both hands when my knees gave, and I sobbed aloud, kneeling like a peasant pleading for mercy in a royal court. I hadn't wanted to be the kind of girl who fell apart.
My sister looked on helplessly, waiting for me to stand, waiting to find out what to do in a moment like this. I was lost to her for perhaps fifteen seconds, and then I stood.
We stroked his fur for a few long moments, and he was warm, and I was grateful for that. Warmth equals life. I wanted to believe there was still life under all that fur.
Laura scratched his head a little and made her parting remark. We stood in silence for another moment, and I quietly asked, "Are you finished?"
"Yeah," she said, wiping her eyes. "I guess."
"I need a minute," I said softly.
"Okay." She looked one last time, and then turned and left, shutting the door softly. Once I was alone, I stepped around to his other side, dimly registering the sound of my heels clicking on the floor that signaled that I was mobile. I had felt like I might have been floating. I had felt no more alive than him.
I slowly petted the top of his head, then angled down and really looked at his face, wishing I could go home to the comfort that I would see it again. I hugged his body. I kissed the top of his head once, for Taylor and me. I straightened. Then I leaned down and placed another kiss, tender, in the same place. "That's from Mark," I whispered. My brother hadn't gotten to say goodbye.
I paced one lap around the small room to gather my composure, I wrung my hands, and I put my palm on him again because I don't know how to let go. With my other hand, I swiped at my eyes. I took a deep breath. I let go.
"Bye, puppy," I said softly, and I was gone -- and so was he.