Throughout our days we prepare for so many incidents that might come our way and, even when something –– a flat tire, getting locked out of the house or a blowout diaper in aisle 3 at Target –– does surprise us, we find solutions.
But for some reason we spend our lives with furry family members pretending we won’t have to do this thing we know we are probably going to have to do. It’s self-preservation, I assume. After all, reminding ourselves of what’s to come is no way to appreciate those wet-nosed kisses and lap snuggles.
I was about to roast a tray of broccoli and cauliflower when my phone rang on Tuesday night. It was my brother, Luke.
“Hey, I just want you to know that there is no way I am going to be able to get out of work in time to help with Rudy.”
We had known for months that Rudy, our family dog, was not well, so when my mom had called earlier that evening to tell me his caretaker called her to say he was throwing up blood and mucus, I had begun preparing myself. But because we file away this moment under “things I am not going to think about (or a least as little as possible)” I hadn’t yet fully registered the inevitable.
My parents were out of town and, Jessica –– Rudy’s “girlfriend,” as we like to call her –– told my mom that Rudy had become very ill, unable to keep anything down and unresponsive. “Someone needed to pick him up,” she said. My youngest brother, Isaac, was the closest, so he went to get him. My mom had called me to tell me the next steps, but I had missed the call in the midst of dinner preparation. So, that was what Luke was referring to when he had called. I hung up with him and called my mom, telling her I would leave Claire with my sister and her husband, and meet Isaac at the vet. I knew what was next and there was no way he was walking that road alone.
Everyone handles grief differently. (Thank goodness because can you imagine if everyone started ugly crying at once?) In crisis mode, I launch into auto pilot. I don’t know if it’s the fact that all but two years of my life have been spent as the oldest sibling, or simply a built-in mechanism. But a switch flips in these situations and it’s as if I start to hover above myself, taking the necessary actions while attaching as little emotion as possible. Drive to meet Isaac, give Amanda time to say goodbye before she heads home to breastfeed Oscar and take care of Claire, walk into vet and say “we’re here for Rudy,” sit down.
As Isaac and I take a seat, I look up at the front desk and see an unlit candle. In front of it is a sign: “If this candle is lit, then a family is grieving. Please be respectful.”
“This is going to be fucked up isn’t it?” Isaac says. I look over at him –– a 22-year-old, 6’2” man who is still very much my baby brother –– and nod, unable to ease the pleading look in his big blue eyes that is begging me to tell him something different.
“Have you ever done this before?” he says.
“I haven’t,” I say. “So, we’re in this together.”
And we look at each other, silently registering what the next few moments will look like.
“I’m so hungry,” Isaac says. “Like, I haven’t eaten anything all day. It actually hurts.”
And I’m so grateful that even in the midst of what’s to come, my “little” brother is staying true to who he is –– a wholeheartedly loving person with a dash of not being able to ever gauge a moment –– and leaving me with no surprises.
“I’m sorry,” I say and before either one of us can say the next thing, there is a nurse standing at the door.
“Rudy?” she says, looking our way.
We stand and I bend down to touch Rudy’s head. “Come on, baby boy,” I say, urging his shaky, arthritic legs along. Each step toward that exam room door feels like another in the direction of no-turning-back territory. I want to tell Rudy to stop trusting me and stop being such a dumb-ass and run, but I know that this is the role we play as his humans.
Everything that follows feels like forever and never enough time all at once, leading up to a singular moment that is mere seconds.
The sweet veterinarian in an orange bow tie who tells us all of the things we know that can essentially be chalked up to one sentence: It’s time.
We wait for the vet to make preparations.
Isaac: “Do you think it would be OK if I ran to the gas station to get a snack?” Me: “Lord God, please go get a snack before I strangle you.”
My alone time with Rudy when I rub his soft ears and tell him it’s all going to be OK. (And I silently wonder to myself: “Why do I keep saying this? Because no it’s not going to be OK. Why do I keep saying that?”)
Isaac feeding Rudy cheddar cheese and sour cream chips and a piece of a Hershey’s bar because who the fuck cares now about what he should or shouldn’t be eating?
The vet giving Rudy a shot to relax him and Isaac and I guiding him to the floor as he gets sleepy and his legs grow wobbly. Looking up at Isaac from my spot next to Rudy on the floor to see cheddar cheese rimming his mouth and tears streaming down his face.
Luke walking through the door mere minutes before the vet administers the shot that will allow Rudy to rest peacefully.
Rudy’s brown eyes looking at us. Is he asking me not to do it? Does he know that I love him?
The weight of my brothers leaning on me as we rub every inch of Rudy and kiss his face, assuring him it’s OK to go. (It’s really not OK.)
Looking over at the sniffling nurse as I realize that animal lovers are indeed an incredible breed of people.
Walking out of that exam room with a collar and leash in my hands. The candle is lit.
Luke and I stand on the sidewalk –– Isaac having left to take some time alone –– and he collapses into my arms, sobbing. “I know,” I reassure him, “I know.”
We hug for several minutes and then he stands tall, wiping his eyes. I open my car door and place Rudy’s things on the passenger seat. A woman with two dogs walks by and, noticing my open car door in front of a veterinary office, she says:
“You don’t have a dog, do you?”
It’s like a knife through the heart. We shake our heads.
Luke and I say goodbye and I drive to pick up Claire. I call my mom and through thick tears, she says, “I know. I already called the vet.” She mourns the fact that she and my dad didn’t get to say goodbye, and she beats herself up for all of the times she cursed Rudy as she cleaned up his daily accidents. I tell her that her actions are human and that he knew she had done the best she could. When my dad gets on the phone and his voice breaks over the idea of his children being left with the burden of taking Rudy to the vet, I assure him “we are a family and we are OK.” When I see Amanda and tears trickle down her red, blotchy face, I hug her. “I hate that I wasn’t there,” she says. I tell her she was fulfilling her role as a mother. Rudy knew she loved him. She was the only one, after all, who let him “kiss” her directly on the mouth.
I scoop up Claire and head home to get her in bed. I rock her and we sing about Rudy, her “favorite dog,” she says. Her toddlerhood means she doesn’t know about tonight’s events and that she will never remember Rudy. But I promise myself to remind her.
I put Claire in bed and Dan calls. Through all of this he has been at work and knows of nothing that has unfolded. I briefly tell him and when he asks questions, I say, “Can we talk about it when you get home?” Knowing me, he quickly obliges.
When he does arrive home, I tell him the details and we both offer reassurances for what happened. That, while difficult, it was the right thing to do. We pick at food and head to bed.
It’s the smell of Rudy on my shirt that allows the tears to come. Dan had already gotten in the shower and I was about to change for bed when I caught a hint of him on my chest. The tears fall before I realize I’m crying. I walk into the bathroom and pull back the shower curtain. Seeing my face, Dan reaches out a wet hand.
“Honey, it was what he needed,” he says. “I’m so, so sorry.”
When I crawl into bed that night and our fluffy, orange cat Madeline makes a spot on my chest, I wrap my arms around her. I feel her start to purr and when I begin to think of what lies ahead for her, I push it away. After all, what lies ahead for Madeline is what lies ahead for each one of us, but in between is life. It will never feel like enough time or enough memories or enough tail wags. But we sure as hell ought to enjoy it in the meantime.
We love you, Rudy. As your girlfriend said: Run free, baby boy.