Friday, August 24, 2012

The Gamble of Death

Macheath in December of 2004

In 1998, Uncle Toby, the .75 Pomeranian, .25 long haired chihuahua, had his third bladder tumor blockage. When he had it the first time, we got the tumors removed, and he was fine, but they returned. After the second surgery, he was not himself for a long time, and I told myself that, when they came back again, it would be time to let go. Therefore, in April, as enormous storms came up, I took some pictures of him, and then we went to the vet. I held him as they administered the injection. My friend Mary had gone with me.

I was coldly rational about the thing. Toby was happy, perky, and feeling great, and when the vet gave him the needle stick, he licked the air in mercy, looking for me to help him. The death was instant. I shattered. Mary had to drive me home, because I was crying too hard.

Only three days later, I found an ad in the paper for American Eskimo Dog puppies, with papers. I set out for the middle of nowhere -- the exact center of the state of North Carolina on an East-West line but against the Virginia border. There is nothing up there. The woman selling the dogs had the same name as the street and the town, and so there was a familiar story embedded there of major land holdings diminishing over time and family fortunes turning into dilapidated houses on muddy roads.

She introduced me to her disabled son, and she said she raised them dogs in the back there.

I did some puppy tests, and I picked out one, but a different one got scooped up and given to me. Never mind that. The puppy threw up on me on the way home a couple of times, and it was too scared to walk on the vinyl floor to get to its food and water. It also didn't look like an American Eskimo Dog at all. It looked like some kind of dirty poodle puppy.

However, I named her Macheath -- after the highwayman in John Gay's play whose beauty allows him to get away with murder -- and I washed her to get the fleas off. The puppies had been in a muddy pen, and Macheath was anemic from flea bites.

Last week, I took her to the vet, after she had diarrhea in the house for the first time in her life. They gave her an I.V. and sent her home, but she almost instantly began coughing and spitting up, and I thought they had given her kennel cough. After eight days, when I finally had time during the day, I took her to a different vet, and I received the news that she has a very, very large tumor in her chest.

This tumor is pressing against her windpipe, making it impossible for her to breathe or swallow. What's more, it seems to have grown to this size in only a week or so, so it's an extremely aggressive cancer. If nature does not take her this weekend, I will be back to that nightmarish position on Monday of holding my friend as she dies.

All that has changed in the fifteen years that Macheath has given me is that I now believe as well as think that death is no evil. Death is the same whether it occurs when we're young or old, with disease or with a shock. Death cannot be good or bad, by itself, because it is a judgment given to all animals alike. I cannot this time feel that I am hurting her or letting her down -- a feeling that, cleverness aside, I could never shake with Toby.

However, death hurts. It ends the pain of the suffering one, but it inflicts grievous wounds on the living.

Macheath has been all that anyone could ask for in a dog. She has silently, happily, politely, and with kindness woven her body and mind into my own, so that she is part of my thought, feeling, and living. She is buried deep in me, and when she is taken, it will shred a great hole in me. I don't know how I will react when this dog, who has kept me on the earth more than a couple of times, is gone, but I know that -- fair or not -- I will be hunting up a puppy starting right away.

No matter the devastation when death collects, the gamble always pays off for the player. Would anyone trade fifteen years of comfort for the pain of loss? It's not even close. As awful as it is now and will be, I know that a dog is a condition of life for me.

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