Thursday, June 10, 2010

Goodnight, Sweet Pooch

Yesterday, we had to put our dog Coltrane to sleep. He was a sweet, mellow beagle-mix who slept between us in bed every night. My husband and I had a voice for him--we'd often use it to order each other around on the dog's behalf: Open the fridge. Give me a walkie.

Over the years, we had developed a projected personality for Coltrane that altered between morose, snooty, greedy, Al Capone-esque, and deeply philosophical. Sometimes my husband and I would speak to each other in his voice for hours. Coltrane had no idea what we were talking about, but he knew when we were using "his" voice and would look up from the floor and beat his tail against it, waiting for us to stop projecting the fictional Coltrane and pet the real one.

There's an oft-circulated story about "the Rainbow Bridge" that's designed to comfort people who've lost a pet. It's a lovely, sentimental piece of nondenominational religious feeling that depicts a world where bereaved pet owners are reunited with their animals. I honor it for providing a framework where animals can go to heaven, since many religions won't even grant that they have souls (my feeling is that if I have a soul, then Coltrane did). But it always seems so cartoonish and inadequate. After the vet put Coltrane to sleep, a little old lady came in and made a play-dough pawprint mold from his foot and talked to us about the Rainbow Bridge. She was very well-meaning, but after several minutes of patter about how Coltrane had "just gotten his angel wings," I was ready to push her out the door.

For years I've been amused imagining Coltrane's reaction to the Rainbow Bridge: He would not want to go anywhere near it. He would check to make sure if there were any abandoned plastic bags (terrifying!) on it. He would sniff it in hopes of finding some dirty underwear or a nice week-old chicken bone. In Coltrane's real heaven, I imagine, sausages would grow out of the earth and the trees would all have low-hanging branches good for scratching your butt on. But even that image is my own projection. I do think that if Coltrane has a heaven, the Rainbow Bridge is about as good an approximation of it as the harps and angels image is for mine.

Bonnie Raitt's song "I Don't Want Anything to Change" comes close to the mood around our house now, where snowdrifts of white fur are still piled up in every corner. He was, we liked to say, a serious dog for serious times, and we will miss him for years. (We'll probably be finding his hair for even longer.)

There are no adequate words to get at how awful it is to deliberately end the life of a dog you love so much. I'm posting the only poem I've ever read that, for me, comes close to the truth of it. It's stripped down, plain--perhaps the only way such a thing can be talked about.


I wanted to stay with my dog
when they did her in
I told the young veterinarian
who wasn't surprised.
Shivering on the chrome table,
she did not raise her eyes to me when I came in.
Something was resolved in her.
Some darkness exchanged for the pain.
There were a few more words
about the size of the tumor and her age,
and how we wanted to stop her suffering,
or our own, or stop all suffering
from happening before us
and then the nurse shaved May's skinny leg
with those black clippers;
she passed the needle to the doctor
and for once I knew what to do
and held her head against mine.
I cleaved to that smell
and lied into her ear
that it would be all right.
The veterinarian, whom I'd fought
about when to do this thing
said through tears
that it would only take a few minutes
as if that were not a long time
but there was no cry or growl,
only the weight of her in my arms,
and then on the world.

from What Saves Us, by Bruce Weigl