My old dog lies on her side, the overhead fluorescent light bouncing off the silver table. I stand beside her head.
“Good dog, Tripod,” I say in time with my slow strokes. “You’re a gooood dog.”
She doesn’t like veterinarians. I’d blame it on the fact that a vet removed her right front leg when she was young, but the truth is she hated them even before that.
This vet is filling in for the regular guy, which is just as well since I hate to cry in front of people I know. Besides, this man is much older and wiser looking, less blustery and businesslike. He approaches with a syringe and feels for a vein on her front leg.
“I’m afraid we’re going to have trouble getting this injection in,” he says. “She’s dehydrated, so the veins are very small. I usually have more luck with the right leg, but . . .” He shakes his head sadly, looking into my eyes.
Shit. I don’t want Tripod to spend her last moments in pain, the vet jabbing for a tiny, rolling blood vessel.
“Wait,” I say, “what about knocking her out first with an anesthetic right into the muscle?”
“Well, I don’t know. In her condition it might kill her . . .”
I shrug my shoulders. “So?”
“OK, we can do that if you like.” He turns to prepare another syringe. “It’s slow-acting, though. It might take her five or ten minutes to go down.”
“That’s all right. When she’s asleep I’ll leave and you can do it.” My eyes feel warm and wet, and I blink several times fast.
“I had to put my own dog to sleep once.” His voice is slow and soothing. “My old yellow lab couldn’t walk the stairs anymore. I couldn’t do it right, just couldn’t, so I put some powder on his favorite food and left him alone for the night.” He injects the anesthetic quickly into Tripod’s hip. “In the morning I buried him.”
Tripod watches me with deep brown eyes I know better than my own.
“What a good dog.” I stroke the familiar face the way she likes, my index and middle fingers starting halfway up her nose, smoothing all the shiny black hairs in the right direction, above her eye to the base of her ear, over and over. She watches me with a growing calm, her eyes finally closing, her breath slowing.
“You’re a very kind person,” the old man says quietly. “She’s a lucky dog.”
I don’t want to stop stroking. I’ve had this dog for seventeen years.
My mother took me to the dog pound for my sixteenth birthday. Her divorce from my dad had just been finalized, and we needed to cheer ourselves up. As I paced the wet cement walk between rows of small cages, all kinds of dogs threw themselves against the chain-link fence, barking, whining, pawing for my attention. Except one. A funny-looking black dog with a long, pointy nose and strange, velvety fur sat quietly in her pen and watched me. When I reached her, she walked cautiously toward me and sat down.
“Hi, pup.” Her tail thumped twice on the cement, and her head cocked sideways. Small, close-set eyes surveyed me intelligently. I opened the cage and sat cross-legged in front of the door. The young dog walked slowly toward me and stepped carefully into my lap, fitting her buttocks neatly between my legs and resting her front paws over my right leg.
“Her fur is all a mess,” Mom said.
“Nah. Look at her nose and her skinny build. She’s got some Afghan hound in her. That’s Afghan fur.” It felt more like cotton than hair.
“Yeah, right.” Mom laughed at me, but I held the dog tightly. This was the dog I was looking for, and we both knew it.
Tripod wasn’t her name at first. She was Pup because I couldn’t think of anything better. When the mange and the worms were finally gone, she had long, glistening fur, and I decided she was a border collie.
Two years later some jerk in a beat-up Chevy Bel Air drifted onto the shoulder of the road as I walked her on her leash. Whether he wasn’t paying attention, was drunk, or just hated dogs, I’ll never know, but there was a thud and the leash tightened. Then it loosened as she fell to the pavement.
“I can charge you fifteen dollars to put her to sleep, or two hundred and fifty to amputate her leg,” the vet said. I was living on my own then and didn’t have the money for the amputation, so I tied her paralyzed leg to her collar to keep it from dragging on the ground. People stopped me on the street to tell me that my dog’s foot was caught in her collar, or that she was limping, or that I was cruel to keep her alive. But I knew my dog’s smile, and the foot flapping in her face as she hopped never seemed to bother her a bit. Eventually, the leg shriveled up and hung there by itself, so I no longer tied it. The hair on the end of the foot grew several inches long, like the hair on shrunken heads, and I finally trimmed it back to toenail length because it seemed to bother people.
A year later gangrene started eating her toes one by one. With a week’s salary from my waitressing job I had one black toe removed. With the next week’s salary I had another taken off.
“This is dumb,” my mother said. “It’s going to cost you several months’ wages, and then she’ll still have a long stump hanging down. Let me loan you the money to take the leg off. It’ll be much easier on the dog.”
After the surgery, the vet prepared us for what we would see. “Dogs are sensitive about being laughed at,” he said.
The technician led Tripod out. I sighed with relief when I saw the familiar hop, but then my eyes went to the shaved, swollen shoulder, where the stitches pulled tight across a large, pink, lip-like wound. To keep her from tearing out her stitches, the vet had placed one of those huge plastic collars around her neck, and it made her head look like it was stuck in a funnel. She hopped happily into the waiting room to sniff a woman’s white poodle, and I laughed out loud when the woman squealed and ran behind the counter, holding her dog against her chest.
While I laughed, Mom cried. The vet assured her that the dog would be relieved not to keep dragging that floppy little leg around. But I didn’t realize until a year later, when she cried for hours after we trimmed a limb off the willow tree in the yard, that Mom’s tears had to do with her own mastectomy.
Three legs just made Tripod one step closer to being human. Her remaining front leg gradually moved toward the center of her chest for balance, but she tired more easily than other dogs. She hung out with people, even when other dogs were romping. Her begging technique was unsurpassed.
She saved my life when I was twenty-one. She barked at my head one night until I woke up to yell at her and found flames and smoke all around me. She hopped beside me as, choking on the thick, harsh air, I ran naked through the burning doorway into the cold night. The roof caved in minutes later. I still have the certificate from the fire department in my scrapbook. It reads, “Tripod Johnson, Hero.”
Tripod breathes slowly now, and her eyes are closed. I stroke the smooth fur that covers the scar. She’s always enjoyed being patted there. It’s a nice flat place to thunk my palm on her chest as she leans against me. Now I’m supposed to leave her here so the vet can kill her? Maybe she’d be happy again if we treated the diarrhea. Maybe she’s good for another year or so. She’s a herding dog, and she’s been at my heels since I was a teenager. I can’t imagine driving home without her.
But she’s been nearly blind from cataracts and partially deaf for years, I tell myself as I pet her. When she’s outside and wants to be let in, she can’t find the door, and so she stands there and barks at the side of the house. She can’t hear my calls, so I have to bundle my parka over my nightgown, step into my boots, and retrieve her from the snow. And the arthritis in her legs is so bad I have to carry her up and down the stairs.
Lately she hasn’t been able to control her bowels, so I locked her in the bathroom when I went to work this morning. When I returned, the stench hit me immediately. She was lying on her side on the shit-covered bathroom floor. When she saw me she tried to stand, but her feet skated out from under her on the wet linoleum. She had a guilty, ashamed look on her face. I realized I had seen that look before.
My house was ashes after the fire, so Tripod and I moved in with my sick mother.
“Do I look normal?” my mother used to ask.
“Sure you do,” I lied. “Why?”
“Because I feel like people are looking at me funny.”
“Maybe your skin looks a little yellow, I don’t know,” I said. She looked terrible, with bright yellow eyes, yellow skin, and a swollen stomach.
Together we shopped for maternity clothes that would fit over her enlarged stomach. She always laughed about those uncomfortable moments when the saleswoman asked when the baby was due. “I’m not going to have a baby at all, you see. Actually, I’m going to die, and these are the only clothes that fit.” She said that to me in the car on the way home, laughing, but to the saleswoman she just smiled and said, “Soon, I hope.”
Mom’s breast cancer had spread to her liver. I helped out around the house and slept in my old bedroom upstairs, with Tripod curled up against me each night the way my husband, and sometimes my children, do now.
Tripod liked it there. She found a suitor in Mom’s neighborhood, a large German shepherd who impressed me with the way he licked her from head to foot. They had puppies, and I advertised them as a collie-shepherd mix in the newspaper. Every time Tripod hopped out to greet prospective takers, Mom entertained them with the same joke about the three-legged puppies. Some of the people said Tripod wasn’t as much of a collie as they’d expected. “Well, maybe a border collie,” I suggested, and they took the pups home, relieved, probably, about the legs.
Mom’s thinking got confused after awhile. The doctors weren’t sure if it was caused by the chemotherapy or the cancer. She wandered around the house doing crazy things. She ate a suppository. I found cartons of milk in the kitchen cupboard.
“I want to die,” she told me.
“No, you don’t, Mom,” I said. “You’re just confused.”
Then the itching started. Her liver wasn’t filtering out bile, so it deposited in her skin, making it itch constantly, like permanent poison ivy. Because her liver was so damaged she could tolerate only small doses of weak drugs. When they didn’t help, she began seeing a hypnotist. I drove her there three times a week. Mom was never sure if the hypnosis helped, but she wanted to keep going and I decided it must be better than nothing, although she still scratched herself until she bled.
“If I get really bad, will you help me die?” she asked me on the way home from the hypnotist one day. Her fingernails raised welts on her cheek as she spoke.
“Don’t talk like that, please!” I shook my head and stared hard at the road.
A week later her abdomen grew suddenly rigid as if it were filling with cement. She was clutching her gut and screaming by the time the ambulance got there. Her intestines had perforated and spilled their contents into her abdominal cavity. The doctors operated but weren’t sure she would recover.
I prayed that she would stay alive, and she did, to the amazement of her physicians. When she was diagnosed, they thought she had only six months to live, but here she was three years later. She had endured the pain and then the itching, but the confusion was the worst. She was stuck in a permanent paranoid nightmare in which the voices on the hospital loudspeakers were talking about her: “Her cancer is a punishment. Take her children away. Send her to jail. Her husband is having an affair.” She was convinced that these voices were real and tortured herself by constantly repeating them. She also believed the patients in other rooms were her friends, and she tried to convince them that the voices were mistaken. “I didn’t do anything wrong!” she’d plead with terrified strangers, until she was restrained in her bed, her arms tied with sheets. She fought sleep at night because she was afraid she wouldn’t wake up, and I sat by her bed, stroking her forehead, assuring her that no one was saying anything about her. Her mouth was dry and cracked. I rubbed lemon-scented glycerine swabs on her lips, and she blinked and looked at me. I don’t think she knew who I was, but she knew that I was safe. Her body was covered with bruises, and her skin was paper thin and bleeding in places.
“I need to go to the bathroom,” she said to me clearly one morning. I rushed to untie the restraints and supported her elbow as she swung her legs over the side of the bed. She was only a few feet from the bathroom when her bowels emptied. Loose stool gushed down her hospital gown and legs and onto the floor around our feet. I was still holding her elbow as she turned to look at me, guilty and ashamed. She started to cry.
I remembered her asking me to help her die. I thought about it often during the next few weeks as she itched and hurt and cried until she was dead. But I didn’t know what to do.
Tripod has been peacefully asleep for many minutes, yet I am still running my hand from her ear down to her hip, stroking her again and again. But now I remember why I brought her here, and I look up into the solemn face of the old vet and nod.