I answered the phone in a tone that sounded more frustrated, angry, than I had intended. It was 10 till 9 on a Friday morning and I was late for work. She caught me in the bathroom trying to run a straightener through my unruly hair in an attempt to look like less of a total mess.
“Hey, are you busy?” My mom had asked. “Yes. What?!” I had snapped.
“I just called to let you know we’re taking Maggie to the clinic on Tuesday.”
I immediately regretted my response. I’d been waiting for this call. It wasn’t that she was taking our 9-year-old golden retriever/lab mix dog for a vet appointment, it was about what would happen there.
Maggie had been sick for a while and we were nearing the end. A tumor on her throat had grown to the size of an orange, something her sandy blond fur made it difficult to see. It was easier to notice with your ears. The tumor made it hard for her to eat or drink. Each time she tried she went into a coughing fit.
I hung up the phone and made plans to be in Kentucky Monday, Maggie’s final day.
Everyone says this about their pets but she really was the best dog. She was good with kids — even with three little girls clamoring around and sometimes catching rides on her back.
She used to visit me in Charleston on weekends sometimes. She got along with my jerk cats. She won over my coworkers, who gave her cheese fries and belly scratches. I don’t think she met anyone she didn’t like.
She loved you, too. It doesn’t matter that you never met her.
That night my parents and I kept a strange and modern death vigil — me with my laptop, headphones and the new season of House of Cards camped out next to a blanket on the floor where Maggie rested. Mom and dad sat near by, watching TV.
I went to bed, but Mom couldn’t stand the thought of Maggie alone like this. She slept on the couch by her. It wasn’t the first time she’d done it, but it would be the last.
There’s nothing like a dog’s love. We should all be so lucky to experience it, a friend posted on my Facebook the other day. And I can’t stop thinking about the truth of that.
Our love was mutual and not complicated. I never had to earn it.
When I arrived in Ashland Monday afternoon, she didn’t ask me where I’d been. I went to see her in the hallway where she slept behind a baby gate, separated from my little nieces, who were visiting.
“Hey girl,” I said. She perked up a little at my voice. That stump tail of hers began to wag. So I laid down beside her, ran my fingers through her fur a little. She lifted her leg, an invitation to scratch her belly that I accepted.
The next morning, Mom and I loaded her into the back of their SUV, picked up my dad from the office on the way into town.
Getting out of the car, I couldn’t bear to put a leash on her — I don’t know how much pain the tumor gave her. Instead I lead her through the parking to the clinic without it.
It felt a little strange, taking her in past the other dogs in the waiting room. One owner made a comment that I can’t quite recall, something about her own dog looking like Maggie when it gets older. And I wondered if she saw the tears that streamed down our faces — by then we’d stopped trying to disguise them.
The vet tech explained things to us in calm, compassionate tones.
No, she won’t feel anything. Yes, it will be quick, probably even before the injection is done. Yes, you can pet her while it happens.
They lift her onto the table and before long Maggie has drifted off.
“I don’t know how you all do this everyday,” I say to the vet and vet tech after everything is over. You have to think of it as helping them, she says, and I know she’s right.
Taking her into that vet’s office was the last loving thing we could have done for her.
All you can do with a love like that is return it, and hope you’ve done right by it.