“When you’re finished with what you’re doing, can you bathe Gabby?”
It’s Saturday morning, lazy in the kennel of the animal hospital except for this load of laundry, that stack of three dog bowls waiting to be washed. All the boarders are morning napping, running after squirrels in their dreams, and I have so much time to spare.
The first time I ever bathed Gabby, the veterinarian told me it could possibly be her last bath, so make it good. An old-as-God Sheltie with the most perfect Lassie face, clear eyes, and cancer, she was and is day by day some kind of miracle.
My sleep the night before was tortured, the kind of existential pain that can break a person, and I wasn’t kind to myself in the nightwatches. I woke exhausted from the wrestling and the yearning, gentleness so far from my mind, ready to strong-arm my way through a day it would have been easier to not wake for.
But the moment I lift her body from the ground toward the tub, and she leans her whole weight against me, giving herself over to what comes next, I slow down. She is remarkably vulnerable but with an unusual peace and ready trust.
I unlatch her collar and take off her crumpled bandanna, setting them on the side table, and she waits while I get the temperature right.
As I begin to wet her down, she turns toward me and looks into my eyes and doesn’t look away. My breath catches in my throat; her presence is stunning in intensity. For a split second, I think, “Could she know I’m a wreck?” But that’s crazy talk, dogs knowing things, something from within me replies. “Maybe you know,” I retort out loud. She gazes back.
My hands are timid and slow as I wash. She’s so weak that even a firm scrub could knock her over. Her belly is bloated and hard, but her hip bones and spine protrude. When she’s fully wet I realize how small and fragile she is under all that hair. I smooth the cream rinse over her body and pause to find her intently looking into my face again. So I rinse my hands, dry them on my scrubs, and begin to smooth her face, her head, her ears, looking back.
And then I feel the tears. With every slow, with every gentle, with each bit of care and tenderness, I’m unraveling. Confronted with her frailties, I’m confronted with my own, and begin to feel conviction about my own unkindness toward my body, my heart. Her vulnerability mirrors what I feel in this moment; even a firm word today could knock me over. We are both creatures, finite. We are both bodies, mine human, hers canine.
I’m struck by the miracle she is, moved by the gift I imagine she is to her people.
And yet I know that her day, like all our days, will come. I have feared, have known, that some day soon I would answer the front desk phone and it would be Gabby’s person on the other end of the line who says, “I think it’s time,” and I would pencil “PTS” – “put to sleep” – in the appointment book next to her name. I would hand the box of Kleenex, and say “Be good to you. You were brave today,” send them home breathing prayers over them, and put in the order for ashes and an urn. I would come home wrecked, and talk about it over dinner, and pick myself up and move on. A few days later, she’d come back as a small box in a white bag, and I would call her owners for pick up.
I wish I could tell you what all of this means.
I wish I knew.
All I know is that you’ll either know what I’m saying or you won’t.
No one could have prepared me for the emotional landscape of veterinary work.
It both is and isn’t the death of animals. The day I lost it the worst was a day I’d never met the cat we put down, and I didn’t know the family at all. What I knew was that two children under ten came to say goodbye to someone who meant everything to them and they didn’t understand, but also did. The little boy paced the vet clinic, wanting to be there, not wanting to be there. Crying after, he prayed to the cat while sitting at our small blue kids table in the lobby. The little girl was in hysterics, her father carrying her out, her breaking loose to run back to her beloved friend, now gone, before he carried her out a second time.
In that moment, I wondered if I was witnessing the purest possible love that exists – the love between children and animals.
I cried the whole drive home. I laid in bed for three hours, then tried to go for a run. Two minutes in, I was sitting in the grass beside the bayou heaving sobs, got back in my car, and went home, Seafret’s “Oceans” on repeat in my earbuds. My housemate met me on the walk where he stood digging up a patch of grass to plant new flowers, and after a look at me, urged me to pull weeds and to talk. I was a mess for three more days.
What happens between an animal and a human being is sacred, holy ground. This is what I know. And what I have been realizing – no, admitting – is the gift of that bond.
I’m becoming convinced that there are emotions which are too hard, too complicated, to navigate in the common course of human to human connections. The risks are so high and the cost of vulnerability so much that we don’t dare. And so for some of us, the love of a dog (a cat, a horse, or you name it) is the place we turn to work that out. We don’t know we’re doing this; it happens mostly unaware, but it happens. What seemed like a fun idea, getting a puppy on a whim, someone to run with, or to watch the house while we’re away, becomes one of the deepest connections we have and often we don’t know how deep until crisis hits and we’re face to face with loss.
We sometimes joke in our culture about “emotional support animals,” and yet…
And yet, the connections are deep. One client, an older man who lives alone after his wife passed, confessed to me in near whispers over the front desk last week that he and his dog have a bedtime prayer ritual every night. He was a bit embarrassed, but hoped that I might understand. “I shouldn’t treat him as a human child, but I do. I do as much for him as I did for my daughters when they were young. I know he’ll probably die before I do, and how will I go on?”
At moments the grief after losing an animal seems as intense as the loss of other human beings. We’re sometimes ashamed of this. In the aftermath of loss, I have more than once heard someone apologize for their emotion. “I know he was just a dog, but he… wasn’t… I guess. I mean… I’m sorry.”
We don’t have good ways of marking this grief, and we rarely have communities capable of taking the loss seriously, of remembering with us and honoring the gravity of these bonds. We’re ashamed of having loved so fully. We feel foolish.
But every loss I’ve witnessed these past months has in a strange backward way been cathartic even as it was devastating, an invitation into griefs I never allowed myself to feel over animals that meant everything to me as a child and even as an adult. There are losses which have meant more to me than the loss of human friends, and until now I haven’t had the courage or the space to say this.
This is the job I resigned from a few weeks ago.
As it turns out, perhaps because I’m highly sensitive and also the kind of introvert who has arguably at moments loved animals at least as much as I have loved people, I’m deep in the trenches of empathy fatigue. The clinic I work for has had as many as 10 euthanasias or losses in a week, which probably pales in comparison to other larger clinics. But that’s 10 families in literally unspeakable crisis, losing someone they have no good way of grieving. As a mom and pop clinic with one old-school vet on staff who still writes all her charts by hand, by the time a pet passes, we’ve often spent countless hours with their people, heard the stories, witnessed the griefs, and have been privy to the dollars spent. We’ve called to check in every other day, filled the prescriptions, or scheduled IV fluids three times a week. We’ve held them in the lobby, we’ve talked about bowel habits and feeding, we’ve heard about home-life routines and all the iterations of “I just don’t know what I’ll do without her.” We’ve witnessed the decline alongside them. We’ve concurred when they’ve called to say “I think it may be time.”
It’s wonderful work, sacred work. I have loved it, and I have hated it. The times I’ve hated it have been because I have bumped up against my limits, both emotionally and in my capacities to accompany someone. I’m a pastor at heart, and I can’t in those moments often say the things that occur to me to say – things about creature to creature relationships being sacramental and sacred. And once we have journeyed alongside to the very end, they often leave the clinic and don’t come back. Occasionally they do, but not often. It’s too hard to face us again, and it’s not uncommon to get a call from another clinic in the weeks following, asking for the records of the other family pets to be transferred.
What I will take with me is the privilege of having witnessed the deep love between human and animal, and a handful of questions about how to tend to others in these deep ways outside the clinic environment.
Gabby is still alive. I tell myself that maybe I will have moved on into the next season of my life before she’s gone, and in that way without my knowing of her loss, she will somehow be to me immortal.