Death makes angels of us all and gives us wings where we had shoulders smooth as ravens claws. -Jim Morrison
My days tend to start the same way. I kiss the husband, the kids, and then, Sophie, Butter, Pepper, and our newest addition - Ellie. Well, sometimes Ellie gets skipped. She likes to hide under a bed in the morning.
Getting out the door can be a challenge. Butter and Sophie seem to wake with the same notion every single day. Maybe today I will be going along! They could care less where I am going. If I am heading for the door, they nearly trip me underfoot, trying to beat me there. Every single time - they take their optimistic chances.
By the time I arrive at work, I am already a smorgasborg of smells for our patients. Stray hairs, here and there. I am unequivocably - a pet owner. "Animal companion." I wonder about that term. Who is companion to whom?
One of my favorite things about my job is being surrounded by animals. Puppies, older dogs, elderly dogs - white in the face, dearly beloved. Kittens in for their first exam. Long haired, short haired, exotic bengals.
The vet where I work is in an affluent community. Our clients can, in large part, afford their pets' healthcare. We have one client who brings in a cat nearing twenty years old (!), to get fluids intraveniously. This cat has all but stopped drinking. But he'll still purr, and climb into a lap for a long snuggle. A little hydration from us, and he is good to go - skin and bones and fur, perhaps - but ready for another few days of love. Unconditional, endless, love.
Being exposed to this kind of thing - and not just exposed, but surrounded by it daily - this incredible bond between human beings and their animals - is far beyond anything I could have asked for when I returned to work. I am daily inspired, humbled, and moved by the boundless love that flows between pets and their owners.
In my past career, during the years I was immersed in the (outside the home) working world, I have dealt with missed deadlines and resentful coworkers. Bosses I affectionately referred to as "yellers" who made me want to scream right back. Endless hours, overtime with no pay, glass ceilings and old boy networks in the unlikliest of places. Exhausting, overwhelming, and frustrating - yes.
But nothing could have prepared me for this job I have now.
I have watched grown men and tiny children weep as they have left the rooms wherein I work. My heart breaks a bit, at every loss. I have seen women break down over these tiny little animals that give such great big love. And I've seen teenagers carry in dogs that lived with them their entire life, and then walk out empty handed - and I am certain that the emptiness cuts straight through to their hearts.
On my second day at the vet, a couple came in with a golden retriever well over 14 years old. For a dog, a big dog at that, that is just plain old. On this day, he'd stopped eating, stopped drinking, and was having trouble moving at all. They knew, it was time. They'd had to carry him from their car, and when they came into our office, their dog sat down again. A big pile of golden furry love. When a room was ready for them, their dog had trouble standing. He tried, shaking, but fell back down, and then - looking up at their heartbroken and expectant faces, he tried - again. Someone went in back to get a sling to help pull up his rear side, to help him into a standing position - but before they returned - this dog tried standing a third time - and this time he succeeded. As he walked with his owners into the treatment room, he did not lower his eyes, he stared the whole time at this couple that loved him so, and... on this very last walk of his life - he wagged his tail. He wagged his tail, as if to say: "Look Mom and Dad. I stood up. I did it! I did good."
It's not my job to cry. The circle of life includes death, I know. But oh, the grief. The heartbreak, the loss of such great love. We are better for having loved and lost - yes, yes, I know. But sometimes, the heartbreak - right there in front of me - it is so very much to bear.
Dogs love us so ferociously. So protectively. Above and beyond the call of duty. And at times, without rationale. This morning, we received a call from a client who had a five year old pomeranian. A fuzzy little ball of fluff. He slept each night at the feet of this woman, in her bed. Over the weekend, this woman had her young grand-daughter over - to spend the night. In the middle of the night, the child approached her grandmother's bed - and the pomeranian gave in to some raw instinct, fueled by what? Protectiveness? Jealousy? Perhaps a bit of both? He lunged at the approaching child. Not once, but several times, growling and biting the screaming child - eventually drawing blood.
The child got several stitches, but will be ok. The dog, will not. He came into our clinic this morning, in the arms of his mother. His loss of temper resulted in an injured child, a broken hearted owner, and in turn - the end of his life.
"The holidays are hard." I'd been warned, when I first began this job. Why? I wondered. I tried asking, but there was no real answer. "I don't know, it just seems like there is a lot more loss," one co-worker said.
Just before lunch, as I was cashing out a routine vaccination, the telephone rang and as I counted out change, I also answered the phone.
"Please be patient with me," started a broken voice on the other end. Their dog, the voice explained - was fine, she explained. And then, a correction - "had been fine" He had been just fine, until this afternoon, when her husband had gone out into the backyard, and found that their dog, their just fine dog, had laid down under a tree, and died. The voice, which has asked for patience, is breaking, and I can hear the anguish between the syllables, and I think of my Sophie and Butter, my own Sophie and Butter who are fine, at home (right?) and with that thought, my heart breaks again, just a little bit, along with hers. And still, I have to hand over a receipt, wish someone a good day, and then - in soothing tones, discuss options over the phone. Autopsies if wanted, cremations and scattering or returning remains. In soothing tones, I have to explain what would tear my heart into a thousand pieces if I were on the receiving end.
Nothing, prepared me for this.
At the end of the day, a beautiful 3 year old cat came into the clinic. I won't go into details here, as they will take this post in a completely different direction. Suffice it to say, this cat was beautiful and healthy - and her ailment was one that would be expensive and inconvenient to treat in the long run, but was it fatal? Not until this afternoon, when her owner decided that Euthenasia was the only answer.
In this case, the owner left the cat with us. She didn't want to stay. This is of course an owner's option. Everyone deals with grief and loss in their own way. Not everyone can bear to be by their pet's side when that pet dies.
Now, in back in the treatment room - I have been asked to help out with many a nail trim (dogs and cats tend to be very squirmy. To put it mildly.) I've been asked to help hold or restrain an animal here and there for a quick procedure, more than once or twice.
But today was different. I think there were more of us than needed to be, gathering round this beautiful silky cat. All of us feeling the same sense of frustration and sadness. She was so young, I could still see the kitten in her eyes. One of us rubbed her legs, and another leaned down and stroked her side. I scratched her gently, on top of her head, and leaned down to talk to her. "It's ok," I said. I lied. I wanted it to be true. "You're going to a better place," was the only truth I could find. And just before she got her final shot, under the weight of all those people holding her, just before she pulled in that last breath, I could feel her begin to purr.
I don't know what the angel of death looks like. I don't know if that angel is scrupulously honest, or if, on some days, his every word is a lie. And I've suffered and seen enough loss of human life to know that I'll never understand the "how and what and why." But in moments like these, it is not so far fetched to consider that death indeed makes angels of us all. I can only hope that somehow the wings of grace will lead me through, because God knows, nothing prepared me for this.