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Sunday Journal: When putting a dog to sleep, it's hard to say goodbye

It's a long walk from the dog to the child. I measure the distance not by the few feet that separate them — the length of a rug; a few creaky floorboards — but by the weight I carry from one to the other.

Noah is sitting on the couch. I've settled Sandy into her favorite spot in the dining room and walked a mile of inches to tell Noah what the vet has told me. I tell him what she meant, not what she said. Because what she said, caring though it was, stepped carefully around the whole truth.

"You seem to understand what needs to be done," is all she said. The rest passed between us in a nod.

Now I need to explain it to my youngest child.

I sit on the edge of the couch and sink with the cushion until I can put an arm around his shoulder. There's a heavy muskiness to the air; a yeasty funk wafting from Sandy's skin. The smell is as old as the dog, nearly 15 years, but since the visit to the vet, it's imbued with new, haunting meaning. I wonder if the medicine she has taken all these years to treat the yeast may have contributed to the mass now swelling in her abdomen.

"If it gets any worse," I say, stroking Noah's head, "we'll have to take her in."

We'll have to take her in. What a quaint dodge, that. What am I really saying? I stagger on toward the truth but can't speak it. Can't bear it myself. Each time I stop talking, there's silence, broken only by the benign hum of plugged-in things and the labored breathing coming from the dining room floor.

"What will they do to her?" Noah asks.

I've not rehearsed this next line. I've been too busy wrestling with my own emotions to know how I'll parse the words. How do I explain to him what must happen to the pet I called my "babypuppy" until he came along and caused me to drop "baby."

She is not like my child. I understand how people talk about their pets that way, but I know the difference between a dog and a child.

Still.

She could fit in my right hand when I got her — weaned too soon, the runt among siblings with sandy brown fur, smashed, cocker spaniel nose, white socks on two feet, big, watery eyes. She needed someone. So did I.

I bought her for my eldest son, who was 8 then, because his mother had made one of those divorced-parent promises that sound good but never happen. So I had to buy him the dog. And I had to feed her. And I had to take her out on cold February mornings because her bladder couldn't hold it anymore.

I got her addicted to tennis balls and sent her hurtling after them down the slick hardwood floor in the hallway, unable to stop before her nose plowed into the door and she crumpled like an accordion. And when she got sick or blew out tendons in her knee or needed a salve because everything in Florida — mosquitoes, fleas, grass — made her itch, I administered the medicine.

You'd need to know these things to truly understand what it would mean years later when, exiled to the yard because my new wife couldn't bear the smell, Sandy would follow me, around this corner, up those stairs, all while watching from the other side of the glass French doors. Now, she and her odiferous cologne could settle wherever they pleased.

Thus, she lies in the dining room, cancerous organs denying her lungs the simple gift of filling; puffing breaths out like a steam engine.

I turn to Noah to explain. The inadequacy of language, its tortured euphemisms and cultural taboos, conspire to tie my tongue.

Noah asks what they'll do to her, and I try the answers out in my mind: They'll put her down. They'll euthanize her. They'll put her to sleep.

"They're going to kill her," I say, and we cry together.

When two nights pass and her living pains me more than the thought of killing her, after Noah forces his lips into a smile because he thinks we should take a picture first, we lay her on a soft cushion of towels in the back of my blue SUV and drive to the vet. The people there understand that she is a dog, not a child. Still, they handle us with the touch of angels.

The doctor takes her, shaves a leg down to the white sock, inserts a hollow needle and brings her back to us in a quiet room. She's breathing quick puffs and her eyes are wide, filled with questions. I sit with her on the floor. Noah is 8 but braver than that, and he sits nearby with his mother, alternately consoling Sandy, then me.

When we're ready, the doctor comes in with three syringes. He squeezes the first one until her breath grows smooth, easy, peaceful. The contents pulse through my puppy's body.

And then, she goes to sleep.

Keith Woods is vice president of Diversity in News & Operations at National Public Radio (kwoods@npr.org). He divides his time between Tampa and Washington.

FAST FACTS

Writing contest winners to be announced

Two St. Petersburg Times journalists will appear at Saint Leo University on Wednesday to announce the winners of a writing contest co-sponsored by the newspaper and the university.

Staff writer Lane DeGregory, winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, and Mike Wilson, the Times' managing editor/enterprise, will make the announcement at 7:30 p.m. at the Cannon Memorial Library on the Saint Leo campus in Pasco County.

The winning essay will appear on April 25 in the Times' Sunday Journal column and the runnersup will be published online on tampabay.com, the Times' Web site. The stories will also be published in the Sandhill Review, the university's literary magazine.

The contest winners and runnersup will read their stories at the Saint Leo event, and DeGregory and Wilson will read from their work as well.

Wednesday's event is free and open to the public. The campus is at 33701 State Road 52. For more information, call (352) 588-8271.

Sunday Journal: When putting a dog to sleep, it's hard to say goodbye 04/17/10 [Last modified: Monday, April 19, 2010 11:26am]
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