Most of the time, I like taking my dog to the vet. She doesn’t much mind going there either, since she’ll do anything to ride in a car, regardless of the destination. I think I enjoy going to the vet because, way back when, I thought I might become one. It seemed like a logical goal for an extreme animal lover. It was logical, until I took Chemistry in college. My dreams of becoming a veterinarian were quickly extinguished by a C+, but I have never stopped trying to learn more about animals, whether it was working at the ASPCA for a short time or trying to glean something new from the local vet. I do know another reason why I never became a vet: I am way too emotional. When I see a sick or hurt dog, I can’t bear it. It’s not just the blood or gore that literally makes me dizzy, but seeing an animal in pain is something I truly can’t handle. When I volunteered at an animal hospital “way back when”, a woman came into the office with her large Samoyed, who was clearly in distress, with what appeared to be heat stroke. We put bags of ice all over the dog as he relentlessly panted. As I glanced up at the woman, I could see the tears falling behind her large, round sunglasses. Immediately, I started tearing up too, wishing I could sprint out of the room and really let it all out.
Unfortunately, I do know firsthand how awful it is to have a beloved pet die. Although I was at college in 1985 when my parents sent Barley, our adoring Bichon Frise, to dog heaven, I took it hard, real hard. I remember not wanting to leave my apartment for several days and weeping into the phone to all my childhood friends who knew Barley. A few years ago, when we put our 13 year-old Portuguese Water Dog, Bosley, (yes I know the name is similar to Barley!) to sleep, I was tormented by whether it was the right time for him to leave us. Maybe he would make another miraculous recovery like he had done six months earlier. But, as I sat next to him on our kitchen floor, his empty brown eyes told me that he had no fight left. He helplessly laid there, unable to get up, and I made the dreaded call to the vet.
The morning we brought him in was the start to a beautiful Spring day — balmy, breezy and cloudless. My husband Jon carried Bosley into the car and then when we arrived at the vet, placed him on the grass outside. Our former, robust 78 pound boy was now a more scrawny 55 — still a heavy load but not nearly the muscular ox he once was. While Jon waited inside the office, I sat with Bosley under a tree and wept. Through the window, the vet saw this scene and came outside to sit with us, reassuring me that it was the right thing to do, at the right time. The vet carried him inside through a side door. I was grateful to not have him paraded through the waiting room.
The same waiting room, where I sat a few weeks ago, on yet another beautiful Spring day, with Matilda, our 2-year old mushy, goofy, Labradoodle. I loved being there that day, watching Matilda greet each new person with their fluffy companion in tow. I loved watching her, a little anxious, but mostly just curious, to see what would happen next. I loved the questions people would ask me: “What color is she? Taupe? It’s so unique!”. “What kind of dog is she? She’s so beautiful.” “Is she a doodle? She’s so friendly and loving.” I sat there, like a proud parent, as if I had something to do with her winning personality and head-turning looks. Basically, I enjoyed showing her off.
I loved being there, until I recognized a woman who walked through the door and up to the desk. She was serious and all business as she said, “Charley is here.” The receptionist seemed to know immediately why Charley was here. No questions necessary. I recognized this woman because she was essentially me, 3 years earlier, with Bosley, unknowingly awaiting his fate outside. Even before the vet technicians helped carry in her yellow Lab, I too knew why Charley was here. I suddenly felt embarrassed to be sitting there with my healthy, young dog. Just moments earlier, I wanted everyone to gush over her and now I wanted to hide her, most especially from this woman.
After the ailing Lab was brought into an exam room, the woman and her daughter followed. An older gentleman, perhaps the woman’s father, stayed outside the room but told someone else he would go in when “it was time.” He walked over to where I was sitting and came right over to Matilda, talking to her, not me, the entire time. He scratched her behind her ears and talked to her in doggy-speak. Naturally, that just made her want more lovin’, so the man kept talking and scratching as he waited to be called in.
A few minutes later, the woman and her daughter emerged from the room, waiting for the vet to sedate the dog and then bring them back in for their final good-byes. The woman was about my age and her daughter was about 10, the age of one of my sons. It was at this point that the woman started to break down, holding onto her daughter, who appeared more composed than her mother. This was not surprising to me at all. As it was with my kids, they handled losing Bosley much better than me because their attachment to him was different, not nearly as pronounced. Bosley was never a cuddly, affectionate dog — probably not the best pet for a house with young kids, but we were not thinking that far ahead as a newly engaged couple who thought it would be “fun” to have a dog.
I desperately wanted to comfort this distraught woman, to tell her I had been there, right there, 3 years earlier, that she was making the humane choice, that everything would be okay. But, I didn’t. I knew exactly how she was feeling though. Not just the raw grief of losing a pet but the other thoughts that start to rush at you. Like, how that dog was your first baby. How that dog was the reason you bought your first apartment so close to Central Park. How that dog destroyed your home, chewing everything from walls, to bedroom furniture. How that dog was there to welcome all three kids when you brought each of them home from the hospital. How that dog essentially represented the past decade of your life.
No, I did not comfort this woman the way I so wanted to. But then, someone else did. A total stranger, at the check-out desk, turned around and started hugging this woman. Not just a quick hug, but a full-on embrace. I couldn’t hold back my tears any longer because I was so sad for this woman and now also so touched by this stranger reaching out to her. I was so fortunate to have witnessed this kindness. It was one of those moments when you gain so much faith in the goodness of people. Sometimes a hug from a complete stranger is just what we need to heal.