SLIGHTLY OFF THE MARK
Chelsea was a dog. I want to point that out right from the beginning, because to many it makes a world of difference.
I suppose it does; I’m not one of those types who thinks animals are on an equal level with humans; I don’t consider them sentient beings who should have lawyers suing on their behalf, or anything like that. People are more important than animals, which is why I love a medium rare stake, but don’t get on all that well with the idea of cannibalism.
Than again, sometimes animals are better. Pick up any newspaper, for proof.
Well, Chelsea was just a dog. To anyone except those she lived with, she wasn’t better or worse; not all that different from any other chocolate lab. She was fourteen years old – or so, we were never sure. She weighed 71 pounds, which made picking her up that last time difficult in more ways than one.
When you have a dog, you discover it does, indeed, have a personality. I’ve lived with dozens of dogs over the years; some better, some worse. Like humans, a dog’s personality is partially the result of genetics, but mostly the result of its upbringing and surroundings. Some dogs I’ve known were just plain mean; some were uncontrollable; and some were as good a friend as any human could hope for.
Sometime in her youth, Chelsea had an owner who wasn’t nice. She could have turned out mean because of it, but instead she could be shy and fearful. She didn’t like raised voices or sudden movements. Swinging a stick around, jokingly or not, or yelling at a sports game was not a good idea around her. She was happy to get to know strangers, but it took some doing to win her full trust.
Then she met my daughter, Charis. That was seven years ago, the moment when Charis and Chelsea became friends. Since then Charis lost and gained friends and jobs, and Chelsea was there. Her marriage broke up, and Chelsea was there. She met a new guy, and Chelsea was there. She moved and moved again, and Chelsea was there.
You could say that Chelsea had to be there; she was a pet, after all -- it’s not like she had a choice. But that’s missing the point – you had to be there, to see it. You have to wonder how many humans could sense their friends’ moods, stay by them no matter what, and love them unconditionally.
Did Chelsea stay for the food and water? Sure, maybe, but it’s not that simple. A dog may be stuck with someone, but it’s intelligent enough to love in its own way, and you can’t buy love like that. It just happens. When my daughter left the room, Chelsea would stick near me, but keep throwing glances at the door and wander around, just to make sure she hadn’t missed Charis’ return. When we were both gone, she’d bark continuously, pacing by the door, until we returned.
Charis and Chelsea moved in with me, bringing with them a boyfriend and four cats. Chelsea liked the boyfriend; she tolerated the cats. Every once in a great while, when a cat went by she’d reach out and snap her teeth at it, missing it by a cat hair. It reminded me of the T-Rex in “Jurassic Park”, and I was never really sure if one of the cats had gotten on her last nerve, or if she was just reminding herself that she had a duty to perform, as a dog.
Oddly, once they got used to her the cats didn’t seem to mind too much. Sometimes, as Chelsea passed, they’d try to grab her wagging tail, swiping at it with their paws. That always struck me as suicidal, but if Chelsea minded, she never showed it.
Last week Chelsea’s stomach started heaving, and I rushed her outside in fear that she’d throw up. She followed that same path she’d taken hundreds of times, walking around into the back yard to do her business. Then she stood there, gasping, foaming at the mouth, just staring at me.
It took all my energy to get her inside. I yelled for Emily to call Charis, who was away running errands, then I sat on the floor beside Chelsea as she gasped for breath. It seemed her lungs were filling with fluid, she had no energy, and she was using her auxiliary chest muscles in a vain attempt to drag more air in. Her eyes were dull.
My old EMT training came back to me. Congestive heart failure. I told myself I could be wrong – what did I know from dogs? – but a part of me kept saying this is it.
Getting her into the car wasn’t easy, but with Emily’s help – she’s had a dog – we managed. Getting her onto a cot at the vets wasn’t easy either, but Charis and her boyfriend were there by then, and they had a stretcher.
None of that was as hard as what came next.
Charis’ grandfather was there by then – by chance, he’d been on his way to the vet with his own dog. We were all there, five humans, a family. But Chelsea was Charis’ friend; her decision. She made the right one, the brave one. No one can stand to see a friend in pain.
Her boyfriend and I were with Chelsea at the last, petting her, saying soothing words until her eyes closed for the last time. When we got home, to my little place with five people and four cats, it echoed with emptiness.
Charis cried. I cried.
If a pet’s passing makes people cry, then it lived a pretty good life.
The vet took an x-ray, before Chelsea passed on. It showed that she had an unusually large heart.
Who needed an x-ray? I could have told you that.