Front Porch Review
I looked at my poor old dog, Bert, who could have been a pile of dirty laundry, so inert and shapeless was he, coiled up in his corner of the kitchen. Stiff with age and pain, he barely moved out of it these days. His back legs could not take him more than a few steps at a time. Recently, when I lifted him from his nest, I found old, dried leavings under him. He was radiating a permanent smelliness. When you can’t get near enough to your pet to pet him, I thought, what’s the point? Maybe the time had come to…you know…get it over with.
I confessed this intent to an acquaintance who told me that when her own dog became too old and frail to squat, she never considered “getting it over with.” Instead, she began lifting his tail for him. Wouldn’t anybody? her tone of voice seemed to be saying. Well, maybe I’m just not the tail-lifting sort. Besides, maybe I knew my dog well enough to say he would despise having his tail lifted for him.
I figured a dog’s famous loyalty extends to the traits and values of the family which raises it. That would make Bert a not overly sentimental dog and practical to a fault, just like me and everybody else in our family. If I were in Bert’s shoes, I know what I’d want to do. His mournful expression had to be saying what I was thinking. Let’s get this thing over with.
Of course, if Bert had stumbled home to expire at our feet of natural causes, it wouldn’t have been a thing so hard to get over with. Once we owned a cat who disappeared mysteriously for a couple of days, then appeared just as mysteriously at the back door dragging her hindquarters. She looked up at us with a peaceful expression, gave a final little mew, and then passed away quietly on the door mat. I picked out a nice shady spot in the back yard and buried her remains with simple efficiency.
But this. Are there dog hospices yet, I wondered? Even if there are, I don’t want to know about them. When I am finally ready to turn up my toes, it is simple efficiency that I want. No drawn-out, life-at-the-end-of-a-tube for this boy. No lifting my tail. But I did not know yet what I was up against. My friend the tail-lifter had given me but a sample of the judgments I would have to confront in the dark task ahead.
I phoned the modish animal hospital where Bert had last been seen. I had already run through the cheerless list for my euphemism of choice: to be put down? Disposed of? Euthanized? Ugh. But how did one even frame such a question? I began, “Uh, I’d like, no, it’s not something I’d like, actually. What I mean to say is. I’m interested in, no, not that either. I mean…do you… yes, that’s it…do you put dogs to sleep?”
A businesslike but dubious woman’s voice answered. “Ye-esss, which arrangements were you thinking of?”
“Arrangements? I just want to get it over with.”
“Yes, sir, but do you wish cremation with return of the ashes, do you want to include a memorial? Some families appreciate a private…”
I interrupted ̶ some families could appreciate whatever they wanted to ̶ “What’s the chea…er…what’s the least expensive arrangement?”
“Depending on the animal’s weight, at least seventy-five dollars, sir.” I could hear her sneering.
I hung up. Of course, it wasn’t a question of expense. But getting it over with was becoming hard enough without being sneered at. Besides, there was a principle at stake. If I wanted a no-fuss, simple ending for myself, if I did not want a gaudy monument, if I did not want to foist my ashes on anybody in an urn, wouldn’t I be a hypocrite not to carry out the same practical agenda for my dog? And wouldn’t he appreciate it, too?
I remembered now that a friend of mine from a less swanky suburb had told me his vet did the thing for forty dollars. What was good enough for dog owners in a thrifty, hardworking community was good enough for me. I phoned to confirm this and if they would accommodate a non-patient, so to speak.
It was a long drive and already dark, but this woman had sounded much more understanding, so I decided it was worth it. I planted Bert in the front seat and took off immediately. As a kind of final test, I glanced over to see if Bert could resist dog’s most cherished activity, watching the world go by out of a car window. But, no, he had assumed his laundry pile pose and blended in with the car’s upholstery.
Less than halfway there I spied another animal hospital, and my ever-practical side said, “Well, why not at least inquire?” Leaving Bert in the car, I entered, hardly pausing at the door to blurt, “Will you put my dog to sleep?” Three women at the front desk all gaped at me with the same stricken expression, as if I were some fiendish dog-disser from out of the night.
“He’s ill?” one asked, looking me up and down and in vain for a dog behind me.
“Ill? No,” I said. “Well, yes, I suppose. Look here…”
Now they were all craning their necks to see behind me.
“What’s the problem with your dog, sir?” she persisted.
“Problem? It’s not what you’d call a problem. And anyway, why do I have to stand here explaining myself to you?”
“Well, if there’s no problem…?” She let the unfinished question hang like maybe I belonged in its noose.
“Look, he’s out in the car and I’d like to get this thing over with. Surely you can understand that.”
“Certainly,” she said. “If you’ll bring him in, we’ll just have one of the doctors examine him.” But her look said, “and just maybe you have bagsful of other dogs out there in the car.”
Examined! What if the vet were to suggest my decision was premature? How low would my rapidly sinking self-esteem fall then? “No!” I shouted. “Forget it!” I rushed out the door, a fugitive. Back in the car, Bert eyed me trustingly, I thought. Or was it?
At my friend’s vet, the waiting room was crowded with curable looking dogs and their owners. Bert followed as best he could on his leash and introduced himself to all with a piddle. He stood over the little pool he had made looking solemn and resigned.
I logged him in at the desk. In a whisper, I reminded the woman behind it who I was and what was my heavy mission. “I’m the man who called about…you know.” I searched her face and eyes for some hint of loathing. But there was not the slightest change of expression. The single question put to me by that saintly person was: “Will this be cash or charge?”
We weighed Bert on the big waiting room scale, exchanging leashes. Before turning him over to the nurse, I chucked him under the ears and told him, “Bert, just think, where you’re going you won’t have to smell so bad anymore.” Somewhat disconcertingly, I realized that for the moment, anyway, Bert seemed to have stopped smelling.
I had said it loud enough for another patron seated close by to overhear. The man smiled, then, as if guessing what my lighthearted remark had really meant, he narrowed his eyes to slits (as for all I know your own may be narrowed now). But Bert, a true member of my family, had always been a dog of fine common sense. He seemed to agree. All the way down the hall he wagged his tail like I hadn’t seen for a long time.
Back at the front desk, although I had enough cash and was carrying a credit card, I demanded, “What about a personal check? Won’t you accept a personal check?” I snapped.
“Of course, sir,” said the saintly woman, understandingly.
Eventually each of us comes to recognize his or her unique life assignment. For Marty Marcus it has been to prove that every one of his myriad fears, up to and including death, could somehow be made light of (he even wrote a comic novel about the Great Depression, Hollywood Park). Influences: Romain Gary (The Dance of Ghengis Cohn), Bruce Jay Friedman (Stern), Hitchcock, Serling. Marcus has also written some mordant poems, essays and non-fiction books including one in which he admitted to “a heart the size of soda cracker.” Marcus’s wife/best friend, Sue, who does not have the same sense of humor ‒ although an excellent one nevertheless ‒ may be pleased to see herself noted here along with their four adult children, nine grandchildren and ageless dog, Rupert Jr. Marty and Sue Marcus live in Northfield, Illinois, a place on the map.