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Without fail, Seth always noticed the pet first.
Every time he came into one of the five exam rooms that made up his small practice, his eyes would be immediately drawn to whatever canine or feline found himself under his care. A good portion were in for routine checkups, another for immunizations, and some for minor problems. He did exams, surgeries, and general care of a wide range of furry friends, most of whom left in better shape than they had been in when they arrived.
Then, there were those who came in for problems that Seth couldn’t fix, despite all of his training and experience.
The sixteen year old German Shepherd on the exam table that day was suffering from just such a problem. But Seth, upon initially coming into the room, couldn’t have told you if the patient was a cat or a dog either one because, for the first time ever, his attention was entirely focused on the owner.
She was an average looking woman. That was his very first thought. Middle-aged and obviously very, very tired, judging by the way she sighed. She wore denim shorts, a t-shirt, and flip flops, and she had her hands clasped simply in her lap. Wisps of plain, brown hair had fallen out of the ponytail holder that held the majority of it out of her eyes, and she bit her lip worriedly as she watched the dog. There was nothing extraordinary or memorable about her…
… except for her grief.
Seth was accustomed to grief here. This grief in particular, the grief that preceded a long, sad goodbye with an animal that had been more than a companion. But this woman’s grief went beyond the loss of a pet. It was palpable, pulsing, there in the room, very nearly sitting by her side and holding her hand, and it took Seth’s breath away.
Grief. Real, substantial, paralyzing grief, overwhelming and surprising.
“Hi, I’m Dr. Seth,” he said softly, holding out his hand to her.
She smiled distractedly, her eyes flitting over to his, then back to the dog as she returned his handshake. “Chelsea Moore.”
He nodded and regarded the patient with concern. In most situations, he let the dog come to him, let the animal make the first move. But in this case, it was obvious that the German Shepherd had no energy to come or protest either one. Seth looked down at his notes. “What seems to be bothering –” a quick glance to the name “—Buddy?”
Chelsea sighed. “Well, he’s sixteen. And he’s been… sluggish. Tired, you know? And just this weekend, he began hobbling and… well, crying.” She looked up at Seth with tears in her eyes. “As if dogs can cry, right? But I can’t think of any other way to describe the sounds he makes.”
“Crying,” Seth affirmed. “I’ve heard it before.” He moved over to stand with the big dog, running his hands along his fur, murmuring to him softly, noting that the dog’s giant tail moved slightly. “Beautiful boy,” he whispered appreciatively. “And sixteen is a good, long life for his breed.”
Chelsea nodded. “I had hoped we would have at least a few more years, though. This just isn’t a good time for us.” She bit her lip, tears spilling over her cheeks. “I’m sorry. All Buddy needs right now is more tears.”
Seth handed her a box of tissues sympathetically. “Let me get my assistant in, and we’ll check out the situation with Buddy, okay?”
Ten minutes later, the exam was done, and the prognosis was grim.
Seth continued petting the dog as he explained the difference between a slipped disc and a ruptured disc to Chelsea. “Buddy’s losing feeling in his legs. At best, you could have surgery done, but the recovery rate isn’t good. And it’s very nearly pointless with a dog this age. The whole procedure would be too much on his heart, likely.”
Chelsea nodded, unable to speak. After a few moments, she collected herself enough to ask, “What do you recommend? What would you do if Buddy was your dog?”
“Well,” Seth sighed, “I would let him pass. I would help him pass. He’s hurting.”
“Do you… can you… I’m so sorry,” she said, wiping at her eyes again.
“It’s fine. And, yes, I can do it here. It’s very simple. Painless. Just like falling asleep.”
She nodded. “Is there any way I can… leave Buddy here, go get my kids, and come back so they can say goodbye? Would that be… cruel?”
“A few hours won’t make a difference,” Seth said. “And, yeah, he can stay right here. He’s my last patient of the day.”
She shook her head, obvious reluctance in her voice. “Well, I don’t mean to keep you –”
“No,” he said, giving her an understanding smile. “It’s no problem. Please.”
And he looked back to the dog, trying not to watch as she gathered her purse, sighed again, and left the office, wiping her eyes.
Thirty minutes later, she was back with two children alongside her.
Seth had spent the interim in the exam room, sitting up on the table next to Buddy, feeding him treats. They were horrible for a German Shepherd’s sensitive digestive tract, but Buddy would only know the pleasure of them and wouldn’t have to suffer the consequences. He had been appreciative of the attention and the unexpected favors, licking Seth’s hand again and again as they sat together. Both dog and vet looked up as the small family made their way into the room.
The oldest was a copy of his mother, even in the way he bravely walked into the room with a stoic face, never even glancing at Seth. The youngest was fairer and more emotional, as evidenced by the strangled sob she gave when she saw the dog on the table.
“Buddy,” the oldest child breathed out with choked determination, while the youngest held back and buried her face in her mother’s shorts, sobbing.
“Hey, guys,” Chelsea said, kneeling down, looking at both of them. “It’s okay to be sad, but we need to be strong for Buddy. You know he gets upset when we’re upset.”
The oldest sniffed and ran his sleeve up under his nose. “Okay.” He regarded Seth warily. “Can I pet him?”
Seth hopped down from the table and knelt down to be on his level as well, just as Chelsea had done. “You bet. I think that would really help him. In fact, if it’s okay with your mom, I can bring Buddy down here to you. That way, you can hold him and hug him while I…”
“Send him to Daddy,” the younger child said, peeking out at him from behind her mother.
Seth paused at this, his mind wondering at what it meant, while Chelsea wiped away even more tears.
“Our dad is in heaven,” the boy said matter-of-factly. “Buddy’s going to go to heaven, too. Which is good, because they always went on walks together. Now they can take walks together in heaven.”
Seth swallowed at this information. “Well,” he said, “that does sound good.” He moved to the table and began gathering Buddy up into his arms.
“Can I help you?” Chelsea asked.
“No, I’ve got him,” Seth grunted. “I’m impressed that you were able to get him in by yourself. He’s a big dog.”
Chelsea smiled at this. “Well, it was no small feat. But I’d do anything for him.”
Seth settled Buddy onto the floor right with the children, who immediately began petting him and hugging him. He licked them appreciatively, his tail wagging even as he let out a tired breath and closed his eyes.
The little girl looked up at her mother. “We should pray for Buddy, like they prayed for Daddy when he got dead.”
Chelsea sighed. “Yeah. We should. Maggie, would you like to pray?”
She shook her head, shyly glancing over at Seth. The boy spoke up, “I’ll pray, Mom.”
“Thank you, Tanner,” she said, closing her eyes and taking her children’s hands in hers. Maggie glanced over at Seth and reached out for his hand, so he bowed his head along with them.
“Dear Jesus,” Tanner began. “Buddy is sick. It’s probably because Maggie let him eat her grilled cheese sandwich when Mommy wasn’t looking.”
“Tanner,” Chelsea warned in a whisper.
“But maybe not,” Tanner continued on. Seth smiled. “Anyway, he’s going to die now. But You already knew that, probably, Jesus. It’s like Mom said to us. You know when people and dogs are going to die, and You already have a place for them in heaven. Just like You did for Dad. And we’re glad that You have a place for Buddy, too.”
A pause as he took a deep breath.
“Can You make sure Buddy has a new chew toy in heaven? And that he gets brushed when the weather gets hot? And tell Dad that we moved to a new house, so if he’s trying to find us, we’re not at the old house. Someone else bought that house. And we packed up our stuff and moved to this new house. It’s not as big as the old house, and the yard had funny looking plants growing in it when we got here. Buddy ate a few of them. Maybe that’s why he’s going to be dead soon.”
Seth could hear Chelsea take a deep breath.
“Anyway,” Tanner continued on, obviously very comfortable with telling Jesus everything that came to mind, “that’s about it. I hope You’re having a good day, Jesus. Amen.”
“Amen,” Chelsea echoed, glancing back at Seth and nodding her permission for what he had to do.
And as they said their goodbyes, Seth gave Buddy this final kindness, allowing them to hold him as he slipped away peacefully.
Chelsea had opted to take Buddy home to bury him, against her better judgment. The vet had helped her get him into the back of the SUV, thankfully, after Maggie had sobbed over the very thought of their dog being buried anywhere but their new backyard. Now, though, the task of burying him in the dark after getting the kids fed, ready for bed, and to sleep loomed ahead of her.
Life was hard right now.
Actually, life had been hard for a long while. Kyle had started losing weight a year ago. Just a year ago. They naively believed it had something to do with a diet he was on and reasoned away the other signs of illness, crediting them to job stress and midlife changes. Ten months ago, though, he’d gone in for a checkup when he just couldn’t seem to get over the flu, and they’d given him the terrifying diagnosis. Cancer. Terminal.
He was a thirty year old father of two. The sole provider in their family. A husband to a homemaker who had no life insurance because what were the odds that they would need it? They were going to do all they could to fight the disease. And they did. And he got worse. Then better. So much better that they thought they were in the clear… until he slipped away from them in the middle of the night.
Chelsea would never forget, would never be able to remove from the seared memories in her mind, the sound she had made that morning when she woke up next to him. The frantic call to 911 even though she knew, consciously, that it was too late. The way her children had cried from the hallway as she had done CPR, all the while shaking as her hands touched the shell that remained of her first love, who was so clearly gone from them. The terror of it all was just too much to –
“Mommy,” Maggie asked from the backseat, “how is Buddy in heaven with Daddy when he’s in the backseat?”
Chelsea sighed. Not another round of these questions. The leap from reality to abstract theoreticals, like heaven and eternity, was a leap that her five year old couldn’t make. And Chelsea wasn’t sure she could make it through another one of these circular, pointless, enigmatic conversations. Please, God…
“Maggie,” Tanner sighed, exasperated, “he’s DEAD. It’s just his body. He’s already hopping around heaven, like a giant bunny.”
“He turned into a BUNNY!?! What did Daddy turn into when he got to heaven?!”
Chelsea looked at her youngest in the rearview mirror. “Maggie, he didn’t –”
“Did Daddy turn into a wereworld?!” Maggie sobbed.
“It’s a werewolf,” Tanner said, looking out the window.
“Daddy’s scary now!”
Chelsea could feel her head pounding already. Only an hour at the most before she could crawl into her own lonely bed, cry her own tears, and –
And nothing. There was still a family to care for, a job to find, a dog to bury, and a whole lifetime to somehow get through.
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