Creative Nonfiction: Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight by Eileen Vorbach Collins

No need to go with me. I’ll be fine, I tell my husband. And I believe it. How hard could this be? I’ve buried a child. Euthanizing my little dog won’t be easy, but neither will it send me to my knees. Sophie is 15 or maybe 16. She’s lived with us for 12 years now, most of that time, sleeping in our bed. She’s blind and maybe nearly deaf, so I’m careful not to startle her. Sometimes she likes her dinner heated. Her blue octopus, once a favorite, has the blank stare of a bewildered forgotten toy, but I like to keep it around just in case she changes her mind and wants to play. Sometimes she perks up when she hears Bluey squeak.

When we go for our walk, she spends a lot of time sniffing, trying to figure out where she is and who’s been there before her. This research gives her something to do. A way to pass the time. A purpose.

Back in the house, I can hear her coming, toenails tapping on the tile. She hates to be groomed now, so we do the minimum, leaving a few matted places alone. No more teeth brushing, no more ear plucking. We’ll donate the last case of that prescription dog food to someone who can use it. I ask if she’d like pancakes for breakfast. A bit of yogurt? Maybe some ice cream.? I’ll be her mother, her doting child, her hospice nurse. I’ll be whatever she wants me to be. I know it won’t be for long. She wedges herself in the familiar corner with her quilt and her pillow and her blue octopus and she turns around until she’s just right and goes back to sleep. She whimpers. She cries. She sleeps most of the day but gets up every two hours during the night. She poops on the carpet when I can’t get there fast enough to open the door. I tell her she’s a good girl. My good girl, The best dog in the world.

Finally, I make the call. The vet is booked but they say don’t worry, we’ll fit you in. I’m on hold for a long time. They apologize for the wait, but if I can come in tomorrow at 10:40… Yes, I tell them. We’ll be there. We were there last week and the week before that, but this time is different and we all know it.

In the morning, I watch and wait to see the rise and fall of her little pink belly, and there it is. And she’s hungry! She cleans her bowl for the first time in days, wags her tail, asks for more, please, and I think I’ll cancel the appointment but it’s getting late and it’s Thursday and the vet is so busy, and what if… What if she gets worse and she’s in pain and I can’t get an appointment and have to take her to an emergency vet we’ve never met, where they’re busy saving injured dogs and we have to wait, Sophie panicked and panting.

I’m still thinking I can do this on my own, but my husband says no, he’ll go with us. I bring her quilt and sit in the back seat with Sophie, my hand resting on her for the ride.

We’re a few minutes early. I let Sophie sniff around outside–always a good sniffing spot here at the vet’s. The urine left by other dogs spins stories filled with wildness and wonder, sickness and health.

The receptionist, waiting at the door, leads us right into an exam room. Thankfully, no sitting in the waiting room with healthy dogs there for immunizations, mewing kittens waiting to be examined, that parrot squawking in his cage.

The exam table, the shiny metal one that Sophie hates, is covered with an afghan, in ardent umber, the color of rust or Sedona rock formations. It looks hand-crocheted and lovingly worn, but I’ve brought Sophie’s quilt, so we put it on top. Extra cushy. She’s lost a pound since our last visit just a week ago. I feel the sharp edges of her clavicles. The ridges of her spine. Her 13 pounds light as air.

The young tech’s voice is too quiet but I can infer his kindness. Sophie pants nervously. I hold her and hope that the image of my familiar face somehow makes it through the milky opacity of her ancient, opalescent eyes.

The vet agrees that if Sophie’s problem is a bowel obstruction, or an ulcer, not to put her through the trauma of surgery at her age. In all these years, we have not kenneled her. When we took a rare trip, we had a friend stay at our home. I have a photo of Sophie snuggled on the couch with her. Even then, with a kind and capable caregiver, I worried.

With Sophie on my lap, the tech steadying her, the first injection, intramuscular, causes her to yelp and struggle, breaking my heart into a million pieces. After a few minutes, she’s still shaky, but they have forewarned me to expect that. Sophie almost seems to extend her front paw for the IV.
In just seconds, she’s relaxed. Stethoscope to her chest, the vet says something I can’t hear. Never one for euphemisms in times like this, I ask, “Is she dead?”

“Yes. She’s in heaven now,” he answers. My snarky agnostic self has left the room, and this softer version of me is grateful for his kindness. They tell me to stay as long as I’d like—as long as I need to—and I’m alone with Sophie in this room she’s been in many times before and does not like, wishing I had paid the extra money to have this done at home. I sing to her, so quietly that it’s not really singing, but a croaking kind of whisper, the lullaby I sang to my children and to Sophie when she was restless at bedtime. When you wake, you shall have all the pretty little horses. Dapples and Grays, pintos and bays, all the pretty little ponies.

Her eyes are open and blank, like the blue octopus’ eyes. I’ve seen that look before, and I always wonder. They say hearing is the last sense to go, but could the optic nerve still fire? She was blind, but who knows what happens after death? Has anyone come back to report?

Go find Lydia, I tell her. She’ll love you. We never had a dog like you when she was alive. Take care of each other.

I raise my voice just a few decibels, aware that the tech is waiting on the other side of the door for me to let him know I’m done here. I don’t want him to hear and tell everyone in the office I’m insane. They must have some marvellous stories and I don’t want to be one of the characters. I whisper to my daughter, “Lydia, here comes Sophie. She’s a good dog. You’ll love her.”

Then I fold the edges of her quilt over her, just the way she likes, rub that place behind her ears, gently close her eyes and lay her on the Afghan. Because the staff has thoughtfully asked if I’d like to pay ahead of time, I don’t need to go to the desk. It’s a short distance to the exit and my husband is there holding the door for me. There’s a lovely Great Dane on a long lead who knows I’m sad and wants to comfort me, offering his massive head for me to touch. I don’t make it to the car before a sob escapes my throat. Thankful that my husband is driving, I take myself home to cry.

Eileen Vorbach Collins is a Baltimore native. Her work has been published in SFWP Quarterly, Lunch Ticket, The Columbia Journal, Reed Magazine, the Brevity Blog, Shondaland, and elsewhere. Her essays, have received the Diana Woods Memorial Award for Creative Nonfiction. the Gabriele Rico Challenge Award, and two Pushcart Prize nominations. Her collection of linked narrative essays about bereavement by suicide is forthcoming with Apprentice House Press in 2023.

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