This story is Part Three in a series. To read Part One CLICK HERE.
“Would you like a shrimp cocktail?” said Mrs. Fitzgerald with a smile as she opened the front door.
“No thanks,” I replied. I was in the middle of one of my unsuccessful attempts at being a vegetarian. I stepped into the house and watched Mrs. Fitzgerald disappear around the corner into the kitchen. She emerged holding a cracker with a shrimp on it. “See?” she said. “It’s cute, pink, and swims around in the sea.” Wondering what she thought I said, I took the hors douveres from her outstretched hand and popped it in my mouth. It was easier to eat the shrimp than to try and explain. As I chewed, I noticed that there were two other people in the dining room, sitting and talking with Mr. Fitzgerald who was wearing pajamas. His wearing bedclothes at home wasn’t strange, except for the fact that everyone else was dressed-up. Seeing my puzzlement, she took me to the side and explained quietly that her husband had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. They had notified relatives and friends so they could come and visit one last time.
“I’m sorry,” I said, and felt lame as soon as the words came out of my mouth. What do you say to someone who is about to lose their husband of 60 years? I picked up the dog leashes, leashed up the girls, and headed out for the walk.
The next few weeks were a flurry of activity. I didn’t know anyone had that many friends and relatives, let alone that many friends and relatives willing to fly in from out of state to say good-bye. After these visitors came legal advisors to help take care of business, followed by nurses looking for a hospice job. If the situation wasn’t bad enough, Kelly the dog had also been diagnosed with cancer. She had been coughing lately and tiring easily, symptoms we’d chalked up to kennel cough until x-rays revealed cancer in the lungs. She was going downhill and was reaching a point where she needed to be put to sleep.
“I can’t bear it,” said Mrs. Fitzgerald. “Not with … this,” gesturing with a bony hand towards the bedroom where her husband now spent most of the day. There were tears in her eyes. “I’d just as soon have them do the surgery, and if she dies on the table…”
“You don’t want to do that to her,” I said gently. Having gone through lung cancer with my own dog just a year before, I knew all about it. “The cancer is all over her lungs and there’s no way to remove it. It wouldn’t be humane. She needs to be put to sleep.” Looking at the sad face of the old woman before me, I added, “I’ll take her.” She nodded and dabbed her eyes, moving towards the bedroom as she heard her husband calling. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said.
She rang me up the next morning to say that the appointment had been made. “You can walk Maggie afterwards,” she said. When I arrived, she looked like she’d been crying a lot. She stroked Kelly’s soft head and looked into the old, cloudy, adoring eyes with her own. “Kelly is my 40th Springer Spaniel,” she said not looking up.
“Really?” I was 25 at the time and the concept of living long enough to own 40 dogs was foreign to me.
“Yes!” she said, as if I actually didn’t believe her. “The last two, before these girls, were Susie and May.” With that she walked into the dining room, opened a cabinet, and started rummaging around a pile of what looked like scrap books. She selected one, sat down on the couch, and opened it. The vet appointment was in 20 minutes, but I said nothing, put the leash down, and sat beside her. The book was stuffed with photos, mostly of dogs and puppies. “Look at this,” she handed me an old black-and white photo of Springer puppies in a wire pen. “14 in that litter! Can you believe it? Their mama was very tired.” I smiled and nodded, looking appreciatively at the photo. She flipped through a few more pages before finding what she was looking for, a photo of two smiling dog-faces, those of Susie and May. This was a more recent photo so was in color. The background looked like the room we were sitting in.
“Aww, look at them,” I said, wondering how so many dogs of the same breed could look completely different. As she closed the book and stood up, another, smaller, photo fell out. She didn’t see it fall, so I bent down and picked it up. It was a black and white photo of a handsome young couple. Their smiles were genuine, in fact they almost appeared to be laughing. I assumed it was Mr. and Mrs. Fitzgerald in their younger days. “Is this you?” I asked as I handed it to her.
She looked at the picture and squinted her eyes, as if she had expected to see something else. “My mother,” she said. “I never knew her. She died when I was a baby.”
Just like me, I thought.
“My father,” she pointed to the dapper man in the photo. “He died when I was eight.”
At least I still have him, I thought. Looking at the clock, I realized I had five minutes to get to the vet appointment. I was sure they’d be patient, as the Fitzgeralds were frequent and well-paying clients, but I didn’t want to push it. I clipped the leash on Kelly.
“Stay with her,” she said as I went out the door, “and make sure they give her a tranquilizer.”
At the vet’s office, I stroked Kelly’s face and looked into her eyes as she was given the injection. She slumped to the table, the benevolent expression on her face never changing. I continued to stroke her even after she was gone, lost in my thoughts. The vet, who didn’t have the greatest bedside manner, said, “Um, we need to put the body away now so we can get ready for the next client.” I nodded and left, forgiving him for wanting to get on with his day.