When the vet rang the front door bell, Colville sprang into action. He woofed his way down the steps, tail in high motion, and then stood at the door wiggling with excitement as he waited for me to open it. Colville had met Dr. V before and knew he was a friend because every human being that Colville met in the 15 years of his long Labrador life was a friend.
But on this particular day Dr. V was not a friend and his visit was not a friendly one. He’d come with a young assistant, and there were no smiles on their faces. They came upstairs and put a blue blanket down on the living room floor in front of the fire place.
We pulled Colville onto the carpet and made him lie down and then we began to stroke him gently because we wanted him to be as comfortable as possible even though we were doing a very horrible thing to him. We spoke softly to him and stroked his very soft ears. A while back, when he was a younger dog, Colville had once waited patiently while five small children, at my invitation, patted his ears.
Dr. V quickly injected the first drug into Colville’s right paw and in seconds, mere seconds, he was unconscious, just like the sleeping Colville who used to share the sofa with me every evening while I read. All those evenings, a thousand or more, while he slept, or dreamed, and snuffled through his flappy black jowls. Sometimes he’d make a sound like a tiny burst of joy, and I hoped at that moment in the dream he was catching a squirrel, or gobbling down a very large leg of chicken.
Colville continued to breathe quietly as he lay on the blanket. We were still stroking his ears and speaking softly to him even though he couldn’t hear. It’s funny about dogs. Once you realize they can understand some of what you say, a command like “Down” or “Sit”, and once you realize they can even differentiate “Colville” from “Coltrane” when you try to trick them by mispronouncing their name, suddenly a whole world of communication opens up. If they can hear some of what you say, why not all of what you say? Why not a complete conversation? Or least half of it. I think that’s why we talk to dogs.
Dr. V took out a small electric razor and shaved a small patch of fur from Colville’s left paw. I asked him how long it would take Colville to die.
“It’s very fast,” he said. “Twenty seconds, maybe a little more.”
My father had taken two weeks to die, unconscious with pneumonia and blindness and dementia, in a hospital bed in the suburbs. It was 2 in the morning when I last saw him alive and held his hand and pressed it, and thought for a moment he was pressing my hand in return.
My mother died ten years after that, at 93, alone in her bedroom in a seniors villa, leaving a small blotch of blood on the carpet where she’d fallen during the night. By the time my sister and I arrived, she’d become a corpse – small, diminished, no longer powerful, her skin dark and waxy, bones protruding like a ghoulish Hallowe’en mask.
Dr. V put the catheter into Colville and pushed down on the plunger. I looked at Judith and saw that she was crying and I wished that I could cry too for the last seconds of our dog’s life. I patted Colville again with one hand and tried to comfort Judith with the other. I felt stupid and powerless, even though I was helping to do one of the most powerful things that a human being can do, which is to extinguish life – to kill something. I refuse to say “we put our old dog to sleep”, or “we had to have him put down because he was old”, but I will say, simply and honestly and bit cruelly, “our dog got too old and so we had him killed.”
I didn’t count the 20 seconds. They passed quickly enough and then Colville stopped breathing and was suddenly dead. He was a big mass of black Labrador fur on a blanket on our floor in front of the fireplace.
Dr. V checked Colville’s heart and said to Judith and me, “He’s gone.”
I said, “You mean he’s dead” and Dr. V nodded.
Dr. V and his assistant folded the blanket around Colville’s body and carried him out to a car parked somewhere on the street.
Our apartment seemed very empty. Colville had possessed what I can only call presence. He filled a room. When he’d first arrived as a seven-week-old pup, he’d whimpered all night, keeping us awake, and I’d thought for sure my placid, comfortable life was about to be disrupted. Instead, of course, I fell madly in love with him. As he got bigger and bigger, he stayed a puppy in his mind, goofy and wiggly, impulsive and stubborn, but also gentle and good humoured. Like me, he never really grew up. Unlike me, he was a very bad student who failed Puppy Pre-School and had to repeat.
The day after Colville died, I couldn’t help but think that as sad as Colville’s death was, it was also peaceful and even loving. He had died without pain. He had died in the presence of the people who loved him and were touching him and speaking softly to him. His death had actually been a very good death, much better than the ones suffered by my elderly parents. Of course we can’t kill people but can’t we somehow give their deaths less pain and more love and more dignity?
Colville sits on a sideboard in our living room now. In one photo, taken at a friend’s cottage, he is doing his best imitation of Serious and Noble Dog, looking off into the distance as though about to star in a Littlest Hobo remake. In the other, he’s sprawled on the boardwalk in the Beach, reluctantly obedient, prepared, as he was always was, to tear off at a moment’s notice to chase a squirrel, make a new friend, or gobble down a chicken leg.