One night when I was a kid, maybe eleven or twelve, I watched my father euthanize a dog.
I had grown up on my dad’s farm, for the most part, and I had seen other animals die, but this was different. This was a pet, a dog I had played with, who had been around since my earliest memories of the farm. Sometimes at night, Dad would let him in the house to let me pet him and play with him, and Spot — he was a Dalmatian — was always a great sport, amicably tolerating my petty games and torments. He never growled when I pulled his tail; he would just give Dad that pleading look that dogs always give adults when they are forced to tolerate small children. Spot wasn’t really my dog — he pretty much lived in a pen — but he was a fixture, a part of the farm. It was always his bark that alerted us when a car pulled up, and when we came home he was always there at the gate of his pen, panting and wagging his tail, overjoyed to see us.
My father was a small-town family doctor, and by all accounts a pretty good one. He had a rather abrupt and direct bedside-manner, but his diagnoses were always right, and people knew it. He and my uncle had the only medical clinic in my hometown at the time, and more business than they could handle, and yet they would still make house-calls on occasion (I went with Dad on a few). His name was Richard H. Ahrens, Jr., but the whole county called him “Doctor Dick” (his brother, my uncle, was “Doctor Bob”), or often just “Doc”.
But you might call medicine Doctor Dick’s day job; what he really was, at least in his own mind, was a cattle farmer. He spent all of his free time working on that farm. He could never sit still; he was always doing something he considered productive, whatever “needed to be done”, and from the time I was old enough to be even remotely useful, I too spent much of my time doing things he considered productive (he detested television and video games, and would take every available opportunity to deprive me of those pleasures).
Summer and weekend days were spent working cattle, fixing fences, hauling hay, and all of the myriad other things that need to be done on a farm in the Ozarks. And, whether I wanted to or not, my evenings were often spent helping Dad in the shop.
Dad’s favorite place in all the world was his shop. It was just down the hill from our house, and he spent at least some portion of nearly every day there, fixing vehicles or tractors, servicing farm implements, or tinkering with whatever latest project he’d cooked up. It was a big square building, very well-lit, with a high ceiling and a dusty concrete floor, and close to the center was a wood stove fashioned from a fifty-gallon barrel. Next to the stove sat an ancient metal office chair, the kind whose frame was built to last for centuries, its vinyl covering worn smooth on the seat and armrests from decades of use. One wall of the shop was taken up by a workbench and a garage door, in front of which was an open space large enough to hold a tractor, or a pickup, or the hay-baler, or whatever other project occupied the old man’s attention at the time. The shop contained every tool in existence, and smelled of dust and woodsmoke and grease and welding. This place was my father’s sanctuary, the center of his existence, the nexus of the carefully maintained microcosm he had carved out for himself.
Dad would almost always go “down the hill” to the shop after supper to work on whatever needed to be worked on at the time. Invariably, he would need an extra pair of hands, maybe to help take a tire off a tractor, or to hold a piece of metal in place while he welded it (I never wore a helmet, I would just look the other way, and I remember being mildly enthralled by the pink and blue lights from the arc dancing across the white sheet-rock walls of the shop). Or, maybe, my task would be to lay under the farm-truck and hold the grease-gun and flashlight and listen to Dad curse and grunt as he’d try to fit the nozzle onto an impossibly hard-to-reach grease-zerk, trying with all my will-power not to move the flashlight beam from where he needed it, even though every muscle in my body would be aching from the insanely awkward position I was expected to hold for the hours it seemed to take him to get the nozzle into position; then, finally, I’d hear my cue: “Okay, try it now..”, upon which I would slowly pump some grease (by pushing the gun’s handle against my leg, or the floor), and usually be stopped by “Shit, wait a minute,” then a second later, “Okay, try it again. Godammit, hold the light still!” And so on.
My father did almost everything himself, from carpentry to concrete-finishing to fixing vehicles, to medicating animals. We never took dogs or cats to the veterinarian, though no animal ever missed a single vaccination, and if Dad needed advice about animal care he’d just make a phone call. The only time I ever saw the vet was when he came out to the farm to look at a cow or mule Dad couldn’t diagnose, or that needed some procedure Dad didn’t know how to perform.
One night, just like a thousand other nights, Dad interrupted me from whatever pursuit I was involved in and ordered me down to the shop. Who knows what I was doing, maybe playing old-school Legend of Zelda, or reading one of the countless hack fantasy novels I loved, or watching mindless network TV (“Turn that goddamn thing off and come help me!” he may have said, like so many other times). Whatever I was doing, my leisure was rudely interrupted, and I stormed down the hill, annoyed and hoping whatever it was wouldn’t take very long. Dad rarely told me what he needed help with until we got there, and I rarely asked, so I was surprised when I walked into the shop and saw Spot lying on the floor in front of the garage door. All my aggravation vanished in an instant, and was replaced by an uneasy curiosity.
Spot was so old by that time that he could barely walk or see (both of his eyes were gray with cataracts), and he didn’t bother barking at cars anymore; he only came out of his doghouse to eat. I wondered why he was there. We had recently wormed and vaccinated all the animals, so I knew that wasn’t it, and though Dad would occasionally let Spot into the shop to pet him, he hadn’t done so in awhile, since Spot was so old it hurt him to walk from the pen and back — so I didn’t think that was it either.
I asked what we were doing.
“He’s old, and he hurts,” was the minimalist response, which of course I knew already, and it didn’t answer my question.
Then, as Dad sat in his chair and filled a couple of syringes, it dawned on me what was going on.
I had always known abstractly that dogs don’t live as long as people do, but this was the first time I had been faced with it directly. It didn’t seem at all strange to me that Dad would do it himself; he did everything himself. It also didn’t seem strange that he would have me help him, though I don’t think he really needed my help.
“Why does it take two shots?” I asked him.
“The first one’ll make him go to sleep.”
“So it won’t hurt him?”
“Well, stickin’ him hurts, but it’s unavoidable.”
I walked over to where Spot was lying on a feed-sack out in the middle of the concrete floor. This dog, who had seemed so big to me when I was a small child, looked pathetically small and helpless out in the middle of that floor-space large enough to hold a full-size pickup truck. He wasn’t curled up, nor did he have his paws tucked underneath him; he was just laid over on his side with his head on the floor and his legs pointed straight down from his body. Lying in that position made the ribs of his upward side stick out a little, in a way that didn’t look natural. I kneeled down next to him, talked to him, and petted him a little. His fur was dull and coarse and dirty, and he smelled funny, smelled sick somehow. His breathing was shallow and a little ragged, and he looked awful, so thin and bony. As I touched him I could feel every curve of his skull, every ridge of his backbone, every rib. I don’t think he even responded; it seemed to take all his effort just to draw his next labored breath. It seemed like only days before when Spot had pranced around the kitchen, excited to be let inside and soaking up the extra attention. I didn’t like seeing him this way.
As Dad walked over with the syringes, I looked up at him, trying to read that face that was usually so impassive, and I saw a look I hadn’t really noticed before, and didn’t have a name for at the time, but which I now think of as grim determination. Though he would never talk about such things, I knew it hurt him tremendously to do this. He loved that dog at least as much as I did. But it was something that had to be done, and it was his responsibility to do it.
I had seen my father give lots of shots to animals, and people too (including me), but when Spot winced a little at that first stick, so did Dad. I hadn’t ever seen that before.
When I was very young, I overheard part of a telephone conversation my step-mother had with another nurse, about a nursing-home patient who had just died. I don’t remember the details of the conversation (I doubt I understood much of it), except that they were discussing an old woman, and I remember hearing the phrase “She deserved to die.” This was not the sort of thing I expected to hear my step-mom say, and I asked what the woman had done wrong. She answered that no, no, that wasn’t it at all; the woman was very old, and in a lot of pain, and it was just her time. Now she was at peace. I didn’t really understand that, but I accepted it, and promptly forgot about it.
Dad waited a few minutes between shots, to let the first one take effect. I kept petting Spot, and watched him. Exhaustion, and comfort in his surroundings, had already relaxed him as much as he could be, and the only visible change was that he closed his eyes, and maybe his breathing became a little more regular.
Dad’s jaw was tightly set, his lips turned down a little at the edges as he gave Spot the second shot, the one that held the real significance. I watched Spot’s breathing slow, and then cease altogether, and just like that, it was over. Spot didn’t hurt anymore.
I don’t know if I made the connection then, but at some point what my step-mom had said about the old woman came back to me, and in my memory those words became all bound up together with Spot’s death, each a vindication of the other. I had seen what she was talking about, and Spot did deserve to die, and to die peacefully. What took me a little longer to figure out was why Dad made me help him do it. He didn’t need my help. Why did he want me there?
Spot was old, and in such pain that he was barely able to function anymore. Had Dad not put him down, Spot would have lived a little longer, the pain would have gotten worse, and eventually he probably would have starved to death because he was too weak to eat. It was time for Spot to die, and Dad recognized this, and took the required action. Dad loved Spot, and I know it was a painful decision to have to make. He could have had the vet do it, could have loaded Spot into a vehicle, made him endure the painful jostling of a trip to town, and forced him to die hurt and afraid, in an unfamiliar place, at unfamiliar hands. But this dog belonged to my father, this dog had loved him unconditionally, this dog trusted Dad completely. It was the least Dad could do, to put Spot to rest himself, as painlessly as possible and in a comfortable, familiar place. Indeed, I’m quite sure my father believed it was his duty to do so.
A farmer has a duty to his animals, the same duty that a pet-owner has. He must care for them, understand their needs, provide them with the things they cannot provide themselves. A physician has a somewhat similar duty to his patients. He must bring his knowledge and judgement to bear on the situation, decide what is needed, and then do it, without hesitation and in a way that minimizes suffering.
In that moment, when Doctor Dick gave Spot his final treatment, my father was both physician and farmer, fulfilling the duties required by each vocation. But he was something more, as well. He was a father — and a teacher. This was no abstract lecture about responsibility or duty, about how one ought to act, what one ought to do. This was action, assessing the situation and then doing what was called for, directly, efficiently, compassionately. You can’t teach that with words. And I’ll never forget it.