How Sophie Got Put Down
Mone was busy cleaning the house. Dad had gone to the library.
Mom got back from gym, she walked into my room while I was writing and said, "Let's take Sophie. Dad said it was okay."
We thought she was inside, but she was outside, and I fetched her leash from the garage. She struggled to get up the three steps onto the stoep where I jangled the leash clip, like we were taking her for a walk, hyper-aware we weren't.
"Come on," said mom, standing next to her.
"Come on, Soph!" said my sister, encouraging her to get up the last two steps. Mom had to prod her. I clipped the leash to her collar. Abbey rubbed her head, said goodbye.
As I walked her to the car she tugged towards the street like we were going for a walk. But we weren't, and I wonder if she suspected. I picked her up, and it was the first time in months she let herself be picked up without trying to bite. So I wonder if she suspected.
In the car on the way to the vet she licked her lips, the way she did after you scratched her head or after she ate the sinews from the ends of the drumstick bones dad fed her, a habit of hers I always took as her way of showing contentment.
She fell asleep on my lap.
I said to mom, who was driving, "She used to associate the car with walks. Now she associates it with the vet."
“Davey, I don’t think she can remember anymore.”
Her hair was coming off white against my dark jersey. Before we left the house I'd thought to change tops, or bring a towel for her to sit on, but I did neither.
At the traffic lights mom asked me about Jess, who I'd Skyped with last night, and I told mom she still wanted to leave her job, she was working on a proposal for a two year plan to improve the pharmacy's e-commerce platform, how you could now get drugs delivered to your door, even prescription ones if it was a repeat order. This project would give her more freedom, she could do things the way she wanted to.
I said, "All my friends seem to be struggling to work for someone else."
When we got to the vet the gate was locked and I looked at mom. Guess we’ll have to turn around and go home. But then the receptionist came to open and asked how she could help.
Mom said, "Actually, we're here to put her down."
I held Sophie against my jersey while we waited. We’d left her leash in the car. There was a man there fighting to restrain his youthful Alsatian. The dog kept jumping up and trying to sniff us. So full of life. Sophie didn't respond.
"He just wants to say hello!"
I pushed down a sudden urge to laugh at the absurd irony.
Mom explained to the vet's assistant, who had the gentlest eyes. They harboured not a single scrap of judgment. She smiled the slightest of smiles and agreed with what mom said.
The receptionist stood by, lips pursed. Overweight. It repulsed me, that excess flesh.
Mom said: "She's old now, she turns fifteen on the fourth of November."
"She's had a good innings; I can see how cloudy her eyes are."
Mom said: "She's throwing up, not eating, her back legs are buckling. She's messing in the house."
"I can see how thin she is. It’s always a sign when they stop eating."
Mom said: “She just stands at the bottom of the stairs and whimpers, sometimes she can’t get up, and we have to go help her.”
Her eyes said she understood.
Mom wanted to just drop Sophie off and leave. The vet’s assistant looked at me holding Sophie and she asked me if I wanted to go in with her. I'm glad she did, because I wanted to, I wanted to see it happen. I wouldn’t have if she didn’t ask. I looked at mom, and she knew, and I admitted; “yes.”
I went into the little room and I put Sophie on the steel table and the vet came in, stone-faced, closed the door.
Automatically I said, "Hello, how are–" but one look at his face cut me off midsentence. Idiot. He didn't respond, just moved about swiftly, professionally, without making eye contact, and laid out his instruments on the table.
I was still holding her, talking to her, "okay Soph, okay," stroking her back. He'd already wrapped a tourniquet around her right front leg, snipped clear a patch of hair. I looked down at the syringe of blue lumpy fluid, labelled 'Single Use Only' which should have seemed profound and a tube ran from the syringe to a small silver needle which he poked into her right front leg and she snapped weakly at his hands and the needle fell out.
I thought what if he pricks himself by accident.
He told me to grip her around the neck so she didn't bite him. I gripped her tightly and I thought what if I choke her as he stuck the needle in again and instinct made her bare her canines and try to bite again but weakly and he depressed the plunger and I watched the blue lumpy fluid run through the tube and disappear. Immediately she sat down, and then she relaxed against my hands as I lowered her onto her side on the table and my right hand was over her ribs, "okay, okay, Soph" and the vet had already washed his hands and left the room. She just lay down, peaceful, dazed, and she was warm and on purpose I kept my hand on her ribs trying to feel her heart beat and it softly did thump, thump-thump and then it didn't and there was no difference, her eyes were open and her hair was prickly and warm and I couldn't tell the difference.
The vet’s assistant came in and said I can leave her on the table, the vet will take her away, and she was smiling gently as she said, "We've all done this, because we're animal lovers."
She said I could wash my hands, there's soap and there is the towel.
"It's good to be with her and talk her through it."
I finished washing and drying my hands and as I turned around Sophie shuddered once and sort of coughed on the table and that jolted me inside but I didn’t jump.
I thought is she going to shit herself now.
I lingered but it seemed weird and there were other people waiting to see the vet. So I left her on the table.
Mom was leaning against the doorframe looking outside towards the car. The receptionist was hanging around. The assistant wasn’t there.
We said goodbye and thank you. The receptionist put her somber face on for us. She said, “Goodbye” with emphasized gravity. And I was angry with her because I thought come on, you’re an adult, you’ve been through this so many times before and you still don’t get it. How can you not get it? Don’t do that, don’t push pity onto your face. Don’t make it about you, this has nothing to do with you.
I thought about the vet's assistant. Those smiling eyes, and her factual manner. She wasn't trying to sympathize, and I liked her for it. She immediately accepted what was happening for what it was.
As we drove off we passed by her, she was taking a walk down the street, and she waved at us, an everyday gesture, and it was the right thing to do in the moment. The slightest of smiles. If she had looked away, pretended like she didn’t see us as we drove past, she would have ruined it, but she didn’t.
She looked straight at us and she waved and she was right.
It was a bright, sunny morning. Busy. A weekday, just like any other and in the streets of the industrial area it was business as usual. There was a lot of traffic and mom had to drive carefully. People darted across the road, a delivery van sped through a red light. Mom made small talk with me and her voice was airy. She said the vet takes the dogs and buries them on a farm. Then she put the indicator on and I said where are you going because I thought obviously after an event like this you’re supposed to go straight home and be sad but she pulled into the petrol station to fill the tank and get the windscreen washed because tomorrow she had to drive to Hawston for work. As we pulled out of the petrol station she remembered to buy bread so she turned the car around and parked in the Spar parking lot.
“Do you want to come with?”
“No, I’ll wait here.”
I sat in the car with my seatbelt on and waited for her like when I was a little boy.
When she got back she handed me the bread in a warm paper bag and I held it on my lap. The label on the sticker keeping the bag closed read ‘Brown French Oval.’
We headed home and I asked mom how much the procedure cost and she brushed it off the way she always did when I asked her about money. But I wanted to know so I said Mom and she said R380.00.
I had nothing to say to that because it seemed exactly right.
On the drive home I noticed a lot of dogs. Running around in the streets, or out on walks with their owners. Like when a pregnant woman says she notices babies everywhere she goes. For some reason the thought made me smirk.
We turned into our street and drove past an empty plot of land in the process of being cleared. The bottom half of a tree lay on its side, an enormous umbrella of severed roots right up against the edge of the road.
I said, "It says something about these trees how much machinery we need to dig them out."
Then I said, "All their little roots are still underground."
I wanted it to sound meaningful. I wished it did.
The Brown French Oval was warm on my lap.
Mom’s face was soft and she smiled ever so slightly. For a moment she seemed to me like one of those veteran soldiers I’d always admired in war movies, because she was right, the way she dealt with it, matter-of-fact and life carries on and while we’re here we might as well buy bread and put petrol in.
When we got home I went to my room to write this. Before I sat down I frowned at the hairs sticking to my jersey and brushed them off.
Mom sat in the lounge flipping through a magazine.
She sat where she could look out the window and the moment dad got home she went into the garage to tell him.