I don’t have any experience with putting a dog to sleep, but I am about to get some. Today, at 10:50 a.m., I have an appointment with the compassionate, kind-hearted Dr. Lisa to kill our beloved J.J., the midsize, mystery-meat mutt whom Cyd and I adopted almost 13 years ago. We were newly affianced and newly in possession of a home, one that had yet to be filled with children or even furniture. In that cold, dead January of 2005, our first sofa, an import from my old bachelor pad, met our first dog, a white-with-black-spots refugee from the South. We had no idea why she had needed rescuing, so we just figured that, as a Jewish dog, she had faced vicious anti-Semitism in the small town whence she came. Her anxiety seemed to bear out that theory, and we spent a lot of her first few months with us assuring her that she was now safe. She could stop running. She was with her people now.
So there we were: a young, engaged couple; a dog; and a sofa. I can’t say that the dog and the sofa got along. From the first day that J.J. lived with us, she began tearing at the sofa, first a few tufts of stuffing; soon, large chunks. Trying to salvage a few cushions, we began stashing them in the bathroom before we left for work in the morning, then reassembling the sofa when we got home. In the meantime, J.J. gnawed on the sofa’s frame, and there wasn’t much we could do about that. But, of course, she was our child, and we all know that children destroy things. So what could we do?
In time, real children, human children, came along, and I’ve been worried that they will have the hardest time with J.J.’s passing. It’s not that they haven’t known what’s coming. We came back from a week at the beach last August to find that J.J., who’d been home with our housesitter, had a swelling about her haunches; one trip to the vet later and we knew that she had a tumor that was preventing the proper circulation of fluid. Since that time, she has slowly swelled out more and more. If you didn’t know that she was sick, you’d think that she was pregnant, which, in fact, is what passing neighborhood children, by nature optimists about life, tend to think. But our four daughters have known, whether they’ve known that they’ve known or not.
Last Sunday morning, I took Anna, the youngest, to fetch her three older sisters from Hebrew school. In the car ride on the way back, I realized I had all four in one place, captive, with no TV blaring and no food a-crunching. J.J. had been declining—the edema was working its way into her hind legs—and we had to have a talk. This seemed like a good time.
“Girls,” I said, “you know that J.J. has been getting sicker and sicker. I just wanted you to know that Mom and I are going to take her to the doctor this week, and ask her what she thinks we should do.”
“Will they kill J.J.?” one of them asked.
“Ultimately, Mom and I will decide,” I said. “But she is suffering. We aren’t sure what to do, to be honest. I just wanted you guys to know what is going on.”
Rebekah, our eldest, said that she thought that maybe it was time to go. “If she’s suffering, we should put her to sleep.”
Ellie, next in line, responded with her typical black-and-white clarity, and ferocity. “If J.J. goes,” she shouted, “then I go. If they kill her, they have to kill me!”
Rebekah and I tried, unsuccessfully, to stifle a laugh. Ellie was not amused. “I’m not kidding!” she said. I told her that we hoped that she was.
Anna, the baby at 3 years old, smiled and said, “She’s sick, she’s going to die.” Not that she was happy about it, just matter-of-fact and blessedly clueless.
And Klara, 6 years old, our third daughter, said nothing. She has the least interest in the dogs (we have another, younger dog, Archie), and I wondered how much she would care. But later that day, she approached me on the sofa, where I was futilely trying to read a book, and asked if I wanted to hear the song that she had composed about J.J. It was a major-key ditty, hopeful and chipper. It went like this (I reprint it with her permission):
This is hard on all of us, it’s not just hard on me
But J.J. is going to die anyway, whether a he or she
But she’ll always be our pup, whether in Heaven or not!
I’m a Jew, and at least four days out of the week I’m an atheist, so I am not big on heaven, at least not as a place where I might end up. But I do, I’ll admit, believe in Dog Heaven. My conversion was a result of reading Cynthia Rylant’s theologically profound children’s book Dog Heaven, in which she describes Dog Heaven as the place where “each dog is petted and reminded how good he is, all day long.” It’s like Robert Frost’s definition of home as the place where “when you have to go there / They have to take you in”—but better, because in Dog Heaven, they pet you, too.
Is Rylant’s God a universalist, one who believes that everyone gets to Dog Heaven? Is she a Calvinist, for whom it would be possible that J.J. was predestined to Dog Hell? (If such a place existed, would it involve lightning-fast squirrels?) I’m just a biblically illiterate peasant, so I can’t be sure. I’ll take my solace where I can. All I know is that J.J. has been with me since before I was me. When I picked her up for the first time, I was just an aspiring husband who hoped that someday I’d have the right stuff to be a dad. Along the way, J.J. has been there to arch an eyebrow when I’ve lost my cool, lick my face when I’ve been laid low, and snuggle at night when I’ve been cold. She’ll leave a pooch-size hole in my house, and my heart. The sofas in Heaven better watch out.