#lifewriting: set adrift
Two years ago I wrote a story. The story itself is about a five-year-old pain. It is perhaps, over-dramatized, and embellished as all memories are. But it's also one of the most emotionally truthful pieces pertaining to my life.
The idea first came to me during a Life Writing workshop. I had hesitated to share something so personal but behind fiction is truth, and what I've always hoped for with my writing, is that my little truths would touch people.
I wasn’t allowed to mourn long. It was August 21st and I would leave for university in a week.
T-shirts, pants, sweaters, socks went into my suitcase. I packed away pieces of my heart with it. The preparations distracted me from the memory of her body weighing down my arms. But excitement was the last thing on my mind. My tears came one last time before I left: we picked up Cherry’s ashes from the vet’s clinic and brought her to her favourite place. There was a small beach behind our old house, tucked into the coastline like a pocket. We let her ashes into the water. I wish guilt could scatter so easily too.
To begin with, I must confess that I was a lazy owner. Or I became one. I remember how excited my brother and I were when our grandpa took us to the dog shelter. Get a Labrador, he said. We were six years old and Cherry was six months old. It was love. And it was love when we dug our feet and paws into clingy sand in the summer, or when she ran alongside my bike as I cruised along the seafront. Sometimes we braved the mountain, her four legs making faster progress than mine did.
Growing up happened.
Absence makes the heart fonder, someone said, but that someone should add that there has to be time to miss anything. I mean, I did. I missed Cherry from my chair in my room, a floor above where she stayed. I could argue that schoolwork and responsibilities caught up with me. But the fact remained that by the time Cherry became an old fat dog, the time I spent with her dwindled into a solitary pat on the head when I passed by her on the way in or out of the house.
But Cherry was mine, and it was still love. It had been enough.
We had settled into a routine. I saw Cherry when I saw her, and she would wag her tail when she saw me, too comfortably settled on her towel to move. Sometimes, if I had five minutes to spare, I would prepare her dinner for her. On good days, she would amble up the front yard to greet me when I came home from school. Other days, she would just snuffle my hand when I stroked her nose. That was, until the morning I found her not eating, her tail stiff and tongue lolling out like purpling candy.
I was really concerned about the not eating. Cherry loved eating. If anyone lived to eat, it would have been her. She was also an extremely friendly dog, tail wagging in constant happiness. But she wasn’t moving at all. I checked her bowl. Still full. It was 1 pm—she normally ate around 11. I patted her on the head. She panted. I looked at her tongue. It was turning more purple.
“Mom,” I called out. “Mom!”
“What?” She sighed.
“I think there is something wrong with Cherry.” Never mind that, I knew something was wrong.
My mom came out to the front door. She was still in pajamas, probably not planning on leaving the house. “It’s probably just too hot.”
It was 38 ‘C. I filled up a bottle of water and poured it over Cherry’s face. She looked marginally better, tail thumping once. But her breathing was still too heavy.
“No really, there is something wrong with her.”
My mom huffed. “Well, we can’t lift her without help.”
“But she’s not eating!”
That seemed to worry mom too. She gave in. “Okay, ask your brother to come down.”
Cherry’s heart had expanded because of the heat wave. Her lungs had also filled with liquid, causing major discomfort from how it was pushing against her ribcage. Not to mention the fat around her organs. I don’t remember very well.
The mind is a tricky thing.
The vet said, “I can treat her. It’s possible to draw the liquid out of her lungs, especially now that she has cooled down.”
Mom listened carefully. My brother sat down. I waited for the but.
“But she’ll have to be on heavy medication from now on, and kept indoors at all times.” He explained, “The medication will make her lose control of her bladder. I know she is already on a diet, but she will have to follow an even stricter cut of food.”
My imagination was particularly inspired that day. I imagined her heart, swollen and heavy. It rested against the inflated platform of her lungs, but then the lungs hollow out and the heart would plunge down.
“Oh no,” mom said. “Who could look after her?” And where would we put her, was the unsaid question.
“The helper’s room?” my brother suggested. “The sun doesn’t hit directly on there, so it’d be cooler.”
I thought up urine, a few shades darker gold than her hair. It would hit the tiles angry, rooting for cracks, hungering to stain the grooves yellow. Or, dribble and squirt, sputter, like the end of a squeeze bottle. Run like the tide into heavy paws and hair. And Cherry’s tail would go whoosh through all of it, drops clinging on like paint.
“What about her heart?” I asked.
The vet rubbed the back of his neck. “That, I can’t do anything about. But I will say that if it expands any more, she’s in danger of heart failure.” He looked down at where Cherry was sprawled at our feet, on the cart they used to wheel her in and out of the examination room. “The room will have to be air-conditioned at all times. She has to keep cool.”
Well. I could already picture dad’s inevitable rant about electricity bills. Just get rid of the dog, he would say, like it was the most practical thing to do. She’s old anyway.
Mom said it. “Is it… is it an option to put her down? Since she is almost 14 already, it’d be…” She couldn’t finish the thought.
My brother gestured at himself and me. “Because we are leaving home soon,” he said quietly.
“I know that it is a difficult choice to make,” the vet hesitated. “Since we’ve known each other for a long time—I’ll be honest with you. As a doctor, I am bound by an oath to save her. But I also know you are good people, so I’ll give you half an hour. Think about it carefully. If you still think the best decision is to put her down, I will respect that.” He went back into the examination room.
My heart probably felt as heavy as Cherry’s did. I couldn’t help but crouch and stroke Cherry’s head. Her eyes, a warm hue caught between brown and red, was stark against the white paneling of the clinic floor. In fact, the visitor benches were also white. The walls were white. Everything was so clean that it was hard to remember that not every animal leaves this place healthy and alive.
“Is it a serious option we are considering?” my mom asked finally.
It took us every minute of that half an hour. I spent most of it trying to breathe, asking myself isitrightisitrightisitright. In our silence, I felt like we had already made a decision. Maybe that is what gets to me even now, the uncertainty.
“I’m ready if you are,” my brother said.
He left the clinic.
My mom looked at me.
“Okay,” I said. I turn to the vet, “Yeah. Let’s just. Can I go in with her?”
Are you sure, the vet asked me, you don’t have to. I was left hanging as to what I didn’t have to do. Make the decision? Be there? See it? Surely not, pull the trigger.
When Cherry was laid on the table, and the vet was preparing the—instruments, I cradled her head in my arms. We had washed her a few days ago, and I could still smell her strawberry shampoo. I just didn’t want her to live out her days, trapped away from the sun and sea she loved so much.
In the end, I held her. Listened to the clock tick and tried not to cry. Hugged her body as it grew heavy.
I kissed a corpse.
She used to wear a chain around her neck. Just a simple, metal chain that swung heavily with every step, a sign of our ownership. Friendship. I used to take it off her neck when she wasn’t wandering around the neighbourhood, running it through my hands. She never indicated discomfort or strain. Maybe she didn’t feel it at all.
I don’t remember if she had it on at the clinic or not. Most likely, she didn’t. Because if I had to take it off her there, in that cold sterile room. I couldn’t have done it.
Whatever the case, her neck was empty when I left the room. I didn’t want to stay, but I didn’t want to go home either. The car was empty too. I didn’t want to see the car, get in it, and go home empty. Our German Shepard, still a puppy, would be home. Would she feel the cage too empty, or would she never realize that she is alone now? I was empty of tears. My brother empty of words. My mother with empty assurances.
I got home and crawled into my bed. I wasn’t empty anymore.
Inside my blanket, I was boiling over, so full I wanted to vomit, but the guilt just came into my eyes and out onto my face and rolled off the sheets. I smelt salt. Cherry loved the sea.
My mom came into my room eventually, because no one else would.
“Silly girl,” she said. Her voice had that wavering tone it had every time she cried, and she sniffed. “We all loved her too.”
But I was the one who had asked for her to die.
I had dreamt of death before.
Of my deaths; being on a capsizing boat and swimming through the night, or climbing blindly in depilated houses, or as an unfortunate hostage shot in the head, or facing down a blank clown smile, blood and brain matter spilling out in front of my mother, or a slow deliberate self-mutilation. Mostly I fall, from buildings, into glass, down stairs. Tortured once or twice. Faced the iron maiden. I had an audience every time, and every time I was glad I wasn’t the one watching.
I wake up with my heart pounding. I only cry when it is someone else dying.
Somehow, voicing yes to a painless if permanent sleep, seemed to me more violent a killing. That night I dreamt of carrying her body to a cliff, and we tumbled down together, and I fell into the sea and through it, wake up to a question: am I a murderer?
The thing with guilt is that it never really goes away. When we moved from our house by the sea to an apartment in the city, it followed me up onto the penthouse floor.
Silly girl, my mom had said.
More like selfish, I won’t say.
I have another dog. Her name is Shep. I leave her on the roof.
Today, I'm writing the sequel.