My heart was racing from the phone call that had just ended.
Two things about the call upset me. I get anxious when my father phones. In my lifetime, he's only called me a few times. He has a black, rotary-dial phone and he's slow to dial 11 digits. Dad's nervous on the phone, so he lets my mother handle most calls. Unfortunately, my mother wasn't home.
The other reason I was upset was my dear, kind father had just shot our family dog.
Dad's an 84-year-old farmer. He grew up in war-torn Germany and would have starved had a widowed farm wife not taken him in. She taught him about farming in the months following his release from a prisoner-of-war camp.
Like others who lived through the war, my father wastes little, buys stuff on sale and saves for some disaster just around the corner. My parents never wasted a nickel.
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My father worked as a tool-and-die maker for one of the big three automakers before he took up farming. He hated his years in the factory and retired in his 30th year with half his hearing and a full pension. My parents moved to a small town in Ontario's Muskoka region and began their farming careers.
My mother grew up on a farm. With my parents' combined knowledge and good German work ethic, they knew enough to get things started. Cows, goats, chickens, pheasants, capons, turkeys, ducks, geese, roosters and rabbits; they raised them all. They spoke lovingly of their animals but when the time came to stock the freezer, kapow , out came the hatchet and the pot of boiling water, and away they went.
I never understood how my father could gently bathe a bunny's infected eye, day after day, week after week, until it was cured, only to slaughter the cherished animal eight months later. He had no trouble separating the raising of and caring for animals with his need for food.
The annual cow slaughter usually took place in November. I'll never forget the year I invited my new boyfriend, Eric, to attend. Two cows had to go: Maggie and Lucky, an unfortunate name for a doomed cow. My brother, also named Eric, wanted to shoot one of them. My father (another Eric) reluctantly agreed, even though he didn't trust his son to do the job properly. The rifle was loaded, the cow was positioned, the sheet of plywood was strategically placed on the ground for the cow to fall onto and the truck was in place to haul the animal to the butchering site.
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As my father suspected, what should have been the fatal shot to the head missed. The cow wandered off into the swamp, bleeding, mooing, half dead. I watched from the kitchen window in horror. The image of that injured cow wandering in the swamp with my father wading close behind, soothing and coaxing it out, will stay with me always. I know he was thinking about $1,000 worth of steaks going down in the shallow water, but he was also tormented by the suffering that poor animal was enduring. He never raised cows again.
But back to shooting the dog. Our mutt, Tabi, was 16 and sick as a dog. I and my now-husband Eric and our children always had Sunday dinner with my parents at their farm. These dinners had become a litany of ordeals endured the previous week: Tabi couldn't get up the stairs, she couldn't get down the stairs, she couldn't pee, she was deaf, she let foxes kill the chickens, she let other dogs eat her food, she let the weasel kill the Christmas goose - the list was endless.
Tabi's care had become my mother's responsibility. Mom wanted the dog gone; my father procrastinated. There was much arguing about the grave that should have been dug before the ground froze. What would they do with poor Tabi's body if she died during the winter?
From the moment my mother slammed the door of her T-bird shut and headed off to take care of my sister's kids, Tabi's days were numbered. My father became the dog's primary caregiver, and he quickly realized how poor her quality of life had become.
On Tabi's last afternoon, my father fed her sautéed liver. He led her to her bed, a bunch of blankets in the corner of his workshop. The building was warm with a fire burning in the woodstove. The dog lay down in her favourite corner and quickly dropped off to sleep. My father returned to the house to load his rifle. Tabi didn't stir when he reappeared; her hearing was long gone. He lovingly scratched her behind the ears, pointed the rifle at her head, and with one quick pull of the trigger, she was gone.
I'm a city girl. I buy my meat nicely wrapped in plastic. I rarely tell this story because people gape at me in horror. They can't believe my father performed such a cruel, cold-hearted act on his beloved dog. They don't understand why he didn't just take her to the vet to have her put down. I have friends who have spent $200 to have their dying animals X-rayed to confirm they can't be saved, $200 to be killed and $200 to dispose of the body.
I don't even bother trying to explain that my dad's a farmer. Good farmers don't let their animals suffer. It was an act of love, kindness and gratitude for all their wonderful years together that he was able to save Tabi that most hated, fearful trip to the vet. He couldn't let a stranger shoot his dog.
Ingrid Sinclair lives in Toronto.
Illustration by Peter Mitchell.
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