First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.
The vet’s footsteps reverberated on the porch stairs through the stone silence inside our house. I squeezed the hand of one son and glanced over at my other. I turned my gaze back toward Jessie. She lay on a green quilt by the front window as the sun set in the winter sky.
When my sons were 12 and 10, they wanted a dog. I don’t remember whether they convinced me in the way kids typically do with promises of walking, feeding and grooming a pet. I would not have taken their promises at face value given their ages. When Jessie came into our lives, I did most of the work. This made me her favourite. She slept by my feet in the attic office during the day and at the foot of our bed at night. While the kids were at school, I would consult with her on important matters: “What should I make for dinner, big girl?” Looking into the pools of her brown eyes always inspired an answer, and made life slow down a beat.
Just before the vet arrived, I had held Jessie’s black bowl with the white paw prints to her mouth. She made gentle lapping sounds, like water in a Japanese garden. In her better days, Jessie would hop off the worn leather sofa, whence she kept a watchful eye on the comings and goings of our family for 12 years, and saunter over to her dish herself. “Listen,” I would say, putting a finger to my lips to silence the chatter around our dinner table: “Isn’t that the best sound in the world?”
Jessie was my girl for a while. As my sons grew older, her loyalties shifted in lockstep with the steady demise of my parenting duties. By the time they returned home after university, Jessie was an old dog. They fussed over her, in the way I used to fuss over them. While travelling through Europe the year before Jessie died, my sons called home. They asked what I was feeding our girl. I assured them only the best; that particular night it was leftover grilled tuna. “Mom, you know she has a sensitive stomach,” one said. Offended, I reminded them how well I fed them for many years without incident. Didn’t they remember the award-winning school lunches with homemade cookies and organic lemonade? Yes, of course, they said, but pointed out that organic juice was mostly sugar, even if it cost as much as Jessie’s premium liver treats.
My husband and I were out of town for an extended time when the vet suggested X-rays were in order. Our sons took Jessie and were the first to learn there was no hope. They took charge: administering pain killers; gingerly carrying her down the porch steps to a path they cleared on the icy lawn so she could pee; making her a pile of blankets to sleep on the floor. They took turns crying, knowing they needed to be strong for the other. By the time my husband and I returned home it was obvious there was little left for me to do, on either the dog or the parenting front.
The vet explained the procedure. She would administer an initial shot to sedate Jessie. I held my breath as I watched her part Jessie’s wavy golden fur and inject the needle. I was grateful our vet made house calls and Jessie could die at home. My husband and I had bought the house 25 years earlier when we were expecting our first son, another son shimmering on the horizon. There was a growth chart with pencil markings on the basement wall showing their progression from spirited toddlers to even more spirited teenagers, until they outgrew growth charts altogether. I wondered whether Jessie had picked her moment to die. Could our smart dog sense our home was being sold? That a few days later, it would look like the realtors had shaken an etch-a-sketch to erase any hint of us? Everything would be boxed away – not even a stray golden dog hair would remain on the rented designer sofa or the carpet that smelled like new. Our home would become a blank canvas for a new family to fill with their own memories.
The vet administered the second injection. This one to stop Jessie’s heart. A few minutes later, she leaned over and placed her stethoscope on Jessie’s chest. She looked up, her eyes meeting mine. “She’s gone,” she said. The weight of saying goodbye was too great for my husband and sons’ broken hearts to bear, so I helped carry Jessie out of our home. “You’ll never forget her,” the vet said after we placed Jessie in her trunk. She closed the hatch and drove away.
Twenty-five years, poof. This is what I thought as my husband and I signed the agreement of sale just a few weeks after Jessie died. I felt the loss of our home in all my senses as snippets of our family life, so beautiful in their ordinariness, flashed through my mind. The last memory was still raw: the four of us forming a protective circle around Jessie as she slipped away.
My now adult sons would be going in one direction as my husband and I headed in another. Us toward an empty nest. Our family home had served its purpose. On the last day in our home, I left a bottle of wine and a card for the new owners on the kitchen counter wishing them as much joy in their new home as we had enjoyed. I meant it, even though I felt a tinge of jealousy, imagining how quickly we would be relegated to the dustbin of neighbours’ memories. Then I closed the door on a chapter of our family life.
I slowly walked down the steps of our front porch for the last time and stopped on the sidewalk in front of our home. I took a final look back to where I used to sit with Jessie watching the world go by. Jessie’s ghost was standing at the top step. She looked at me with anticipation like she used to when she was alive, wondering whether she was going for a walk or staying behind. “C’mon, Jess,” I whispered under my breath, “it’s time to go.”
Sue Nador lives in Ottawa.