Monday, November 9, 2009

The Bliss of Papa's Lap

Today, I made one of those heartbreaking decisions that every pet owner accepts as being eventual--even, inevitable. I had to have Priscilla, our family dog, put to sleep.

Priscilla was a pound puppy. Of all the dogs I have loved and raised, only one of them was a pure breed…a dog who was purchased rather than saved. Jordan, the Newfoundland, was a gift I gave myself back in 1992. Excluding that goofy, enormous slobber machine, however, every other dog that has joined my family has been rescued from the pound or adopted from a litter of mixed-breed pups who were unwelcome and destined for the roadside.

But Priscilla, while adopted from the animal shelter just like Ringo and Sadie, and even though a mixed-breed, like Reuben and Buck, was more of a challenge than those other noble canines. She was the first adult dog I had ever adopted. Her age was unknown, as were her parentage and her history. The Humane Society’s veterinarian speculated that there was some 'terrier' in her genetics, that she was probably between three and five years old, and that she had been over-bred. Her little body and its 'female parts' were a mess.

She wouldn’t have anything to do with me when I visited the pound. I walked up to the cage and spoke to her, and she ran behind her little dog house and hid, nose buried in the corner, her hind-quarters towards me. I asked the shelter employee if I could enter the pen, and was given permission. I went inside and closed the door. I found a spot relatively free of poop and sat on the ground, about ten feet away from where she cowered.

And I sang.

‘It was no accident…me finding you. Someone had a hand in it…long before we ever knew… I tip my hat to the Keeper of the Stars. He sure knew what He was doing, when he joined these two hearts…’

I can’t sing worth beans. Priscilla didn’t seem to know that. I croaked away, ignoring her, my back leaned against the twisted steel of the cage. And after about ten minutes, I felt a little nudge underneath my arm. I opened it--moved it away from my side—and she slowly climbed up onto my lap and stuck her nose in my opposite armpit. That was all it took to fall in love.

But Priscilla, as calm and sweet and unobtrusive as she was, came with baggage. Our biggest challenge? We didn’t know what that baggage was. We didn't know what, exactly, had scarred her. She was incredibly shy. Painfully so. She was scared of her own shadow. Children made her nervous. Adults were to be avoided. She didn’t even show interest in other dogs. She preferred to be left alone. She wouldn’t eat if she was being watched. She wouldn’t do her 'business' if she felt eyes on her--but at the same time, she wouldn’t pee or poop unless she was accompanied outside. She rarely barked. In fact, she surprised us the first time she did. It happened almost three months after she’d come home with me. My daughter Josie had a friend over to play, and the girls were horsing around on the front lawn. Priscilla saw Sam chasing Josie, and she set off on a bouncing, barking run, as if trying to herd Sam away or protect Josie from this girl who was pursuing her. That type of horseplay--that type of rowdiness between my children and their friends--is one of the few things that ever sparked any life or excitement in the little dog. She didn’t particularly want to be petted or ‘made of’ by Josie and Eli, but she most definitely thought of them as hers.

Her nervousness around people was a completely new phenomenon for this woman who has loved and lived with dogs for forty-three out of her forty-six years. I’ve always had social pets. Outgoing dogs. Exuberant ones! But Priscilla was afraid of her own shadow. She preferred to be left alone, nose first in the corner of the couch—as if we couldn’t see her if she couldn’t see us--or else hidden in the shadowy safety beneath my bed.

It was weeks and weeks before Mr. Grumbles could even get near her. She would have nothing to do with him. But he is a quiet man, and patient. And one day, as he relaxed in the living room in his recliner, she padded around the corner by the doorway. She stopped. She looked at him, and he looked at her. He patted his knee. And without another second’s hesitation, she galloped across the floor and jumped into his lap.

That was it, for Priscilla. That was her human contact. Her only bit of personal heaven with any two-legged animal. Papa’s lap. Papa’s arm, his shoulder, his knee. Mr. Grumble had never been a ‘dog person’. He hadn’t grown up with scores of pets like this game warden’s daughter had. He could take them or leave them. But Priscilla changed all that. The act of having a cold wet nose inhaling and exhaling quietly underneath his ear, of having a wispy black and white tail thumping on his knee...well. My crusty husband fell in love. And the feeling was mutual.

She didn’t evolve into an outgoing or overly affectionate animal. And she didn’t always want that closeness. Didn’t always want that touch. Wasn’t good at letting her guard down. But when she DID crave affection, it was made available. My husband would sit in his recliner. He’d tip the foot rest up just a little bit to make it into a ramp--for with her stumpy legs, she couldn’t jump very high—and he would say, ‘Do you want to cuddle? Do you want to come sit on Papa’s lap?’ And up she would go, to her bliss. A bliss that Papa shared. Two shy, somewhat quiet creatures, giving and receiving affection without fuss and without fanfare. Just the two of them--one offering caresses and soothing words, the other offering devotion and trust.

She was solitary. She was timid and withdrawn. But she made an impression on this family, nonetheless.

Cancer isn’t selective. Its victims come in all shapes and sizes, all breeds, and from all walks of life. It invades the good and the bad, cuts short the lives of the gregarious as well as the introverted. Cancer chose Priscilla, and I had to let her go.

For those who have had to make the decision to peacefully end a pet’s life--to end its suffering and allow it the same dignity in death as it tried to maintain in life--the final act is heart-rending. Yes, it is quick. It is merciful and pain-free. Pain-free for the pet, but not for the pet owner. Not for the family that has loved that grinning dog or that purring cat, that nibbling goat or that nickering pony. Oh, no. Not pain-free.

I chose to hold Priscilla in my arms as the vet administered the euthanasia. I caressed her and held my forehead to hers. I looked through my tears into those soft brown eyes--those eyes that had always held a bit of reserve, but incredible trust at the same time. I whispered and I crooned. I apologized for every wrong the world had ever done her. And I told that little, sick and quiet pup that she was going to be okay. That there were great things in store for her. That she was going to go cuddle with Papa. She was going to go sit on Papa’s lap. For as long as she wanted, this time. Her own bliss. Her own bit of personal heaven.

We are heart-broken. We’ve been through this before, and we know that time will help to make the hurt diminish. But tonight, that truth doesn’t comfort us. We’ve lost our dog. Our pet. Our friend. A member of our family. And the rest of us need each other tonight in a way that we usually don’t.

Because, you see...Priscilla is gone.

I’m going to go cuddle with Papa, and sit on his lap. That timid little dog taught this grown woman something important. I will remember it.

And I will remember her.

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