The Family We Choose

in Personal Essays

On Sunday, December 2, at the Central Veterinary Hospital in New Haven, there are few patients and a lot of bodies. “It’s just been sad lately,” Danielle, a vet technician, says with a tired sigh in the open “Emergency Care” area in the hospital’s basement. “It’s ’cause the holidays are coming,” she admits, and, before I can open my mouth, she turns back to her computer. I don’t understand the connection.

Inside the bright, linoleum emergency care area, a silver boom box on a shelf next to a swaying test tube tray has been playing holiday songs, one after another, all day long. “Let Your Day Be Merry.” “Winter Wonderland.” “Let it Snow.” “White Christmas.” Outside, the first snow of the year—or freezing rain, rather—is falling in the early dusk. “Between Thanksgiving and Christmas we do a lot of euthanasia,” Dr. Kris Grau says, picking up on my confusion. “Every year.”

“Why?” I ask. Over the course of one day, I have seen seven hypodermic needles filled with a hot pink liquid, and seven dead pets carried (if a cat) or wheeled on a cart (if a dog) down the hallway. I’ve seen three of them euthanized myself: “Dusty,” “Kitten,” and “Celeste.” We seem to take more lives during the holidays, it occurs to me later. Our own, as suicide rates notoriously climb every year with the approach of the New Year, and—as I discover anecdotally—our pets’. Suicide statistics garner attention, I think, because we believe we understand them. The grating, unrelenting cheer of the season, the out-of-hand materialism, the stress of family gatherings, the weight of that annual charge to fix our flaws, hit us all in varying degrees.

But pets? During a lull in activity at the hospital, I demand an explanation, and nurses Linda, Mary, and Trudy gather around to offer a few theories. Visiting relatives make owners reevaluate the hassles of caring for an unhealthy pet. Big dogs do poorly in cold weather. “It’s the end of the year,” says Mary, shrugging. “On to new things.” No one can offer anything more certain than that. While human euthanasia floats in the realm of Op-Ed pages, political posturing, and passionate public debate, its animal counterpart is much more matter-of-fact, sitting in a box of vials under the syringes. And the blunt possibility of euthanasia in the pet world makes the discussion of death almost unrecognizably different. Right-to-die advocates portray human euthanasia as an alternative to the arrogance of the medical profession—the right to do what nature will shortly do anyway. For pets, the arrogance runs the other way, as we assume the duty of deciding when the suffering should stop.

For most pet owners, the first step to the animal hospital comes when they notice something’s wrong. Thomas Mason and his young son were walking their nine-week-old American Bulldog, Dusty, along Long Beach in Branford, when Dusty sniffed a mushroom and gobbled up another. Mr. Mason assured his son that Dusty, whom they’d brought home just two weeks earlier, would be fine. A day later, Dusty was shaking and couldn’t stand up. She started to have seizures in the car on the way to the hospital. Preparing to start on morning rounds with three other vets, Dr. Laura McKay asks, “Do you want to start with the sad or not so sad?” The consensus is sad, and Dusty is the first stop. Dr. McKay rattles off her stats. Activated Clotting Time (ACT) above 4000. Ammonia up. Glucose in the toilet. “This mushroom has fun nicknames,” she says, “like death angel, destroyer angel.” Dusty’s liver is failing. “A single mushroom can kill a small child,” she concludes. We look and coo once more as Dusty raises her wrinkly infant head. We move on.

A few hours later in a small office off the central ER area, Dr. Grau hangs up the phone with Poison Control and makes a pouty face. “In humans, we’d do a liver transplant,” Dr. Grau says, “but we haven’t gotten there for the animal world yet.”

The line between pet and child often blurs for the serious animal lover, and the Animal Hospital is one place where this feeling is understood. “I deal with the same thing with my daughter,” Dr. Grau says, commiserating with an owner whose pug, Brittany, has allergies. Brittany is wearing a rainbow sweater and has been dragging her “girly parts” across the living room floor. As she follows behind her daughter’s epileptic golden retriever, another woman half-jokes to me, “My granddaughter!” In the hospital files, patients are given their owners’ last names: “Ruby” Patterson, or “Braveheart” Fucci. “We began to long for the pitter patter of little feet,” reads a quote on a calendar hanging in the office, “so we bought a dog. Well, it’s cheaper, and you get more feet.” At home, I have caught my mom calling out my name to our ten-year-old Bernese Mountain Dog, Marilla, “by accident.”

The distance between this hospital’s patients and the human world, however, reveals itself in the ER. “Oh, man, this is disgusting,” Dr. McKay says as she lacerates a cyst on the back of a black cat. “You smell terrible!” she continues as she works, saying something no pediatrician would ever dare in front of a client. “Look, this cat’s been snorting coke,” Linda jokes, holding down a black cat with white flecks around its nose, as another nurse gives him a shot. Pets’ inability to communicate their hurts only makes their mothers and fathers more dependent on hospital staff. As Dr. Grau and I enter room after room to meet with shaken owners and their sick or hurt or dying pets, I keep expecting the owners to glare at me for intruding at such a personal time. Instead, as soon as we enter, I become invisible. The patients might patter over to sniff me, size me up, or wag a tail, but the eyes of the owners immediately seize on Dr. Grau, waiting to hear her words, as if from a prophet. “Pete does have plenty of stool in him,” Dr. Grau tells Frank Hardy, a middle aged man brimming with emotion. “I knew it!” he responds, throwing his hands up in the air. Dr. Grau speaks with the soothing voice of a kindergarten teacher. She explains what she has found. “He’s got keystones in his urine,” she says, “which means Pete has diabetes.” Next she offers her advice for treatment, ending by emphasizing that “right now we want to get Petey feeling better first, before anything else.”

“That’s wonderful,” Hardy nods, keeping it together, and follows her out of the room to look at Petey’s X-rays. dr. grau enters check-up room four, where my mother and I sit waiting. She closes the door gently behind her. She wears blue scrubs over a plump but sturdy frame, and her dark hair is pulled back from her warm face in a ponytail. Dr. Grau, as I find out a few weeks later, loves emergency veterinary work, lunch, and laughing. “I didn’t do it!” she exclaims, and then giggles, whenever a doctor or nurse calls her name from across the room. When it’s getting close to two and lunch hasn’t been ordered, she mock-shouts, “Never keep a fat girl from her lunch!” A heartfelt “that sucks” is her refrain for all the lows of the day, from discouraging blood test results to a cat just put down. She is the caring, competent elementary school teacher in the check up room, with an endearing penchant for naughty PG humor behind closed doors. My first trip to the animal hospital was on November 11, when I called my mom about an Othello paper and found her choking back sobs on the other end. “She just collapsed,” she said of Marilla. A neighbor had helped lift Marilla’s seventy- pound frame into the back of our Volvo station wagon, and my mom had rushed her to the animal hospital just a few blocks away.

In the parking lot, Marilla managed to get out of the car herself, and my mom wondered if she had overreacted. Inside, however, the vet technician lifted up Marilla’s black lips and pronounced, “She has grey gums.” Grey gums mean profuse internal bleeding. As the technician whisked Marilla away to the ER, the receptionist pushed a form in front of my mom. “Sign here,” she said, “to begin emergency treatment.” The news so far sounded grim. “I don’t know what to do,” my mom whispered over the phone. So I put down my paper and drove to the hospital a few miles away, to see Marilla for perhaps the last time, and, in a rare moment, to comfort my mom, instead of the other way around. “I need to tell you exactly what’s going on,” Dr. Grau says, her no-non sense tone powerful and soothing. “Then we can talk about what decisions you might need to make.” Dr. Grau delivers information in calm, digestible chunks. Marilla is bleeding into her abdomen and has a large mass there; the prognosis for these situations is never good. If the mass is confined to her spleen, the non-boardcertified surgeon on call can remove it. If it’s on her liver, “he won’t be able to deal with it.” But he won’t know until he opens her up, because Marilla’s internal bleeding blurs X-rays. An ultrasound would pinpoint the mass, but this hospital doesn’t have the equipment. We’d have to go to Norwalk, an hour’s drive away.

“But look,” she says finally, in a tried and true formula I later come to recognize. “There are some things we can do to just get a bit more of a handle. Get her stable. See where we are.” My mom and I nod, and Dr. Grau leaves. “Isn’t she wonderful?” my mom says hoarsely, and we are left sitting on the floor, stroking Marilla, who, besides breathing unevenly, seems perfectly fine. Marilla had the operation overnight, and the surgeon removed a grapefruit-sized tumor from her spleen. My mom did not blink at the $4,000 price tag of Marilla’s blood work, X-rays, surgery, and post-op recuperation. But many do. Money is a touchy, ever-present subject at the animal hospital. Less than a quarter of pet owners have medical insurance, and “most get it after they’ve had to spend a lot of money here,” says Tracy, a nurse who presents fi- nancial estimates to owners.

Dr. Grau does not hold back from judging owners’ tight-fisted behavior. “How would you like to get thrown twenty feet in the air and get sent home with some Tylenol?” Dr. Grau fumes to me when an owner decides to forgo treatment for a dog who has been hit by a car. But she also spends much of her time reassuring owners that sometimes euthanasia is the best—even if not the only—option. Around this time, I realize we could have put Marilla to sleep then and there and no one would have raised an eyebrow. “If you need someone to say, ‘Is this OK to do?’ I’m here to say—‘It is,’” Dr. Grau says quietly on the phone to Mr. O’Brien (whose name has been changed), whose cat, “Kitten,” has a bladder full of stones for the third time. O’Brien decided to operate the first two times at two thousand dollars a pop. Now Dr. Grau talks about quality of life, not only the pet’s but the family’s. She reminds him that medicine offers “no guarantee,” and then concludes, “I don’t mean to sound crude, but there are so many cats in this world that need a home that don’t have chronic medical problems.” Pets are the family we choose, as a common saying goes, and Dr. Grau understands the hardnosed truth about choosing as much as the part about family.

“Are you ready?” “Yeah.” George Mason wears a puffy vest and sweatpants and talks with tough guy attitude, but as Dr. Grau inserts the needle he looks up at the ceiling to hold back tears, stroking Dusty’s four-pound body. I keep my eyes on Dusty. She seems al- most prenatal, too translucent, wrinkled, and small for this world. Her eyes droop closed, and she looks like a Victorian image of death, peaceful and asleep, as if her time on earth were just a brief, harmless dream. Dr. Grau checks for a heartbeat.

“Okay, she’s gone,” she murmurs. “I’m so sorry.” Mason lowers his head and gravity takes over. The tears roll down his cheeks. Dr. Grau asks if he wants to spend more time with Dusty’s still-warm body. “No, no,” Mason mumbles, wiping his eyes and sniffling. “It’s not weird,” Dr. Grau says, piercing the strange air of transition from family member to dead animal that fills the room. “I know, I know,” Mason says a bit defensively. “But I’m fine.” He lifts his baseball cap up and down a few times and trudges down the hallway to the exit. Downstairs, Dr. Grau lays Dusty on a stainless steel table. “The cremation service does a pick-up once a day,” she says, and then walks away. With Dr. Grau gone, I run my hand over Dusty. “It’s not weird,” I think, and feel relieved.

The next day, a cat screams for his life. Mr. O’Brien and his 11-year-old daughter, Isabelle, stand in the check-up room. As soon as Dr. Grau enters, Isabelle starts bawling fiercely. Kitten sits on the table. He is a Halloween cat, his black fur so lustrous and dark it appears a silvery blue as it catches the light, and his eyes are two large yellow globes. He looks alert and vigorous.

Owners have several choices to make when putting down a pet: Whether or not to be present for the euthanasia, whether to cremate the body or take it home to bury. Bodies can be cremated individually and returned, or cremated en masse. As Isabelle continues to sob, Mr. O’Brien delivers his family’s answer: They don’t want to be present for Kitten’s death, but they do want his body to bury at home. “I just want to let you know, I treat each animal like it’s my own,” Dr. Grau says as she scoops up Kitten. In the hubbub of the open ER downstairs, a few nurses offer Kitten some cat food in a red and white cardboard container, a miniature version of the containers Cape Cod restaurants use to serve fried clams or steamers. Kitten sniffs the food and turns away. “Oh come on, it’s your last meal!” Dr. Grau begs. Kitten refuses. “Shhhh, pretty baby, it’s okay,” Linda coos as she holds Kitten’s body down. Dr. Grau inserts the needle, and suddenly Kitten spits and screams. Not a howl or a hiss or any other word we use to describe non-human noises, but a real scream, eerily high-pitched and otherworldly. He fights to turn his head back to his leg, where Dr. Grau is pushing the liquid through the needle. His body shakes. Finally, he goes limp.

Dr. Grau and Linda look weary. I am shocked. Trudy picks up the body. “Now, don’t you dare pee on me!” Trudy warns as her under five-foot frame struggles to carry Kitten’s weight. “Trudy, he’s not going to pee on you!” Linda says, leaning on the metal operating table. “Oh, yeah,” Trudy chuckles, heaving Kitten’s body into a cardboard box. “I forgot.” Kitten’s head flops over the side of the box. Trudy pushes it back in.

When I was in second grade, my parents got a divorce. In retaliation, I gave an ultimatum to my mom: We get a dog or I get my ears pierced. I wanted a dog— more than an-y-thing—but if the answer was no, as it had been for months and months, I just had to do something. This tactic did not budge her, so I threw a fit. I cried and cried and grew hysterical until finally I quieted down, and said, in the argument my mom still recalls as the one that shifted the tide, “Mama. You are thinking of this dog as just a burden. But the truth is, you will love her, and then she won’t feel like a burden at all.” I offered my own presence in her life as an example.

I brought Marilla into our lives, and though I still love her dearly, she now matters more to my mom than to me. I am about to graduate college, and I feel on the cusp of my adult life. Marilla is at home. After her surgery, Dr. Grau sent a chunk of Marilla’s excised tumor to a specialist. It was malignant. A rough prognosis gives Marilla another four months; with chemotherapy, perhaps a year.

When I am home for dinner one night, Marilla rests her chin on my feet under the table. We are trying to weigh, as a family, the pain of chemotherapy for Marilla against our own desire to have her around for as long as we can. And, of course, we cannot consult her in the decision. I lean down, stroke her ear, and her tail whaps against the tile floor. Her wishes are only as we imagine them.

All I can firmly glean from my time at the Animal Hospital is that I want to be there when Marilla is euthanized. I don’t care what happens to her body.

Sophia Lear is a senior in Ezra Stiles College.