It’s always like this: they come to my clinic, frightened, hurting, hoping beyond hope that I can make things better. And I do, but not always how they would like. Sometimes they come alone, others in pairs; clinging to each other as if to keep the inevitable at bay. This is a work of life or death and my clients think they’re the only ones who suffer. Their red-rimmed, pleading eyes want me to take from them a decision only they can make.
That's the opening paragraph to a short story I wrote nearly two years ago for my writing degree. We were tasked with choosing an event in our lives and retelling it from a different perspective. This is the story of how Pepper died*, as I imagine the vet might have experienced it.
So why am I writing about death right at the birth of a new year? C'mon, we're supposed to be full of hope and happiness and determination to keep those New Year's resolutions, right?
Two days ago I read 5 Things I Wish You Knew Before Euthanizing Your Dog and it threw me right back to December 2012, a few days before Christmas, when I had to say goodbye to my best friend of 13 years. It's one of the hardest things we'll do for our furbabies and it's something we don't want to consider until it's forced upon us. And although Pepper wasn't the first goodbye I've said, I really, truly wish I'd read something like this before going through it again.
I didn't want to cry in front of the vet; I guess for some reason I thought he would write me off as an emotional wreck. Who knew that a vet would understand what it was like to love an animal with your whole being? What it's like to bury your nose in his fur for the last time and know that no other animal will smell exactly like him? You don't realise it because your mind is too busy preventing total meltdown while your heart is crumbling and you're still not certain if it really is the best option for the little furry body that trusts you so completely.
I was there for Pepper, having learned when I was twelve and experiencing the loss of a pet for the first time in my life, discovering how awful it is to have to leave them alone with strangers. I made sure that the last thing Pepper saw was my smiling face as I rubbed his nose the way he loved and spoke the words I always said to him.
It matters, what we do in these moments. It matters for our pets, that they may feel more secure because we're with them, and it matters for us in the times to come when we look back to reassure ourselves that we did the right thing.
This teeny, tiny photo is all that I can find of my favourite portrait of Pepper in his favourite spot. I made it some time around 2007, back before I started doing external backups of all my photo files and, of course, prior to when my hard drive went belly-up. Luckily, I have a larger, printed copy of this one, but all you get to see is the image I scraped off a personal blog I ran once upon a time. Stealing my own work, mmhmm.
These two photos above are of Rocky the Miracle Dog: on the left is when he first bounced into my life back in August 2010 (with a haircut to help him cope with the steamy Atlanta summers). I made the photo on the right yesterday and he's clearly over the whole "hey Rocky, want to be a model?" thing. But my favourite portrait of him (so far) is the one below with Steve that I made this week after a client shoot - a boy and his dog.
I've learned my lesson through Pepper, sadly, and now I take time to make portraits of my own pets as well as those of clients. Rocky's an ever-tolerant, long-suffering model and Horse (the cat who claims ownership of us now) likes to taunt me by watching patiently as I set up the studio lights before disappearing out the door when I turn to him. But I'm persistent and every now and then he allows me to make his portrait.
Because you just never know when they'll be gone and all you have of them is a paw print on your heart and a portrait on your wall.
* The story of How Pepper Found Me is a much happier tale and you can read it HERE.