By Natalie C. Houchins
We put our dog down two months ago. Just 24 hours before, Sarah, a vet who did in-home euthanasia, came over to examine him and make sure we were doing the right thing. She sat with us on the floor of our hallway, our beloved pup breathing heavily on his pallet, sometimes raising his ravaged face to see who was there. She told us gently that there wasn’t much time left no matter what course of action we took and described how the euthanasia process worked. We paid her and made an appointment for the next day at noon.
He slept there in the hallway that night to stay warm. I went out with friends and came home late, stumbling over him, not used to having his bulk in my way as most nights he stayed on the back porch. I looked down at him for a few moments. He slept soundly. I had never known that he slept through the night, as I did. I had always imagined him awake while we were asleep, standing sentinel, despite how useless he would have been against an intruder. Perhaps it was the rapidly spreading cancer that caused him to sleep so deeply. Either way, it struck me that we must have been dreaming at the same time all these years. He had no idea his death was scheduled for the next day.
“My dad cleaned his eyes, even though it didn’t matter if his eyes were dirty, or if he was in the sun, or if he even felt my fingers running through his fur.”
We carried him into the sunlight in preparation for his departure. He loved nothing more than to roll around on his back in the grass on a blazing summer day, and it felt right that he should die in his favorite spot outside. Sarah arrived on time, and we gathered around him silently. Tears streamed down my face, as they had for the past two days. I looked down at my precious dog, onto whom I had bestowed a part of myself, possibly the best part. He still didn’t know he was about to die. I rubbed his ears. My dad cleaned his eyes, even though it didn’t matter if his eyes were dirty, or if he was in the sun, or if he even felt my fingers running through his fur. Sarah injected the sedative, and we watched as his breathing slowed. His muscles relaxed. She tried to look for a vein in his back leg and failed. He still did not know. She eventually found one on his front leg and with much deliberation and care, injected the light pink liquid into the catheter. His great barreled chest slowly stopped heaving, and he lay still, as if he were only sleeping. She listened to his heart and proclaimed softly that he had gone.
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I have always been able to look forward to the next thing. The next weekend, the next winter or summer break, the next birthday, the next opening or closing to a play, another report card. The events in my life were housed in a neat container. The projects, the parties. They lived there.
The event of college graduation — that shining exuberant pinnacle after which I imagined a column of light would take me into the sky towards not an earthly destination, but toward some sense of meaning — loomed through even the darkest clouds.
The hope graduation represented carried me through depression and self-harm and shitty breakups and hangovers which felt like the end of the world. No matter what I was going through at the time, I was simultaneously building another house in which to contain my life. Every paper and performance and in-class presentation was another cinder block. After graduation, I would simply open the door to my mansion and live like a queen.
“The hope graduation represented carried me through depression and self-harm and shitty breakups and hangovers which felt like the end of the world. ”
But I never found it. As I languished in my apartment, in my ex-boyfriend’s apartment, in my own loud and beautiful brain, I couldn’t ever find the house I’d broken my back to create. What greeted me after I carried the flag into the stadium and sat in my robe full of self-importance and mostly sweat was the quiet hum of electrical appliances and the ghostly rattling of radiators throughout Chicago. The clink of ceramic mugs in the coffee shops I sat in. My own reflection.
There are still “next things” to look forward to. A house party with my close friends, the holidays, the trip I’m taking myself on, the future of the screenplay I’m proud of, the farcical weight loss goal I keep failing to achieve and wonder if I even should, the fact that an intelligent, handsome young man is coming over later to spend some time with me. However, no matter how many "next things" there are, the ultimate and only inevitable "next thing" is death.
Now among the patches of grass and the old jungle gym, I only see the small pile of rocks we gathered to mark where my dog is buried. I realize now I have tried to run away from that truth. My dog is dead. He was just a dog. He’s in the ground.
That incandescent column of light never came on June 20, 2014, and it still won’t arrive when I’ve moved to another city, or when I’ve seen the Northern Lights, or when I get my first big paycheck, or have a child. I can't afford to live, as I did for the 16 years I was in school, suspended in between life events, holding on to the hope that the next one would save me. Nothing will save you, except the meaning you find within yourself. The search for this meaning is more important and rewarding than any job, internship, Snapchat story or relationship you will ever have.
Happy graduation, dear ones.
Natalie C. Houchins is a recent(ish) Chicago-area college graduate. She now lives in her hometown of Austin, Texas, and is pursuing a career in acting and screenwriting.