Thursday, March 21, 2013

Penny and Ed

Penny was 6 weeks old when she first visited, back in 1996. Sounds like a century ago, and yeah, it’s been a while. A little red dachshund, Penny showed personality already, which meant she fit in with the gentleman who brought her by. She looked around my office as if deciding whether it met her expectations. Yes, you may pet me, but no…I’d rather you not look into my mouth nor touch my feet. Assertiveness training would not be needed to complete her package.

Her person was a man older than I but how old was a bit difficult to divine. Neither tall nor overweight, I guess you’d call him wiry. Whoever chiseled his face out of that rock had cleverly lined it with the wrinkles of both wisdom and laughter. His dress was as casual as the old pickup truck in which he arrived. The truck sported a stained formerly white camper shell that looked like it was actually used for camping, and I had no problem visualizing a spot under a large pine, lake over there and white granite boulders here, an old fire ring and a comfortable chair, with books to read and sunsets to ponder. And at one time a glass of something to help with the memories, the ones you really don’t need to remember. Did get the impression that the man was comfortable alone.

I don’t believe he worked. I hope he wrote, but I never asked. Always seemed he had something to say worth listening to, but you would have to start before he joined in. Below the cuff of his left pant leg lived the wooden leg. It was exquisitely stained a deep reddish brown and then lacquered to a mirror finish, with a black round rubber “foot”. A peg leg. Ed could have passed for a pirate direct from central casting had he so wished.

Penny stopped by for her puppy vaccines right on schedule, endured the hysterectomy at six months, and then periodically over the last 17 years, we’d cut her toenails. Nobody else could. She wouldn’t allow this. Not an uncommon trait in the wiener beast. We always managed to get the job done with only the minimal amount of persuasion. She didn’t like it, but it wasn’t a deal breaker for her. And it gave me a chance to get to know Ed better. He always saw that Penny got whatever she needed.

Eventually, we got around to that wooden leg.

War is not healthy for people and other living things. I knew all about that, I thought, except for that where I actually learned first hand. I skipped that part. Ed didn’t.

His war was Korea. If it were not for the MASH TV series, no one around here would remember Korea. It was the first war we fought to a draw, on purpose. And like soccer, that made little sense to Americans. Likely that accounts in large part for our amnesia. We’ve grown accustomed to this now, since apparently that’s the new proper way of doing war. But unless you talk to one of that war’s veterans, you probably missed it. Ed remembered.

I kinda walked Ed into this discussion with both feet in my mouth. I probably mentioned his leg, and then I pried a little too far. He got the far away look in his eyes, the eyes that suddenly lost their sparkle. Real quiet filled the room. Even Penny stood still, eyes on her person. I felt it in the pit of my stomach. I went to change the subject, but he stopped me. I guess he felt like talking that day.

Much of that war involved fighting over hilltops with numbers. No features, just numbers. You generally want to be fighting downhill in war, so this made some sense. Ed’s unit was entrenched upon such a hill, and when the other side showed up in the middle of the night they did it with thousands more men. The usual mess ensued; the position was overrun and then retaken later in the day. Just another hill with a number.

When things settled down, they made a pile of the Chinese bodies over there, and the American bodies over here. Somebody was having a smoke when he saw a finger twitch on one of the American bodies deep in that pile. That was Ed’s finger.

Anyway, that’s how Ed got the wooden leg, and presumably this exerted some influence over the next 45 years of his life before I met him. He was a neat guy, but I wouldn’t have traded places with him.

Ed was married, sorta. His wife Vivian was also an interesting person. I believe he said they met over a bottle, or maybe at one of those meetings on the rebound after the love affair with a bottle ended. After Ed passed she brought Penny in, mostly for toe nail trims. Got to know her well too, and liked her. But then she also grew sickly, and so an adult son began bringing Penny in.

He got the house and dog when she left. Dan wasn’t near as interesting as his mother or Ed, but he got by. And for years more I saw Penny infrequently, took care of the things Dan would let me do, and cut her nails. There were other things that could have been done for Penny, should have been done, but as these things sometimes go, we didn’t get the chance.

Dan met me outside the clinic when I unlocked the doors after lunch on Monday. He looked like heck. I’d seen the appointment on the schedule, five o’clock, euthanasia, Penny, age 17. He didn’t have any money, but would I still put Penny to sleep that afternoon? He’d pay me later.

Sometimes you break the rules, the rules you force yourself to follow because of how easy you can make it for people to steal from you if you don’t. But for Penny the rules don’t apply, so yeah I’ll do it.

Penny looked pretty bad. She was fat as usual, and those various large growths were still poking out of her like they had for the last few years. Her mouth was horrid, thanks to Dan postponing all those suggestions to deal with that. But she was still in there, and her personality still filled the room. So why are we putting Penny to sleep this afternoon?

Well, Dan finally lost the house, and he has nowhere to live. Nowhere. He has no place for Penny anymore.

Life puts you into situations, sometimes. It put Ed on that hill once, and Penny on my table many times, and now it put her fate into my hands. And the best thing I could do for Penny, and for Ed’s memory, and for Vivian’s sweetness, was to let Penny go. I didn’t do it for Dan, for although I’d known him for years I felt no connection there. He followed his own path, because of or despite whatever Vivian and Ed had done for him. I owed him nothing.

But if there is one simple sentence that sums up why we humanely end some lives, it would be this. If it genuinely feels like you are doing a beloved pet a favor by letting them go, you are. 

And so, I did.


  1. You're a great writer, Bob.

  2. This broke my heart in the best way possible. Beautifully written.

  3. I appreciate owners like this, who, for their own reasons, may not provide the level of care I'd give my own dog, but love their pets regardless and do the best that they can given their own personal constraints. I'm glad he let her go when it was time and I'm glad you did it for him. I find it to be quite the honor to experience the entire life of an animal and then to be there to help them at the end. Always heartbreaking but always an honor.