You were filthy. You were matted. Your teeth were a mess, jutted-out-under-bite, yellow, and neglected. There was dry poop crusted onto your back leg, something I mistakenly assumed might bother you. When I tried to clean it off, you tried to bite me with those ridiculous teeth of yours.
Chester, you were not my dog. I was nobody to you. Your somebody left you at a vet’s office months ago and never came back. I suppose they had been trying to do the kinder thing by not leaving you at the shelter, knowing that at eleven years old, your chances would be so low. Knowing that with a big tumor on your side, your chances would be so low. And really, chances for everyone there are so low.
The vet called me because he knows I foster dogs. Because he knows I’m insane like that. Because he knows that I care. And I did care, Chester; and I wanted to help you. But that Wednesday, I just could not. I could not because I was caught up in the ego and in the trivial and in the me me me. I justified to myself that I always care too much. I asked myself how good could I possibly be for you being spread so thin? On that day I was drowning from the inside out, my heart already bursting with pain for the suffering of animals. That ache lives right there, just exists and hangs, so thinly veiled that I’m almost never without it. On that day, it was furious and it overtook my insides, and it shredded me. I had nothing left for you.
So after only a few hours in my home, I took you back to the vet because my fingers feared your mouth. Because I didn’t choose to give you time to bloom. Because that Wednesday I wanted faster and easier. I vowed to come walk you. I vowed to come see you. I vowed to bring you home once more. But deep in my belly, even as I waved goodbye, I knew I should’ve give you a chance. I knew I was your last hope. I knew you would perish there, after months of calling a kennel your home, and it is not a home – the concrete floor and the constant barking and the coldness. I knew that it would be a tragedy to end a life you never got to live. Because how good could it have been before we met? Because what kind of a person leaves their pet behind?
Now I’m on the phone with the vet’s, put on hold. I’ve called for you, Chester. It’s me. I’m here. It’s been a few days, and I want to take you on a stroll so you can feel the sunshine on your skin. I want to try again. I told them I would try again. You deserve someone to try again. Yvette, the head vet tech, sounds small when she returns to the line, smaller than her usual mousy self. “They decided to euthanize him,” she says. And I think she’s confused you with some other shaggy old Terrier. Because there had been vows and there had been promises. But she is not confused. I’m just too late.
They didn’t call me, Chester. I swear I told them I’d be back. I even bought you mushy treats to eat out of my hands so you could meet my smell again and warm to me. But I had you here and the moment was then, and I let you down. I’ve yanked my car into a Trader Joe’s parking lot because I can’t drive through my streaming tears. I’m sitting in front of a dumpster, and I want to jump into it. I want to throw away this regret. I want that bin to be a time capsule that takes me back and lets me do it over, and lets me do it better. I want it to bring you back to life.
And I don’t know if anyone held you as they slid the needle into your vein. I don’t know if you felt affection escorting you out of this world. I don’t know if someone wept by your side. And I know you were old and sick and discarded, but somebody should have held you anyway. It should’ve been me. And now all I can think is: how did you go?
I get hundreds of emails every day, Chester, a constant punch of pleas for homeless pets like you. I see countless faces every weekend, each eager for belonging and safety and tenderness. But I can’t stop thinking about how many animals we never see at all. How many don’t get their stories shared. How many faces we don’t notice. And then – who knows they were ever even here? I want you to know that you were here. I learned of your story and it affected me. I heard your feet on my wooden floor and it made music. I pushed the coarse fur out of your eyes so you could know what friendship looks like.
But real friends don’t give up so fast, the way I did. Real friends care, the way I always thought I would. That one day I had you here, I wasn’t your friend and I didn’t care enough. I took a moment to harden my flooded-heart. I took a moment to create a divide between you and me. I took a moment to put your situation aside, murmured, “wait for me, I’ll try again when it’s more convenient with my schedule.” But it wasn’t up to you; you couldn’t wait. And it cost you your life. My uncaring moment cost you your life. And it cost me something, too: the price of living with guilt and with shame.
Don’t feel bad for me, Chester. I am not a martyr or a saint or an angel. Others are heroes; I am not. I have terrible road rage and I’m impatient and I don’t always wash my hands. But I care. I care deeply. I care deeply and yet I failed you. And I don’t think I like people anymore because people leave their animals in the dust. And where was your “owner” on that day? Huh? Where? It’s not that it’s a bother for me to hold this now. It’s not that it’s a drain. It’s just that it demands so much strength.
I don’t even know if I am good anymore, Chester. All I know is I can’t breathe. Caring takes so much time and so much energy, that I forget to breathe. And I want to shout, “Help me! No one can do it alone!” I want to insist, “You are somebody! It takes all of us to stop this!” I want to declare, “I am not an enabler, I am not a doormat. I must not absorb it all!” But I can’t tell anybody what to do. And at the end of the day, only the animals suffer for my rebellion. Like you.
Some may say, “he was just a dog.” But you were a life, and now you are not. And why should it be this way, this calloused way, why should some live and some die? Why do we get to decide when we are so flawed and so faulty? My husband says, “you can’t care that much every single time.” My mother says, “you’re doing the best you can, more than most.” My father says, “you cannot save them all.” But I can’t hear them.
All I hear is the rhythm of your paws on my floor. And sometimes it feels like too much. It always feels like too much. It feels like I am wearing a hundred cloaks. A thousand. A million. It is hot and humid, and I am lost in fabric. You may never see me again, it is so heavy. I am a hangar, I am a coat rack, I am here to carry cloth. The weight of all that fur. But the alternative is not to care and look where that led me. You are gone.