Yesterday, I found a yellow hair woven into the fibers of an old sweatshirt — a familiar sight, as I had been plucking the same hairs off of my clothes for the past 14 years. Tears welled in my eyes as I pulled the wiry hair from my shirt and carefully placed it on the dresser. Throwing it away just wouldn’t feel right. Milly has been gone six months, but I’m still finding reminders of her everywhere.
We first saw her in a December 1999 newspaper advertising “mixed breed/part lab” puppies, and although my mom assured us we were not getting one, that evening we were sprawled out with a puppy on the linoleum kitchen floor.
She was my constant from the age of 10 to 24. She had seen me through elementary, middle and high school, and then college. At the sound of the school bus, she’d assume duty at the storm door, both ears perked and her paws tapping up and down like the floor was lava. Milly was my keeper when I developed a respiratory infection in 7th grade, and from then forward ran to my room any time she heard even the most muffled of coughs. She saw friends and boyfriends come and go. I lived in three dorms, four apartments and moved to two different cities, but Milly was always my home.
Somewhere along the way, things changed. Her whiskers turned from black to grey. I realized her hearing was gone when she no longer responded to my coughs or the turn of the front door knob. She was uninterested in new visitors, and toys that were once spread throughout the house went untouched for months at a time. The light in her eyes dulled — coated in a film I’m used to only seeing in my grandparents’ eyes — and her tail took up permanent residency between her legs. Once buoyant attempts at jumping onto the bed ended with her defeatedly slamming into the side of the mattress. Near the end, I’d awake to her falling down the steps, the sound of her toenails clicking against the hardwood floor until silence when she hit the bottom.
Milly told us when it was time to go. I’d always heard they’d do that, but I had no idea how painful it would be. The night before “it” happened, she kept my parents awake gasping for air.
The next morning, I almost got the call too late. My mom was at the vet waiting to take her in. They thought I wouldn’t be able to handle saying goodbye. I jumped out of bed and raced to the office I had visited so many times : when Milly was spayed and we were greeted by a wobbly and sedated puppy; the time she had a toothache and her cheek swelled to the size of a golf ball; and most recently, the time we were told there was a problem with her heart and she would be gone soon. That was only two months earlier, in October.
I approached the car where my mom was waiting with her, hurriedly pressing my hands against the glass of the truck window, seeing Milly and regardless of the circumstance, was relieved “it” hadn’t been done yet. I felt guilty for choosing not to visit two days earlier when I had time to do so. Her floppy ears perked, and despite her limp body, she managed to wag her tail at me. My mom said that was the most alive she’d seen her in days.
The office felt sterile and cold, like an operating room, and I felt strangely comforted as the vet, though merely a stranger, hugged me. He had cared for Milly her entire life. Still, the process felt very impersonal. They hadn’t seen the guilt in her eyes the day she ate an entire chicken breast off of our kitchen table or the way she closed her eyes when she faced the sun. They didn’t know she refused to eat rawhides that weren’t Dollar Tree brand or that we had to close our bedroom doors because she had a knack for snooping through trash or that she loved popping bubble wrap with her pointy front teeth.
He warned us that the injection would cause her to fall “asleep” with her eyes open, and that it would be best to leave before the procedure. Milly had been there for me through so many things that I couldn’t imagine leaving her in this room to die alone. I asked my mom, “Are you sure? Do we have to do this?” I wanted to change her mind. We’d take Milly home and pretend like it never happened and she’d get better. It felt like murder when she was in good spirits only days before.
I remember how comfortably she laid on the stainless steel table where she would usually be fighting. I remember how she didn’t flinch when the shot went in, and the tinge of regret and panic I felt as the vet removed the needle from her leg. “Maybe there’s still time to save her,” I thought, as I envisioned the anesthetic slowly making its way through her veins, petrifying her body as it traveled. As I held her head, her eyes went blank. Just like that, she was gone.
And just as we came, we left that day with her leash attached to her collar, only this time, it was empty.
If there’s a doggy heaven, I sure hope they stocked up on Dollar Tree rawhides.