Pixel was very old, very sick, and as she leaned against me in the car, she didn’t shiver. She had always shivered, in the car, when we went to the vet. This, last, time, she slumped against me, exhausted, sleepy, and, I think, ready.
I, on the other hand, was not. I’d never done this before. All my life up to this point, when family pets had to go the vet for the final time, Mum and Dad had always taken care of it. They had left home with a sick dog wrapped in a blanket, and come home some time later, grey and drawn, with an empty blanket. I did know more or less what happened. I knew there was an injection. When I was about 18 I remember seeing a local current affairs news program that, for inexplicable reasons, decided to do a story about animal euthanasia, and they filmed the entire procedure. It was extremely upsetting. Not because it was cruel in any way, of course not. It was upsetting simply because it was death. And I had always been protected from death.
My dad’s parents both died when I was little. My Pop had cancer, but I don’t remember what my Nanna died from. I only remember bits and pieces from that period. My parents would doubtless be able to tell me all about it. I knew my mum nursed Pop at home for a long time, that she was was devoted to him, night and day, as well as looking after Dad and me. Of that time I remember only Pop in his bed in the lounge room in the front part of the house, with the best light through the big windows. I don’t remember anything he said. He did once introduce me to the idea of Milo on vanilla ice cream, and I’ll always love him for that. Such a little thing made a lifelong impact. And of course it was him whom I embarrassed so much at Floreat Forum Shopping Centre that day when I climbed naked into the water fountain.
Mum and Dad did not take me to Nanna or Pop’s funerals. They said I was too young. I think I was about six or so. I was very little, and of course inclined to the weird side. I remember, both times, the silent hustle and bustle as they got dressed and ready to go, the dark clothes, the fussing, the tension. I remember standing around watching them, wishing I could go, wanting to go, wondering what would happen, wanting to say good-bye. It was upsetting. I always felt way out on the periphery of things, as if everything were a cricket match, and I was fielding, placed out on the boundary line, so far from where things were happening you can’t hear anything. Important grown-up events in my early life were like that, seen from a great distance and wondered about.
I remember Mum sitting in lounge chairs crying, someone holding her hand. I remember Dad restless and upset, but in motion, always moving. I think there were relatives.
When I was about fourteen, my beloved great-grandmother on Mum’s side passed away. When I was younger I was devoted to her. As I got older, began to be a sullen teen, began to feel depressed and awkward, a key that fit no known lock, I felt often a bit strange and out of place with my Grandma. She still talked to me, and treated me, as if I were little. She still, it seemed, delighted in me as if I were little. She was a wonderful lady. But I was not so wonderful. I was weird and odd and made of pointy angles. And when she died I did not go to her funeral. I don’t remember now whether I was invited this time. Fourteen seems definitely old enough, to me, but then I’m inclined to think that six would have been fine, too.
All my life, until I was in my forties, I attended no funerals. Death was something that happened away from me, that was secret and silent, a result of the accumulation of time. By the time I did start attending funerals, it felt strange and otherworldly, and I suppose it was exactly that. It was about sending someone to another place, another state of being.
I was constantly shocked, at the funerals I found myself attending, how small the coffins were. These were for my maternal grandparents, who had died of old age, in unpleasant circumstances. My grandmother in life had been short but plump; my grandfather (not, in fact, my biological grandfather, but only the man with whom my grandmother had been living my whole life) had been tall but bent over as he aged. It was hard to see them confined, reduced, compressed, into these tiny boxes. But it was good to be there to see them off, to be part of the process and ceremony.
My parents had also shielded me from the deaths of pets as I grew up. When I was very little indeed, and we lived in a new house in Fremantle next door to the sprawling old pile where my grandparents lived, we had a little terrier of some sort, who was poisoned. Someone threw a a poisoned bait over our fence, intending to kill our dog. It shocks me to think about it even now. I don’t know if it was just our dog, or whether it was all the dogs in the area, or what. My parents were and remain upset about it. My mum still has a fear of baits. But I did not know the dog had died. It simply went away.
A few years later, now living in Wembley in my Pop and Nanna’s house, one time we had a puppy who was ill with, I think, something like distemper, that terrible scourge. I doted on the sick puppy, besotted, wishing I could help save it through the overwhelming power of a sad boy’s simple, uncomplicated love. One morning I found the puppy lying very still in its basket, and cold and unresponsive to the touch. That was odd. The poor wee thing had not been bursting with energy the night before, I knew that, but it had shown some response to touch. But this? I’d never seen this before.
I picked the puppy up–and it was stiff, solid, as if frozen. One thing I knew about puppies who are healthy is that they are like a warm and furry liquid you can almost pour. This puppy, on the other hand, was like a furry puppy-shaped piece of wood. It was the most astonishing, most puzzling thing I’d ever seen.
I didn’t understand the bleeding obvious.
I took the solid puppy to show Mum. Look, I said. What’s happened to the puppy?
Mum came closer to take a look with her weak eyes. Oh, Adrian, she said, because she understood what I didn’t. She took the frozen puppy and put it back in its bed, to let it rest, she said, and that she and Dad would sort it out when he got home.
Mum and Dad took care of these things all my life. They would head out the door with a terribly ill dog wrapped in a blanket, and come home later with an empty blanket, as if the dog had evaporated.
And by the time we had Pixel, a Blue Heeler/Kelpie cross with keenly intelligent eyes, a sharp turn of speed, and dappled black markings against a white coat, a dog who never quite got used to the idea that she had to share Michelle with me, who believed Michelle was hers alone, and would bite me sometimes if I indicated I believed otherwise. Who took the paint off our bedroom door trying to get in over a period of years.
Pixel was our first dog. Our first big responsibility for another life, and I was determined that when Pixel’s time came, we would be there, right there, in the room with her, no matter what, to see her off.
And we did. I would not say it was beautiful. It had its horrifying moments. I felt at all times like I would have to leave the room because I was crying so much, and quite possibly the vet might have liked that, but I was determined to stay and do everything I could for Pixel. We both were. And then, suddenly, the vet told us, putting a stethoscope away, “She’s gone.” Her eyes were no longer responsive. There was no more breath. Michelle kissed her forehead.