Sometimes, I try to imagine the scene from the perspective of the old man sitting in the waiting room. I don’t remember his face, only the navy baseball cap that sat above his eyes. I remember his size—a large man with thighs as big as tree trunks and hands that could easily wrap around those trunks—and the sound of his voice—gruff but not unkind, with a slight southern lilt.
“Miss, are you alright?” he asks. The sight of me collapsing on the stark white tile of the waiting room—a 70-pound black mass in my arms—must be startling.
I imagine him hesitating as he stands above me, the cold air rushing in around us through the door that remains open in his hand.
“Miss?” he asks again, releasing the door. His voice sounds far away. Surely he is not speaking to me, because none of this is happening to me. It is coming from another room, another world.
I try to picture the scene through his eyes: my body hunched over the twitching mass of my dog—a large black Labrador—and my tear stained face pressing into his fur. I imagine it is a heartbreaking sight, even a frightening one. Whatever is happening here is a terrible thing, he thinks.
I do not respond to him—unable to form the right words, unable to admit to what is happening—and I do not look at him. To look at this kind old man would be to reveal the desperation and fear that are slowly consuming me. To look at him would be to cast away the suit of armor I have carefully built, piece by piece, over the thirteen years of my dog’s life.
I imagine the old man finally returning to his seat and looking over at his partner—a small, silent woman—his eyes revealing the helplessness he feels. He leans in, the frail plastic chair creaking beneath his weight, and whispers to her, wondering at what happened.
“It’s a condition he has,” I manage to croak out. My voice, weighted with a tired resignation, sounds foreign to me. “He’s dying,” I add for emphasis, practically spitting the words. My pain has made me spiteful.
I hear the old man lean back in his chair and breathe a soft, “Oh.”
I imagine his expression shifting from one of helplessness to one of pity. I imagine his mind wondering at the pair of us on the floor—me in a urine-soaked sweater and jeans, my blonde hair matted to my face with sweat and tears, my arms cradling my dog; and my dog pressing his weight into me, unable to stand, his head cocked slightly to the side, his eyes rapidly twitching back and forth, his body shivering. I imagine the old man’s mind wondering at how we reached this point, at my dog’s condition, at my ability to carry all seventy pounds of him alone.
I shut my eyes to the harsh fluorescent lights. We are not here, I think. We are safely at home, in bed, sleeping soundly. I run one hand down my dog’s back. We will wake up soon.
But the hand suddenly on my shoulder tells me this is all very real. I open my eyes to see a vet technician standing before me. I try to blow my hair from my face, but tears and sweat have made it heavy. I refuse to release my hold on my dog, so I stare at this woman between thick strands of matted hair.
My dog begins to pant out of stress, his brain finally recognizing the familiar smells, his cloudy, twitching eyes finally taking in the room. His body shakes harder and I hold him tighter. “It’s okay, bubba,” I whisper, kissing his head. “You’re okay.”
“Does she need help?” the old man asks the vet tech, his warm southern accent cracking the ice that had settled in the room. He must be at least seventy years old, and far less capable than me of carrying my heavy dog. I want to cry from the kindness of this stranger. But that would mean admitting I couldn’t do this alone.
And I could. I have always done this alone.
My back remains to him, and I shake my head. “I’ve got him,” I say, as I have said hundreds of times before. Then, with my arms around my dog, I slowly rise to my feet and follow the vet tech out of the waiting room.
I imagine the old man watching us disappear, wondering at our future, his alarm and pity slowly fading to the dull heartbreak he reserves for suffering strangers.
I imagine all these things, but I never imagine being able to change the events that led to this violent entrance, nor the events that came after. I only imagine changing one thing: that I had looked at the old man through my tear-soaked hair and released myself of the weight I carried.