I seat myself on a deck chair and cross my ankles. I am wearing a jersey dress and a face mask. I can already feel the beads of sweat on my temple. Soon, they will start to roll down my face. Wearing a mask outdoors in the South during August is a stifling experience. To my left, there are closed sliding patio doors, and a sweet-faced, scruffy terrier stands on the other side, watching me. Across from me sit Robert and Matthew, a kind couple I’ve just met.
Robert is tall and heavy-set, dressed in Birkenstocks, khaki shorts, and a blue tee-shirt. His hair is disheveled, and his eyes are red. Matthew is more coiffed, with carefully brushed hair, pressed pants, and a tucked in button-down. Both have unshed tears brimming at the edges of their bloodshot eyes.
Placing my hands in my lap, I smile at them gently, but I know that they can’t see it behind my mask.
“Normally, she’d be barking and jumping and excited to meet you,” Robert gestures at the dog, whose name is Rose.
“She really deteriorated in the last twelve hours,” chimes in Matthew. “We’re so glad that you could make a same day appointment.”
“Of course,” I nod. “Do you have any questions about what we discussed?”
They look at each other uncertainly and then look at Rose.
“She came to us when my friend died. It was about 8 years ago. He left us Rose in his will. She’s been the sweetest friend. I don’t want her to hurt anymore.” Robert snuffles back tears, and I can see his mask go dark where his nose is running.
They pause and gaze at Rose then turn to me.
Matthew slides open the glass door and Rose comes out. Her gait is stiff and slow. She labors to breathe, and her abdomen is distended. Coming close to me, she stretches out her delicate black snout and sniffs my face. Then, heaving a deep sigh, Rose walks past and settles herself on her bed. It takes her a moment to find a comfortable position, but at last, she rests, her brown eyes watching me closely.
I believe she knows why I am here.
Unzipping my utilitarian black bag, I remove a small metal pencil case decorated with cats and dogs. Inside wait two syringes. I remove the first, filled with a clear yellow liquid, and close the lid.
“This is the sedative,” I show it to Robert and Matthew. “I am going to inject it just under her skin. In about 10 to 15 minutes, she will be unconscious. Her eyes may stay open, but she will be deeply, deeply asleep. Rose can still hear you, so I encourage you to talk to her.”
Robert takes a deep breath that Matthew mimics. He nods once.
I give the injection. Rose doesn’t flinch. She just watches me intently.
Robert sits next to Rose and strokes her head with the lightest of hand. He murmurs sweet, indecipherable words as the medication slowly takes hold. Matthew and I chat aimlessly about the weather and where they’re from and how they came to own Rose. As I talk, I keep an eye on Rose’s breathing and demeanor. She has become tremendously relaxed, and an occasional snore slips from her.
“This is the most she’s slept in days,” Robert says quietly.
When I am sure that she is fully asleep, I open the pencil case and remove the second syringe. It is filled with pale blue liquid. With clippers, I gently cut away a swatch of hair from her rear leg and feel the vein with my pointer finger. With an alcohol swab, I moisten the skin. It removes the sticky fur bits and allows me to see the vein better. I place a tourniquet above the knee and again feel, the vessel plump against my finger.
I choose a small winged needle set called a butterfly, steady the vein against my pointer finger, and slide the needle into place. A brilliant flash of red at the hub tells me that I am in the blood vessel. I release the tourniquet and say to the men, “I’m in the vein. Are you ok if I go ahead?”
Robert stifles a sob and nods.
I depress the plunger and watch the minute distention of the vein. Rose’s breathing quickens for a few moments then slows…slows…slows………………….stops.
I place the syringe against her leg, leaving my venous access in place, and reach for my stethoscope. Rose’s heart is still.
“She’s gone,” I say quietly and pat her back. “Good girl.”
Robert and Matthew hug and cry quietly. As they mourn, I remove a small Tupperware container from my bag. Inside are ovals of clay. I place one below Rose’s paw and press each toe into the clay until I have a perfect impression. Using rubber stamps, I spell her name around the edge. Slipping it into a wax paper bag, I hand it to Matthew. He is the more composed of the two men.
“This is air dry clay not the baking kind,” I explain.
He accepts it from my outstretched hand, but we are careful not to touch. His mask is drenched in snot and tears.
“I’m going to pack my stuff in the car and then I will come back and we’ll take Rose down to my van,” I explain. “It will give you some time to mourn and say goodbye in private.”
I pack my things away and walk down the deck stairs to my car. In the back, a black gurney covered in pads and mats awaits for Rose. I sling my bag into the front seat and check my text messages. There are a couple more appointments waiting for me later in the day, I see. My aunt, who has been very ill, has texted me back. My mom has sent a picture of my nephew.
I hear stirring on the deck. Matthew is carefully lifting Rose up, wrapped in her blankets. He brings her to the car and lays her on the gurney. Normally, I would help, but COVID renders me useless. Resting a hand on Roses’s head, he says to me without turning, “you’re an angel.”
For the briefest second, I entertain saying “tell my kids that.” Angel is not a word I think I’ve EVER been called, not in 41 years. I am many things, but angelic is not one of them. Still, I am honored that they see me as such.
“We are so grateful for your service and easing her pain. I wish I could give you a hug.”
I incline my head, acknowledging the realities of living in a pandemic. I no longer have the ability to offer physical comfort, not with a daughter with leukemia.
“I am so happy that I could help,” I tell them. And then I drive away.