Sometimes all’s Well that Just Ends
My first husband was not the most practical of people; the majority of his decisions were either aesthetically or emotionally based. That is something I did not understand in 1973. So, in retrospect, the fact that he chose a St. Bernard to share our third floor walk-up apartment in my parent’s house is unsurprising. At the time, we’d only been married for about a year and my parents were having difficulty getting reliable help with the care of their house and their children… that would be a 32 room house and 9 children still at home. My husband and I had been on our own for most of the preceding year, living in an apartment in Philadelphia, about an hour away. The last installment of paid caretakers at my parents place had departed, probably on very bad terms, some months into our marriage and I, as the oldest of the pack, and out of a job myself, was almost literally created for the position.
I commuted for a little bit but it was quickly apparent that everything would go much more smoothly, and that we could save on rent, if we just moved in to the three rooms in the front of the third floor of the oversized house that was known locally as The Castle.
Jupiter Christmas Saint Spoon was only about four months old when she moved in with us. The name was my husband’s spoof on the typical highfalutin names given to show dogs. I think we were both surprised by her rapid rate of growth… you could almost see it.
For the most part, my siblings, who were used to cats, took to Jupiter. The house was pretty much in a rolling state of chaos all the time when my parents weren’t home; another piece of particularly furry chaos more or less fit right in. My siblings did have to watch their food though. One Thanksgiving Jupiter literally took the turkey off the open oven door and made a run for it. My parents, needless to say, did not think much of her.
While living on the third floor, my husband and I designed a small house that was going to be built primarily by my husband’s father with assistance from him (he who did not even know how to hammer a nail) and numerous of my brothers. Over the next couple of years the house was built and we moved in with a new baby and a very big dog.
Very big dogs don’t live a very long time and Jupiter didn’t. She started going downhill at about age 5 and had developed severe hip dysplasia. At close to 200 pounds, she had difficulty getting around. We built a pen and a little house for her outdoors so that she wouldn’t have to do stairs. She lived outdoors then, slowing down more and more with each passing month until one day, trying to get up, she just couldn’t. I called the vet to find out how much it would cost to have her euthanized. I cannot now remember what that price was but it stunned me; there was no way we could afford it. I did not have a job as I had children to care for and my husband was a teacher in a ghetto school. There would also have been the problem of getting her someplace even if we could have afforded it.
So I called my physician mother and asked her to look into providing us with the drugs that would allow us to put Jupiter to sleep. She complied and sent the pharmaceuticals along with instructions on their use. I followed the directions exactly on the day they arrived and that night before bed Jupiter lay down to sleep, forever, I was thinking. I myself didn’t sleep so well. I was conflicted six ways from Sunday. I knew this was something that had to be done; I knew there was no way we could afford to have it done professionally and that Jupiter would be in a massive amount of pain and linger a long time if I hadn’t acted. She had been a big part of our family and I was pretty much a mess.
Awake and restless, I heard the rain come in and felt bad that she was out there, exposed, in the rain; she couldn’t move. So I woke my husband and convinced him to go out and cover her up. She was in the area right next to her little house and it was simple enough to put one of the big old secondhand doors that we hadn’t used in the building of the house across the fence above her to keep her dry. After positioning a wheelbarrow in place for the mornings activities, on his way back into the house, my husband slipped on the backstairs and wrenched his ankle which blew up like a balloon within minutes. He was in a great deal of pain.
He got back in bed and I packed his ankle with ice but quickly realized that any movement I made in bed was going to cause him more pain so I left the room and went to sleep with the kids in their room. In the morning I was awakened by a sound that I did not expect to hear: Jupiter was barking. It couldn’t be. Couldn’t be. But it was. The drugs had not worked.
I went outside; it was still raining and Jupiter was lying exactly where I’d last seen her but I could tell from the look in her eyes that she was scared and soon realized that she was paralyzed. It was an absolute nightmare.
I ran back inside the house and pulled out the Yellow Pages, looking for a nearby animal rescue service or something, anything; I was desperate. By now, my mother-in-law, who unfortunately for all of us, lived next door, had also been awakened and so in addition to being distraught, I was also being regaled nonstop about what a bad idea this had all been, as if I didn’t know. She had never offered to help with any of this at all, though she could well have afforded to help and now she was bitching me out as I stood there in tears making call after call after call, none of which were answered because it was 6 o’clock in the morning. I resorted to calling the numbers of vets even though I had no idea how I would pay for it and my great surprise, one of them picked up. It wasn’t an answering service, it was the vet himself.
It was with great difficulty that I made myself understood because I was practically hysterical by then. Firmly he told me to pull myself together and asked me if I had dug a hole in which to bury the dog; I had.
“How deep?” He asked.
I told him, “about 3 feet.”
“Not enough,” he said, “it’ll need to be 3 feet deeper and you need some lime. Do you have lime?”
We were in a rural area so, luckily, we did have lime.
“Get out there and start digging,” he said. He then asked for directions to the house and told me to dig until he got there. It felt good to have been given some direction. I began to calm down a little, hunted up a shovel, and headed for the grave which was out beyond the fence behind our house. At the time, I didn’t think twice about the fact that the hole I had dug beyond the fence was on the other side of a drainage culvert that ran behind house. It had been raining heavily since the night before and water was coursing through the culvert but I was able to hop over it easily enough and, after comforting Jupiter a little bit, did so and then set about digging while crying in the rain.
Time passed. I have no idea how much. And then I heard the unmistakable sound of a Porsche. My father had driven nothing but Porsches for years; there was no mistaking it. That was nobody in our neighborhood, I knew. It had to be the vet… and it was.
There I stood, covered in dirt, soaking wet, looking every bit the part of the drowned rat, confronting a man who looked like Perry Como about to do a television show in the 1950s, mohair sweater and all.
“Is it deep enough?” he asked, forgoing an introduction.
“I think so,” I said, still unable to control tears. I waved him to follow me into the back and when we got to the culvert, he paused. I’d told him over the phone about Jupiter’s approximate weight and size and so he asked, “How are we going to get her across this?”
It had never occurred to me; there just wasn’t room in my brain. But like lightning, I realized that we could use the old door that was covering her pen to span the culvert. I told him that and he seemed relieved. He then leapt lightly over the culvert, checked out my work, declared it acceptable, and asked me to take him to Jupiter.
He said that I should go inside, that I should not be there for what followed, and so I took the door and walked it back to the culvert, then went inside and waited. It was not too long before the vet arrived and told me that everything was ready. Stepping outside the fence, I saw the wheelbarrow, covered by a bright orange tarp. Jupiter, I knew, was under there. He hadn’t wanted me to see him lifting her, I’m sure. It couldn’t have been either easy or pretty.
We headed for the culvert where it quickly became apparent that because of the lumpy earth at the edges, the door was a little unsteady. I immediately jumped into the swiftly moving water and grabbed the door to hold it stationary. Slowly, the vet wheeled the barrow and Jupiter onto the ersatz bridge. Just about halfway across, the door broke and there was I, underwater, with a wooden door, a wheelbarrow, a dead dog, and a well-dressed veterinarian on top of me. The only thing I was conscious of it that moment was getting my nose above water.
He moved quickly, the vet, even though by that point nothing would have saved his marvelously expensive sweater. He apologized loudly and quickly for what I was about to see, grabbed the skin on Jupiter’s back and hauled her up onto the bank on the far side of the culvert, then reached out a hand to help me up before dragging Jupiter’s body to the large-enough hole and unceremoniously throwing her in. I couldn’t blame him for what I am sure he perceived as an extreme lack of decorum.
I knew what had to come next, and I knew that he didn’t need to be there for that, so I suggested we go back to the house where perhaps I could get him a towel, or a cup of tea, or something. He didn’t want anything except his check and probably to get the heck out of there and I couldn’t blame him for that either.
I had my checkbook at the ready, prepared for the worst, and he charged me $50. $50. The lowest estimate I’d gotten which included me taking her to the vet had been in the hundreds. $50? My face must have glazed over; I knew that I was staring at him, my mouth slightly open, my face full of question, and all he did was hold out his hand. I filled in the amount handed it to him and he simply left without a word. Again, I couldn’t blame. What on earth was there left to say?
My husband was still asleep in bed. My mother-in-law had carted my children off to her house next door for breakfast. I returned to Jupiter in the rain and began the job of restoring the earth to the space above her. I had been shoveling for a long time when eventually the sun came out followed shortly by my husband, who was limping, leaning on a cane, requesting that I please finish up quickly as he would like me to drive him to Atlantic City, (about an hour and a half away), so that he could purchase a shirt.
Had the grave still been unfilled, it might have had two occupants. Instead, I noted that I needed to finish my job and that perhaps we might go in the afternoon.