Things that were hard to bear are sweet to remember.
Thoughts of my first job rushed back into me as I pulled open the front door of the veterinary clinic. My son carried his sick cat past me and headed to the receptionist’s desk. I took a breath. “Oh my goodness,”
I thought. “This place smells just like the animal hospital back home.”
And it really did. When I was sixteen and thought someday I might want to be a veterinarian, I worked part-time at the local animal hospital. It was not glorious employment. I bathed dogs and clipped their nails. When I worked weekends, I spent my days completely alone taking the dogs out to the run one at a time, cleaning the runs and cages, refilling food and water dishes, and just trying to keep my furry friends calm. I did an awful lot of shoveling. My mother did not let me carry my T-shirts or shoes into the house until I had rinsed them thoroughly with the garden hose.
One day, a family brought in their old basset hound. The vet gently led the limping old animal back to the kennel area where I was working. “Here,”
he said. “Hold her while I give her a shot.”
I put down my broom and came over to the table where the dog was sitting. Her eyes were cloudy and her tail wagged weakly.
I looped one arm under her neck and held her close. I comforted her as I would have comforted my own dog, patting her side while the veterinarian pulled some medication up in a glass syringe. He shaved some hair from the top of her front leg to better expose the large vein there. The dog barely flinched when he inserted the needle and emptied the contents of the syringe. “There we go, old girl,”
The thumping of the dog’s tail slowed and then stopped. A few seconds later, her body softened and her head drooped. In a minute, she crumpled. I had not realized until that moment that our task was to put the dog to sleep. “Use one of those bags over there and put it by the door. The service will pick it up tomorrow.”
The vet left.
What had just happened? I was completely confused by the experience. Over the next few months, the scene was often repeated. To make some sense of my role, I always tried to remember that I was the very last person that would comfort these animals before they died.
That summer, I figured out that I could tolerate some extraordinary things. When the opportunity arose to change jobs, though, I went to work as an orderly at the local hospital. The “people hospital” had a unique aroma as well, but it was nowhere as pungent or as distinctive as the one at the animal hospital.
Fortunately, my son’s cat was fine. While we sat together in the waiting room, my nostrils and my memories continued to fill with that distinctive and melancholy smell.
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I know the smell. I have had the great pain and responsibility of saying goodbye to a number of my canine and feline family members. Each time I have held them and said my goodbyes to each of these friends and companions I am the last person they see. I am fortunate that my vet is caring and understands the importance of saying goodbye in a quiet room.
- Judith Moudry