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  • It turns out that if you run a google image search with the phrase 'dog at the vet,' the interwebs presents you with immediate access to page after page of smiling, confident veterinarians gazing lovingly into the eyes of their relaxed canine patients. It also turns out that 95% of veterinarians are pretty women. Who knew?

    This is a fictional story.

    My dog Josie is a German Shepard / Border Collie mix, born to a good friend's ranch dog. I took her in at 8 weeks, and she's been by my side every day of the last 7 years. Half the time she's as playful as a toddler and the other half she's as watchful as monk. And she's at least twice as smart as I am.

    The other day I had to take her in for a few shots. Now, Josie is about as brave as they come when it comes to facing down aggressive, hormonally charged cows protecting their calves. But things change when we pull into the vet's parking lot. Her back legs start shaking and scratching the bed of my pickup, desperately seeking something to hold on to.

    I look her in the eyes and tell her she'll be fine, and she looks back at me doubtfully, saying 'You better not be lying to me. You lied to me last time and the time before, and if I go back into that building and I am not fine, things are going to change between us.' And I gulp and shuffle evasively, and her quick shy eyes scan my face and the world, looking for some way out. But I ask her to come with me, and of course she does, body trembling and tail between her legs.

    At the door she pauses one more time, eyes frantic with fear, her usual joyful spirit gone from her body. And I do not even give her the dignity of dragging her in so that she can resist her fate, like that crazy barking pit bull just ahead that doesn't even catch her attention. No, I just ask her to enter, and she does. Softly. Gingerly.

    On the vet's steel table, she lies anxiously, tail twitching in agitation. The vet takes a syringe filled with some purple liquid and stabs her between the shoulder blades, and all the while she tries to get her head around itself to see what he's doing back there, but he uses his other hand to hold it in place. She yelps. He reaches for another syringe, still holding her head in place. 'You'll be fine,' I say again, stroking her beautiful trembling face.

    I realize suddenly that I am seeing fear in it's purest form. Josie, the smartest dog in the world, simply cannot understand that the vet is trying to help her; that he's injecting her with weakened viruses that will immunize her from certain diseases by allowing the necessary antibodies to develop in her bloodstream. All she knows is that the man she trusts most in the world handed her over to someone else who wants to hurt her, and something dangerous is in her hand and it's coming at her. And she has no idea what is going to happen. She is afraid she is going to die, and she doesn't know why, or how, or what she can do. And she can't run or bite because I am standing there telling her she'll be fine.

    The vet stabs her again. She cries; not from the pain, but from the fear and trembling and uncertainty. She looks at my shoes. 'What are you doing to me? Am I going to die? Why? Why me?' My breath comes faster and faster, and I almost cry with her. I'm sorry Josie, I'm so sorry.

    Suddenly; 'Well, that's all then,' the vet says, smiling irritably at me. On the ride home Josie lays curled up beside me in the cab, glancing at me distrustfully and sighing like there is nothing left to live for, and my heart hurts deep in my breast. But somewhere inside I know that with enough love and time we will overcome this thing together again. And that when the next vet visit comes around, the betrayal will be just as complete.

    The End

    post script:

    Why am I sharing this story with you? Each time I have met someone struggling with a terminal illness, I notice some kind of hollowness in the space behind their eyes. I know that all the uncertainty, all the lack of comprehension, all the lack of control meagerly reproduced in this story is a ever present reality for them. And as humans in that situation, we reach for something to play the role of the comforting man, the role of the most trustworthy thing in the world. And we struggle to understand how something can be so trustworthy even as he/she/it allows the trial of the illness take place. We look to religion, to the afterlife, and to rationality, all to confirm that one way or another, everything will be fine. Maybe despite all that looking, there really is nothing better than a loved one sitting nearby and telling you that everything will be alright, even if something deep inside screams that they must be lying.

    I suppose this is a well-known phenomenon. But I also suppose I think that the image of the dog on the vet's table is an image that might help us understand the kinds of feelings that underlie our more conscious approach to these matters, and where those feelings come from.
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