By Ace Tilton Ratcliff
Derek and I stand in the driveway, hands clasped together. “May we end Jetson’s pain easily and quickly, and bring peace to the family,” I murmur. Derek squeezes my hand in amen, our rings rubbing metal against metal in our grip. I don’t believe in heaven or hell, but praying feels comforting. If there’s an afterlife where you get everything good your heart desires, surely dogs and cats have earned that reward.
“Let’s go do some good,” Derek says, his warm breath puffing clouds in the frigid nighttime cool.
“Let’s take care of this family,” I say at the same time. The bare skin of my shaved head chills as we laugh at our outburst.
Jill opens the door almost immediately after I knock. We’ve been friends online for years, but this is the first time we’ve ever met. Each plagued by rare chronic illnesses, our friendship was born on social media as we commiserated over being trapped in mutinous bodies. It fostered an intimacy that neither of us shares with many others.
We hug on the front porch, while Porkchop and Jetson, Boston terriers with big ears and even bigger personalities, weave between our legs in excitement. I know them from what feels like a million exchanged videos and photos. Porkchop is brindle and white, his gigantic ears pulling his eyebrows into a perpetual mask of concern. He’s always wearing a bow tie on his collar: always the gentleman. He’s also obsessed with balls in all forms: thrown, tossed, rolled, and — his very favorite — utterly destroyed.
Jetson’s abdomen has been invaded by cancer — “multicentric neoplasia,” in clinical vernacular. Jill and her parents have invited Derek and me here to euthanize him.
Derek and I co-own and operate an in-home pet euthanasia, hospice, and palliative care practice that serves Northern California’s Bay Area. Most of our work focuses specifically on euthanasia and the subsequent disposition of pets’ bodies. We also have a few patients we see to manage end-of-life care — making sure they’ve got the good drugs to stay comfortable when osteoarthritis has set in.
Derek’s a veterinarian and I’m a mortician who has shifted from human death care to pets. We started the practice two years ago after euthanizing our own dog, Harper, in our living room, though we’d assisted friends and family members through the deaths of their pets for at least a year prior to that. After having cared for Harper since puppyhood, I didn’t want to entrust her body to strangers, and we realized that the work was a calling after that experience.
Harper’s Promise isn’t a full-time job for us yet; the work is too variable and the cost of living here is astronomical. Some weeks pass with no calls, but occasionally we’ll pull back-to-back-to-back appointments with only enough time to stop for fast food in between. Derek still works shifts at a brick-and-mortar veterinary practice, and I’m perpetually freelance hustling as a writer and artist, to make sure rent gets paid. We dream of a future where this work occupies all of our focus.
The cost of in-home services are slightly more expensive than visiting a veterinary office, but not by much. I’m haunted by years spent working for a corporate funeral home, where I had to meet a quota on my contracts or face a pink slip. The idea of fleecing people who are addled with grief-brain makes me feel ill. In-home euthanasia consultations cost $375. Communal cremation with the remains scattered in the mountains runs $115, while individual cremation with a cedar urn and a metal plaque is $225.
We’ve euthanized animals ranging from a tiny guinea pig to a full-grown, 200-pound domestic pig. Inevitably, every few months, a client will pursue a unique form of memorialization; taxidermy is popular. Once, we helped ship a dog to be cryogenically preserved, his owner desperate for a future where they could be reunited. We don’t judge what the heart wants when overwhelmed by grief; we simply work to make it happen.
At the house, we enter the dim back bedroom, dominated by a bed draped with a white comforter, contrasted with a startlingly red towel spread flat. On the dresser beside the bed, a digital screen scrolls through photos of Jetson. My memory is jarred — back to the mortuary and the ubiquitous slideshows that have become a routine part of directing funerals. The simultaneous experience of now and then is disorienting, but working in death care necessitates compartmentalization. I tuck that feeling into a box in my heart and focus on the work to come.
Jill’s mother, Kathryn, is also chronically ill. Jetson is her service dog, and at only 9 years old, his death strikes an unexpectedly early blow. The average Boston terrier lives to about 13. Jill and Kathryn seem resigned to the grim reality of their decision. They’ve done the research, spent hours on the phone with us, exhausted their vet visits and medical options. It is unfair, but there is a breeze of relief in the fact that dogs seem to have no concept of the impossible decision their humans have to make. They just want to lick your face and be loved by you.
As Derek prepares the first injection, a mix of sedatives, opiates, and antianxiety medications intended to relax Jetson into near-sleep, the family shares stories about adopting him. The medications usually take between two and 15 minutes to fully kick in, pets slipping into sedation as easily as they doze off in a sunbeam. Clients will often use this time to ply their pets with snacks as they share stories with us. One dog devoured an entire rotisserie chicken, bones and all, before succumbing to sedation. Big Macs are also a popular choice.
While Kathryn and her husband, Bryan, tell stories about their beloved dog, Derek slips the sharp end of the needle between Jetson’s shoulder blades, depressing the plunger and emptying the syringe. Jetson doesn’t even flinch.
Jetson wobbles when the meds make him sleepy. We move him on top of the red towel, and his head lolls, his big tongue floppy and loose. He gazes around the room, making direct eye contact with each of us. Bryan cries, cupping his hands around Jetson’s head and leaning against his muzzle.
Jetson licks my hand when I reach out. It feels as though he’s looking straight into my soul. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt the specific, quiet intensity of grief, an emotion that imbues funeral homes like spritzed perfume.
Jetson breathes steadily into the sedation. Jill sits on the bed beside him, Porkchop bundled beneath the covers and leaning against her. Derek holds my hand as we lapse into silence. My other hand rests lightly on Jill’s back as she touches Jetson and holds Kathryn’s hand; Kathryn holds Jetson, her fingers overlapping with Bryan’s. It feels sacred, existing in this veil between the worlds of the living and the dead, all of us connected as Jetson’s heartbeat slows.
When the medication makes Jetson’s eyes close, Kathryn reaches over to her bedside table and lifts up a small jar. “I saved the very last of the hand lotion I wear all the time,” she explains to Derek and me, unscrewing the cap and using one finger to scoop. She spreads the lotion across her hands with a deft, practiced motion. “I wanted it to be the last thing he smells.” She gently runs her hands over Jetson’s face and body, suffusing him with her scent as he lays relaxed. She lowers her voice, and though we can all hear her in the small room, the words are only for him. “Don’t forget this smell, Jetson. Don’t forget to find me.”
When the part of Jetson’s brain that recognizes us and responds to stimulus has gone quiet, I circle my right hand around Jetson’s thigh, watching the vein cast a shadow as it rises. Derek places the needle of the broad barrel of viscous pink euthanasia solution in the raised vein. The flashback of blood in the syringe is short and small. The headlamp encircling Derek’s forehead illuminates a full-moon halo against Jetson’s fur.
Because he’s so sick, his blood pressure is low. The vein blows; we waltz smoothly into new positions, shifting to Jetson’s front legs. Derek’s movements are efficient. This time, as the needle slides into Jetson’s flesh, the flashback of blood is a bright firework. The overdose of anesthesia slides in without resistance. Jetson is gone before Derek is finished, his heartbeat stopping beneath our collective palms.
When we are done, a tiny slip of pink tongue shows between Jetson’s lips. His body twitches and dances beneath Jill’s steady hand, a tarantella of nerves spasming with the last offshoots of his body’s electricity, even though his spirit is no longer there. I look up and see a photo of Jetson emblazoned above the bedside table: proud and handsome on a sand dune, his mouth open in a wide, happy pant.
We step outside of the room to let them sit with Jetson’s body. My hands shake as I trim roses from their stems to tuck around Jetson’s body before we leave with him. I can’t help but think of Harper again. She was the beginning of our mission, the connection we forged in that sacrosanct act, as we took the life that was already slipping away from her.
Harper had screamed a dramatic overreaction through the snap-pop first injection, as though we were killing her — which we were, but we didn’t want it to hurt. She took the sedation like a tank, eyes open and flickering long after she should have been peacefully whisked away in a hydrocodone dream. Waiting for the meds to kick in, I ran my hand over her flank while she panted, murmuring song lyrics to the top of her head because they say hearing is the last sense to go. After the final injection, I knew she was gone, even though her body was still warm beneath my hands and her tongue was twitching between her canines. She fought to the very end, and I was grateful to finally grant her peace and relief.
At first, euthanizing her felt like stealing something from her, like we should have let her body make the decision. But her broken heart was pumping harder than it should have to keep her alive, and the overexertion was eating away at her muscles. The meaty hocks I always swore teasingly I’d eat in an apocalypse had become easy for me to wrap my fingers around. Her hacking cough, her exhaustion, the image of white fur flopped on the cool tile. Her body told us it was either euthanasia or an inevitable, slow, painful collapse.
That day is divided into two sections: Harper’s death, and everything that came after.
After six years as a mortician, I was comfortable with the paperwork, with carefully winding our way between the gravestones that interrupted long stretches of grass at the pet cemetery, and with Derek asking if the smell of burning meat coming from the crematory was Harper’s body. (It was.) I knew what the door of the crematory would look like as it trundled up, how her limp body would flop when I lay her gently inside the retort, how her fragile bones would crumble into dust beneath the bristles of the broom sweeping her out after we returned an hour later.
But I was still surprised when my heart lurched in my chest as we got home and saw there were two leashes hanging beside our front door and only one dog to walk. The same tiny earthquake wound a hairline fracture through my heart at seeing two white bowls stacked for dinner but only one mouth to feed.
Harper was half of the furry brigade that undertook the hard work of keeping me afloat in the years after I was forced out of the mortuary industry because of my Ehlers-Danlos syndrome diagnosis. A rare connective tissue disorder, the disease causes my body to create collagen incorrectly. Collagen serves as the brick and mortar of the body. Symptoms are unique to each patient, but I deal with a myriad of issues, including unexpected joint dislocations; dysautonomia, which causes me to faint from standing for too long; and endometriosis, which invaded my abdomen and necessitated a hysterectomy. I’ve had at least a surgery a year since I was 26, and since the disease is degenerative, it’s only going to get worse.
Frightened I might injure myself, frightened of the lawsuit that would surely follow, and frustrated by the time I needed to take for doctor appointments and surgeries, my managers illegally limited my responsibilities and cut my hours. My last paycheck dipped below $1,000, barely enough to pay rent and definitely not enough to cover my copious medical bills.
Becoming a mortician had been my childhood dream; I read books about ancient Egypt and mummification. In my early 20s, I’d fought through an abusive marriage and the pain of my undiagnosed disease to graduate from mortuary college and complete a grueling two-year apprenticeship. I became a licensed funeral director, embalmer and crematory operator, and I was damn good at the work. I loved being able to make someone’s worst day ever at least a little bit easier. I’d expected to make a lifelong career working in the funeral industry, not to be forced into retirement well before I turned 30.
The death of my career had neatly followed divorcing my abuser. Losing it all in one fell swoop left me wild with grief, my bereavement all bared fangs and sharpened claws. I was plagued by debilitating panic attacks and existential terror about my own death. I was afraid my ex would show up unexpectedly, battering down the front door, his hands around my neck.
But Harper made me feel safe. The length of her furry form was always pressed tight along my thigh, her long, pink tongue licking away my tears. Tangling my fingers in her white fur brought me back to myself when I was spinning out. The necessary routine of feeding and walking her kept me grounded.
By the time I eventually met Derek, my life had become more balanced. Sure, I wasn’t doing what I loved anymore, but at least I hadn’t been swallowed into the black hole of my hurt. One day, Derek brought home his stethoscope so I could hear the comforting drumbeat pulse of Harper’s heart. I couldn’t identify the subtle lub-swoosh, lub-swoosh as a portent of congestive heart failure, but Derek could. Harper’s illness was terminal; death was not a matter of if, merely when.
The idea of bringing her to a clinic for euthanasia, giving her over to someone we didn’t know, never occurred to either of us.
Before the euthanasia, we had a new tag made for her collar, one with Derek’s last name on it too. She was part of our family. We took her out for a burger and a cup filled with whipped cream, and snapped photos of her with the redwoods as a backdrop before she was exhausted. When she was gone, we arranged her body in a cremation casket, white fur bold against a pink towel. Beneath her paw, I slipped a bouquet of pink roses, white Peruvian lilies, and a bone.
Later, after driving back from the crematory, as I cradled a small wooden box in my lap instead of my dog, we parked outside our apartment. Sunshine streamed in through the windshield and the sky was so blue it almost hurt my eyes. Derek cut the engine, and we sat in silence for only a moment before I turned to him and we spoke.
“I don’t know why we never thought about this before …” he started, glancing at me.
“We have to do this for other people,” I finished. “This was the best way for the worst thing ever to happen.”
“At home, in our arms, surrounded by familiar scents and sounds? Yeah, that’s how I wanna go.”
He nodded, and from the promise that a dignified death is an important part of a good life, our practice, Harper’s Promise, was born.
Jill and I sit together on the bed, swaddling Jetson’s body with the red towel and moving him over into a small basket Derek and I brought. We tuck the trimmed blooms of yellow roses around him, the color of friendship. Kathryn steps inside the bathroom to sob and collect herself, but her face lights up when she returns. She slips outside to collect rosemary and lavender from the yard in a small, fragrant bundle that she places beneath Jetson’s paw.
On the way out, Jill hands me a brown bag with a white envelope stapled to it, a thank-you card and home-baked dog treats for our pooches. Reading it out loud as we pull away from their neighborhood, I burst into tears. Derek holds my hand, and again we are connected — in this moment of service, this kindness, in Jetson’s death.
After the long drive home, Derek lifts the basket out of the back seat where we have it buckled in. Looking down at Jetson’s body, Derek’s eyes crinkle, clouding with tears. I love that even though he has carried a syringe full of Euthasol for an uncountable number of pets, he’s crying in our front yard over Jetson. I am more used to being there in the seconds after the grim reaper has left the room, curtains still wafting from his exit. It’s so strange that now the reaper comes in the form of this beneficent man I sleep next to at night.
Heading inside, I notice a text from Jill to both of us. “This is the first time I haven’t heard my parents bawling since we got the news about Jetson’s diagnosis.” I feel the acrid sting of tears rise again.
I have missed the way it feels to shepherd a family through the tumultuous experience of death. There is nothing quite like being the guiding light through this storm, basking in the deep sense of contentment combined with the adrenaline rush of success. When I left the mortuary, I had regretfully accepted the hurt of knowing I wouldn’t do this work again, yet here I am. I feel like I have stepped back onto the ferry, wrapped my hands around the rowing oar and felt the gentle waves of the river Styx lapping against the hull.
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