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.
Read the rest of this story at Narratively.