A few summers ago, a friend invited me to his lake house. I declined because I had no one to dogsit Speck, my 11-year-old Cairn Terrier. My friend assured me that his gentle senior dog would get along fine with Speck, and there was a gated deck to keep the dogs safe. So Speck and I drove to the lake. We went out for dinner that night. That was when my nightmare started.
When we returned to the house, I entered first. I heard snarling and growling behind me: My friend’s dog was protecting his family, and though I’d hardly call it a “fight,” he and Speck were intense and snarly, snapping at one another. My friend’s daughter tried to break them up, and Speck bit her, puncturing her wrist and causing it to bleed. Her mother exploded, screaming that they go to the hospital. They drove off, leaving both dogs just looking at me. It was time for us to leave.
The drive back, especially at night, is on a dangerous stretch of road. The right side is a sheer cliff face, the left a steep drop, with no place to pull over. Rounding a curve, my wheel got stuck in a gully. All the glass on that side of the car shattered, and the oil pan broke off.
I slowly worked the car, smoking and sputtering, back on the road. I was scared. My dog was scared. I called my friend at the lake house to tell him about the accident. Then I called my insurance company. A representative asked me whether my tires had burst or were intact to find out what kind of tow truck to send.
When I opened the door to check, Speck jumped over me and out the door in a panic.
As I called her, I saw an SUV driving toward us. I waved my arms to stop it — but it hit Speck with one big thud. The driver pulled over and immediately apologized.
I picked up Speck and lay in the grass on the side of the road, sobbing, cradling her in my arms. I didn’t know what to do. I called my ex-husband, a dear friend. He told me he was at a party and had been drinking, but he’d get a taxi.
When the taxi pulled up, so did two police cars and the tow truck. I mumbled “lake,” “car,” “dog,” and they told me that, yes, it is one of the worst places, and accidents are so common. My ex and I got in the taxi, me with Speck in my arms, and went to my house. At home, I put her head on a pillow in my bed and pulled a blanket up to her neck. I held onto her and cried.
The next morning, I sent an e-mail to my best friends and mother. Soon my closest neighbor showed up, then my mother with my brother, then another two friends. I couldn’t take Speck’s body to my vet for cremation until Monday. All I could do was cry.
My friend from the lake called to say that his daughter had had one stitch and a tetanus shot, but that her injury wasn’t serious. He wanted to know if Speck had been vaccinated and current with her rabies shot. I assured him she had. I spent the day looking online for another Cairn Terrier.
On Monday, my neighbor helped me get Speck into the car, and we drove her to my vet’s office. At work, my bosses gave me a dozen white roses. Everyone knew how much I loved her; she was my first dog.
The day turned into a living hell. My friend’s wife called me multiple times: “Who is your vet?” “You had better get your vet to call me back, or my daughter is going to have a painful series of rabies shots!” I called my vet and learned that the Health Department had taken Speck’s body to test it for rabies. In rare cases, a vaccinated dog might still transfer rabies. “Normally if a person is bitten, the dog is held in quarantine for 10 days,” my vet told me, “but Speck died, so they needed her body.”
One phone call led to another. The Health Department told me she had been taken to a university facility. I called there, asking where she was and when I could get her back to have her cremated. “We sent her head to another facility to check the brain for rabies,” the receptionist told me.
I thought I’d lost my mind. They had decapitated my dog?
I called the place where they’d sent Speck’s head. They told me it had been cremated, along with the bodies of the other animals they tested for rabies. “There is no head left, and even if there was, we’d never hand it back over to you,” they told me. “It’s not allowed.”
Hysterical, I called the university again, demanding to talk to the person in charge of the testing facility. I wanted my dog’s body back.
“I don’t know why you were told about her head,” the doctor told me in his soothing voice. “The person who told you that did a very terrible and hurtful thing. We do have her body, and I promise: I love my dogs, we all love animals. That’s what our job is, to research and help animals, cure disease. We know how people love their dogs. I’ll cremate her in her own little tray. I’ll call you when I’ve prepared her ashes.”
I could finally breathe. He added, “We have a man who makes custom boxes for the ashes of thoroughbred horses. They’re beautiful. I’ll have him make a small one for your Speck.” I was comforted.
A few days later, she was ready, waiting for me in a beautiful cherry box with brass corners and handle. A pink rose rested on top of the box along with a note that read Speck — July 8, 2008. Again I had a lump in my throat, but this was from happiness. Gratitude that after all the ugliness, the screaming, the horror, my nightmare had finally come to an end.
I also had a new puppy to raise. Little Greta hasn’t replaced Speck or taken the place in my heart that Speck left when she died. She is an entirely different creature, and we have plenty of years to develop our own bond. I think of Speck every day, though, and I sometimes call Greta “Speck” by accident, or refer to her as “Speck” in conversation.
I knew that with the love you share with a dog, there comes pain when you have to part. I just didn’t know how painful that parting could be.
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