You do not notice breathing until it is difficult. Then it is all you notice. Ragged breaths that come from the stomach up into a chest that once bellowed air as easily and reflexively as one might blink.

The old dog nearly died on the bathroom floor of a Days Inn. Imagined carrying his cooling carcass out to the pickup, imagined that too-long drive eastward toward home. Imagined the cold stiff burial under a Montana cottonwood turning October yellow. Imagined a lot of things. Did not imagine revival, but he did.

He rode in the front seat thirteen hours home, too weak to piss without being lifted out onto roadside grass.

At home, snow dusted the tall-back above 12,000 and the tailwind that chased you all the way from the coast peeled leaves off the aspens, alders, cottonwoods, robbing the fall of its color. But the bellows kept going, the machinery, pumping, filling, emptying, repeat. Pumping, filling, emptying.

The old dog home on his bed in front of the crackling woodstove, an old dog who does things his own way. Doesn’t die when you think death just on the next page, never came when called and on deer track, never lost a taste for discarded socks or detritus from toddler-feeding chaos, always retrieved and hardly ever pointed–just the exact opposite of every other setter on the planet. Outdid field trial champion Labs on water retrieves for Christ’s sake, but you think he’d point for more than a tenth of a second?

He crawls off soft bed for hard tile floor, laps water, pisses himself. Meds onboarded, food offered and refused for the first time ever. Draining, slowly down the drain. But the machinery still going. In. Out. In. Out. Thump. Thump. Thump.

Later. Not wagging his tail anymore even when hugged in the tears of his 8-year-old. Even when she places a spare sock in front of his nose and says, “I love you, Scouty, you can have these socks.”

Tomorrow. It will be tomorrow. And when tomorrow comes and the pickup is brought close to the front door so the carry will be easy, he goes his own way and the machinery stops. Ironic poetry from an old dog whose idea of verse would probably have been bawdy limerick told in a dank pub somewhere in the country. Yet the poetry: the machinery stops without veterinary action. Spares himself that final ride, spares his loves their final despairing decision.

The pump stops and the wind tails westward and all is quiet except the whispered cries of those left in the slipstream.

Author: Tom Reed

Four English setters tell me what to do.

12 thoughts on “Drain”

  1. One taken to the vet for the final time the day after my mother’s funeral. Another’s big heart finally giving out beside me on the truck seat on the way. No matter how or how many times the story’s told…

  2. Two weeks ago I had to make the decision that you were spared for a dog that shared 15 years with me. I don’t like playing God….

  3. Wow. Sitting here this morning with my setter on the couch beside me, this one tugged at my heartstrings.

    Thanks for the great pieces of writing.

  4. Goddammit. That was quality and a fitting tribute, TR. I’ll raise one in honor this evening, and Hank ain’t far behind…

  5. Beautifully written, thanks.

    Don’t know anyone who’s ever loved a hard-working, hard-headed (aren’t they all?) dog that can’t relate to this in one way or another. I just lost one this summer who had me bound up tighter than any dog I’ve ever known, and I still remember every second of that hour-long ride to the emergency vet, laying in the back of the Subaru with him to keep him from sliding around in the curves… feeling every stubborn breath… feeling those breaths weaken and then resume and then weaken. It’s odd how the sensitive side of a crusty old outdoorsman can be laid bare by the look in the eyes of a veterinarian coming back into the waiting room.

  6. You captured many sentiments of lose. I wish you steadiness as you mourn Scout’s end, but urge you to remember the great hunts and acts of foolishness that you shared. Take Care

  7. I didn’t want to read this, but I did. I knew the ending and it still hurt. I guess it has to hurt, otherwise we didn’t treat them right during their time on this earth.

  8. Dogs, especially the good ones don’t live long enough. Soak it in, 10 to 12 years (or more) goes by too fucking fast. I’ll pour a sip for “scouty” this evening

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