The daily fishing expeditions that I took with Matt and Amber made the summer pass quickly. As it turned out, though, the long treks were a bit more than old Amber could handle and the wear and tear began to show itself. Her hips had been deteriorating for years and all that exercise was more than they could bear. She showed her age most in the morning as she began having more and more trouble getting back on her feet.
Spying on Grandpa and Grandma Summers wasn’t a task at all, for they always spoke as though I wasn’t in the room. Each day they spent more time on the topic of having Amber put down. Finally the morning came when they told me that Amber couldn’t accompany Matt and me on our daily fishing expedition.
“Will she be here when I get back?” I asked.
“What kind of question is that?” my grandmother shot back, obviously startled.
“You’re going to put her down, aren’t you?”
Both my grandparents stared at me in amazement. As strange as it may seem, I’m convinced that they were completely oblivious to the fact that I, like them, spoke English. Like all too many adults in my life up until that point, it just never dawned on them that an eight year old might be listening to their conversations. My grandmother was a hard woman and not one to be intimidated by an awkward topic, so she knelt in front of me, stared me straight in the eye and said, “Yes, we’re going to have her put down today.”
I think she was expecting me to cry and run away, thus alleviating her of any further uncomfortable interaction with a child. She definitely didn’t anticipate my reaction, for her face grew sour when I told her I wanted to be there when Amber passed away. She turned to my grandfather for support, but he was a hard man who grew up in hard times and he gave her no quarter.
“Let the girl come along,” he said coarsely.
“Are you sure?” she asked.
In the ensuing discussion it quickly came to light that Matt had been having long discussions with his parents about our preoccupation with watching fish die. There seemed to be little concern for Matt regarding those activities, but in light of my experience watching my other grandmother pass away it was determined that something strange was happening to me. My grandfather argued vehemently that watching Amber being put down might be just what I needed to get past my predilection with death.
My grandfather pressed his will successfully and shortly thereafter Amber found herself in my Grandfather’s truck, sitting between me and Grandpa on her last ride. Grandpa’s harsh demeanor was as resolute as ever and the only companionship I had during the ride was Amber. I sat comfortably with my arm around her big neck as she panted and stared out the familiar windshield for the last time.
The proceedings at the vet’s office proved to be very anticlimactic. Amber was too drugged up when she passed away and actually lost consciousness without being aware that she was about to die. Somehow that changed things. When the life slipped out of her paw it wasn’t nearly as strong as when it had slipped out of my grandmother’s hand. I wished that Amber had been conscious as she was dying and I really felt that she had missed out on something, as did I.
The hardest part was not being able to look into Amber’s eyes as she passed away. I thought a lot about the significance of the eyes during death as I rode with my grandfather back to the lake. As was his custom, he didn’t speak a single word the entire return trip. When we got back to the cabin, though, my grandmother was more inclined than ever to converse with me.
She was relentless in pressing me for my feelings about the experience at the vet’s office. It was obvious that she was hoping to drive me to tears, to get me to express grief at the loss of my beloved companion. She was driving in the wrong direction though, for unlike all the adults I knew, I didn’t find death to be abhorrent. I told her plainly that they had robbed Amber of her only chance to experience death by drugging her the way they did. My perspectives on mortality were not well received, to say the least.
Both of my grandparents returned to discussing the matter as though I weren’t in the room. They were far too old fashioned to even know what a child psychologist was, let alone what benefit might be yielded by such an intervention. My grandmother was adamant that something had to be done and my grandfather just paced back and forth agreeing with her repetitive assertion until he figured out what that something might be. He stared at me for a minute, then glanced back and my grandmother and announced that he knew what to do. For the first time in my life I was ushered out of earshot.