Life and Death

Elmer Ladd built the little pink house at the end of our road just in time for their wedding on New Year’s Eve 1953. The pre-cut Aladdin home caught Elmer’s eye when he first saw the catalog. Eileen picked the color and the two of them knew from the day they moved in that they would always live there, close to his work at the train station. Every day after the 12:05 had left, Elmer came home to eat lunch with Eileen. At precisely 12:50 he put his cap back on and left to greet the 1:05 southbound Express. Every afternoon when their daughters returned from school, Elmer was home again to spend a few minutes with them before returning to the station for the next train.

After Elmer retired from the railroad, he and Eileen spent all their time together at home, caring for the little pink house and the small garden. For the first few years he would still listen for the trains, but eventually he learned to ignore them. Ten years after his retirement the trains stopped running through our town and weeds grew quickly between the abandoned tracks.

One day a stray dog wandered into their yard, an off-white spaniel mix with brown spots scattered over her back. Eileen thought the dog looked like a large mushroom when she first noticed her through the kitchen window. They called her Mushroom, and she quickly filled the void they had both felt in their life.

With Mushroom two paces ahead, behind or to the side, Elmer did the rounds around town morning and afternoon. The sweet-tempered dog made friends along the way, and Elmer tipped his old uniform hat to passers-by and shopkeepers as they walked. He had found a purpose and a routine again, and he was thriving. He constantly talked with or about the dog, and called her his little girl.

Then the seizures began. The veterinarian was not able to control them with medication, and Eileen worried that Elmer wouldn’t be able to get the dog back home again if she were to have a seizure on one of their walks. They stayed closer to home and Elmer’s world got smaller again.

Mushroom, sweet and gentle as ever, seemed content to stay inside the house or in the yard. On warm summer afternoons she dozed under the white porch swing while Elmer and Eileen sipped lemonade in the shade. More and more often and without warning, the dog would suddenly start convulsing to the point of losing control of her bodily functions, and the helpless elderly couple would kneel beside her and quietly pray for each spell to end. After she came to, Mushroom would seem confused, docile and grateful to be near them. She would wag her tail quietly and put her muzzle in the nearest hand or lap and fall asleep.

Summer turned into fall, and then winter. As the seizures worsened and came more often, Eileen broached the subject of putting Mushroom out of her misery.

“But does she suffer?” Elmer asked.

“I don’t know, but we mustn’t be selfish if there is any chance that she is”, Eileen replied.

“It’s not for us to play God. He gives life and only He can take life away from any of his creatures.” Elmer’s voice almost failed him as he spoke back to his wife.

Weeks passed, and the seizures grew in intensity. On a cold January morning, Mushroom collapsed at the end of the driveway and seized more violently than she had ever done before.

“Elmer, you’ve got to take her to the vet. You can’t let the poor dog suffer any longer.” Eileen sobbed: “Can’t you see it’s time?”

Without saying a word, Elmer put on his hat and jacket and trudged through the freshly fallen snow to the dog who lay quivering down the hill from the house.

He lifted Mushroom and walked slowly back up the hill. As he approached the car, Eileen ran out to open the back door for him.

His face was dusky, his breathing wheezy, and he moaned quietly as he leaned into the vehicle with Mushroom, whose limbs hung flaccidly as he coaxed her into the crowded back sat of the small sedan. The dog snored and exhaled loudly.

Silently, Elmer put his arms around Eileen. She sobbed. Then he opened the driver’s side door and sat down behind the wheel. Just as he turned the ignition, he took a deep breath as if he meant to say something. Then his head slowly nodded as his body fell, lifeless, over the steering wheel. The horn blared and the dog raised her head in the back seat.

Eileen reached in and tried to pull him away from the steering wheel. She managed to turn off the ignition and as she did, she knew her husband was gone. She acted quickly, but the ambulance crew pronounced the love of her life dead at the scene.

Mushroom came prancing down the street this afternoon, her spaniel tail and feathers waving in the warm breeze of what felt like the first day of spring. Ten paces behind came Eileen. The two of them make their rounds every day now the way Elmer and Mushroom used to. The new veterinarian in the next town seems to have found the right medication to control the dog’s seizures, and life somehow goes on for Elmer’s two girls.

2 Responses to “Life and Death”

  1. 1 Eileen Burns McNally March 13, 2012 at 5:53 pm

    Thank you for writing this…It really touched my heart

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