(Author's note: I wrote this out earlier today, in a car on the way to O'Hare to pick up my sister-in-law coming back on break from the Peace Corps, then realized that I wanted to keep some real names redacted even though most of you, at this point, have probably seen me tweet accidentally from my "real" account at times and know, or could figure out, who I am. So if there's anything in here that seems strangely out of place, word- or capitalization-wise, it's because I did a quick find-and-replace of actual names. Anyway, the rest is as follows.)
My car was in the shop, so I've been using my father-in-law's Honda Pilot in the meantime. Got a call that it was ready for pickup, but they were closing at 5:30, so I sped across town as soon as I got off work at 5 to at least pick up my key; anyway, I got home at like 5:35, pull in to the driveway, and my wife runs up to the car, and she's frantic and borderline-crying - "There's blood everywhere on the deck, I think Holly got attacked," - so I run into the house, drop my backpack and coat, and head to the deck doors, where my father-in-law's got Holly inside, a towel held to her face, and the fur on her front legs and jaw is just matted with blood. There's blood spattered and pooled out on the deck, as well - rich and red, maybe made more so under the harsh outdoor floodlights. It looks bad, but my father-in-law's calm, stroking her side and scratching behind her ears, and even though the towel is a faded old red/fuchsia, it's polka-dotted with fresh blood spots, so it's hard to say what's going on.
They had come home from running errands, and left her outside before they left - why not, after all, she's a husky, it's cold out - and my wife saw Holly waiting by the door, as she usually does. She thought Holly was covered in mud, at first.
He tells me to get a couple of blankets that we don't mind getting dirty - we're taking her to a 24-hour vet, which, as it turns out, is right by where I work (they had no idea where it was, which I think was contributing to their panic - they couldn't get a hold of our regular vet) - and so we grab a couple blankets and lay them down in the cargo area of the Pilot. My father-in-law leads Holly out by her collar, still holding the towel to her face, and she's not resisting him or limping or whining, which is kind of a relief and puzzling at the same time - it seems like if she's bleeding that much, she's gotta be hurting - and we lift her into the back. My father-in-law gets in with her and pulls the rear hatch shut. I'm driving.
We get to the clinic, ring the bell, and the first person we see is a woman coming from Exam Room 1, tear-streaked face and short, raggedy breathing. Not a nurse or receptionist - another pet owner. You know it's not good, and even with the volume of blood on the towel and Holly's fur, I felt kind of silly - it really could be worse, I can't imagine what she's going through right now. Still, it feels like forever before someone comes to the front desk, and the first thing we do is... weigh Holly. Priorities, I guess. Then, to Exam Room 2, right next door to whatever awfulness we've tangentially witnessed. Since my father-in-law's still handling towel duty, I grab the door, because my wife is sobbing. I stay in the room long enough to see the nurse start to check some vitals, then I go back out into the waiting area to try and calm my wife down.
Which is how we end up outside with my wife face down on the cold concrete in a duck and cover pose. I'm trying to get her to breathe slowly and regularly - she had asthma when she was younger, and with sufficient stress it can flare back up - so I have her sit on the bumper of the Pilot and put her head down by her knees. It's a pretty lame gesture, but I feel like I have to get something under control.
"She was just waiting by the door, Matthew, just waiting patiently for us to come home and help her. She wasn't even making any noise. There was blood by both of the deck doors. Why didn't I let her in before we left? What if whatever got her is still out there? God, I'm so stupid, she deserves better than this" and this is where she crumples to the sidewalk, alternately wailing and gasping for air. It takes a couple minutes, but I console her the best I can and get her back on her feet. "You've gotta be strong for her right now. Let's go back inside."
"Will you go in and check on her? I can't look at her right now, I'm going to lose it again."
So I do. And despite the smearing of blood on the floor, everyone involved is really pretty calm - my father-in-law's joking around with the nurse, Holly's relaxed and laying on her side like she would at home, and the nurse fills me in: "Her vitals are all really good, her ears are healthy pink, no difficulty breathing, strong pulse in the back leg, so I'm not too concerned. There's no signs of trauma anywhere else on her, even with all this blood, so it's definitely something in her mouth or internal. The vet should be in soon."
This seems promising. I relay the information to my wife, who is mostly calmed down now out in the waiting room. "Hell, I'm sure there's just a lot of blood vessels in the face - think about how much head wounds bleed, right?" I say, trying to project some authority, even though I have no idea if that's true or not. Maybe it is, I feel like I read it somewhere. "I'm sure it just looks worse than it is."
"You'll tell me if it's bad, won't you?"
How bad could it be, I wonder, but I agree. I go back in the exam room, seconds before the vet finally comes in. She's tall, thin, looks too young to be in a lab coat, but she carries herself with such cheery assurance that it's kind of calming. She does her preliminary checks, agrees that Holly's vitals are great, comments on her beauty (as so many people who meet her do), and then pries Holly's jaws apart. Her teeth are stained red, and it's a much darker red, almost plum-colored, on the floor of her jaw - thickly pooled blood, maybe even coagulating, I think, so maybe that's good.
"She got into trouble before, chewing sticks," my father-in-law notes, as he's stroking her back while the vet looks inside. "Did something to her salivary gland - it was pretty bad then, so I suspect that might be related." He says this in the assured, knowing kind of voice that you expect to hear from someone talking about their kid being a rascal.
Which is what makes the next thing the vet says that much worse.
"Her tongue is gone." The words land on us awkwardly, in part because of the literal meaning of that sentence - her tongue is gone - and in part because of the disbelieving tone with which she utters it, like she herself cannot actually fathom that she is putting that sequence of words together. My jaw actually drops open; the slightest twinge of what is absolutely phantom pain hits the bottom of my tongue. The darkness of the bottom of her mouth is suddenly and painfully obvious - the muscular reddish-pink of her tongue simply isn't there; there is only a jagged, pitiful chunk of dark flesh left at the back of her mouth, its horror made worse by the realization of what and how and why it is there. It is freakishly quiet in that room for what can only be a few seconds, but that moment stretches on just long enough to be agonizing before my father-in-law speaks.
"But... she... she can't survive withou-ohhhhh," and he's not even finishing the thought, his already-thin and boy-like voice of shock giving way to what I can only describe as an agonized, mournful whimper as he buries his face in her fur. I actually see the teardrops fall and splash on the ground before he gets there.
The vet practically whispers "I'm so sorry," and I can tell she's mustering every hour of training and professionalism to maintain her composure as she leaves the room. My father-in-law is moaning in anguish, which is muffled, again, by her fur and body. Throughout this whole time, from the house through this exam just now, she has not made a single whine or whimper or wookie growl - not even a sigh - and while I don't know enough about dog anatomy to say this with certainty, I become aware of why that might be. She's quiet. She is so very and dreadfully quiet.
I have to walk out there and tell my wife. I left her out there with some semblance of hope, even though I had nothing I could really back that up with, and I have to go out and break her heart.
She wails, too, goes limp in my arms, and I feel like a jerk as I try and calm her down, telling her again that Holly needs us now more than ever now; we walk into the room and my wife drapes herself over the huddled forms of my father-in-law and Holly. The nurse is already in the room again; even her eyes are red and puffy, and she's sniffling and apologetic for being that way even as she's trying to explain what happens next. She has a form on a clipboard; she tells us to take all the time we need and slips out into the staff area - I catch glimpses of the vet and other staff, all with similarly stunned or stricken faces. These are people who see and deal with terrible things all the time - it's their job - and yet this, this, is something else.
I don't know how much time passes; I'm sure it feels longer than it actually is. My father-in-law and my wife alternate consoling each other, weeping, and trying to comfort Holly, who is still surprisingly serene, considering. This whole time, I've tried to keep my eyes glued to hers - to somehow reassure her and soak up every moment I've got with her - and even her eyes aren't wide with fear or pain, and her normally melodramatic eyebrows are relaxed. She looks just like this when she lies under the table or by the fireplace or outside of our bedroom door in the morning. I half-expect her to lick the floor (as she does) and know that is impossible and stupid to think about.
The form gets signed at some point; the original nurse and another one enter with a small plastic basket of supplies - gauze, tubing, wraps, medical tape, bottles, syringes, hair clippers.
My father-in-law used to joke about shaving Holly (especially in the summer) - "Do you know how much less time we'd spend brushing and cleaning up after you, dog?" - and that's what I think about as they turn the clippers on and they shave off a small section of her front leg. She stirs and tries to wriggle away, kicking with her back legs in a way that reminds me of a chicken, just as she would when we would try and hold her still so we could dry her off or clip her nails or trim the fur between her toes. It's the most I've seen her move or struggle or resist since we first brought her into the room. We do our best to calm her; somehow, she does better when they put in the IV catheter than she did with the clippers. The blood beads up quickly inside of the catheter, because her pulse is still strong and healthy, because despite the matted and crusted blood all over the front of her, she really is almost okay in every way that she could possibly be and yet it is still not enough.
The catheter is held in place with your standard boring off-white medical tape initially, but it is soon followed by a pink wrap with bones and paw prints speckled in a pattern on it. It is cheery and advertises comfort and healing; this is the kind of wrap you put on a sprained joint or a minor wound. They administer two syringes full of some different liquids through the catheter. The first nurse asks us if we want impressions made of her paw prints; we do. They leave the room. Holly sighs, in drama queen fashion, just like she randomly does around the house at times, because being a dog is a ruff life.
The vet comes in. She's carrying two other syringes, and she quietly describes the process: "It's essentially an overdose of anesthetic, the same kind we would use for surgery. It'll go to her brain first and make her unconscious; about a minute later, it will go to her heart and stop it. Her eyes will remain open. I'll listen for her heartbeat at that time, and she might release urine as the muscles in her body relax."
My father-in-law and my wife are blanketed over Holly as much as they can be; the vet slowly depresses the two syringes and steps back. I get one last look directly in her eyes, which are slightly narrowed at this point, and I have no idea what I am trying to convey to her or receive from her. You can see the movement of her chest and sides gradually diminish, and the vet gently taps the area immediately around Holly's eyes. "She's unconscious," she announces, in her measured, official doctor voice.
I step to the other side of the room, behind my wife now; there's nothing for me at the front now.
It is probably finished, but it's not quite over, though. She makes a percussive, breathy sound like labored breathing or hacking up a hairball, once; seconds pass, and she does it again. "That's the diaphragm relaxing and letting air out," the vet explains, probably for two purposes - the literal, encyclopedia-esque observe-and-explain ("This is what is happening and why") and to steer us away from any sense that Holly is struggling to stay with us. We know it is better for her; we know she is happier now; she is no longer suffering. "She's passed," the vet says, quietly. I look at my watch: 7:02 PM, December 18th, 2014. If I'm not mistaken, I met this beautiful, dopey puppy almost exactly 4 years ago, within a day or two, even. I had four very eventful years with her.
The ending of our time there is clipped and in stark contrast to the events occurring literally minutes before: a bill is printed off, a card is swiped, and the first nurse apologizes for her reaction - "Most of the time, I can keep it together, it's the nature of things around here, but she was so beautiful" - and my father-in-law mumbles his thanks, and we walk out into the night and drive home.
On the road, I realize with a sinking heart that someone has to go find her tongue, and it can't be my father-in-law or my wife. So when we pull into the driveway and my father-in-law and my wife get out and hug tightly, I speed-walk into the house, drop my backpack on the floor and dig through it to find my headlamp. I search in vain for the box of latex gloves I had buried somewhere in the downstairs spare bedroom, until my wife reminds me that they're up in the closet upstairs. I haven't moved fast enough - my father-in-law is already connecting the hose to the sink in the kitchen, in order to get hot water, to wash Holly's blood off the deck. You hear choked sobs over the sound of the water spraying on the deck - and indeed, there is blood spattered and pooled at both sets of deck doors. She was waiting for us, and she did what she knew to do - if we weren't by one door, go to the other.
I follow the trail of spatter across the deck, around the corner by the hot tub, and down the stairs. Out into her small fenced-off area. It leads me across the patchy grass and dirt, past the basement window, where it is slightly more concentrated - did she look in there, as she often did, looking for us, hoping we'd notice and come help her, because we always did, because she could rely on us? - along the side of the house and up to the chain-link fence, the bottom of which is bent alarmingly askew, and there, in muted brownish-reddish-purple, blood soaked and frozen into the hard ground around it, is her tongue, stiffly hanging from one of the lazily-triangular bent metal loops.
Siberian huskies are escape artists. They are runners. It is in their blood. Every time Holly went outside, she would check the wooden gate on side of the house, where our trash and recycling bins were, because that was heavily-trafficked and had the potential to be forgotten to be latched. She knew that, and that's why she would check every time. And she would wander, somewhere in the neighborhood, never running far away, but nevertheless always very proud of herself when she deigned to return.
When my sister and her dog lived with us, her dog was small enough to escape under the fence pretty easily, or dig if necessary; eventually, my father-in-law installed new landscaping timbers and secured the bottom of the fence to it, but there were gaps, as we later discovered after several baffling escape incidents on Holly's part in the past 8 months or so. Holly didn't dig, but as a medium sized, stubborn dog, she had the willpower to bend the parts of the fence enough to give her wriggle room. Until now, I had always assumed that she had done so with her snout and shoulders and sheer determination, but with the space of a day, it seems plausible that all these other times, she might have - or probably - used her teeth and jaws to manipulate the patterned wire making up the fence. In warmer times, it was probably easier to do so; on a late December afternoon, the metal was tough and unyielding.
I yell: "Oh, you stupid, fucking dog!" into the naked branches of the massive maple in her fenced-in area - the same one from which a good-sized limb came crashing down onto the deck from a good height as she cowered, whimpering, in the basement, one afternoon this summer - and more generally, the night sky, not because she can hear me or because it will make any damn difference, but because there is nothing around for me to batter and deform with my hands, my fists, my feet, so I must deface the stillness of the evening. I know my father-in-law's still out on the deck, trying to blast the remnants of blood off and away from our sight, and that he might take offense, but what else can I do?
Well, I kick the tree. That doesn't help. I walk back to the fence, and the cold feels extra strange around my rubber-gloved hands, like chilled water flowing around nonetheless dry skin. The tongue itself feels, frankly, like a chunk of partially-frozen meat, which really adds to the utter what-the-fuck-ness of the whole situation - it doesn't lay flat like it used to, hanging relaxed and lazy between her fangs when she'd pant, and I'm struck by the thought that the way it's posed now is maybe the last way it was ever attached to her, and that is a dark, dangerous path of speculation beyond that. In any case, the damn thing's not budging, so I'm forced to consider exactly how it happened, regardless:
And probably what it was is this - when you see the bottom of a chain link fence, you've seen it so many times that you don't stop to consider the intricacies of how they're constructed, as such, but at their most basic, it's just patterns of bent, thick gauge wire braided together and joined on the edges by hook-like loops, like a macro-scale weave similar to any garment you're wearing. It's the loops, emphasis on the "hook-like," that are the important thing here - for what I'd assume are both structurally-functional and safety reasons, the loops are usually closed back in on themselves, with any edges filed down or rounded to prevent snags, or crevices for rust to start to take hold, or to prevent little Johnny Dipshit of suburban America from getting tetanus from playing near the fence (which is now, of course, a near impossibility, as no one under the age of 25 has played outside and unhovered over in their lifetimes.) But as with any mass-produced product, there will be imperfections as soon as it is finished, or as the years pass, and here, the loop/hook had worked itself open just enough to have a small gap that left it weighing much more heavily on the "hook" side of the aforementioned loop/hook continuum. Enough to push through yielding flesh with sufficient pressure, and not enough of a gap to allow it to pull back out quickly or cleanly. It was a barbed fishing hook without the barb.
So I can only speculate beyond that - the metal wasn't simply snagged in/out like a fresh trout, and it wasn't looped through the thinnest part of the surface like when you accidentally catch your finger with a fishing hook. It's hard to distinguish the specific front/back of her tongue in any obvious fashion. It seems as if it is far away from any edge and deep enough into the "meat" that her tongue, at its flattest, might have been able to slide into the gap at first as she was trying to get a good grip on the metal with her jaws. Yielding enough for the metal to pinch on both sides, the tongue swells up, trapping it further. Who knows how she handled it then - was she puzzled? Was she worried? How long was it stuck just like that, if that's how it happened? When did she start to panic and try and disengage right away, only to realize she was trapped, possibly wedging and forcing the metal deeper into the tongue, enough to push it all the way through?
When did her fear become so great that her fight-or-flight, adrenaline-fueled neck and shoulder muscles - the same ones I had seen severely shake any number of toys she held clenched in her mouth, the ones that reminded you that deep inside her was an animal who could just absolutely ruin some other animal's shit in seconds - overcame all other pain and fear she was feeling at that instant and said, shouted, PULL, PULL NOW?
When she finally tore herself away from what was trapping her, did she even know what she had done right then and there? Did she look at her tongue hanging on the fence and know what it was? Did she know how very bad and terrible things were going to be?
Because she didn't run back. I'm no forensic expert, but you can pretty easily tell the pace with which she returned to the deck to wait for us was, at best, a loping trot: the trail of blood spatter is concentrated and consistent enough that it had time to fall and collect as she went for help, first (maybe) to the basement window to see if anyone was down there, then back between the hot tub and the tree, around the corner to the stairs, around the corner again in a switchback, across the deck, to the first set of sliding doors. She waited there, maybe for a few seconds, maybe for a minute or two. Then she went to the other set of sliding doors. She waited there, maybe not as long. She went down the steps to the wooden gate that had been unlatched so many other times - if it had been, would they have found her waiting for them at the front door, laying quietly on the sidewalk, the blood and trauma even less obvious in the early-encroaching darkness of mid-December? It wasn't unlatched. She went back to the first set of sliding doors. She waited.
The fluids - saliva, blood, whatever else lies inside of the muscular tissue of the tongue - were surprisingly still, well, fluid. They stained my rubber gloves, and I knew I needed tools to pull the tongue off the fence, and those would be in the garage, so I stripped the gloves off to get to those. I walked back up to the deck, past my father-in-law with the hose, mumbling "I found it, don't come over there," into the kitchen, past my wife at the sink, holding the hose adapter to the faucet, asked her for a couple of plastic grocery bags. "I found it," I said, flatly. I grabbed a fresh pair of rubber gloves, and went out to the garage.
Improvisation is key to any toolbox. Inevitably, you're not going to have quite exactly the tool you need for a job - maybe it doesn't exist, maybe you just never purchased it or ever thought you'd need one - so you work with what you have. Understandably, there was nothing guiding me as I rummaged through my father-in-law's tool chest, nothing that specifically said In Case of Dog Tongue Removal From Backyard Fence, Select These - so eventually I settled on a pair of scissors and a pair of needle-nose pliers. For whatever reason - maybe some silly, stupid seed of sentiment - it was important that I was able to do this with a minimum of further damage to this until-very-recently-gainfully-employed mouth organ. It seemed respectful.
The removal was much simpler than I'd anticipated, considering the difficulty I'd had with my gloved hands. I gently gripped and twisted the tongue around until I had it at a point where the only way to finish the job was to make a small, quick snip, and it fell free into my hand. It was heavier than I'd anticipated, and this had the weird effect of further diminishing any association between it and Holly, which made me feel better and yet still worse about the whole thing. I dropped it into the plastic bags, tied them up the same way we would when we'd pick up after her unceremonious squat, waddle, and shit ritual on walks. Walked over to the garbage can, hesitated: is this how I treat the last physical remains we had of her? Should I, like, be burying this somewhere? Or burning it, Viking funeral pyre-like, in which case, what if it kind of fucking smelled good, wouldn't that be the weirdest fucking thing?
I dropped it in the trash can. Garbage day was tomorrow. I went and collected the trash from the rest of house and piled it on top of it, glad for the distraction of an annoying chore while my father-in-law finished furiously cleaning the deck and then salting it to prevent anyone slipping on it. Out in the garage, I grabbed one of those really thick, super-absorbent auto-repair paper towels and did my best to clean the small bits of tongue off of the scissors and pliers.
Inside, my father-in-law and my wife continued to alternate bursting into tears and speaking somberly, wistfully, about this house's one constant occupant for the past decade. I pulled out three tumblers, a shot glass, and a half-full bottle of bourbon, poured it in each, handed the glasses to my father-in-law and my wife, picked mine up, the shot glass in the other hand. "To Holly," I say. Glasses are clinked and we look for comfort in the tipped-up bottoms. I slowly pour out the shot glass into the sink. "Why'd you waste it?" my father-in-law says. "Gotta pour one out for her," I reply. I turn the shot glass around, look at the screen printing on it. It says Cancun in rainbow lettering, and above it, the Jimmy Buffet of turtles swims at you in a good-natured manner.
"Well, that's fitting. Look."
Holly was a weird dog, for a lot of reasons, but this was always one of my favorites: when she would lay flat on her stomach, she didn't lay there with her head in her paws in front or slightly off to the side. She'd bend her paws back and out, her jaw flat against the floor, looking like a cross between a bearskin rug with the head still attached and, yes, a sea turtle with its fins guiding it through the water.
"Our little sea husky," she says, smiling and then choking up.
She was such a dopey, sweet puppy.
The next day is my wife's commencement ceremonies for her master's degree - what should have been a pretty damn big celebration is still happy but slightly muted. The night before, my wife had gathered all of Holly's toys to be thrown away - probably for the best, to eliminate any painful reminders as quickly as possible. Still, in the morning, as I groggily walk out into the hallway, I don't have to step carefully over a mass of fur and outstretched limbs; I walk up the split-level stairs, and I don't hear the plodding, muffled paws thumping against the wood; I don't shuffle to the deck doors as a wet and furry nose pokes the back of my legs impatiently; and so there's no reason to have a half-full bag of "mature" dog food around. We used a red and speckled white cup to measure out and serve her food and always left it in the bag of dog food. I pull it out, but not without it making a familiar clinking sound against the food inside, which is all the more reason to rush out into the cold in my shorts and make sure the bag is in the damn trash as soon as possible. My father-in-law's at the top of the stairs when I walk back inside, and I explain: "Had to get the dog food out in the trash before they come by."
I focus on the endless procession of forms and the accompanying data entry as much as I can throughout the day. Before the ceremony, I leave work early to go home and quickly change into something a little bit more presentable, punch in the key code to the lock, open the door, and remember that there's no furball laying on the landing and partially blocking the door as I step in. I think of all the times I've sighed or grunted in exasperation as I waited for her to streeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeetch, shake her body and generate a cloud of Holly-hair, and sashay nonchalantly up or down the stairs, and how in spite of all that, I always said "Hello puppy," (sometimes in comically-bad accents - try saying it in an exaggerated French accent and you'll understand why) and "See you later, pup" before I closed the door and hit the lock button, knowing that she'd be right there when I came back.