The Story of Fenris
It was 3 years ago or some long time ago like that, and I was working for the man.. My next appointment was in the room waiting and I walked in like usual, but this time found no furry pup wanting to lick my face. It was Fenris the German Shepard, lunging at the end of his leash, 80lbs of muscle and teeth and hackles raised and saliva spitting, the full force of nature programed by generations of genetics to protect and kill, all focused on my soft and slow Dad bod. My own genetics screamed at me to run for my life, but that doesn’t make for much of a vet.. So I sat just out of reach of those bone-crushing jaws and felt the hot breath and spray and roar like the crashing ocean. I can still picture myself cross legged and back straight, like a yogi, eyes closed and praying to a number of gods while the owner dropped his grip on the black braided nylon leash and Fenris lunged forward. I felt the wet of his nose on my ears and eyes and heard the vacuum cleaner suction of his guerrilla nose while he checked me out, assessing the threat.
Luckily, even at my most masculine and puffed up, I couldn’t intimidate the elderly.. so down on the ground, with my palms up and hands open, the man eating beast knew I was no one to fear. And gradually over minutes he came around and let me lift his lips to evaluate his gingiva and teeth.. I slid my hands down the course black hair of his spine and pressed my stethoscope to his beating heart and bellowing lungs. His owner, Glen, looked on content seeing that I saw what he already knew— there was a sweetheart of a dog hidden beneath all that posturing and bristled ferocity. By the time they left, my own heart had slowed back to normal and Fenris’ to.. Praise the lord, that could have gone south.
His owner Glen was older and dressed in flannel and corduroy, silver haired and kind smiled and over the next couple of years I saw them from time to time for the usual things (vaccines etc). And each time we went through the same routine with the barking and fears of death giving way to relief and love fest. They were exhilarating visits and though infrequent made an impression on me.
I left that job working for the man and jumped off a cliff, not knowing if I’d survive the fall, and landed comfortable on The Ark floor where I belong. One day I heard the unmistakable, deafening alarm of Fenris waiting for me in the exam room. They found me! Woohoo! (Id moved 10miles and wasn’t allowed to tell anyone I was leaving). We did our usual hello where I nearly soil myself then embraced like old friends. Glen and I did the same, happy to be reunited.
During the exam that day, I felt the dreaded and characteristic bulge of an organ grown so big with cancer. It was his testicle, never snipped and now blooming into an orange sized tumor. I broke the news as slow and kind as I could and Fenris, calm now, sat loyal between us and listened. I could see the hint of tears in Glen’s eyes and I fought off my own, laying out the pragmatic possible paths that lay ahead. We could do nothing, or we could remove the tumor or we could employ the genius mind of an oncologist at the specialty clinic down the road. Now 14 years old, Fenris had surpassed most nursing home residents in physiologic age and Glen knew it. This was borrowed time. Glen elected to let the old timer take his natural course and though I so badly wanted the chance to cure Fenris, I understood Glen made the decision out of kindness. Why put him through it, he thought.
That was 1 month ago, and my mind moved to the thousand other things.. Until 5 days ago when I unexpectedly saw Glen sitting on The Ark couch, looking at me despondently with Fenris, muscle wasted with cataract eyes, keeping guard at his side. Over the weekend the old dog had collapsed and took some time to come to. It sent Glen into a tailspin, spiraling through the inevitability of the loss he knew was so soon to come. He confided in me, choking out the words, that his wife, before she passed away 6 years ago, had asked with her last strength that Glen take care of Fenris for her when she was gone.
Seeing Fenris collapse had ignited the old sadness like a forest fire from buried embers. He asked that I perform the surgery in a last ditch effort to save his old and loyal friend and to preserve the promise he’d made to his wife. No pressure.
My schedule was booked, but when it’s urgent I can always find the time. And over lunch two days later, while he slept soundly, I lanced the overlying tissue forced the bulbous tumor through the slitted skin, tied off the tortuous network of arteries and veins, cut all the attachments, lopped the evil thing in the garbage, and sewed Fenris up without complication. He woke up well with renewed energy, and still a little stoned was ready to head home. Glen and Fenris reunited in the lobby like friends grown old together, unable to imagine life without the other, and so grateful to be together again. They went home in the twilight, with the grim reaper fought off their doorstep and the deadbolt set.
That night I celebrated after hours at the Ark, with a small group of friends, passing around the acoustic guitar and a bottle of whiskey, sharing the new songs we’d written.
At 10pm I noticed a voicemail had come through an hour before and I listened close to the whispered message. It was Glen. Fenris had died. His breathing had become labored and Glen could hear it crackling in his chest, and then without a warning or goodbye, he was gone. Heart failure.
I made the impossible phone call, talking too much as usual, heaping on my sympathies and apologies and heart break, but there is nothing to say that will fix a thing. I sat back on The Ark floor, where Fenris and I had sat only hours before.. and I screamed out songs, grating my fingers on the guitar strings, until our upstairs neighbors pounded on our ceiling, ending the night (sorry for the noise you guys, if you’re reading this).
The next morning I drove out to Glen’s house and Fenris was there on the kitchen floor, wrapped in a blanket. I uncovered his head and kissed it. Glen and I hugged and he told me how glad he was that Fenris was able to pass away at home with his dignity intact. We had done everything we could. Glen had kept his promise. Fenris had grown old, well cared for, and loved like an only child and best friend.
I lifted the old bones, empty now of Fenris’ hurricane force, and laid him gently into the empty car. Glen so full with loss and hurt knelt and draped himself over his old dog and wept his last goodbye. I turned my back and looked off into nowhere.
This job is a privilege but it is humbling and painful sometimes. I am comforted knowing that regardless of the outcomes, I do what I do with empathy and love as the only fuel.
I called to check in on Glen Yesterday, and he is doing his best. In a week I will drop off a clay paw print and the ashes.