Despite the leash that was clipped onto her collar and kept her from straying too far– or rather, too close to other dogs– I knelt down beside her in the lobby and pleaded, soothingly, quietly, "Stay, stay, stay. Be a good girl, good girl, stay, please stay…" She looked at me with those beautiful, almond-shaped eyes and wagged her tail placidly and licked me.
Less than half-an-hour later, I would stand over her as she lay on the examining table (all 85 pounds of her), burying my face in her shaggy body and weeping uncontrollably, fingers tangled desperately in her fur, trying to hold onto something that was no longer allowed to be mine. I could feel her chest slowly rise and fall beneath my head, each movement reassuring me that she was still alive, each movement warning me that her end was ever nearer.
This is Sassafrass, my beautiful Australian Shepherd/Labrador Retriever mix, my first baby girl. I found her– or did she find me?– in the late summer of 2002, and I brought her home and proclaimed her mine, even though I was getting ready to go back to college and I would be living in a small condo with my sister, who already had a dog of her own. I didn’t care– this dog had crawled whimpering into my heart, and in a short amount of time, she would win over the endlessly forgiving love of the rest of my family.
Sassa grew up and proved herself both intelligent and sweet. She had a loving disposition toward people and a curious disposition toward other animals– cats in particular. She had a passion for cats and was forever trying to corner one. The sight alone of a cat would send her into joyful convulsions, her whole body wiggling and trembling in anticipation, nearly asphyxiating herself from hysterically sniffing her way toward the feline target. The cats always evaded her pursuit, but I know had she ever gotten one to stay put, the only way she would have killed it would have been by licking it to death.
She eventually ended up at my parents’ house, where she quickly established herself as the alpha dog. Though she made it clear that she reigned supreme, her dominance did not equivocate violence, and though she growled if another dog came near her while she was eating, if we ever tried to remove the treat or toy or meal, we would meet no resistance from her. Indeed, one of her more irritating qualities was her slack jaw– after eating or drinking, she would leave trails of food or water as she moved away from the dish.
In time, however, she changed. Not entirely, but– enough, as though one day, she simply woke up and something in her snapped. She would growl menacingly, entirely unprovoked, and then the growls led to attacks, and always out of the blue. The first time she drew blood, my mother debated whether to put Sassa to sleep to avoid further attacks, but her love for Sass wouldn’t allow such a drastic measure. We thought it was entirely behavioral and thereby cureable, and we resolved to handle the situation in a more positive way.
Throughout the next year, there were a few more incidents, some minor, some alarming. When we bought the house in San Diego, it was decided that Sass would move down there to live with my sister and her dogs, with whom Sassa enjoyed playing. We thought it was just my mother’s dogs that set her off, that she would be fine once separated from them.
She adapted easily to the San Diego house and we seemed to have been proven right– until she began attacking my sister’s dogs, too. The epsiodes were still intermittent, still unprovoked, still painfully difficult for us to understand. Cassie, whom Sassa had taken in as her own when the former was just a puppy, took to hiding under the bed in fear of Sassa’s presence.
Just this weekend, my sister drove up to Vegas with her crew of four dogs in order to drop off Cassie, who needed a surgical procedure which was far less expensive here than it was in California.
Early Saturday morning, Sassa attacked without warning, advancing on my mother’s oldest and favorite dog. The resulting injuries were blood and a dislocated eye, which the vets could not save and had to remove.
And though it broke my mother’s heart to accept it, she knew, right away, what had to be done. And as soon as I heard about the attack, I knew, as well.
About 26 hours after the attack, my mother and my sister put Sassa in the car and drove to the animal hospital. I took off from Summerlin and met them there. At approximately 10:30 a.m., an assistant came out and took us into the waiting room. We waited, and in the silence, I remembered her life. I remembered teaching her to sit using her then-favorite treat, a cow hoof. I remembered how I was the only one who could ever make her laugh, rolling her onto her back and straddling her, shaking my head and my hair in her face while rubbing her belly. I remembered how she liked to stand between my legs. I remembered coming home from school to the enthusiastic wags of her plumy tail. And amidst all the memories, the tears began slipping down my cheeks.
The doctor came in, somber and apologetic. I found myself wishing he were cold and distant, wishing he didn’t understand how hard this was because his sadness only contributed to the unbearable pain in my chest. He explained the process and had us get Sassa to lie on top of the examining table. She willingly sat and watched as the vet shaved her front paw, where he would inject the first round of anaesthesia.
My hands never left her after getting her on top of that table. The first injection over, I tightened my hold on her, unable to believe this was it and at the same time, all too aware of the reality of the situation.
As the drowsiness began to hit, she lay down on the table, rolling onto her side. It was then that I buried myself in her fur, whispering, over and over again, "Good girl, good girl, good girl my baby Sassa." I kissed her repeatedly, murmuring in her ear that I loved her. My mother and sister stood on either side of me and I could hear them crying, and I felt selfish for throwing myself on top of Sass and making her less accessible to them, but I couldn’t bring myself to move. I couldn’t let go.
I held on for dear life, and then– and then– in the span of a breathless second, she was gone. The doctor pronounced the end, but it wasn’t until they asked if I wanted some time alone with her that I truly lost it and the sobs broke loose. Everyone left the room, and I remained standing at the table, cradling Sassa’s motionless body.
I kissed her face, her cheek, the top of her nose, and stroked her head and ran my fingers through her wavy black coat. I continued to tell her I loved her, hoping she had heard me before and hadn’t died thinking I didn’t, hoping she could hear me still and knew that I always will. Hoping she had heard my mother tearfully explain: "I’m doing this because I love you. I don’t want it to get to the point where I hate you."
I don’t know how I was able to tear myself away, to pry my fingers off her body and walk away. Somehow, I did. I’m still trying to convince myself that what I left in that room, was not my dog, that it was just her body and all the love and life and joy and wonder that was at her core, is in a better place. Is in a better body that doesn’t have such a devastating chemical imbalance.
I don’t always believe in God or heaven, but right now, the only way I can begin to cope is by believing that I’ll be reunited with her someday, that there is a god who is understanding enough to forgive her all her trespasses and remember all in her that was good, who will grant her entrance into everlasting grace.
There are moments now when I am so grateful for Gracie, who quietly endures my tears and rests her head and paws in my lap, patiently waiting for me to pull myself together while letting me mourn. But there are also moments when her existence in my life heightens my pain, because in the process of loving her, I remember loving Sass. As well, there are moments when I feel guilty for loving Gracie, as though letting another dog into my heart somehow pushes Sassa out.
Oh, my Sassa. I love you, baby girl. Be good for me, wherever you are.