Fiction by Gerald Kamens
The Daisy Chain
Charlie's nearly blind now, moving slower than usual, as we take our last family walk with him, in the woods near our home. Liz, Billy, and me.
The lymphoma's spread rapidly through Charlie's body, they told my wife in town. We could take him to some specialist in another state, for chemotherapy to reduce the tumor. Then Charlie would live a while longer. Maybe days, weeks. But the expense, and the travelling twice a week, fifty miles each way. My wife grew up way out in the country, where dogs ran loose on the roads. When one got hit by a car or a truck, you felt sad for it, but eventually you got another dog. I told Liz that sounded hard-hearted to me, but then I never had a dog when I was a kid.
Charlie is down in the little creek now, splashing around. Billy has him on a long training leash, in case he's too weak to get up the steep bank by himself, but Charlie doesn't need our help. Even though his hind paws are dragging, he seems to be enjoying himself. Or so we imagine, although we've been told humans shouldn't go too far in fantasizing about what runs through a dog's mind.
I'm still unhappy about Liz saying we shouldn't try to prolong Charlie's time with us. If a human being's involved, she wouldn't just say it was God`s will. Or if it were me, for instance, that she'd just get another husband after a while -- but, of course, she probably would, get another man eventually, because life goes on.
Billy, our twenty-two year old son, stopped by from the city tonight. He always gets a kick out of roughhousing with Charlie. In fact, our dog is usually the first object of Billy's attention. They've been together since Billy was eleven. Although you wouldn't know it just by looking at him now, Billy has AIDS. He's starting treatments for his cancer. There's still practically no outward evidence of it. We're all hopeful that maybe there'll be a cure some day, soon enough to help Billy. But, tonight, it's easier to focus on Charlie's sickness.
The next morning, Liz calls me at work and says it's time. It's our twenty-fourth wedding anniversary that day, and we'd talked earlier about going out to a nice restaurant. Instead, I come home early, because the veterinary center closes at seven. Liz and I, Leah, and Billy all drive down there with Charlie. Leah, our daughter, wants to go in the car with us because she remembers when Charlie was a pup, the night we first got him, and he sat on her lap in the back of the car, with Billy next to her. Billy reminds her that Charlie had thrown up on her during that first trip. When we get to the vet, Leah says she's going to stay in the car.
The rest of us squeeze into the back room, solemnly and hesitantly, behind Dr. Casco, the lady vet. We kneel on the floor around Charlie, reaching out to him, our hands on different parts of his body. I touch his back, running my finger along his spine. Billy holds Charlie's paw. I wonder what he's thinking as he watches the dog's labored breathing.
Liz is crying and talking to Charlie in a low voice. She's made a little chain of yellow flowers, daisies from our back garden, and puts it around Charlie's neck. Our dying dog lies there, panting quietly. Leah comes in after all, and sits down cross-legged. We make room for her so she can put her hand on Charlie. She touches one of Charlie's back paws, but is looking mostly, with lowered eyes, at her brother. Then Dr. Casco asks if we're ready. Then she injects Charlie with a sedative. After a minute, she gives him the chemical that makes him stop breathing almost instantly.
The veterinarian goes out of the room, promising to leave the daisy chain on Charlie and telling us to come out when we're ready. We're all still laying hands on our dog, although we know we can't bring him back to life. Billy looks very sad. Liz is trying to smile. She says she can picture Charlie right now frisking about some green field of Heaven, wearing his loop of flowers, his lameness gone, off-leash forever. Leah makes a face at that, and then begins to sob. Then so does Liz, a flood. The rest of us fall silent, and hold on to Charlie as long as we can.
The next day, Saturday morning, Leah is at the library doing research, and Billy's gone back to the apartment he shares with a friend in the city. Liz is looking at a vase with some of the same flowers in it that she'd used to make Charlie's daisy chain. She turns to me and says she thinks Charlie may have died to take away Billy's illness. I look at her, uncomprehending.
"I know a woman who had a brain tumor," Liz says to me. "Inoperable. Then her cat got something very similar. After her cat died, the woman's tumor disappeared by itself. She has proof. I mean maybe Charlie sacrificed himself, so he could take on Billy's sickness, take it away with him. It's possible, isn't it?," she asks, facing the yellow daisies again. Then she bursts into tears again, and I try to fight off my own tears and the feeling of being helpless to ease her anguish.
There's still a lot I don't understand about my own flesh and blood. About how kids like Billy can change so much. And about his disease. And about Liz and Charlie. Finally I go over and put my hand on her shoulder, and just hold on to her, pondering the many barters and bargainings each of us is forced to make every day, just to get through our lives on this earth.
Gerald Kamens has worked in a mental hospital, the White House, the U.S. Senate, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Most of his recent works are children's stories, essays, and short plays. His last acting role was in Chekhov’s The Seagull. He lives with his wife in Falls Church, Virginia.