I was working at my first job after graduating from vet school, when I walked into the clinic one morning to have the support staff greet me with the news that a patient we had been treating in the hospital overnight, had died. They had found the patient dead in the cage, and in a normal expected fashion, they had bagged the body and placed it within our freezer. The patient was actually being cared for by another DVM, who also happened to be the owner of the hospital, and thus, I did not know that much about the case or what had been discussed with the owner previously.
I did, however, know the owner of the hospital. I knew that he never referred cases under any circumstance. It did not matter if we did not have the knowledge or expertise or staff to diagnose or treat or care for a patient, none of that mattered, as long as the hospital generated more revenue. Truth was irrelevant and admitting you did not know to a customer was intolerable because that might shake the confidence of the client, as well as their pyramid of friends, and that could lead to a fracture in the image of the persona of the all-knowing, well-starched, dapper-attired, dark-navy-blue-tie-expertly-knotted, spotless-white-lab-jacket-wearing, ear-to-ear-smiling, best-buddy, poster-child of a doctor that has been sold on the TV as to what a real doctor looks like since its invention. Fracturing such a thing, again, might ultimately result in fracturing client confidence and that could reduce the hospitals revenue by one to two cents a day; this was in direct violation of the prime directive of Dr Super-Smiley Face AKA Mr. Ken Doll Clean.
From the peripheries of the event that I seem to partially recall, I had not worked the day before at the hospital and I had no previous contact or counsel with the owner. It seems logical that Dr Super-Smiley Face would have spoken to me that day on the phone to round me about the case, and honestly, perhaps he did. I don’t remember such, but I can’t definitively say it didn’t happen. Regardless, I do recall the death of the patient being an unexpected event that caught me off guard and ill prepared to offer a complete and satisfactory explanation to the owner. Death is an intimate subject, not as alien or terrifying as many perceive, but it requires respect, and trust, association and perspective, to understand its appearance and foster its acceptance, especially when it is sudden. Some respect death, others prefer to lie about it, as they do about everything else.
So, the first thing I do, once the staff updates me on everything, is pick up the phone and call Mr. Ken Doll Clean. I explain that his patient died overnight and ask him how he would prefer that I handle the situation. He replied, “Go ahead and call the owner. Tell them that Jack is critical and it looks like he will pass any second now. No dogs die alone, overnight in the hospital. People don’t want hear that.” And I finish the unspoken remainder of that sentence as I know it exists in his mind, “….it isn’t good for business.” The ever-constant aura of his words always suggesting his full meaning, but with synchronicity, he would ruthlessly maintain a partial silence, a partial absence of verbal conformation, so plausible deniability always…always remained. Then his spoken words returned. “Wait a minute after that phone call is over, and then call them back, and explain that Jack finally passed. Then, you can discuss the aftercare with them and give them their final bill.” His instructions were fairly nauseating to me. I did not really approve of Dr Super-Smiley Faces distortion of the events, and I knew that that distortion had nothing to do with mercy or a profound sensitivity to the owner’s emotional state. It all related to his false image of himself, his clinic, and his medicine. But, I was his employee and he had given me specific instructions of what to do. So, as many souls do, I did. I chose a cowards excuse to execute a lie.
I punched the tones for the phone number listed in the client’s record and waited with a mild dread and a greater guilt for the owner to answer. Almost immediately, a click heard over the line was followed up with a concerned “Hello.”
“Hello Mrs. Smith, this is Dr Cribb from Super-Smiley Face Animal Hospital. I am Dr Super-Smiley Faces’ associate and I am sorry, but I have some bad news for you about Jack. His condition significantly deteriorated overnight and right now he is critical and I believe he may pass at any time. I don’t believe that anything can be done further to change his—.”
“I’ll be right over,” leveled emotionally sound, direct, and driven in purpose, as to what she must do. The receiver of her phone was the period at the end of her response. It was dotted quickly, without anger, but also without hesitation or fluff, awaiting some other detail that she knew would ultimately be irrelevant.
“I—.” But she was gone, and instantly, I felt like karma had hauled off and just kicked me full force in the balls. “Holy shit…holy fracking shit…grab Jack…get his ass out of the damn freezer now and get him on this table…how long has he been in the freezer?…..was he stiff when you found him in the cage?….unfracking believable…holy shit..why does this kinda shit always happen to me..how in the hell…..move people….move.” I was talking to every staff member within ear shot…all of them at once. “Someone get the damn hair dryer and warm Jack’s ass up. Do whatever you can to get him as warm as possible before the owner gets here.”
And then Jack is on the table, stiff as dead is, and I am employing all my strength to massage the rigor out of him. It is not the easiest task imaginable; stabilizing one joint, so another can be forced out of its static realm, all in the hope that the muscle still retains enough calcium and elasticity to yield and soften anew. I dance awkwardly with Jack’s corpse as he slides back and forth across the table, seemingly predicting and thwarting, my every move….trust me, most corpses are hell-bent on vehemently defying any spoken or non-spoken proposal proffered by the living that petitions for their cooperation in any manner whatsoever. As I move from shoulder to hip to neck, and to this, that and the other, a hair dryer, heaving its hot breath, swarms the tangling embrace of the premortem and postmortem appendages. Simultaneously, warm water is also syringed by an assistant into Jack’s still mouth without the normal overriding concern and caution for possible aspiration, and a “loosening of the tongue” takes on a totally different meaning from what is normally perceived by its utterance. Finally, our last act of preparation is to wrap a thick blanket, one that has been expediently warmed in a clothes dryer, around Jack’s earth to earth and dust to dust. We leave only his head exposed for the owners to view.
Mrs. Smith arrives at the hospital quickly…too quickly for my comfort, and accompanying her is her little boy. The support staff slowly walks her to the treatment room where I stand next to Jack. She looks at me; really looks at me, like most cannot, as she crosses the threshold to enter the room. Before I know it, the words are erupting from my mouth, “I am sorry Mrs. Smith, Jack passed right after our phone conversation ended. I wish we could have done more for him…..and more for you, but sometimes, it isn’t meant to be. Sometimes, nothing is good enough.” And I become aware of a growing unease that lurks just out of my sight. Am I trying to tell her how sorry I am for having lied to her… or am I simply, just a piece of shit, trying to cover my ass with words that are supposed to mean something… doubling down on insult and filth by trying to make myself feel better in the process? I want her to understand. I want her to see what I really think…who I really am…that I am different than that bastard, Dr Super-Smiley Face. I want to somehow let it slip that I would have never lied to her…I would not have mislead her…. it is his fault… his damn fault. I have to have a job for Christ’s sake…what the hell was I suppose to do…..what the hell, was I suppose to do?… but I know…I fracking know what I should have done… and the silent palliative debate that my mind is choosing to focus upon at present is truly nothing more than an elaborate distraction. Holding her sons hand, she walks up to the table upon which Jack’s body resides. The staff then helps her situate her son on a sturdy stool next to Jack’s head. With one arm wrapped around her child, she takes her free hand and caresses Jack’s head, ears, and neck. She kisses the side of his face and runs her feminine fingers through the little tendrils of his hair that flow this way and that. The son mimics her ever so slightly, but for the most part he looks dazed and lost. This grieving of the Smith family for poor Jack is worthy of an uncommon respect…it is more devout by far than most. It makes me feel like even more of an ass.
Mrs. Smith finally turns to me and says, “He seems very cold to me…very, very cold.” And being the committed coward I am, I respond, “He must have been very sick last night. I am guessing he was in shock for a few hours which would plummet his body temperature. He was very cold when we got here this morning.” It doesn’t matter what I say though, because I can tell…just tell…. that she knows that I am lying. She can see it and I don’t have the strength for further diversion. I stand there and let her eyes condemn me of the truth. Words may not be employed because of the web I have woven, but her eyes are enough…her eyes that reflect knowledge and truth and the detection of a liar.
Before leaving Dr Super-Smiley Faces hospital, Mrs. Smith takes a cutting from one of Jack’s wispy tendrils of fur. She wields the scissors slowly with melancholy, and then, collects each strand with the greatest care before finally placing them all in a small baggie. That was the last I ever saw of her and no further words of accusation or doubt or simple questioning, pertaining to the event, were ever spoken.
I hated Dr Super-Smiley Face after that unexpected dance with Jack. I hated him with a passionate, visceral, intense, obsessive hate that made me want to expose the entire charade of his total existence. I wanted to punch him in the face or choke him to the brink of asphyxiation; Hulk smash. I imagined forcing him to own up to every single lie that he had ever uttered or implied, and then baptizing him in the” light” of the undeniable awareness of what a worthless, pitiful, parasitic creature he was. I had seen his tactics, maneuvers, and deceptions deployed mercilessly, on too many occasions to count. But now, I had been pulled into his inner circle. I had been “forced” into being a conspirator as well. He was somehow converting me… indoctrinating me with his rationalized application of lies and deceit. I wanted to make him pay for anyone who had ever lied to or deceived anyone else in the history of time itself. I saw Mrs. Smith sit across that table and become my wife. I saw her son become my son. I saw Jack, my dog, sitting cold upon the table, and I saw a mirror…a mirror that I slowly raised until I was finally able to look directly into my own eyes.
I hated Dr. Super-Smiley Face with every fiber of my being, but at that moment, I realized that I hated someone more. There was one person that I detested even more than that son of a bitch. He was an enabler, and he was making his own excuses for not having done the right thing, and he was blaming Mr. Ken Doll Clean for all of it. That jackass was looking right back at me in that damn mirror.