When you lay awake in bed, with the darkness pressing in on your eyes and the silence pressing against your eardrums—as you wait for sleep to find you and help you forget oh, so many things—your mind starts to wander.
I was too exhausted to sleep. Too worn out to slip into relaxation, and too weak to push away the crowding thoughts and fears that I refuse to acknowledge in daylight.
A heavy sigh came from another part of the bed: three small, furry bodies were sleeping deeply by my side. I slid down the mattress and stretched out my toes to pet Runty’s back with my foot—the only part of him I could reach. His spine was protruding—it was no longer covered by the layers of fat he’d accumulated from years of dog food, table scraps, and stolen cat food.
Every few months he does this: the seasons change, his allergies flare, and he starts to scratch and chew himself into a hairless, bony mess. Eventually—after numerous baths, medications, and high-fat foods, he bounces back. His fur gets thick again, and small rolls of fat form around his neck and shoulders—a good sign for his breed. But lately, it hasn’t just been when the seasons change. And this time, I don’t know if he’s going to be able to bounce back.
I sit up and lean across the bed, wrapping my arms around him as he grunts quietly with each exhale—the closest thing to a dog purr I’ve ever heard. He’s smelly—I wish I could say I was used to it by now, but I’m not—I try to ignore it, try to bury my face in the thicker parts of his fur, listening to his contentment. I ignore his gradually raising front leg as he begins shameless pleas for belly scratches. His stomach is scabbed, and raw with scratching.
Quicker than I’d like, my mind starts to wander, finding tiny cracks in my self-resolve not to think, and chipping away at them with tiny questions of growing consequence…
“Would I know when it was time to let him go? Would I make the right decision, and end it when he was obviously in a pain I could not fix? Would I carry him to the vet (it would seem pretty cruel to make him walk his own Green Mile)? Then again, would it be good for him? Would he enjoy sniffing the grass, feeling the fresh air on his face one last time?”
I make a conscious effort to put those questions aside. It’s not time for that, now. He is here, with me—alive—and laying his head across my forearm, breathing in my scent, listening to the soft snores of the cat nearby—feeling warm, secure, and safe. But my mind continued to wander, refusing to let me stay there with him…
“Would I lift him up and set him on top of that cold, steel table? Stan died that way: feeling the sterile cold seep up through the towel the vets had wrapped him in—presumably to keep him warm, and easier to carry. No, I don’t want Runt to go like that. Stan didn’t deserve it. What, then? Would I sit on the floor, cradling him one last time in my lap, arms wrapped around him as they are now? Feeling his warm body go limp as the euthanasia took effect, letting the empty shell that once contained his warm spirit slide to the floor—dead weight, unresisting?”
Automated Negative Thoughts, is what my shrink calls them. A.N.T.s. Tiny, crawling ideas that infest every corner of your mind before you even realize they’ve arrived. I don’t know if they’re automated, so much as they are omnipresent: waiting for a trigger to launch them into motion. An allergic reaction to a foreign situation.
Facing these thoughts with logic is rarely effective. Telling yourself “You don’t know that will happen,” is almost always followed with “But it could!” and numerous, increasingly outlandish reasons why the worst possible outcome is also the most likely.
I pull away from Runt, laying back down on the bed. Wiping tears and day-old mascara across my face, I turn on the lamp that sits on my bedside table. I pop a couple ibuprofen to fight back the looming, post-cry headache, and retreat into the only real escape from myself I know: books.
As I reach across the bedside table and pick up The Amber Spyglass, I glance at my phone’s clock: 12:34. I hope this melancholy doesn’t last long: I have to be up for work in five hours. Sighing, I lean back against my pillows, open the book, and immerse myself in a world that is anything but my own.