July 17, 2009

Jack Swenson

Stopping for Death

The old veterinarian picked up the phone. "Earl!" he bellowed. "What's up? Aw, I got cancer. How are you?" His wife punched the pillow on his hospital bed and helped him sit up. "Yes, yes, she's here," the doctor said. He covered the speaker on the phone with one of his huge hands and spoke to his wife. "Earl says hi," he said.

Mavis shook her head. Her thoughts were a jumble of self pity and concern. Why does he insist it's no big deal, she wondered?

And now he was back in the hospital, and when she asked the doctors, they just stared at their shoes. Medical people hated to admit that there was nothing more they could do.

When they had first heard the news, she had cried. He patted her hand and said that he would be fine. Alive or dead, he said, he'd be all right.

She sighed. Alive or dead, she'd be okay, too, she supposed. They had lived separate lives. He was never home. The animals came first. He explained it to her: that's what he did. That's who he was. So where was she on his list? Second? Third? After he retired, he was always tearing off to save the world.

She thought half-seriously about having that carved on his tombstone: "He was never home."

At the memorial service, an old medical school friend told the story about the doctor's final moments. He died at home. A client came to see him and brought her dog and cat because she thought he would like that. He did, too. When the dog, a big, old, happy golden retriever, jumped on his bed, Ted smiled and cupped the dog's face with his hands. Then his practiced fingers curled back the dog's lips, and with half-closed eyes, the old vet examined the animal's teeth.

"He was a vet to the end," the friend said. An hour later he was gone. They found him with the cat curled up on the bed at his side.


Jack Swenson is a teacher and writer who lives in sunny California. He writes flash and micro fiction. He also teaches a class at a local senior center and works around the house and yard when he has to.

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