My father used to drown family dogs in the lake on our property. When the dog would get too old, beyond its years of usefulness, he would take it on one last walk across the fields.
He was not a cruel or punitive man; when asked, my father would explain that the reason he did what he did was that “the old boy’s taking up space and don’t do nothin’ for us anymore” and “we only got so much and can’t afford to waste a thing” and “it’s better to put it out of its misery.”
“If we got a new puppy, what would it eat? Where would it sleep?” He’d say.
Rationale aside, I never slept well the night after a drowning.
Every drowning was the same, almost ritualistic. Looking the elderly animal in the eye, with one last pat on the head he’s say gruffly, “Thanks for everything. See you on the other side.” Then he’d straighten up, slide the cinder block looped around its neck into the lake, and watch as it dragged the aging dog downward. This method ensured a swift and definitive death, the dog unable to release even a whimper. In a moment the ripples on the lake would subside and only the rapidly decreasing bubbles would give any sign that something had happened.
I shuddered to imagine our past pets panting down at the bottom of the lake, pacing in their watery grave, waiting for him. The other side haunted my dreams for months after the first time he forced me to join him.
“You shouldn’t get so attached,” He’d told me that day at the lake, finding me a hundred yards away crying in the weeds. Unable to see my father as anything other than a role model, I vowed one day to become as hardened and pragmatic as he.
We had not had a good year. Twenty years from that first day at the lake I had taken over the family farm, proving to be the most responsible of my siblings. I inherited the farm and the house and my father, who by then was arthritic and prone to forgetfulness. He’d shuffle from one room to another, unable to walk far without needing to rest. It was hard to watch but my mind was preoccupied.
Not enough water, too much sun, too much heat. It was all bad. Maybe we hadn’t planted the right crops this year. My wife had announced the previous evening that I should prepare myself for our first child and though I’d tried, I couldn’t quell my dread. We simply could not afford a new addition to the family at this time.
All I could think about was the lake and settled on the idea that this must be what it feels like to be dragged under water without hope, without a chance. I thought of those new puppies, young and small and weak, happy to be held, to be loved. When I looked at my hands, rough and worn from labor, I wondered how it would feel to have hands that killed, hands that decided the fate of another living thing.
On a sunny morning in October, with nothing to do but stare miserably out across the stretches of brown land, I helped my father into a jacket with the intention of walking the perimeter of the farm to survey the latest storm damage.
“It’ll be nice for you to have a son to help out around here,” He said, “It’s hard to go at it alone.”
“It might be a girl,” I replied
“Hope for a son.” He said, nodding, “But you just pray that he’s strong. Stronger’n you.” I stopped short, searching the hardened lines on his face for any indication that he was joking, waiting for a smile I knew wouldn’t appear.
He must have known I was upset, for after a moment of silence he simply chuckled and pointed a gnarled hand back away from the lake, “Son, don’t you remember? You were never realistic, always too soft. I found you cryin’ over there, sad about some old dog destined to die anyway.”
We were right at the edge of the creaking dock now. With the mention of that first drowning, my old childhood fear bubbled up. Watching the water slowly ripple in the wind, I imagined canine skulls littering the bottom, picked clean.
“From that moment I knew you’d never be strong enough to do the right thing.” My father said. Just last month he had needed me to drive him to the emergency room after falling down the stairs. I hired help for the day to harvest, costing me money I did not have. The hospital bill still lay on the kitchen table, unpaid.
Not strong enough?
“I could do it now,” I said to him, “If I had to, I could do it now.”
“No,” He sighed, “You couldn’t then and you couldn’t now.”
We stood there for a few moments. I put my hand on his shoulder, calloused skin against soft brown leather, warmed by the weak sun. It was my turn to break the silence. I thought of our new baby, the new arrival, a bundle of hope and promise.
With a movement as small and simple as a shrug, I pushed my elderly father off the dock and into the water, savoring that moment of brief calm before his body broke the barrier. Concerned he would resurface on the wrong side, I crouched down and, locating his head, pushed down to keep it below the wavering surface. Despite what he said, I had grown strong in the past twenty years and the effort was minimal.
When the bubbles breaking the surface finally subsided, I leaned back. I could see nothing below the murky water and smiled as I imagined a hoard of patient skeletons, tails wagging as they greeted their long-absent owner finally coming to greet them on the other side.