Riley and I had some house chores to do today, and when we got to the Vet's place to pick up his special food he decided to wait in the car for this stop. I'm glad he did, because when I walked in after a moment I realised that I had inadvertently arrived at a very difficult time for the older couple in the waiting room.
I went to the display of leashes and tried to be invisible while the man took care of a very hefty bill. The woman on the bench was also trying to be invisible, but after a few seconds she started shaking, and I realised that she was sobbing, and trying not to make any noise. Her face was utterly collapsed in grief, and her hands, her arms, her back were all shuddering. I couldn't stand by and see that pain and do nothing. I could feel my own chest, my own guts cramping in empathy. I had a moment of hesitation about what would be polite, but this was beyond the realms of polite, I could not pretend that this was not happening. So I just sat next to her and put my hand on her back with my nearest arm, and let myself feel with her.
This could have been me last month if things had gone differently with Riley. She could barely breathe. Her husband was handed a dense, heavy black plastic bag, and he could barely see, although he was trying to hold himself together, he couldn't talk. It was the vet who called the woman, "Come on Mary, time to go." and she could not leave that bench. She was trapped in the moment of realisation that nothing they had done this morning could save their beloved, and she would be going home to a funeral, not to a recuperation. I sat with her through that horrible, horrible moment, and I wept too. I wept for her pain, and for their grief and for the loss of that precious life, and for the weary voice of the vet and for the gratitude I have that Riley is still alive.
They left in a slow, agonised stumble.
The assistant apologised to me "that you shouldn't have had to see that", but what had I seen? Nothing bad I thought. I had seen love, love caught in grief, but love nonetheless. I took a tissue from the box on the counter and caught the tears. A deep breath helped me to come back to my self, and the reason I was there - for love alive, waiting in the car and in need of biscuits.
"No problem" I replied, "its all part of the job, isn't it?"
"Yes." She said relieved, for the reality of being a vet's assistant is littered with moments like this but people like to think that it is all birthing kittens and the heroic saving of lives. "Sometimes there's just nothing we can do." She said, and it wasn't an excuse, it just was.
Riley was waiting eagerly for me when I returned to the car, and he had been happily oblivious of the black bag carried tenderly past him. I thought of that couple, laying the bag on the back seat of their car, and I hoped that they didn't have far to go before they could be safely off the road.
We backed out of the carpark and re-entered the world, and there they were, still parked on the side, and we caught each other's eyes, Mary and I, and she raised her hand to me, and I to her.