Last Wednesday night was supposed to be our last baby class. But we never made it there - not for our lack of trying. We left early; I had wanted to stop at Taco Bell for my bean burrito, one of the few things I was able to eat during the first trimester that the idea of didn't make me even more nauseated than I already was.
So we drove up Cedar Avenue, a busy street made even busier in rush hour traffic. Despite that, the traffic was moving at a good clip. Cedar Avenue is a crazy road, especially as you get closer into the inner city of South Minneapolis. The lanes are narrow, people are free to park on the side, drivers are constantly pulling in and out from the curb, changing lanes, cutting in front of each other, the end result being a tenuous automotive dance that is a volatile ride at best, and a cringe-inducing, hair-raising, obscenity-screaming trip at its worst.
Of all the times I've traveled this road, I wondered when it might be our turn.
Wednesday night it was.
We had just passed through the green lights on 35th, moving at a good clip, and coming up and passing a parked car on my right. Because I was in the passenger side I saw it first. A streak of brown and black brindle. A glimmer of silver, and a bright red ribbon of leash. I didn't realize until Matt told me later how much I had scared him when I screamed, "No!" I hadn't known I said it out loud; the voice in my head screamed it, and the voice in my head was for one of the few times the exact same voice that came out of my mouth.
I knew the dog wasn't going to make it.
Even in the few thousandths of a second that I saw him disappear in front of the car, I prayed he might make it past us. A hundredth of a second. A tenth of a second. He was almost there, more than halfway past us. I craned up in my seat to find him, only to hear the sickening clunk and painful yelp as he reappeared on the left side. Matt had hit the breaks but it wasn't enough.
We'd hit him.
He somersaulted over into the next lane where a silver car hit him again and dragged him underneath the carriage. I could not have said the make or model of the car, or the people in it. I could only see the dog being rolled and twirled and dragged and yelping while the car passed over him.
All this is happening and Matt is saying, "Oh my God! Oh my God!"
I am screaming, "Stop! Pull over! Pull over! You have to stop!" I can hear the sound of my voice and it is so commanding that even I am startled by it.
Thankfully, Matt has the presence of mind to be careful and find a spot within a few feet and pulls over to the curb. I'm already getting out of the car, but he says, "Be careful!" I think that he thinks I have lost my head, so I say, "I know." but I feel like a robot now; I'm moving deliberately down the sidewalk and stand on the berm.
The dog is lying on the far side of the street. Cars have stopped, but I notice that the silver car has disappeared. I want to say it was a Honda Civic but I couldn't be sure. I look down the road, hoping I'm mistaken, maybe they did stop. Some cars are now inching around the dog; he is on his side, his left front leg sticking straight out and trembling.
People have come out of the house from the gate where the dog had run from. There was a chain link fence around the front yard, but the gate was open. Several older kids run down onto the sidewalk. A young man in his late teens or early twenties is the first person to go into the street. He runs over and stands over him, he is just staring at him, and I wonder if it is his dog.
A woman says, "What happened? Did you see what happened?"
Even then, faced with her question I feel guilty. Matt tells her what happened. "I hit him first," he admits and I feel so bad for him to hear him say it. She didn't seem to blame us. "He just shot out into the street," someone else says. By now, other people have filtered out onto the sidewalk. "Those dogs," a woman says, shaking her head. "They just want to run."
I keep looking at the man in the street. He is still just standing there. He doesn't seem to know what to do. "He's losing blood!" he yells to nobody.
"Does someone have a blanket?" I ask, but no one answers me.
"Call the ambulance!" I hear someone say, and I want to tell them that the ambulance is not coming, no matter if they call. The ambulance will not come for a dog. But I can't say this to them. I watch the dog, he is not moving anymore.
"He's still breathing!" the man says. "He's bleeding!"
I decide that he is going to keep standing there. But I just can't keep standing there. "Matt, get the blanket from the trunk." I keep an old navy blue micro-fleece blanket in the trunk in case of winter emergencies. Matt opens the trunk and I grab the blanket. "We can use this," I say and he takes it from me. "Stay there," he tells me.
Matt walks across the street and drapes the dog with the blanket. Still they don't move. I think we need to get the dog out of the street and I wait until a woman in a truck waves me across. I walk over and the first thing I notice is the blood. It is not what I expected. I don't know what I expected. It's darker, more viscous than I thought blood was. It looks like cherry pie filling and it has streamed from the dog's nose and mouth across the blacktop. I bend down; his eyes are slightly open, and I don't know if he's even alive. "We need to move him out of the street," I hear myself say.
Together, the three of us pick him up; he is heavier than I thought. I'm holding his front shoulders and his head hangs down and drips blood onto my black sandals as we walk across the street. We lay him down on the side berm and another man appears with a large quilt and we lay the dog on it and try to wrap him in the blankets. "We should keep him warm," the man says.
I put my hand under the dog's ribs and I feel a very soft heartbeat, but it's there. "I feel his heart," I say. "It's very faint."
A young girl about nine asks, "Where's his heart?"
I don't answer, but I think, "His heart is under his ribcage on the left side. Just like yours."
The man looks at me over his dog. Our faces are only a foot apart. He stares at me, wondering at my words. "What? Faint? What?"
"It's very faint," I repeat. I know there is nothing I can do. I feel so useless and pathetic.
I'm holding the dog's left paw in my left hand, my right hand on his ribcage. "I'm so sorry," I tell the man and then he puts his head down. He does not look up at me again, and I think that his grief is so much that he can't bear to have anyone see his face. My words disgust me; that phrase disgusts me. It is so lame. Of all the words and beautiful phrases and sentences in the English language and this is the only thing I can think to say.
I can't feel the dog's heartbeat anymore but I don't tell him that. I remembered something a first aid instructor told our class when someone asked, "What do you do when you can't do anything? When you know no one's coming and someone is dying? And there's nothing you can do."
I'll never forget what she said. "Sometimes all you can do is just sit there and hold their hand and help them to the other side."
That's what I was doing, clutching this dog's paw without even realizing that's what I was doing. His body was still warm and soft but nothing was there. After a moment I stood up. Still feeling like a robot, I awkwardly said we had to go. Other people had gathered around; some kids were sitting on the steps and crying into their hands. I knew I would be crying later. But right now I couldn't do it. The man didn't raise his head; he just bowed it over his dog and kept his hand on its head.
We left and drove up the street. I'm not hungry anymore; neither of us are. I tell Matt, "It's not your fault. There's nothing you could have done."
He doesn't say anything.
"If that other car hadn't hit him," I say, "he'd probably be okay. Maybe a broken leg. It was the other car," I tell him, desperate to believe it. And then I think, "The other car that didn't stop."
When he answers me I can hear the strain of guilt in his voice. "I knocked him off his feet." It is a definitive. It is a fact. It's the truth and there is no way to get around it.
"At least it wasn't a kid," I say and he sighs and answers me so quickly that I know he is thinking the same thing. "I know," he breathes.
We stop to get tacos and burritos even though neither of us feel like it. We look at the front of the car. There is a small dent on the right side, a piece where the bumper separated and Matt pushes it back in. A little piece of cracked plastic falls on the ground and I pick it up.
When we come back out the car won't start. It takes three tries and then we wonder what happened. Something got knocked loose; a glitch in the computer system. We decide to go home because we don't want to be stuck having to call a tow truck after class that night because of our car. We drive back a different way and when I get home I take a shower. In the shower I can cry and it doesn't matter because the sound is drowned out and the water rinses my eyes. I wash the blood off my feet.
I cried for that dog that didn't have a chance, for the fact that we left early and had we been a few seconds later or earlier it wouldn't have happened. I cried that the other car didn't stop, that some people just don't give a shit, and that there isn't a damn thing I can do about it.
I cried for my own dog that died when I was 21 and remembered how I promised I would never let myself love anything that much again. I cried about the little toddler I saw in Taco Bell with dirty bare feet as her mother hollered at her to hurry up and wondered what kind of life she could possibly have. I cried that my husband felt responsible for what happened and I couldn't change it.
I cried because I felt the baby kick and elbow inside me and knew that I couldn't protect her. I could baby-proof the house, bumper the sharp corners and hide the bleach, I could make sure she wore a bike helmet, teach her to swim, to stop, drop, and roll, to always look both ways. But deep down I knew that this protection was all an illusion, and I know I will forever walk around slightly holding my breath, my heart in my throat, wondering. There is this idea that if we do everything right the unthinkable can't happen. But it does happen. It happens everyday.
I have often exercised this line of magical thinking, in that if I ponder every horrible possibility then they won't come true. That they can't come true. Because it's always when you least expect it, and I felt safe in knowledge that it's only the things I haven't thought of, and I'll let my mind go there, all the way there as some kind of sick safety net. If I can imagine it then it can't happen. I know it's not true but it always made me feel better to believe it. It made me feel prepared. It made me think I could handle anything that happened.
My magical thinking is gone.