Listen to this story, narrated by Gina Costagliola:
for roland, my heartdog
There was an incessant bumblebee buzzing in Kim’s ear. She couldn’t hear what the doctor was saying, even though this was the second time she’d asked him to repeat himself. She couldn’t seem to drag her eyes away from the cracked blue paint on the wall behind his head. Emma panted loudly, using her back paw to scratch her ear.
Kim shook her head. “It’s just a simple cough, I don’t understand.”
“Unfortunately, that’s sometimes the first thing owners notice. It indicates fluid is accumulating in her lungs.” His words were clinical, but he offered a small smile.
“But I googled,” Kim protested. “The internet said it was probably just collapsing trachea. Happens all the time in little dogs.”
The doctor stepped around the stainless steel exam table and gently pressed the leash into her hands. He smelled like rubbing alcohol and aftershave. This close, Kim could see that he’d missed a patch of hair at the notch where his neck met his jawbone. He continued. “I know. But Emma is very sick. We’ll start her on medications today to help, but these are realistically only stopgaps. The heart disease that causes congestive heart failure will be a terminal illness. The timetable is impossible to predict — but death is a certainty when you’re talking about congestive heart failure, not a possibility.” He kept talking, but the buzzing in her head ratcheted up and drowned out his voice.
Emma scrabbled against metal as the doctor lifted and placed her carefully on the tile floor. She looked up, mouth spread wide in a grin, floppy ears perked in excitement. She knew they were going home. The doctor — what was his name again? O’Sullivan? O’Brien? — pulled open a drawer to hand Kim a business card with rounded corners.
“You still have time, but it’s never too early to start thinking about options. Planning and preparing for death will help you make the best choices for the rest of Emma’s life. 2019 has seen a rise in in-home euthanasia providers, but here’s one I’ve worked with for years. I trust her implicitly. Give her a call, okay?”
The business card collected dust in the messy sprawl of the kitchen junk drawer. Then the day came that Emma didn’t lift her head from her paws at all, despite the dog food clattering into her empty bowl and the loud announcement of the mailman at the front door. Kim felt a cold fist clench around her heart.
“This isn’t fucking fair,” she announced, and Emma’s tail lifted once, twice at the sound of her voice. Kim bent down to stretch out beside her on the floor. She nuzzled her nose into the soft ruff of white fur around Emma’s neck. “This isn’t fucking fair at all.”
Kim dug the card out from the drawer later that evening. Emma sat beside her on the couch, her chin resting delicately on Kim’s thigh. Kim’s fingers caught in the notches of Emma’s spine; her beast had lost weight after she got sick. The overhead light cast shadows across the deep hollows of her eyes and muzzle. Kim’s fingers trembled as she dialed.
The feminine voice on the other side lilted comfortingly. “Elysium In-Home Pet Euthanasia, Percy speaking. How can I help you?”
Kim’s voice caught as she rubbed one of Emma’s ears between her fingers. “Hi. I…. I’m calling about my dog, Emma.” Hearing her name, Emma lifted her head and twisted to lick Kim’s hand. “She’s been sick. I think it might be time. Dr. O’Brien recommended you?”
“I’m so sorry to hear that,” Percy replied, and she sounded like she actually cared. Kim felt hot tears cascade down her cheeks as Percy continued. “Can you tell me a little bit about Emma?”
“She’s my old girl,” Kim began. “Almost 15. I got her my freshman year in college; she was half as big as my shoe. When I’d drive home to visit my parents on weekends, she’d stretch across my shoulders like a mink stole….”
By the time Kim was done, salt limned her cheeks but she was dry-eyed and calm. The appointment was set. She gathered a coughing Emma up and carried her to bed, settling her on a pillow before crawling in beside her. Kim fell asleep breathing in the familiar yeasty Frito scent of Emma’s paws.
The quiet rat-a-tat on the front door startled Kim, even though it was right on time. She balanced on her tiptoes to peer through the peephole. A tall woman stood on the front porch, her braided hair twisted around her head like a crown. A black bag was slung low on her hip. Kim pulled the door open.
“Hi.” Percy smiled warmly. “You must be Kim.”
Kim opened the door wider, afraid that speaking would lead to sobbing. Percy made a beeline for Emma on the couch, holding her empty hands palm-up for inspection. Emma sniffed thoroughly, then lifted her chin up, requesting scratches. Percy obliged.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you both,” she murmured. “I’ve heard so much about you, estimable Emma.” She bent to press her forehead fleetingly to Emma’s as Kim closed and locked the door.
“I can’t say I’m glad you’re here,” Kim managed, proffering a wobbly smile.
“You’re not the first person to say so,” Percy chuckled gently, still petting the dog. She sat back, balancing on the edge of the coffee table. The loose folds of her verdant dress settled and she rested the bag beside her feet. “Trust me, I get it. I know this wasn’t an easy decision, but it is the kindest. Emma deserves not to suffer.”
Kim settled herself on the floor between the couch and the table. She twined her fingers into Emma’s fur. She didn’t feel like she was making the right decision; she felt guilty. Instead of responding, she stared at the tiny golden wheat stalks embroidered onto Percy’s dress.
“We talked about the procedure on the phone, but I always like to walk families through it again, okay? Grief brain does a number on our memories.” Percy’s voice ebbed and flowed between them. “I’ll give Emma two shots. The first is a sedative, which causes euphoria. Have you ever had surgery before? Same drugs. She’ll be completely out of pain.”
“That’s good,” Kim croaked. “No pain.”
“Then second shot is an overdose of anesthesia. It’s just like going to sleep.”
Emma’s gaze moved calmly back and forth between them as they spoke. The conversation felt like it was made of cobwebs and lace.
“I’m going to draw up the medications now. Do you have any questions?”
Kim scrambled for an answer but couldn’t find solid footing inside her mind. She shook her head and Percy gifted her another encouraging smile. The sound of the black bag’s zipper ripped open the silence that settled between them.
Kim focused on Emma’s rib cage rising and falling disjointedly beneath her hand. Percy stared intensely down the length of her aquiline nose, concentrating as she drew up a viscous pink solution in the wide barrel of a clear syringe. Kim didn’t want to watch.
“The dog ate my homework.” Kim surprised herself as the words bubbled up unexpectedly. She laughed. “I defended my dissertation holding a notecard scored with visible teeth marks.” Her eyes filled with tears that almost spilled over.
“You were supposed to live forever, Emmabear. Or at least as long as I did. That was the deal.”
Percy’s practiced hands still danced through the medical supplies, but Kim could tell that she was listening closely.
“It’s not uncommon to wish your pups could stay with you forever.” Percy nodded knowingly as she wrapped a loop of sticky blue bandage around her fingers. “But they can’t quite live forever. Dog years versus human years makes that impossible. Seven to one is the exchange rate. You’d have to give up seven years of your life to make it so she could live another one.”
Kim’s fingers twitched as she counted out the math. “So, say I lived to eighty. Nearly five decades would give Emma another seven years?”
Percy nodded decisively. Kim swiped her nose against her sleeve. “It’d be worth it,” she answered simply. Fiercely. She brushed away stray tears with the heel of her palm. “If it meant I didn’t have to live without her. I’ve always been better at words than numbers, but I’m certain.”
All of Percy’s attention was suddenly focused on Kim, her hands clasped motionless in her lap. The mise en place of medical trimmings was halfway laid out across the coffee table. “Lots of people say that, but I get the feeling you’d actually follow through. Most people’s lives are a series of dogs. What makes Emma worth the rest of your life?”
“Because she’s my best friend,” Kim answered with a shrug. “Because she’s always happy to see me.” She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. “Because for some reason, she thinks I’m the best goddamn thing in the universe, so I have a responsibility to live up to her expectations.”
Kim watched, curious and slightly confused, as Percy’s lithe fingers nimbly re-packed the bag. She zipped it closed tight and stood, extending her hand down to help Kim up. Her eyes were bright and her grip was strong.
“Do you trust me?”
Kimberly Clare Swift
April 3, 1985–October 22, 2025
Kimberly Clare Swift, 40, was born on April 3, 1985 at Highland Hospital in her beloved Oakland, California. Kim could always be found with a book in hand. She earned her graduate degree in English at UC Berkeley and went on to teach at her alma mater. She dedicated many volunteer hours with the Oakland Library Adult Literacy Program. The only thing she loved more than the written word was her beloved and remarkably long-lived rescue dog, Emma. Kimberly’s unexpected death was a surprise, but her family is grateful that stalwart Emma was by her side, even and especially at the end. The idea of them crossing the “Rainbow Bridge” together brings her family great comfort.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Elysium In-Home Pet Euthanasia Indigent Client Fund. Funeral arrangements will be handled by Chapel of the Chimes at a date to be announced.