A House of Cards - by John Sealander


I used to spend hours as a kid building card houses. I would stack one playing card delicately atop another until a multi-level architectural creation emerged that at least visually provided the illusion of strength and permanence. There would always be the one errant and artlessly placed card however, that would instantly send the entire edifice tumbling to the ground. Card houses were like that. A door slam on the other side of the house, an airplane flying overhead, a single misplaced card could bring the whole thing crumbling down at any time.

Only later did I begin to realize that my own life was a lot like a house of cards. I would habitually add new commitments, conflicting experiences and random obsessions to my life, one item at a time, until I had created something so complex and unstable that the slightest false move or unplanned event could bring all my carefully constructed values and choices into question. Almost inevitably, the fatal card that brought the house down was something so small and insignificant that I didn't even notice its importance until much later.

You never could quite predict when things would collapse of their own weight, but it was safe to say from experience alone that it was definitely going to happen again sometime. After I had rebuilt my metaphorical house of cards a few times, it began to seem like the whole point in life was not to search for enduring truth at all, but simply to see if it was possible to avoid placing the fatal card in the same position when it became time to begin the building process again.

The card that brought my personal house of cards down this time was, ironically enough, a stray dog. I found him under my car several days ago. He was a small, brown Heinz-57 mix with a long coat like a Sheltie and big pointed ears that gave him an odd batlike appearance. If this dog had a name it would have probably been 'Ross' because the big ears and short little body gave him an uncanny resemblance to Ross Perot. A lost dog will usually either run away with its tail between its legs or jump directly into your lap when you approach. This dog did neither. It just sat there. I didn't think much about it at the time, but when he was still in the same position under my car when I went out to check the mail three hours later, I began to wonder. I went inside and got a couple of dog treats from the house and was relieved when he ate them as eagerly as my own dog, wagging his tail as he chewed. I thought he was probably a little shy, but basically OK. I put a bowl of food and some water nearby that evening before I went to bed, hoping to lure him away from the cars. I'm so absent minded and forgetful in the mornings, that I was afraid I'd forget all about him and run over him when I left the house the next day.

Well, the next morning the bowl of food is empty, the water dish is half-empty and the little dog is sitting about ten feet away from the cars, right next to the food bowl. He could obviously walk since he was no longer under the car, but oddly he still didn't move when I approached him. I picked him up and set him on all four paws and watched as he walked hesitatingly for a couple of feet and then sat down again. He had injured one of his rear legs and had a bad limp.

It was clear that it hurt the dog to walk, but he didn't flinch or try to bite when I picked him up, so it was difficult to tell if he was seriously injured or not. I got Janet to help me wrap him in a blanket and we took him to our regular vet hoping that the injury was minor and that we could get him patched him up and then take him to one of the local animal shelters to find a permanent home. Dogs can have a temporary limp or favor a leg for literally dozens of reasons, so we didn't think the limp itself was necessarily anything serious. In fact, everything from a mild charley horse to an annual rabies shot has caused my own dog Spot to temporarily affect a limp.

We had the dog x-rayed at the vet. And when the x-rays were developed and brought to the examing room for viewing, it was plain to see that the injuries were much worse than any of us, even the veterinarian, expected. The dog had sustained multiple fractures in his pelvis and rear legs. The pelvis itself was cracked in several places and the dog's right rear leg was broken and completely out of its socket at the hip joint. Worst of all, the hip joint itself had been crushed.

It appeared now that the dog had been hit by a car on the street in front of my house and then managed to crawled away from the road, up the driveway and under my car. There was no collar on the dog. No identification of any kind. All we could determine was that he was male, approximately one year old from looking at his teeth, and had never been in an animal shelter, since he was still unneutered. The vet said we ought to take some time and think about what we wanted to do, but he wasn't very encouraging. Basically, there were two choices: have the dog put to sleep, or try to surgically rebuild the hip joint. The first alternative was hard to deal with because something seemed all wrong about feeding and caring for a dog for a couple of days, just so you could kill him a little while later. The second alternative was risky, complicated and very expensive, with absolutely no guarantee of success. Either way the dog has virtually no chance of returning to the life he had before the accident.

I put off making a decision for a day or so while I board the dog at the vet and ask everyone I know in the neighborhood if they have heard of anyone missing a small brown dog recently. I keep asking even though I already know the answer to my question. This dog belongs to no one nearby. I've been walking my own dog in this neighborhood for so long that I know virtually all the dogs and who they belong to. This new little one isn't from around here. It's not a good situation. I also know that the ASPCA and other animal shelters won't even deal with injured or sick animals like this because they have trouble enough finding homes for the healthy ones they already have.

I'm thinking, even if the dog does have the surgery and survives, what happens then? He will be put to sleep anyway at the ASPCA if nobody adopts him within two or three weeks. The alternative 'no kill' animal shelters have six month long waiting lists and won't take injured dogs anyway. What to do? I don't want to put him to sleep. I can't find anyone who wants him. And I can't really keep him either. But this isn't really true. I could keep the dog if I really wanted to. If I was a better person. I mean, my parents kept an old Dachshund that was so lame that they had to strap wheels to its rear end just so it could move around. If I was one of those compassionate people who find injured birds on the sidewalk and nurse them back to health, I wouldn't have a second thought about repairing a crushed hip to help a stray dog. If it were my own dog that was injured, I know I would do everything humanly possible to bring him back to health.

So why not this dog? There are plenty of reasons, but they are all rationalizations. I list them over and over in my mind, hoping to find a more compelling reason that can't be argued with. Spot is getting old and has never gotten along at all with other dogs in the house. Trying to juggle work and clients with a high-maintenance, convalescing stray dog in the same house with Spot would be a nightmare. I've tried to bring other dogs home in the past and Spot inevitably gets jealous, growls at them and tries to chase them away. I don't have the time anyway. One dog is all I can handle. All the same, I know that I could keep the dog, at least in theory, if is really mattered enough to me.

In the back of my mind I keep thinking that the dog would still be crippled after the surgery. It would be arthritic. It would become incontinent. It would be in constant pain and I would perhaps have unwittingly made it's life more miserable in my attempt to help it. I still don't know this however. Maybe I'm just being selfish. I don't like feeling guilty, thinking I didn't do everything that I could.

I keep thinking it's a long-shot that anyone will ever want to adopt this dog. Today, and every other day for that matter, there are dozens and dozens of perfectly healthy dogs that get put to sleep at the ASPCA. There are too many dogs and cats in this world and this is one of the unlucky ones. That's not true either. This is a dog that somehow found me and is forcing me to make a choice. I hate these kind of choices. I just wish the dog had crawled under someone else's car so its fate wouldn't have to be my decision. There are no good alternatives. If the dog has even half a chance, I feel guilty putting it to sleep. If I go ahead an elect to have the surgery done and the dog survives, it still needs to find a home almost immediately or it will be put to sleep anyway.

I write several letters to friends who have had more experience with animals than me. All the replies tell me that there will very likely be serious complications even after a successful surgery. . .that the real difficulties are not now, but later. I reluctantly decide to put the little stray dog to sleep, and like a feather landing on a poorly constructed value system, my house of cards crumbles once again.

Maybe I didn't care enough. When I think about it, there are only four of five people and one cranky and very spoiled Dalmatian that I would willingly go to the mat for on the entire planet. All the rest just don't matter. They are abstract statistics that I hear about on the evening news. It just doesn't resister that the continual heartbreak and trauma I read about in the paper and hear about every evening on the television news is actually happening to real living things. Has it come to this? I don't know. Several people get murdered every single day in a city like Dallas. You can't avoid hearing about these things, but you don't dwell on them. To keep your sanity, you put these troubling events out of your mind. The drive-by shootings that happen twenty miles away in another part of town and the dead dogs you pass on the freeway at sixty miles an hour become as distant as a CNN news report from Bosnia.

The vet tells me I did the right thing, but I hear a slight hesitation in his voice and a look in his eye that tells me otherwise. He deals with these situations on a volume basis every day and as a practical matter couldn't possible begin to rehabilitate every animal that came through his doors. I could though. No words are exchanged, but in a fleeting glance as I sign the required forms, I know the vet understands this fact as well as I do. There are literally thousands of stray animals in the same situation as the dog I found under my car. But the difference here is those other animals didn't find me. This one did. He not only found me, he found me out.

The fact that I have a dual standard about life and death bothers me. I had to sign a form at the vet's office that said I was responsible for the animal. Maybe if I had never found it in the first place, the dog would have drug itself under a bush somewhere and stayed quiet for several weeks or months until the wounds healed. Not likely, but possible. Maybe if I had authorized the surgery, the dog would have had a nasty limp but someone would have fallen in love with it anyway and given it a good home. I'll never know now. I've always had an ability to make pragmatic, practical decisions and move on. I'm not so good at making ethical choices. I probably didn't do the right thing, but I did do what I have always done. I looked at the demolished house of cards in front of me and contemplated building again. Hopefully something better this time.



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