House of the dead


I had just come in from a walk when my phone rang. As any veterinarian knows, getting a call this late at night could mean only one thing: a sick animal.

It was one of those warm late-winter nights that show up without warning in southeastern Michigan. Moist air stirred over huge piles of snow, giving rise to fog banks that drifted among the trees, cars, and houses. I had just come in from a walk through this almost magical weather when my phone rang. As any veterinarian knows, getting a call this late at night could mean only one thing: a sick animal.

"Dr. Petty? This is Mrs. Byrd. I think there's something wrong with my little dog. He won't eat and it's been going on for a couple of days. I'm getting really worried."

I groaned inwardly. Mrs. Byrd was an aging client with an aging Yorkshire terrier undergoing treatment for congestive heart failure. Mrs. Byrd was also eccentric. But I mustered my best doctor demeanor and said, "Mrs. Byrd, that's terrible. Can you meet me at my office in 15 minutes?"

"Now, Dr. Petty, you know I'm too old to drive, and taxis refuse to come to my neighborhood after dark."

A call that at first had seemed like an obstacle to a good night's sleep was becoming a roadblock. But I took down Mrs. Byrd's address. I recognized that it was in a once-wealthy Detroit neighborhood—broad tree-lined avenues had been flanked by substantial homes and mansions. Instead of alleyways, canals had been built for the rich inhabitants to park their boats for easy access to Lake Ste. Claire.

Now, however, the neighborhood was full of drug addicts—and worse. Most of the buildings that hadn't been burned to the ground were crack houses. The canals were filled with stagnant water, which at this time of year was frozen into dirty, greasy ice. With a sigh, I got into my car and headed out.

As I looked for the address I thought I must have written down the wrong directions. Surely no 90-year-old woman could survive in a place like this. There didn't seem to be a single habitable house. Blackened foundations jutted up through the snow. The fog banks that had appeared so magical in my cozy neighborhood here seemed like hiding places where evil lurked.

I was about to give up when I came upon what looked like the lit-up parking lot of an all-night convenience store. I realized that this was the address. The house was bathed in the blue light of mercury vapor lamps, and a high chainlink fence surrounded the property. In the middle of it all stood Mrs. Byrd, wearing a leopard fur coat over her nightclothes and a red wig put on sideways, tufts of gray hair peeking out.

"Yoo-hoo, Dr. Petty, here I am," she called, as though she were standing in a crowd of other elderly ladies wearing leopard fur coats. I grabbed my doctor's bag and got out of my car wondering if it would still be there when I returned. I crunched up the snowy path to her large but neglected home and stepped inside.

"I have Cookie in the front parlor," she said in her creaky voice. "I offered him a dog biscuit a few hours ago, but he won't eat it."

An unnecessary procedure: Dr. Michael Petty went through the motions of examining a dead patient when its owner wouldn't give up hope without his final verdict.

Examining the little dog wasn't necessary. The fetid odor coming from the parlor told the whole story. Cookie hadn't been eating because Cookie was dead. I looked at Mrs. Byrd and opened my mouth to tell her, but then I saw the pitiful look on her face. I knew I couldn't say anything without first examining her little companion.

As she ushered me into the parlor, I met a sight so bizarre I almost couldn't take it in. A Christmas tree festooned with blinking lights stood in the center of the room. But this was months after Christmas, so the blinking lights were all that was left on the tree's bare branches. Behind this tree, other evergreens in more advanced stages of decomposition presided over the room like ghosts of Christmas past. The entire room was arranged the same way. A TV of recent vintage stood in front of an older model, and behind those were even more ancient sets. Like the spokes of a wheel, sofas, easy chairs, lamps, and end tables all radiated out to the perimeter of the room.

At the hub of this wheel was a divan. On the divan was a large, fluffy pillow. And there on the pillow was Cookie. His lips were curled back, his eyes wide and vacant. In his mouth was the recalcitrant dog biscuit that refused to be eaten.

Part of me wanted to run off, another to laugh. But there was Mrs. Byrd's hopeful look again—I had to go through the motions. First I palpated Cookie's cold, stiff body. Next I examined his eyes and ears with a penlight. Finally, I pulled out my stethoscope and auscultated his chest. I looked up at Mrs. Byrd's tear-filled eyes and slowly shook my head. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Byrd. Cookie has passed."

It's been 20 years since that night, but I remember carrying Cookie, still lying on his pillow, out to the car. As I drove away, Mrs. Byrd stood on her huge front porch, her fist held to her mouth in grief. She came into the clinic the next day, when taxis would venture into her neighborhood, to make the final arrangements for her beloved pet.

Despite all the bizarre scenes I saw and participated in, what I remember most about that evening is what Mrs. Byrd taught me. Crazy or not, she loved her little terrier so much that in spite of overwhelming evidence, she would not give up hope for her pet until I gave her my verdict. Like so many of my clients through the years, Mrs. Byrd's dedication and limitless love for her pet touched my heart and enriched my soul.

Dr. Michael Petty owns Arbor Pointe Veterinary Hospital in Canton, Mich. This story was a runner-up in our 2007 article contest. Watch for the 2008 article contest coming soon.

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