Three years after he had brought a puppy home to our family, my dad abruptly gave our dog away. Maggie was a cheerful black and white Shih Tzu who always greeted people at the door by jumping up on her hind legs and dancing. My father, often weary after working a 36-hour shift at the hospital, would come home to see Maggie’s unwavering excitement and barely smile.
Maggie never barked or bit anyone. Over the brief time she was with us, her sparkly puppy insouciance changed to a gentle sassiness, conveyed with human-like expressions and behaviors. She’d wiggle in between us jealously when my mother hugged my younger sister or me and rebel against household rules when she thought she wouldn’t get caught. A hidden video camera once filmed her running in wild circles on the family room carpet she normally knew to avoid.
After a time, Maggie sensed my father’s dark moods, when he would sometimes speak to her roughly or smack the ground near her; she would tiptoe around him with her head down instead of scampering with her usual Chinese dragon-like flair. During thunderstorms at night, she began to leap into my bed and shiver uncontrollably. I would hold her and softly say, “Calm down, it’s OK, you’re safe.” I would feel her warmth and hoped mine would stop her shivering. For whatever reason, it was me she trusted during these storms, and I wanted to protect her.
Looking back now, I suspect the dog’s joy made my father uncomfortable. Perhaps the contrast between her affectionate amiability and his clouded bitterness drew too much attention to his own misery. He abruptly made the proposition to give her away. My sister and I were home from college for summer break. He said it was too hard to take care of her, and she stunk up the house.
My mother, my sister, and I all agreed with her departure quickly, perhaps out of shock, perhaps out of resignation. My father usually got his way. I tried not to feel anything. I rationalized away the decision as correct. I decided I was afraid of Maggie’s inevitable, if relatively distant, death. It seemed better to think of her as an abstraction, forever frolicking at someone else’s home.
He had found a nurse at work who would adopt her. To entice the nurse all the more, he lied that Maggie was a more nubile two years old. We watched him drive her off in his car as she stared, unknowing, out the back window at us. My sister began to cry, but I was frozen. We were supposed to be stoic, like some ancient family sending off their daughter as an arranged bride, faraway cross-continent, never to be seen again.
As a child, I remember visiting my father at his on-call room one weekend. The hospital where he worked as an anesthesiologist was a sterile, concrete building with steel-paned windows, and his on-call room, where he rested between childbirths during overnight shifts, was equally sterile. I felt bored by the linoleum floors, the blank walls, the bed with plain white sheets. The only quirk in the room was the strange remote control, a palm-sized black plastic rectangle that one actually squeezed like a toy. It would then emit a strange, high-pitched squeal that somehow turned the TV on and off without electricity. I would keep switching the TV on and off with the squeeze box, while my parents chatted about nothing coherent in their Korean tongue that I barely understood.
The only other item of interest was a set of tiny glass ampules, resting on a desk in a little plastic tray, like a paint set. Each one had a bit of clear fluid and an elongated glass tail that narrowed at a point on the ampule. As the doctor, you were supposed to snap the glass open at this point, in a precise, crisp motion with your fingers, and then draw the fluid out with a needle. If you snapped wrong, you made a jagged edge that could cut your finger open.
I didn’t enjoy visiting the on-call room, because there was nothing to do. Even as a child, I realized it was a prison cell of sorts. “This is where my father sleeps every few nights,” I thought. What I didn’t comprehend was that he didn’t really sleep; he had to inject these little ampules into the spinal cords of women who were giving birth night after night, at odd hours. He could not err an inch or milliliter, else he risk causing paralysis or death. All this while equally sleep-deprived staff would snap at him in shards of English he could not easily comprehend. All I knew was that when he came home, he was prone to rages, induced by his loss of sleep, loss of stature, loss of humanity. But we had to keep up appearances. People are very good at this. No one knew about my father’s storms.
A couple of years went by, and I entered medical school. My father, the intense, Johns Hopkins-trained anesthesiologist that he was, had an unspoken understanding with me —I would follow in his footsteps. But I remained skeptical of this path. Before, in my college’s Gothic towers, my heart yearned for Yeats as he mourned the passage of time, or Dostoyevsky as he pored through the core of human longing. It did not yearn for the neuronal resistance of earthworms or the arrangement of carbon atoms in plastic.
So I never felt at ease in the study-jock culture of medical school. My classmates, by and large, were single-minded and brutal in their purpose — to excel at all costs.
One day, I saw on the schedule Canine Cardiophysiology Lab. By then I had already carved up human carcasses in anatomy class; I hardly registered this lab listing. Memories of mellifluous verses about springtime and the stark insights of Shakespearian tragedies had long since faded. I went through the motions without rest, a zombie memorizing body parts.
During lunch, some of my classmates speculated about what the canine lab involved.
“Did you hear about this lab?” one guy said. “Canine, as in dog? Dissection. What is this, vet school?”
“Are they going to use dead or live animals?”
“I think they’re using live ones from the animal shelter.”
“It’ll be good practice for the OR,” grunted a future surgeon.
“But I heard a rumor that they’re put in cages in the basement. And if you’re working in a lab down there, you can hear them barking.”
We all looked at each other.
“There’s no fucking way I’m doing it,” said another woman. She was usually ferociously grade-obsessed. I dismissed her animal activism as the self-righteous whims of someone who preferred dogs to human beings, especially if those humans beat her on the grading curve. I had already learned that a dog’s love was a disposable commodity.
Despite all of us being offered an “alternate video,” I went ahead and joined the sheep herd. If it meant helping the sick, I would perform the dissection. The end was supposed to justify the means.
I walked into the lab. Under the harsh fluorescent lights, the dogs were laid out on the metal tables of the large room, with over 50 of them set up in rows with a group of a few students beside each one. The dogs were asleep, their rib cages flexing with a strange abruptness. Generic-looking, beige, Labrador-like mutts, bred to be forgotten.
On one table, the teacher was finishing anesthesia on the last dog. He inserted an IV and covered the dog’s snout with a gas mask. After the lab, he told us, the dogs would be “humanely” put down.
“They have been partially prepped for you already, but you will have to follow our directions, to attach the oxygen sensor into the vein and artery.”
It was then that I noticed, jutting out of the dogs’ necks, the probes shaped like silver chopsticks. Like the ones (I once read) that turned black when they detected poison for Chinese emperors. Wires were attached to the probes, connecting to digital displays.
At my table, I approached my animal and saw the small opening in the neck, the flap of furry skin pinned back to reveal the red vessels within. They looked like branches of a young willow tree, but saturated in red.
We were supposed to gently pull back the vessels and stitch in an additional probe, to provide an up-to-the-minute comparison reading — something about the balance of carbon dioxide versus oxygen in the carotid artery versus the jugular vein. A set of sharp tools and black suture thread lay in a tray next to each dog.
My hand reached for the scalpel. Hesitating, I looked down at the grungy linoleum floor. I steeled myself while inhaling deeply.
“Shit!” someone yelled from way across the room. In a flash, I saw ruby drops, gem-like, appear beside my feet. I looked up, and along a perfect line, going to the other end of the room, the trail of blood splattered across several students’ blue paper scrubs and another student’s sneakers.
In the back, I saw the future surgeon, bulky and tall in his scrubs. He was griping about how he had cut too deep, nicked the carotid. “Damn it, I’m gonna have to get another one.”
His gown was spray-painted scarlet. A blood-covered Bavarian butcher.
Something in me ruptured. I felt sick. The walls gleamed hard, like bone scraped clean. The room faded into a septic yellow-green, and the light seemed to twist, upside and around. The precise symmetry of the tables, lined up like military gravestones, began to shift, slide. I saw all the animals sleeping, breathing, breathing.
I rushed out of the room. In the hall, the cool air helped my nausea. I knew I was done. Done with the lab, maybe even done with medical school. I walked away, and kept walking, all the way back to my dorm.
My thoughts chattered with my steps. I never said anything. I never said Maggie leaving was wrong. I didn’t stop it. As a silent conspirator to my father’s control, I thought it was the only way, even if my sorrow roiled unacknowledged, unassailed for years. The illusion of peaceful agreement was better than the alternative. Repression meant survival. But at what cost? I stared into the white heat of my own complicity.
But the next day I was back at class. The lecture was about the velocity of blood, as it pumped out of the human heart.