Sparks in the Dark

By Amanda Witt Published on February 16, 2018

Yesterday, as I sat in the waiting room of a veterinary clinic, poetry walked in.

The clinic is in a shabby old house that smells of dogs and cleaning supplies. The floors buckle unevenly, phone lines are stapled along peeling baseboards, and the walls are lined with looming stacks of pet food. I come to this clinic because I like the young vet and I like his prices; he keeps his overhead low.

You Learn All the Pets’ Names

Yesterday, eight or nine pet owners sat shoulder-to-shoulder in a room that would more comfortably fit four or five. One woman held a miniature schnauzer with a blue-bandaged foot. “Kelsey had a tumor,” the woman offered. You do not mind your own business here. You learn all the pets’ names, though none of the humans’.

A teenager and his mother shielded their sleepy pug from the affectionate attentions of an enormous golden retriever. “Can I take his picture?” a sixtyish man asked the retriever’s owner. “I want to send it to my daughter. She’ll think I’ve got her dog — he looks exactly like yours.”

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A young woman with sleek black hair and a matching sleek black cat unzipped her pet carrier so the cat could poke her head out. “She loves dogs,” the young woman said as the cat, unimpressed, surveyed her surroundings. “Hates other cats, though.”

Warily, I draped my coat over my own pet carrier.

“You got a cat in there?” the young woman asked, and I admitted that I did — a sweet orange tabby suffering from an abscess on his hind leg. “Poor thing,” the waiting room crooned in unison.

“Doc Cody will fix him right up,” the woman with the golden retriever assured me.

Is He Sick?

“A shot of antibiotic, and he’ll be good to go,” said a heavyset woman wearing an ugly rayon blouse and holding an ugly little Chihuahua. His eyes were bloodshot. His mouth sagged open. He drooled. His name was Tadpole.

“Is he sick?” someone asked.

“I think he must have been in a fight with the bigger Chihuahua,” the woman said. “I’m afraid he has a broken jaw.”

The waiting room grew rife with sympathy, questions and advice. Tadpole couldn’t eat, we learned. He might need surgery, but might not be able to handle the anesthesia because he was so old.

“Tadpole is breathing like he’s in pain,” observed a well-dressed woman with knee-high boots and razor-cut hair. Her cat — there for litter box problems — gnawed enthusiastically at the gate of his carrier, unworried by the glare of the sleek black kitty.

Things moved very slowly. They moved more slowly still after a husband and wife rushed in carrying a still form. The wife was crying; the husband announced to the room at large that their dog had been hit by a car. The doc whisked the dog away, and the couple stepped outside and stood by the front window, comforting each other in full view of those of us inside.

Was He Dead?

Was the dog dead? Being rushed into surgery by Doc Cody, the only vet in the practice? I didn’t know. I was impressed that no one in the waiting room so much as glanced at the time.

We tried not to stare out the window. It was hard.

“I’d love to have cats,” Tadpole’s owner said loudly. We all turned toward her, grateful for the distraction. “But I can’t because my daughter is so allergic. We couldn’t figure out why one of my Maltipoos bothered her and the other didn’t, and then we realized that one goes outside and rolls in the grass. My daughter’s terribly allergic to grass.”

The vet went outside and spoke to the distraught couple, putting a comforting arm around the wife. She nodded, holding her head up. Looking brave. The vet talked a little more, hugged her again, came back inside. The woman collapsed against her husband, and he led her gently toward the parking lot.

The waiting room observed a brief moment of silence. Two or three people closed their eyes, their lips moving in prayer.

“Allergies are a real problem,” Tadpole’s owner said softly, and we all nodded as if she’d said something profound.

The Neighbor

“Kelsey,” the vet tech called. Tadpole’s owner smiled at Kelsey as he passed. “I’d like a schnauzer,” she said.

“You must have a houseful of dogs already,” I said. “Two Maltipoos, two Chihuahuas….”

She shook her head. “Oh, Tadpole’s not mine. He and the other Chihuahua, they belong to a neighbor.”

“A neighbor?” I prompted.

“He’s been sick,” she said, shrugging. “Too sick to notice that his dog was injured. This flu, you know? I drove him to the hospital yesterday and they decided to keep him overnight, so I brought Tadpole home with me.”

“You took your neighbor to the hospital,” I said. “And you brought his dog to the vet.”

“I called the hospital this morning and they think he’s better,” she said. “Maybe he’ll get to come home today. The flu this year has been so bad.”

“You took him to the hospital,” I said again. “And you’re taking care of his dog. He’s so fortunate to have you as his neighbor.”

She shrugged again. “I’ve known him for years,” she said. “So are any of your kids allergic to cats?”

Small Good Deeds in the Dark

The poet William Wordsworth speaks of “that best portion of a good man’s life: His little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.” Good people are all around us, quietly strewing bits of poetry that lighten life’s dull hard prose. They carry ugly dogs and dress in unflattering rayon blouses. They run shabby but affordable businesses. They pray silently for strangers.

Their small good deeds are as real, as present, and as necessary as breathing — and as easy to overlook. They are far more plentiful than school shootings or any other evil that makes the news and gives us nightmares.

“The darkness around us is deep,” says the poet William Stafford, and he’s right. But the apostle John is right as well: The darkness cannot overcome the light. And the light — in myriad small bright sparks — is all around us, too.

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