It was 1989. Autumn. After having worked seven years at the Vineyard Veterinary Clinic in Edgartown, I finally set out on my own. Initially I was solely a mobile practice doing house calls, so friends suggested calling my business Visiting Veterinarian. Soon after, I rented the little cottage behind Educomp as my first office. I kept the name. It seemed to suit. I was still doing house calls, but also, it being downtown Vineyard Haven, people often stopped by just to chat. I furnished the main room with secondhand desks, two armchairs, and a coffee table by the fireplace, perfect for entertaining visitors. The small second room held a small bank of cages, a wooden table for exams, and two more chairs, because the sloping ceiling was so low taller clients couldn’t stand without crouching. We would sit and talk as I worked on their pets, after which I had to remember to tell them to stand up slowly so as not to hit their heads on the ceiling. Sometimes I forgot. Thwack. Oops. Sorry.
Jib Ellis was a regular visitor. We would discuss his parrot’s behavior problems, then move on to everything from poetry to politics. It was Jib who suggested I try writing a veterinary column for the newspaper. He pitched it for me to The Martha’s Vineyard Times. They asked for a sample, so I wrote a piece about the hazards of the winter holidays for pets. Turkey bones, tinsel, mistletoe, that sort of thing. The Times titled it “The Visiting Vet.”
As I sit down today to write my column, as I have done every two weeks since then, I am filled with both melancholy and gratitude. Perhaps it is the milestone of 30 years passing, measuring out my life in two-week intervals, like T.S. Eliot’s coffee spoons. Or the sadness I feel over the passing of people, like Karen Kukolich, Will Luckey, L.C. Schraeder, to name just a few. People, many of whom were my very first clients. People who over the years have come to feel like friends. Maybe we only saw each other a few times a year in my office, or when I made house calls to give the kitties a checkup, but we always talked. “How’s the fishing?” “Your dahlias are beautiful.” “How are the kids?” “What books are you reading?” Perhaps it is the joy of meeting the newborn baby of one couple while simultaneously holding the grief I carry for others who have lost their children. The inevitable experiences of living a long time in a small town.
So I wanted to start this holiday season off with some words of thanksgiving to the people of Martha’s Vineyard. Thank you to all who have entrusted me with the care of their four-legged family members these past 30 years. For visiting with me across the exam table. For telling me a bit about your lives, and for asking about mine. Thank you for the flowers, the cookies, the photographs of your pets. Thank you for the books, the cards, the bounty from your gardens. Thank you for the Chilmark Chocolates (whose imminent closing is possibly another reason for my melancholy). But most of all, thank you for being a community that truly values the lives and well-being of their animals. I feel very blessed to be able to work with so many wonderful people and their pets. I imagine every veterinarian on the Island would say the same to their clients as well.
Now, since I happen to be the veterinarian on call this year both Thanksgiving and Christmas … turkey bones, tinsel, mistletoe. Still dangerous. Here’s my advice. Keep celebratory food out of reach of the animals. Foods they shouldn’t eat include bones of any kind, raw poultry, chocolate, raisins, grapes, onions, garlic, raw bread dough, and excessive amounts of any sort of leftovers, especially anything fatty. Dangerous nonfood items they may inadvertently chew or swallow include tinsel, ribbons, batteries, broken ornaments, electrical cords, evergreens, mistletoe, holly, many types of flower bulbs. (Poinsettias? Not really toxic, but may cause an upset tummy, so they are on the list but only in parentheses.)
Let’s not forget Holiday Cheer, in other words, intoxicants. Dogs like marijuana, especially if it’s in a bit of chocolate or a gummy, but will eat it plain, like catnip. I have also seen dogs drink all kinds of booze and get alcohol poisoning. Don’t leave your eggnog on the coffee table. Stash your stash. A note to parents of teenagers and young adults, especially those just home visiting from college. I know, your kids don’t drink, smoke, or do drugs. Remind them anyway. I can’t tell you how many times kids who “don’t do that” have left a roach in the backyard where they were indulging out of sight of the ’rents. Then the dog eats it, and I have to see the pet on emergency, where it takes a good deal of tactful questioning to finally get the right diagnosis. Vaping supplies, cigarettes, marijuana, alcohol — all need to be kept secure away from pets.
Thank you for taking these necessary precautions so your pets can enjoy the holidays and you can avoid having to visit me with an emergency. But if despite all your safeguards, your animal needs urgent care, please call. Sure, I want my days off, but this year it’s my job to help out my friends during the holidays. I watch the trees growing bare outside my window. Perhaps it’s that animals get old and veterinarians can’t fix that. Perhaps it’s euthanizing the mourning dove with the broken wing, or watching another friend agonize over the hospice care of her elderly cat. Perhaps it’s my children growing up, my mother growing old. Perhaps it’s just life. “I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach. I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.” I watch the trees growing bare outside my window and feel both melancholy and gratitude.