As a youth, I not only read the literature I was assigned in my English classes, I was often deeply moved by it. I remember being riveted to Where the Red Fern Grows in 6th grade, moved to write poetry about Pip and Estella during Great Expectations in 9th grade, and secretly crying over Hester Prynne and Rev. Dimmesdale at the end of The Scarlet Letter in 11th grade. (OK, I was kind of a nerd, but only in my English classes; I was quite the slacker in most other classes -- until college.)
But of all our assigned readings, it was the novel Of Mice and Men that impacted me into my adulthood. Being an animal lover, I was terribly upset when Candy's dog was shot. And when Candy later said to George that he should have shot his dog himself, I remember trying to understand why he said that. I am not sure why the meaning evaded me; After all, I was, in my humble opinion, reasonably intelligent, but I knew I wasn't fully getting it somehow. Perhaps it was because it had never occurred to my young mind that sometimes one had to perform unpleasant tasks out of kindness. After all, I lived a lifestyle in which other people performed unpleasant tasks: if an animal needed put down, you took it to the vet. And I had never had to make a hard decision along those lines.
Instead of asking my teacher or anyone else for an explanation, I contemplated Candy's statement for a long time. I honestly can't remember if I reached a better understanding once we reached the end of the book and the situation was parallelled when George shot Lennie (I hope I did), but as I grew older, I remember the meaning of the phrase becoming clearer and clearer to me. Of course I understood that it was better to die by the hand of a kind friend than an uncaring stranger, but besides that, I decided that as a pet owner (which is as close as I'll ever come to being a parent), I had a responsibility to be with my pet until the very end. Candy's words imprinted their truth on my heart and mind long before I would experience that truth myself.
But I finally did have to experience it when my first rat Horace came down with cancer. Horace was not only my first rat, but the first pet I would feel extremely close to, as anyone familiar with pet rats can understand. He sought my company so eagerly every day (despite having three cagemates) that whenever I happened to move within a couple feet of my bed -- on which I had a playground set up daily for roaming time -- Horace would leap through the air onto my back and scramble on up to my shoulder, where he would have peferred to ride all day if he could. I would answer the door to delivery men etc. with Horace perched happily atop my shoulder. We were as attached as any pet and owner could be. The day I realized I had done all I could do and was going to have to put him down, my convictions, thanks to Steinbeck, had long been set that I would see it through to the end.
I had been warned by my vet tech. that the vet usually didn't allow the owner present when putting down a rodent. They would sedate the animal first (through a mask), then plunge a needle into its heart to stop it. Sometimes blood would shoot high into the air and this would traumatize the owner. I walked into the vet prepared to put up a fight. I didn't care of I got splattered with blood -- Horace would have me by his side to the last. The vet, however, after a year of watching me withstand other graphic procedures (draining abcesses, cleaning them myself, giving shots, etc.) knew I was not fainthearted. So I was allowed into the back room, and I fixed my eyes on my darling little Horace. I watched everything, I watched the needle go in and I watched the last little beat of his heart. I could not allow myself to do any less for him, short of doing the procedure myself.
I was heartbroken. I am not a morbid person. In fact, I have such an aversion to emotional pain that I no longer have rats. Five years of loving and losing these most amazing creatures took its toll one my animal-loving heart. But I was able to withstand the death of my Horace because of the conviction that one line of literature had placed in my impressionable mind so many years ago.