The subject of animals is one that I feel funny about right now. In fact animals have been part of my life for the better part of the last 20 years. Cats have wandered into my home and refused to leave, dogs have been adopted, lived full lives or hit by cars and died. But I don’t have the heart to care any more.
With the slow demise of the last sweet dog due to a year’s long struggle with diabetes, blindness and loss of mobility and finally loss of control over bodily functions, my heart just went out of it.
The story begins with a young couple, bonding and moving toward more serious decisions, with a dream of having it all together. He was smart, educated, full of potential. She was sharp hungry and motivated to make something big happen. The decision to adopt two sister puppies was taken carefully, after two visits to the pound, over a lunch it was discussed and she didn’t see what the big deal was, they were just dogs. He was more cautious, this meant commitment.
The furry puppies made the trip home that day, and they signaled a new era for both of the humans. We were now working together to care for the surrogate children that early couples use as practice for the real thing, or in the absence of the real thing, become as important as children.
I always hated the barren couples that treated their dogs like kids. Once you actually have kids you can understand what I mean. They are just dogs, ok. Get a life. But the barren couple pours all their misplaced nurturing instincts into their damn pets, imbuing in them the qualities of the human offspring that are conspicuously missing.
In the natural order of things though, this couples children weren’t far behind. Within a year the baby came. Now the dogs were a concern. Will they love the baby? Do we need to worry they will jealously murder or mutilate it? Do we let the dogs bond and romp and play with our beloved child?
The days and years dictate the answers to those questions and of course all the days of packing up kids, dogs and all the related necessities come and go. The kids love the animals like siblings, and they grow up together for a while and life happens. Dogs introduce the children to their first tragedy. While we search for the rabbit that got out, one of the dog sisters gets hit and killed by a car. This event is like a baptism of the heart. The first cut of the millions of tiny lacerations that will eventually leave scars in the shape of our grown up hearts.
The years progress and dogs grow up while kids are still developing. But the dog is there, dependable, dependent and always ready for a walk or a hug. The dog keeps us active, walking and getting out into the natural world. It gives us love when we need it, always on tap, no conditions. It also requires a great deal of us. We make major life decisions with the dog in mind. The car we buy must accommodate dogs, the home we purchase, the vacations the play dates, even the budget has to have room for the care and feeding. It is truly alarming when taken out of context the extent of our commitment to the dog.
Years pass, toys come and go, playpens and high chairs are worn out and donated to good will, nursery rhymes and story books give way to homework and projects. The dog is there, wagging, smiling, and growing old. Grey hairs now cover her muzzle, gray haze begins to cloud her eyes, and long walks, chasing squirrels and carefree trails give way to age. She is happy, slow but happy. She responds to our caress, our calls and the carefully selected and prepared food required to keep her healthy. She sees less, hears less and moves less, but the bond she has with the family can’t be denied. She has seen both kids born and through infancy into childhood and she doesn’t ask much of us, just to love and take care of her. She can’t climb onto the couch any more so she spends most of her time lying on the cool tile of the kitchen, close to food and water, close to the door she now needs us to open countless times each day as her functions are harder to control. She has been witness to all the things in our lives. She sits quietly while parents make love, she stands by for all our quarrels and waits patiently in the car while we shop. She follows our lead and we follow hers.
Things change. There is a disruption in the pattern of our lives. A pattern that has spiraled into itself for too long and now is imploding. Like sand pouring out of a toy in a kids sandbox the bottom falls out of our lives. The dog sits silently as arguments escalate into full blown fights. Feelings get shredded and ripped apart like notebook paper with secrets written on it. She is the only one not judging, not taking sides and not hurting. The villains in the story are us, but the dog is loving no matter who is wrong. She is tottering in her old age. Blind and deaf but still dear. She knows her way around the familiar setting of the home and still is happy for the attention when she gets it. But we are about to take it all away. Our anger is un stoppable. Hatred overwhelms us and we break. All the tenuous pieces holding together the mosaic of our lives come unglued.
The old dog keeps watch over the young humans while the parents go off into their own worlds of grief and sorrow. The only consoling comes from a blind nudge with a wet nose and a sigh of comfort when small hands respond with loving caresses. She does her best to nurture the young while the violence of the adults rages. Until the split is done. There is no turning back now. Only cold comfort to show for the years of this dogs life.
Now we are peeled back to a rawness of feeling. The dog still there, requiring care that no longer lives in the hearts of adults. She is a burden. A symbol of what was. A beginning to a life now over. She becomes heavy with sadness as she stumbles about on a kind of life support like the last thin string holding a family together. After everything separates, houses are split, children now have “visits” with their parents, the physical trappings of a life together are dived up for better or for worse. An uncertain future looms in the mist, out of sight but closing in.
Out of the division I somehow get the dog. The poor old dog that can barely breathe gets a new home and is a constant reminder of what I’ve left behind. The kids are old enough to miss her, old enough to express the pain in their little hearts at not having their old nanny around. I see the sad irony of what is happening. The marriage in the life of a dog. From young, playful, hopeful to old resigned and dying. The life of a dog has been mine too.
After a time it is obvious there is nothing left for the old dog but to lie, eat, drink and go outside-or not. Only to return to the spot where she lies, in unfamiliar surroundings, with hard table legs and chairs to bump into if she manages to get up and signal her need to go out. She is fast becoming a ghost of herself. The kids on their “visits” take turns leading her the few steps out the door to where she relieves herself, seems to perk up for a few minutes and then is ready to go back inside, lie down and rest from the exertion. Smells are the last vestige of her senses. She still seems to enjoy whatever it is that dogs find when they sniff.
The time has come, the lives of the humans are changing. There is no room to keep this dog going. On the last day of the dogs life I contemplate all that has passed. I wonder about all that will be, and I grieve the task I must carry out. I have tried to approach the subject of the end of this dogs life with my children. They are naturally willing to make any accommodation to keep her on this earth, after all, they would be no less saddened by the death of a sibling than that of this dog. I point out the suffering that she endures, the daily insults of not making it outside and soiling the house. I speak about what a good dog she “has been”, and that she is ready to move on to a world where we can’t follow. But the kids won’t have it. Tears are their response to this talk of moving on and so I soften my resolve to be honest. I cheat. I know what I have to do, all the adults I talk with seem like they would do it, but they aren’t in my shoes.
There is a trip coming up. We are going to take a tour of our new lives, far away from home and in a place where we will all start over, new separate lives, childhood left behind, married life over. It is time. Time for the beloved dog to go. I make preparations for the trip. I will be taking the kids on a journey the dog won’t survive. I tell the kids that she will be in the kind hands of the vet where she will be taken care of while we visit what is to be our new home. They seem satisfied with that, but nonetheless I ask them to say an extra special goodbye before I drop her off. We feed her a special treat, give her long hugs, my heart heavy I load her into the truck for what only I know is the last time.
As we walk across the parking lot at the vet clinic the sun is bright and I squint as it reflects ruthlessly off the hot pavement. I don’t let us pause even when I see that the old dog recognizes where she is and want’s to turn back. I take her in, say a few words to the secretary with a giant lump in my throat. I confirm what my appointment is for. “It is time to put her down”. The secretary is kind and assures me that it is time to do the kind thing. I bend down and feel her frizzy coat that was once soft and vibrant, I embrace the old dog and the door opens. I hand the leash to a waiting assistant who looks kindly at me and takes our old dog inside. “Thank You” is all I can manage as my voice cracks.
I am back in the truck. Driving away as I consider all that has passed. Thinking of how I am to explain why the dog doesn’t come home from the vet. Wondering how I will survive what is to come. In a way I realize noting will ever be quite the same.