Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Dogs and Dying

I have never beheld a person at the moment of death, although I once visited a dying student in the hospital just an hour before he died. He had severe esophageal cancer, and while I was with him he was lucid but dreamy with morphine. He was aware that he was dying and told me he was not afraid but was sad at the thought of people and experiences he knew he would miss. I was moved and grateful that he seemed to feel I needed a report. 

I have, however, been present at the death of two dogs, both of which died in my arms. On the first occasion I was entering midlife and on the second well into it. The dogs of course made no report, but in the moments of their passing I was vividly aware that we were occupying the same, shared psychic space. I have never experienced anything else like it.

The dogs were very different. The first was a Shetland Sheep Dog, or Sheltie, which I purchased from a rural breeder without, regrettably, having done any research. I felt I needed to buy the dog because my daughters had reached an age where longing for live pets had carried them past insects and gold fish and small trembling rodents. I chose to surprise my daughters with a Sheltie, despite the unexpected expense, because a friend’s sister had one, and I thought it looked refined, almost regal. Shelties were once called and falsely assumed to be “miniature collies,” because they appear to be just that, but they are not. They are a separate breed altogether with different evolutionary tendencies and natures. I wish I had known this when I bought Vicky. I had assumed that our miniature collie would be a smaller Lassie, but easier to clean up after, with perhaps something of that great dog’s generous nature. A little research would have informed me that nothing of the kind is true of Shelties, especially ours. A breed manual I later consulted said that Shelties have been conditioned for centuries to be rigorous herding dogs, noting that “if he isn’t given a job to do, he can become yappy and nervous.” The manual added that he would also be “suspicious of strangers.”

We clearly provided insufficient vocational direction for Vicky because she was for every minute of her time with us “yappy and nervous.” And she was suspicious of more than strangers. She snorted and bared her teeth at the approach of anyone to our door, and she painfully nipped the shins and ankles of more than a few visitors. Neighbor children refused to come near our house, which for a time saddened my daughters who were longing for someone to play with. Vicky especially hated males, including me when I entered the house after work. She would bark and yip and threaten for a good ten minutes before calming down. This was true only on the first floor of the house. Upstairs, perhaps calmed by the soothing ambience of bathing children and reading stories, she was pet-able and sweet. Her hatred of the UPS delivery man, however, never abated. 

We lived on a sleepy one-block street just off a rural highway. Four or five minutes before the UPS truck appeared—which must have meant that the truck was miles down the road—the hair along Vicky’s spine would rise, she would begin snorting and hissing, mounting to a crazed fit of yapping and the release of a sour musk when the truck actually appeared. Once she threw herself into and partly through the window looking from our vestibule onto the driveway where the UPS truck had come to rest.

Vicky also had a nervous stomach, resulting in depressingly frequent carpet-ruining messes. But in the way of so many family dogs, she became one of the defining elements of our family, and we grew to love her, something we never actually said but which was assumed in the understanding that she was “ours,” just as our rattling station wagon was ours and our children were ours.

When Vicky was eleven or twelve, she grew stiff in her rear haunches to the point where she could no longer rise and walk. This condition was accompanied by faint whimpering and a defeated look in her eyes. After a few consultations, our vet advised putting Vicky down. This made me, and I am sure all of us, sad, much sadder than I ever thought I would feel on account of an animal. Strangely, I had never considered that Vicky would not be a permanent fixture in our lives.

As it happened, it fell to me to drive Vicky to the vet for her euthanasia. Both vet and receptionist were beyond kind and respectful of the occasion. The vet explained to me that Vicky would get two shots, the first to numb her haunch so that she would not feel the pain of the lethal sedative to follow. I had carried Vicky into the veterinary clinic in my arms, and the vet told me I could hold onto her as she received her injections. I had not expected this. For the final five minutes of her life, Vicky’s and my eyes were locked in intense mutual regard. I could feel her heart rate quicken and a faint tremble. She knew something big was up. The first injection relaxed her considerably and she reclined more comfortably in my arms. The instant   the final needle was injected, the light went out of Vicky’s eyes, and she was gone. There was not the slightest shudder or twitch. We were together, she was completely present, and then she was not.

Driving back home without her, I felt almost disembodied, that I was entering a new level of awareness, something profound but for which I had no words. My first coherent thoughts were that when my time came, I would like to leave the world that way.

We were without a dog for five years, and I was not eager to get another, when my third and youngest daughter began to agitate, with what has become her signature effectiveness, for a puppy. Puppies-for-sale notices would be snipped out of the paper and placed on my dinner plate or tacked to the corked notice board we kept by the kitchen phone. I overheard excited exchanges between my daughters and their mother that suggested I might come home any evening and find a new dog fait accompli, surprise, surprise! I determined that if there were going to be such a surprise, I would be the surpriser.

There was no thought of another Sheltie. But one of the ads placed on my dinner plate indicated the availability of six Golden Retriever puppies at an address I believed I could find in a town not too far away. One chirping, buzzing summer afternoon on a fabricated grocery errand I made my way to the address in the ad and picked out a heartbreakingly cute fur-ball of a puppy from the bed of a truck containing five identical brothers and sisters and their worn out-looking mother, canted on her side on a blanket, her dugs blindly assaulted by the comings and goings of her brood.

“They all have fleas,” the woman who owned the truck and the dogs told me as I filled out my check. At a stoplight not far away, I picked up the puppy from the well in front of the passenger seat of the car and peered into its fur. Yes, fleas, busy legions of them. I stopped at a Wal-mart and bought a plastic basin and two or three flea treatments. When I pulled into our driveway, a daughter was framed in the bedroom window above the garage. “What have you got there?” she asked calmly as I made my way into the house with the fur-ball and basin. She knew, they all knew.

We called the puppy Emma, after the actress Emma Thompson whom my daughters adored, and her passage into beloved “ours-ness” was as immediate and seamless as Vicky’s had been tentative and edgy. As before, I had done no research into Golden Retrievers, but no one really has to. Many people I knew owned Golden Retrievers, and so far as I could tell, all were glad of their dogs. I was now headmaster of my school and at the countless games and meets held in the athletic fields just beyond our house, Golden Retrievers and many other handsome breeds abounded on the sidelines and the acres of greensward beyond. One friend chastised me for getting a “preppy” dog, a “central casting” headmaster’s dog, a dog version of tweed jackets and khaki pants. He may have been right, but Emma was an uncomplicated delight. Soon she was at my side—or near my side—on the sidelines of our games, and no student of mine, or his girl friend, could resist gathering still-fuzzy Emma in his or her arms and cooing with pleasure.

If Emma was indeed a “central casting” schoolmaster’s dog, she must have been bred to it, as Shelties are to their herding. Many, many autumn afternoons as I walked with Emma unleashed through the woods and fields surrounding the school, I would get tickles up my spine at the beauty of her as she bounded up ahead of me, the sun making gold fire in her handsome coat. It was like something out of a country living magazine, or out of a dream. A few times when Emma was romping with other golden retrievers, I was unable to tell which one was she. I used to joke that there was only one golden retriever, the same one, and that every owner was under the illusion that he had his own. Even now I think that, in a Platonic sense, there is something to this.

Inside the house, however, Emma had some, I believe, Emma-only traits. Two of them made me laugh. At table or fireside or really anywhere, Emma would affectionately approach and offer her handsome head for a pat. Having elicited one or two, she would edge herself around and present her hind quarters, which is where she really wanted to be scratched. When you complied, she would alternately raise each hind leg and let it shimmy with pleasure. She was also, breed notwithstanding, a non-retriever. In this she departed from her look-alikes. Each evening after dinner when I tossed a bone or ball or squeaky dog-toy across the room or across the yard, Emma would give me a long, bewildered look, perhaps lie down, and then rise and walk with exaggerated slowness in the direction of the tossed object, rarely found, never retrieved.

I loved that dog. I loved her, as I have said, bounding ahead of me up the path. I loved her drowsing on a sun-blanched patch of carpet near my desk. She was a dog incapable of complaint, a dog so glad to see me on entering the house I could not help being glad to be home. Emma was a clear example—if trite, so be it--of why we love dogs.

I did not expect her death. One winter evening when she was ten, my wife had taken Emma outside for a walk before bed. She had been uncharacteristically stiff and a little creaky in her movements the prior week, but she seemed to be better. I was upstairs, working at my desk when I heard my wife cry out with an urgency that alarmed me. I ran outside in the cold, and Emma lay on her side on the snowy walk. She had collapsed and could not get up. I carried her inside—she was a big dog—and placed her down on the kitchen floor near the door. Her eyes looked strange, as if she were not seeing. Her breath came in short shallow pants. It was late, and my mind was muddled with thoughts about calling the vet, getting Emma into the car, but these were quieted by a mounting certainty that Emma was about to die. Again a disembodied feeling, a looming sense of profundity mounted in the bright kitchen. My wife felt it too.  She looked at me and said, “Is this really happening?” I took Emma’s head into my arms and patted her panting flank. For a moment our eyes were locked but then the unseeing vacancy returned. I could not say whether a minute or an hour passed as I held her on the kitchen floor. Her panting became a rattle, and some spittle dripped from her mouth. There was a sudden wheeze, like a sigh, and then she was gone. She lay still, a certain heft in my hands, nothing in her eyes. 

I have not forgotten nor will I ever forget that moment sitting on the kitchen floor holding my dead dog. Except that we were together as I held her, her death was not like Vicky’s, yet it evoked the same feeling, a sad but also beautiful intimation of the inevitable end of all particular, living things. 

This time too, as when I was first able to reflect on Vicky’s passing, I thought: I would not mind leaving the world in this way, although in whose or whether in anybody’s arms I cannot know.