dog


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Ack! I am no good at this, I realized yesterday. Saying goodbye to friends. Even on the phone–I have trouble. I find myself taking up new topics when it comes time to hang up, making new plans and arrangements to get together, as if saying “goodbye” is just the very hardest thing. I do this even when I’m the one who wants to end things, even when I’m late to something else, even when I’m going to see the person soon.

It’s kind of a curse.

And so I have been good friends with this dog for twelve years and nine months. We got him when he was nine months old, a darling golden retriever puppy who had flunked out of championship school due to a bad hip, and was just looking for some family to play with. He immediately showed himself to be a lovable clown, tracking down dirty tissues in the trash, going completely bananas with exuberance whenever we would come home, taking us on fun, highly aerobic, merry chases/hikes through the woods. He was a snuggler who just had to be on the couch with us, or finding his 75 pound way onto our laps, unlike our previous dog, who didn’t much want to be in the same room with us. And he was, as somebody described him, “drop-dead gorgeous.” And so lovable and calm and kind that my nine-year-old called him “Jesus in a dog suit.”

Yesterday he came to a calm, quiet end. After an illness that left him dizzy and blind, lame and weak, we had to take him to have him put down.

You never know when the right time for this kind of thing is, I realize. I went on the internet and typed into google, “How do I know when it’s time to put my dog down” and there were hundreds of stories of people grappling with this problem, and all kinds of opinions. The one that guided me the best was from Jon Katz, in a column he wrote in Slate, which was subtitled: “How to make a decision you never want to make.”

Among the wrenching stories, was this bit of wisdom:

It is the nature of dogs to live much shorter lives than ours—just eight years, on average—and it has always been my belief that to love and own a dog is to understand and accept that along with loyalty, love, and devotion come the ever-present specters of grief and loss. This is as integral a part of the dog-loving experience as going for walks.

There’s no Idiot’s Guide for this question, no handbook. The many points of view are strongly held. One vet I know says a dog should be euthanized “when it can no longer live the life of a dog—and only the owner knows when that really is.” A breeder says she puts her dogs down when “their suffering exceeds their ability to take pleasure in life.” A trainer I respect believes her dog should live as long as it can eat.

Another friend and dog lover says she always knows when it’s time: “when the soul goes out of their eyes.”

I looked over at my poor dog, who had not ventured from his bed in hours, who stumbled and fell and bumped into things whenever he tried to get up, and whose eyes were cloudy and filled with pain.

He was not living the life of a dog. And his suffering clearly seemed to exceed his ability to take pleasure. As far as the soul in his eyes, I wasn’t sure about that. He always had a soulful look about him.

A week ago, a friend of mine, a hospice nurse who lost her golden retriever years ago and still gets all teary when she thinks about him, said to me, “You have to consider if you’re keeping him around just for you.” She said it was okay if I was, no one would fault me for that, she said, but that I should start to think about letting go a little bit.

I cried.

Yesterday, though, was the day. I spent the day with Jordie. He slept most of the time, and I sat beside him working on my novel and talking to him. I listened to music, he slept. At dinnertime, I gave him cream cheese (his very favorite thing) and he licked it off my fingers and then, even when the cream cheese was gone, he licked my fingers for a long, sad time. When my husband came home from work, we took him outside and let him go to the bathroom, and then we put him in the backseat of the car, on his favorite towel. I petted him while we drove to the vet.

It was quick and calm and peaceful. The worst part was that he had to be at the veterinary hospital, a place I imagine that he does not like much, even though he never reacts one way or the other. We carried him inside, and we and the vet and the assistant all petted him and talked to him, and then they gave him the injection while my husband and I cradled him, and I watched as he gradually just relaxed his body and all the tension went out of his face, and the vet said, “He’s gone.”

My friend Lily, who writes the wonderful blog, Bloglily, wrote to me in an email the other day something that I read again when I came home yesterday afternoon with my heart just so full it felt as though it would burst apart:

The thing about 

being a dog owner is that they never become independent of you, and 

that you care for them through every phase of their lives, including 

almost always, their deaths and it is the hardest thing humans have 

to do, I think, to bear that with their beloved dog and to make the 

difficult decisions about this, knowing they will be separating 

themselves from all that love because it is the right thing to do.  

It’s the last gift you give to your dog, that kind of caretaking, and 

it is heartbreaking to have to do it.  But it is fair and right, 

given what they mean to us.

And that is what is getting me through. So, please. Go kiss your doggies for me.

Yes, it’s true. You count a dog out, and he decides that he doesn’t care if the world is a slanty mess, and that he will have to walk tilted to the right for a while.

He has decided to get well.

And so we’ve been going to visit him every day, and each day he is more and more bouncy and frisky, and more excited about the carrots we bring…and today I would have brought him home for good, except that my husband and I are going into New York tomorrow to see our daughter in a play! YES! She plays Mona in “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean,” and we are going to sit there in the front row and clap and clap, which is one of the perks of being parents of an acting student in New York.

See? Here she is, with her boyfriend, smiling. (This is not her boyfriend in the play; this is her real boyfriend, who is very nice, and we like him a lot.)

And so when we come home tomorrow night, our hands sore from clapping and our voices hoarse from shouting, then we will go and get Jordie, and will turn the family room into a Safe Room for a compromised doggie, moving all sharp objects and putting his bed and his food dish down there, so he won’t ever have to climb stairs and risk hurting himself on the furniture. It has been lonely in the house without the sound of wagging and panting. And no one still here wants to go in and out and in and out and in and out and in and out…and well, I kind of miss that.

 September 2008 005

100_4869 We got him when he was nine months old. He had been destined to be a wonderful show dog, being the grandson of a proud Champion Golden Retriever, King of All the Dogs or something like that.

He was ready, too, to meet the bright lights and the big cities. But then x-rays showed that he had a very slight hip dysplasia–just enough to keep him out of competitions, but not enough to keep him from being an enthusiastic ball-chaser.

His breeder said he needed a family, and we were a family in need of a dog–and so we joined forces, and he proceeded to clown his way into our cat-loving hearts. We named him Jordan. Some days he was like a big Muppet, and other days he played the role of the cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz. He wagged us and licked us and knocked us over, brought us endless dirty Kleenexes out of the trash, did ceremonial barking when the doorbell rang, sat by our sides when we were sick, stole treats, cheered for the Chicago Cubs with us, romped with us on hikes through the snow, sat next to me through the writing of six books even though he was always thinking that it was time to stop for the day and go play…everything you could ask of a companion.

But, somehow when we weren’t truly paying attention, he got old. Really, really old. And yesterday, at the age of 13 1/2, after going outside with me to take out the garbage (and experimentally pretending he just might like to rip open the bags and strew the garbage all over the driveway, which has been so much fun for him in the past), he dutifully wagged his tail and followed me inside when I called him. He was sleeping in the sunshine when I left the house…and when I returned two hours later, things were not at all the same.

He’d been sick all through the house and he was lying down in the sunshine, looking dazed. I petted him and he tried to stand, but his head was tilted at a funny angle, and he couldn’t even get to his feet. We sat there together for a while, and I petted his muzzle, which is what he wanted. He kept licking my hand whenever I would stop, and trying to look at me. But he could barely hold his head up.

He feels the same way about hospitals that I do, but it seemed clear that we were going to have to go to one. So my husband came home from work, and lifted all 75 pounds of him up and we drove him to the vet, a wonderfully compassionate man who came into the room, saying, “Oh, no! What has happened to our friend Jordie?” He examined him and then explained that he’d had a “vestibular event,” whatever that is. It’s very common in old dogs, apparently, and it is one of those terms that simply means that something has gone terribly wrong. He’s come unbalanced and now he’s nauseated and unable to stand up, because the world has taken to spinning around in front of him.

“Some dogs recover from this and some don’t,” the vet said. It’s harder, of course, to predict what will happen when a dog is so old. But meanwhile, he said, Jordie shouldn’t come back home; he needed to be given drugs for nausea, and to be kept in a quiet, dark place, where the pain of the light and the spinning of the room wouldn’t make him worse. He promised that a legion of dog-lovers would wait on him hand and foot and pet him and keep him warm and comfortable…and then two attendants came in and put him on a stretcher, and he looked over and licked my hand as they took him away.

Today the vet called and said he was a tiny bit better this morning, but that he still couldn’t stand up and couldn’t walk without being supported by two people. His head was still so tilted to the side that he couldn’t eat out of his dish, but he would eat when people hand-fed him. He mostly slept all day.

So I went to visit him.

I guess I expected that he would be lethargic, and that I would sit by his crate and pat him while he slept. I would be very sad, but I would know it was the end of his long and happy life; I would be sad but at least I would see that he was peaceful and calm.

Oh, but it was far worse than that. In fact, he was so happy to see me that he kept trying to stand up, but then he would fall down again. When I opened the crate door, he leaned way over and kept licking my hand and wagging his tail. He tried to slide out the door of the crate and nudge the two of us over to the door. You could just see he was thinking, “Let’s make a run for it. Come on, there’s a door right there, and we’ll be out of here before they even know we’ve gone!”

But no. He cannot come home. They want to keep him for a few more days and see what happens. He can’t walk, he can’t climb stairs (of which we have many). He can’t eat or hold down food. Maybe he’ll get better, the vet said today, but chances are this will only happen again. In a few days or a week, or at best, in a few months. He probably won’t ever be able to do the stairs anymore. Or roam alone outside, like he loves to do. And when there snow and ice outside, how will he manage to keep from slipping–a dog who is too heavy to be lifted and carried around?

I stayed for an hour, and then I tucked his paws back inside the crate and swung the door closed and latched it. He slumped against the side when I turned off the light and left.

It is such a sad night here, with all these questions. I want to be philosophical about it all, to let him go if that’s what needs to happen, not to ask him to remain here to suffer the indignities of so many limitations. 

But there he was, wagging and licking. Wanting just to go home one more time, so sure he can tackle one more garbage bag and bound up and down the stairs just the way he could do yesterday morning when everything was right with the world.

I swear that I’m not simply going to keep feeding you You Tube videos…actually, I’d planned to write about the lovely hostas in my garden that look like girls in big skirts, but then my friend Beth sent me this wonderful video of a man who, in my book, is a genius. Genius trumps hostas every time!

I wonder if this trick works on babies? Jenny, Amy, Allie…I’ll bet you would hire this guy in an instant!

I know. I know. I’ve been a failure as a blogger lately. It’s not even because the New York Times, bless their hearts, has discovered that being a blogger is hazardous to your health and written this story about the dangers of it .I couldn’t bring myself to read the full article since I am very suggestible and would have to be taken to the hospital by ambulance almost immediately, but, according to the concerned folks at the Times, it seems that bloggers are having heart attacks, the implication being that they don’t know when to stop blogging and go eat nourishing food and get some sleep.

Clearly I am in no danger since I know how to not blog.

Actually, though, life has not been exactly a stress-free dream around here.

Things keep coming up.

April and May are always the months when the world seems to come out of hibernation, and things start filling up the calendar. Last weekend I participated in a writers’ conference, which was fun, but…well, talky. I think I spoke nonstop for about six hours on the topic of how you find characters to write about, and by the end I had nothing left in my brain.

And now that that is behind me, it seems I have to prepare for a 45-minute talk on the “challenges of my writing career” to an audience of students at the 5th Annual Writers’ Festival at Tunxis Community College on April 23. I laughed when the organizer told me that they would love if I could bring any photos to illustrate the challenges of this so-called career, which could be shown on an overhead projector. Perhaps I should take a picture of me slumped over my desk, still wearing my bathrobe at 4 in the afternoon, and tearing my hair out while I down cup after cup of tea. Oooh, or perhaps I should show this picture, of the true way my writing gets done. I outsource it to dogs.

At any rate, the good news is: spring is at last coming to Connecticut. There are buds on the trees, the grass is greening up, and at night now you can hear the wonderfully creepy sound of the peepers, sounding like space aliens have arrived.

Excuse me while I go get another Tums and remind that dog he has a novel due on September first.

This is a picture of my mother in the hospital, with her little dog Bear, a few days before she died.

Bear is looking at Peggy, my mother’s friend who had brought him to the hospital for a visit. Peggy lived across the hall from my mother and she now (bless her) raises Bear. He was restless and agitated in the bed, and a few minutes after this picture was taken, my mother said, “Okay, he knows I love him. He needs to leave now.”

I have been thinking about her a lot lately. I miss her so much, even though in the last year of her life, all I did was worry about her all the time. She was always feeling sick and tired, and she was constantly ticked off at her friend, Mike, whom she said was too clingy and also smelled bad. They took turns calling the ambulance on each other, like two children tattling on each other to the principal.

Yep, it was a precarious life there in the senior housing complex in Clearwater, Florida, and she was always getting into scrapes. When I went through her papers at the end, I saw that she was often getting fined because Bear “would urinate on the rugs in the public area and sometimes on the other residents.”

I remember she would call me up in outrage that somebody in the hallway hadn’t moved out of the way in time when it should have been clear to anyone that Bear was lifting his leg! “And now,” she’d sputter, “I have to pay the fine because SHE didn’t get out of the way when Bear was going to pee!”

“Why don’t you teach him not to pee on people?” I’d ask her, but she had no idea that was the kind of thing that dogs and humans could ever negotiate. Dogs do whatever they wish. Didn’t I know anything?

It’s odd how when someone dies far away, you almost can’t wrap your head around the fact that it’s really over. I still go to the phone, thinking I have to call her, I have to make sure she’s okay, and then I remember a split-second later that she’s gone. I feel sadness mixed with relief. Ohhh…she’s not in the hospital again. She hasn’t gotten evicted. Whew.

As though those things would be worse somehow than what IS true: that she’s dead.

I’m so glad I had those days with her in the last month, but of course they don’t feel like they were anywhere near enough of what they should have been. I guess the mind looks for meaning somehow, and there was no meaning. Looking back, it boils down to the fact that one ordinary Wednesday afternoon, she called me up crying and said she thought she had cancer all over her body and that her doctor was making her have a colonoscopy to find out for sure, and then two days later her surgeon called and said, yup, that’s pretty much what we found…and then I went to see her, and for a while it seemed like she might have some time left, but then the time ran out more quickly than anybody expected, and the last days were very hard, and then there was a moment at the very end when she looked up at me and talked to me in such a way that I could remember that once, a very long time ago, before a lot of the bad stuff started happening–the mental illnesses and the separations and the charging thousands of dollars on Home Shopping Network–I had been her beloved child, the one she loved so much and took such good care of.

And then, just when I remembered that, she closed her eyes and died.

I spent two days cleaning out her house and giving her possessions to her friends, and then I came back home. And when I came back home, there were these new babies to cuddle, and a book to finish, and a whole rich life going on right where it had been going before, and after a week or so, it was almost hard to remember those days in Florida when I was there with her, pushing her in her wheelchair and talking about what the end might be like, and whether she should have another cigarette before we went back inside, and wasn’t that a funny time when my uncle sang that song in a bar. All of those conversations–the mundane and the tragic–all mashed up together.

One night when I was there, I had to do a phone interview with a book group that was reading “A Piece of Normal,” and my cell phone would only work outside the hospital. My mother wanted to come with me outside, but I didn’t want her to. I was worried that she would be too cold or too bored, and she’d be stuck outside with me until I finished being interviewed, but no, no, she wanted to come. So I pushed her wheelchair, and we sat outside while I talked to the book group, and it was the first time I had ever had any book-related thing to do with my mother present. My books were sort of abstract to her. She read them, she said “how nice,” but she never heard me talk about them. I was interviewed for about 45 minutes, and she just sat there beside me, in her wheelchair. I was surprised to look over and see that she was smiling and listening–really listening–and when I hung up from talking to the group, she started to cry. She said, “I never knew what your life is really like…I didn’t understand how you felt about your books.”

So there are all these things, these little memories of her, that rise like bubbles to the surface of my mind, and then pop. My mother was the only person left whom I had known for my whole life, and some days now are heavy with the knowledge that there was so much we didn’t get to yet.

Tomorrow, though, I’m going to call Peggy and see if Bear has peed on anyone lately. I’d like to think he gave that up.

Just when it seemed we didn’t have enough procrastination possibilities, now scientists have come up with a whole new area of tests we need to take time out to administer. We need to study our dogs’ tail wags.

I know. It’s too much.But today the New York Times reported that there is a new study that says how your dog wags his tail shows how he feels about you.

Apparently, if he loves you and appreciates that you’ve been feeding him all these years and letting him sleep in your bed while you’re at work (oh, you didn’t know he did that?)–his tail will primarily wag to the right when he sees you.

If he’s not all that into you, he’s going to give you the left-direction tail wag.

Who knew that tails are like Ouija boards? But that’s what the scientists have discovered, and they ought to know.

Golden retrievers, of course, have no choice but to love us. It’s built into their molecular structure, and they are powerless not to try to do everything they can to express that great love by slobbering on us, lying down where we are trying to walk, and putting as much of their fur on our clothing as they can.

Even so, I needed to test this out. It’s important when you’re home writing a book to take time out for the Important Things in Life.

Jordie is nearly 12–which is about 5,198 in dog years–so he probably would have been just as happy to forego this kind of testing, but it had to be done. He got up and came over when I called him, wagging a straight-down-the-middle wag. Very non-committal, I thought.

“Come on!” I said to him. “You and I are better friends than that!”

He collapsed so he could think it over better, which is when I took his picture. This it not the picture of Dog Love, in my opinion. It is a dog saying, “Why did you wake me up to get me to wag my tail?”

So I sat down next to him and reminded him of all the lovely, yummy tissues he’s taken out of my trash can, and of the times I’ve let all 75 pounds of him sit in my lap when he’s needed to watch television, and of the times the two of us have hung out in the hallway in the middle of the night, during scary, nerve-rattling thunderstorms.

I got two wags, one sort of right-leaning, the other middle-of-the-road.

So then I had to bring up the big guns, his favorite food: carrots. I explained again how I’m the provider of carrots right out of the refrigerator, and how the Other Adult in the Household doesn’t think a dog should be rewarded with a carrot for, say, every little thing he does, like breathing and allowing himself to be petted behind the ears. And how I disagree with that and think that dogs should get carrots whenever they want them.

“Carrots!” I said. “CARROTS!”

His ears perked up and he gave me about 200 big wags to the right. BINGO! It was love.

The phone rang just then. It was Stephanie, calling between classes from New York to say hi. “What are you doing?” she said.

“Oh,” I said. “Actually, I’m running some tests on whether the dog loves me, based on his tail-wagging direction.”

There was a rather long silence. “Oh,” she said. “Well, as long as you’re keeping busy.”

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Marmaduke is asleep on the floor, having binged until he passed out. His owner-man explains to a suit-wearing houseguest and his jowls that this is Marmaduke’s version of photosynthesis.

 

I may be slowly losing my mind, but this site, called “Joe Mathlete Explains Today’s Marmaduke” always, always makes me laugh. Often we’re talking tea-out-of-the-nose laughing.

A guy named Joe Mathlete includes the day’s Marmaduke cartoon which he painstakingly dissects and analyzes in 500 words or less. While the cartoon itself has never once been funny, the explanation of it can make you lose muscle control for a time. 

That’s all. Back to work now.

Recently I posted a picture of the corner of my living room where I write. Mostly.

Of course sometimes–like now–I have my laptop in the kitchen and I am perched on an uncomfortable kitchen stool while I write this. (Writing on an uncomfortable surface can make one hurry up, and I do want to finish in time to see “The Daily Show.”)

One day I tried to take my laptop into my bed to work, but the predictable thing happened: my legs went to sleep, and then I did, too.

In my history as a writer, I have written–with various degrees of success–at Starbucks, McDonalds, Dunkin’ Donuts, Cilantro’s Coffee Shop, the Saturn dealership, and the place where I get my oil changed.

And then last week I got invited to go along with a friend’s writing group to somebody else’s living room for a writing day…and now I have discovered Writing Nirvana. It turns out that writing at somebody else’s house is just the perfect solution. People are always asking me why I can’t just settle down and write at home, and although sometimes it is true that actual sentences and even chapters have been formed at my own house, there are factors at home that can make it difficult. They are: the dog; the dust bunnies wheeling throughout the house, calling out to be vacuumed; the telephone; the internet; and the fact that there is a bathtub with running water beckoning from just two rooms away.

At somebody else’s house, there are still all those things present–and yet, and yet…you don’t have to be responsible for any of them. Other people’s dogs don’t come and put their dejected little heads on your computer and give you pleading looks until you get up and give them carrots. Other people’s dogs don’t even shed like your own unkempt, unbrushed (for weeks now) dog. Other people’s dust bunnies are gone before you arrive. And if the phone rings–you just keep your head down and keep working. It is not, trust me on this, your mother calling to ask you why you never call her.

And no matter how comfortable I get at somebody else’s house, I am unlikely to ask permission to take a bath.

So for two days recently I have been working with others in somebody else’s living room. We all bring our own lunches and don’t even stop working to eat together. When you get hungry, or bored, or in need of a good pacing, you just walk yourself to the kitchen, pour another cup of tea, cut a slice of bread, or munch on grapes. The house–even with five writers in it–is quiet and calm.

And, the way other people’s houses are, it is oh, so clean and perfect. 

Best of all, you hear the steady tapping of keys. The muse is standing in the kitchen, and she gently leads you back to your work. Sit here, child. No, you’re not going to ask to take  a hot bath. Turn on your computer again and get back to page 176. There, you can do it.

Bloglily has asked her readers to send in pictures of where we all do our writing. And people have sent in photos of the most inspiring spots: library carrels, desks at home that are surrounded by bookshelves, lovely neat surfaces and comfy looking chairs.

Here’s my entry. I spent the day today sitting right here in my living room, curled up on the couch, propped against the pillows with that red throw over my shoulders and the laptop warming my lap. Even so, today it was so cold and the window behind me so leaky that there were times when my hair was actually blowing in the breeze. See the beautiful flowers on the table? They’re from Valentine’s Day, and they smell wonderful. I kept stopping to sniff them. And to drink more of the pot of Earl Grey tea I had made.

Many days lately I work at Starbucks, sitting in an armchair by the window, where the sun shines in so brightly that I feel quite comfortable drinking venti black iced tea with extra ice, over and over again. Sometimes the only moving around I do is to go and order a refill. Writing at Starbucks works for me because there is enough background noise to keep me focusing on what I’m doing–and yet there is nothing there that I’m in charge of or that needs cleaning, so I have no excuse for getting up and doing other things.

Still, today it was nice to be at home, just the dog and me. It was too cold for him to want to go in and out, in and out, in and out. We were both happy just to sit under the blanket and think about our work. (My work is a book; his work is tearing up a stuffed snowman that he loves.) At four, I got up and made carrot soup and a loaf of bread, and then came back to work. That pile of papers on the end of the couch is my novel.

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