Monday, December 6, 2010

A Dog's Death

I listen for the sound of footsteps, the early morning signal that she's up and ready to go out. Rituals that take hold, thirteen years' worth in this case, are not so readily relinquished. If I listen long enough, I may even believe I'm hearing her.

In a way, I am. I'm hearing her nails click against the wood floor, the jingle of her dog tags, her licking her paws, even the barking that seemed more a delayed reaction to the UPS truck in our driveway than the first alert it used to be. An aging dog is entitled to the same selective hearing as an aging person. An aging dog with advanced lymphoma is entitled to take her time, make instinctive decisions about what is really worth getting up for. Week by week her body diminished in size, and she still managed to muster the strength to go out, on her own, her dignity intact. Looking at the sun-filled square on the floor where she liked to nap brings an ache. Positioning myself in a downward-facing dog pose in the room where I do yoga brings an expectation: she will be here any minute, settle herself on the floor no more than a foot away from me. Sitting and reading on the couch in the living room, or working at my desk brings an unsettling quiet. She was not an especially noisy, or even affectionate, dog, and yet her absence fills the space she left with a profound silence.

The death of a dog, or any pet for that matter, is a reminder that there are many faces to love. 'Puppy love' has nothing, and everything, to do with puppies. When the dog I grew up with died, my mother wanted some words she could put on the equivalent of tombstone. Not a problem, I said, then I wrote: A dog's love is heaven's reminder of forgiveness. We call a dog's brand of love 'loyalty,' we call it a relationship based on training and trust and care. Some people abuse their pets, others pamper them. Then there's the rest of us, seeking the closest thing to balance between domestication and honoring the call of the wild. How much of an animal spirit can we really tame? Why would we want to?

All that rain last night, too much of it, making my sleep fitful. I listen for her breathing (almost a snore). I almost hear her get up from her bed, go to another of her favorite spots, a mat on the other side of the bedroom, closer to me. She does that thing dogs do when they paw at a mat or towel, crumple it up, lie down. How, I wonder, could that be comfortable? And that's exactly the point, the wonder of it all. Domesticated animals accommodate us. They please us when it suits them. Yes, there's a mutuality to it all, but the bottom line is simple: a dog is a dog is a dog. Some dogs learn things very quickly, and we call them intelligent. Some dogs are very demanding in their need for a scratch on the head or a rub on the belly. All dogs beg for food, until something wreaks havoc on their bodies, not even a piece of fresh chicken appealing enough to swallow. All dogs teach as much as they learn, if we just pay attention. In the very last weeks of my dog's life, I watched her become a master at conserving energy. I did my best to read her signals, frustrated at times when what I thought was the right thing to do became the one she resisted.

Some dogs love to roam, others prefer to stay put and guard their turf. Some dogs welcome people when they arrive and bark when they leave. All dogs we love make us angry when they don't come running on command and break our hearts when they're ailing. Their suffering is made manifest in ours, riddled with projection, the rock and the hard place that closes in on us. There's no easy out here, only euphemisms and questions: How soon is too soon to end her suffering? Did we wait too long? Did we time it just right?