My Dog Days

They’ve been steady companions as I’ve moved from house to house, station to station—and each one has provided me with a lesson about my life’s passage.

May 2007By Comments

THE FIRST DOG I EVER OUTLIVED WAS MOE. He came with my family, which was in the process of getting bigger (I was the third child out of what would become five) and had adopted the dog to appease my brothers’ having to tolerate a new sister. Moe: a beagle named by boys. My delinquent brother believed he had named the dog after his favorite Stooge; my egghead brother thought “Moe” was short for Geronimo, whose history he was then studying. Moe was not exactly one of us. He lived outside, like the lawn mower, and over the years we spent a lot of time commanding and imploring him to shut up. Occasionally, my father took him hunting, which left both of them vaguely deaf. It was Moe’s baying that prompted my first sentence: “Moe bark.”

When my parents’ fifth child arrived, they moved us from our tiny tract house in Wichita, Kansas, to a giant dilapidated one. Moe and I got lost together our first night in that house, wandering the back staircase that led to the servants’ quarters. Everything was different in the new house—we even had a new sister. But Moe was the same. And though he spent the second half of his life in a much larger pen, he still lived outside with the garden tools and bikes, and we rarely visited him. There he sat at the gate, barking feebly. The big excitement was when he finagled an escape and we mobilized to look for him—in cars, on foot, on the phone—everyone horrified, hearts pounding, eyes leaking, to think he would die or disappear. But who could blame him for trying?

I was twelve when he died. A piece of my childhood had been irrevocably stolen away at the same time as I was going through puberty, heading off to junior high, wearing my first bra, sneaking my first sips of liquor, uttering my first curse words. Childhood snuffed, wrapped in a smelly blanket and buried in the backyard under a brick. For a while there was no replacement for old Moe. My parents made the usual dull excuses: No one ever walked the dog, the dog suffered, the dog sat outside barking; they, my mom and dad, would end up caring for the dog, no matter what promises we children made. Blah, blah, blah.

So it was a stealth operation, acquiring the new dog. It was a forgiveness-rather-than-permission kind of move, very teenage. I located a stray while wandering some neighborhood I shouldn’t have been in, smoking cigarettes with people I shouldn’t have been with. The dog “followed” me, attached to the end of my white studded belt, all the way home, across town. He looked like an Old English sheepdog cut off at the knees. His tail was so long it seemed as if he might tip backward on it, and he acted more like a cat than a dog, aloof and skittish. I named him George when he sort of responded to the name. He rarely barked, and he hid under furniture, refusing to come when called. On walks, he picked fights with larger dogs, as if he himself were large. More than once, he chased a smaller creature to its death. His one claim to some kind of charm was his right ear, which stood up while the left lay flat. This made him seem quizzical and sweet instead of malodorous and paranoid, which were his true traits.

When I left for college, George stayed with my parents, just as they’d predicted he would, and when he died and my mother phoned me, I thought for sure the grief in her voice was about my father or my niece or any other number of humans we loved. Nope. She was weeping over George, who had finally succumbed.

I was married by then and had a much more presentable dog to love, a dog who’d fit in at a Pottery Barn photo shoot or running in slo-mo on the beach. Buying a dog is significantly different from inheriting or adopting one. It’s not quite like buying a product, since dogs aren’t made on an assembly line, yet it isn’t the same as saving a mongrel either. Not quite. It’s more like dating, I think. You select your type—blond, dumb, sweet—and then watch the litter, looking for the one whose particular blond-dumb-sweet personality best suits your own, knowing in advance that you have some affinity. I wanted a golden retriever. I wanted a girl because I’d only had boys—unneutered, my dad of a school of thought that disapproved of lopping off a fella’s nuts. I myself have always wanted to be a gentle leggy blonde; why wouldn’t I choose her, instead of a fireplug with a Napoleon complex?

A golden retriever puppy looks more like a human baby than any other creature. I chose the most temperate of the girls. Flannery, I named her. (A year later, when I won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, my husband suggested we name our next dog Nobel.) I loved that dog like a child. She was much more rewarding than my earlier dogs, much more appealing than my cats. Right up until I gave birth to my daughter, the very day, hand on my burbling belly, I can remember thinking: I will never love anything as much as I love Flannery.

So Flannery was my biggest dog romance for many years. She was our first project, my husband’s and mine. We acquired her in Tucson, Arizona, where I went to graduate school, where we met, and where she grew up, much photographed and anthropomorphized. She moved with us to Chicago, where she gamely endured living in our tiny one-bedroom apartment, adjusting admirably to a suddenly circumscribed life. Down two flights of metal steps she had to go, several times a day, out beyond the manicured garden and parking lot, us with bags, her with a full bladder. City living in the frozen Midwest. We all suffered.

But soon I had children, and the dog was displaced. Not completely, but profoundly. We returned to the Southwest, to a large house and a big yard, and the dog became like Nana from Peter Pan, a patient creature who lay on the floor while the kids pulled her tail or stood on her head. They learned to walk with her, clinging and tripping and spilling food on her back as she slowly perambulated. They took her existence for granted; they’d been born into a family that included the required members: Mom, Dad, Dog. When Flannery died, at age twelve, my daughter was nine and my son five. I felt her death as the resulting grief passed through them, especially the girl. Those emotions are not diluted by having been refracted through a child; on the contrary, they are enhanced by the frustration of not being able to suffer in the child’s place. They are magnified by the ferocity of witnessing not only the death of the animal but the death of the child’s innocence.

My family owns a summerhouse in the Colorado Rockies, and that’s where we were when Flannery died. I took her ashes (no backyard burial for this one) up a mountain she particularly enjoyed hiking and scattered them in a waterfall. I had outlived another dog and come some substantial distance since seeing the last one off. All of her predecessors had trekked up this trail. Moe rode up it in a Jeep, when it wasn’t a trail but a road, when I wasn’t a hiker but a passenger as my father four-wheeled. George skulked along up here with me when I felt a need to escape, to leave the house and get high. And now Flannery would always be here. The hikers above me frowned as the gray ash blew when I dumped the sack and shed a tear.

Three months later, I was back at the breeder’s.

STICKING WITH THE SAME BREED OF DOG is sort of like cheating death: Having this second golden is a lot like never having lost the first. Same general looks, same temperament, same color of fur filling the vacuum bag. The name is different, of course, although Odette seems to understand (and forgive, as is her and her breed’s nature) our occasionally calling her Flannery.

We couldn’t stop there, though. My son’s idol, when he was young, was his older cousin Cody. Cody’s mother raised West Highland terriers, and so my son grew fixated on owning one. My sister-in-law aided in this fixation by breeding Elmo and Lulu every six months, always offering us a free puppy. Finally my husband gave in to our combined mewling and whimpering. Oscar the Westie came to live with us.

He imprinted on the golden, so his habits are not as obnoxious as most terriers’. Still, in the age-old argument concerning nurture and nature, I think it’s safe to say that breed wills out. Oscar is sneaky the way terriers are sneaky, always hiding small objects (toys, food, credit cards) and declining to come out of nooks and crannies. He feels no particular shame in his bad behavior. He obsesses over certain plastic items, most recently the fly handle of a zip line strung in our yard. From the tree house, our children could grab onto the handle and fly across the yard. When they let loose, the dog would run yapping and leaping at the handle far above his head. Years after they had stopped using the zip line, we would torment Oscar by sending the handle flying empty along the wire. He always chases beneath, snapping and flipping. If you get in his way, he will bite you.

His life expectancy is well into the double digits.

Eventually disappointed in this creature, my son began lobbying for a different breed. We had moved to Houston by then; there, our family went through a rough patch with our daughter, who finally had to move away from us in order to survive. She took the golden with her when she left, and I was glad to think of that dog in her possession, a steady source of unconditional love, radiating like a furnace to warm our girl, if she would let her.

This left us with one dog, Oscar, the annoying Westie. My son argued that Oscar was lonely and needed a friend. He even wrote an essay for his English class on the topic, a persuasive paper that earned him a B (but when he succeeded in changing his father’s mind, I thought he had a strong case for jacking the grade up to an A). We scoured the Houston Chronicle daily in search of a corgi. We went on the Internet. We checked out books. It was a challenge: Corgis are popular, it seems. Breeders charge upward of eight hundred bucks for the little guys. I was interviewed by one Virginia breeder and apparently did not meet her standards (she said she’d get back to me but never did). In time we found what is called a “backyard breeder,” somebody whose credentials (that is, whose dogs’ credentials) aren’t quite topflight. We met at the PetSmart parking lot near George Bush Intercontinental to make the exchange. The puppy looked flawed. His ears lay flat and his markings were subpar. On one ear was a white dot like a thumbprint.

A puppy is a perfect project for a mother and her teenage boy. The two of us treat that dog like our child, commenting fondly on his likes and dislikes, his cleverness and charm, ascribing all manner of intelligence and insight to him. Eventually we were reunited with our daughter and the golden—so, like the Westie, Roscoe the corgi imprinted on the big, dumb blonde. Her lesson of gentle forbearance most definitely took. The corgi’s a sociable animal, a little nosey parker. On walks, he takes the lead, weaving back and forth to keep his herd in order. He seems to wish that he could talk; one senses a great many opinions he holds and hopes to express. He spends a lot of time looking us in the eye, tilting his head as if trying to translate our foreign language into his own. He’s like a very bright valet from some sweet-tempered servile country who has not yet picked up the local idiom. But he will, he will.

Now we have three homes, among which we circulate: fall in New Mexico, winter in Houston, summer in Colorado, in that same family cabin. Our dogs travel with us. Odette, Oscar, Roscoe, and I hike up the same trail where I spread the ashes of Flannery, where I used to hike with George as a teenager, shrieking at him to stop killing marmots, to stop chasing cats, to come back, come back, come back. Last spring Odette began to die. She’s been dying for months now—seizures, dementia, a deteriorating spine, fluid-filled lungs, tremors, dottiness, an enlarged heart (could anything be more metaphorically apt than a too-big heart in a golden retriever?). She wobbles around the yard and weaves through the house. She tipped over the trash a few weeks ago and consumed everything in it, eggshells, chocolate wrappers, chicken bones. We arrived home to find her in a bloated stupor, panting and comatose on the kitchen floor.

That night the four of us sat in the kitchen around her, our daughter, now nineteen, at her head, our son, now fifteen, at her haunch. They pet her and we talked, for hours. As the night wore on we moved a pallet in beside the dog so that our daughter could sleep beside her. In the morning, my daughter and I went to the emergency vet and for the next 48 hours occupied, with the dog, a strange little kennel space there.

Odette was x-rayed and evacuated and hooked up to an IV. We took turns squirting water into her mouth, stroking her chin until she swallowed. Around us other emergencies came and went—victims of fights, dogs that had fallen out of truck beds, cats that had been hit by cars—while we sat in our tiny caged room, more like a prison cell than anything else, with its drain in the center. Between forcing fluids and weeping, we ran lines for the play my daughter would star in a few weeks later.

Odette, I think, is my last golden. We bought her from a breeder whose name was Justice (he was a Texas Ranger). He lived in a trailer and kept his puppies in a kids’ play pool in the living room. He had pit bulls in his yard, surrounding the house like a living moat, and the place was so thick with dog odor you almost couldn’t breathe. His little daughter was the same age as my son; I wanted to take her too, when we took the dog. On the way home ten years ago with Odette, I asked the children if they knew what the word “justice” meant. My daughter hesitated, thinking, then said, “Isn’t ‘justice’ just a nice way to say ‘revenge’?”

“I didn’t like that man,” said my son. In that instance, it sort of did feel like I was rescuing a bred dog. I should have bought her siblings too; the little girl I couldn’t have saved.

I AM SITTING IN MY STUDY SURROUNDED BY MY DOGS. There are three, as in a fairy tale: the old golden (dying), the middle-aged Westie (an asshole), and the young corgi (the apple of my eye). It doesn’t surprise me that some people prefer their pets to their relatives or friends. There have been dogs present at every stage of my life, silent witnesses, steady companions as I move from house to house and station to station. They’ve played different roles—irritant, companion, surrogate child. You own a dog with the knowledge that it will move through the stages of existence in fast-forward, providing you with a lesson about your own life’s passage. It will die, and break your heart to varying degrees. It will teach your children to love what’s beholden to them. And then, when you reach middle age, you realize that one of these dogs, someday in the future, will outlive you. It’s just slightly easier to imagine death if I think of Roscoe, or the next corgi we own, or the one after that, trotting with purpose around the house, wondering what’s become of that person he used to know.

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