In late March in this part of New York, the landscape is painted entirely in shades of tan and gray and brown. The roads still crackle with sand and fallen sticks. Some lawns have a hint of green, and the limbs of some shrubs are beginning to bud out. Piles of stale snow, left in out-of-the-way corners here and there, remind the visitor that it is not really warm yet, and it might just storm one more time.
My oldest son and I took a walk in woods before he had to rush off for class. We saw a pair of old yellow labs out there, enjoying a not-too-cold day outdoors. One dog was still very outgoing, and walked with us for a few yards before his distracted owner interrupted her phone conversation to call her dog back to her. The other dog was past the point of saying hello to strangers, and was trotting along stiffly and pleasantly, going about his doggy business with both the focus and the fog that is an elderly dog. Old dogs sometimes seem propelled by a drive to get somewhere very important, and all the while have a completely blank and lost expression. Being walked has become a reflex. Knowing the destination has become superfluous.
Just over two years ago, on March 7, 2009, our old dog Wheatie had his last day. He was 14. He had been having a hard time getting up and lying down and going up stairs and coming down stairs. He was no longer housebroken. I think a lot of other people would have put him down a long time before that day, but he still enjoyed a lot of things in his life, like walks, treats, and being the boss of Captain. March 6, he had not eaten his breakfast and he fell violently down the stairs and I suddenly knew it was time. Otto and I took him to the vet the next afternoon. Even the vet cried; she had known him his whole life.
He came to us as a puppy, the last to go from his litter, because he was the runt. Wheatie had one eye that maybe did not quite line up when he looked at you. One eye seemed to focus on the side of your head, or maybe something behind you. I did not ever believe he would have saved me heroically from an attacking bear or purse-snatcher, but he was sweet. When you filled the bathtub with warm water for the kids to take a bath, he would always get it in as if it were for him. Happy, easy, and not particularly bright or energetic, Wheatie was a very good family dog.
Having pets connects us to the simplest pleasures: a walk, dinner, a drink, a warm spot to nap in, being petted. Losing them reminds us that none of us get to be alive for very long. Each of us, in fact, is marching along, superfluous to the destination.
1 thought on “Dutchess County, New York in Early Spring”
A friend responded via email:
I've been musing about old beloved dogs quite a bit lately, as we live through our sweet girl's last weeks with us.
This has been a particularly tough week. The vet had to carry her to my car on Monday because she was so exhausted from her appointment for blood work, a pedicure (I refuse to subject her to the stress of a real day of beauty at the groomers and she doesn't walk the sidewalks enough now to keep her nails trimmed) and a little other maintenance work. A new low. I decided she'll only have one more trip to the vet, her last. Enough. Liver cancer be damned, it's her back end that is doing her in fast, and that is quite visible. No lab work required.
I looked around the first floor of our house today to see all the accommodations we've made for her over the last few months: big purple plastic many-chambered pill box on the kitchen counter, ugly rubber-backed area rugs from Fred Meyer all over the place to minimize those cartoon splat-collapses on the hardwood floors, furniture rearranged for easier passage (she can no longer go in reverse), people-food for her to graze on in her bowl, our college-age daughter's room slowly being taken over by my husband's and my clutter, (we now sleep there with with the dog instead of upstairs after her last terrifying midnight slide down the stairs from our bedroom)…on and on.
We are 3 months into our doggie-hospice experience with her, and it's a daily dose of heartbreak for each of us, as her world gets smaller and smaller, and the light in her eyes dims just a bit each day.
But just like Wheatie, she still seems to have some small pleasures: she'll rally for a short walk if both Dave and I can take her because I think some small part of her great doggie spirit and enthusiasm thinks it MIGHT be Saturday morning, and we MIGHT be headed to the bakery and she MIGHT be able to turn back the clock a year and walk 2 miles and get her own bagel as a prize; lying on the front porch sleeping and supervising the neighbor's landscaping work; a slow smile when we lay down next to her to pet her head and scratch behind her ears.
Our hope is, of course, that we can time a calm and peaceful goodbye just right. A huge responsibility for us, but a huge last gift for our old girl.
We've lost pets before, of course. It has not gotten easier, especially when you need to get kids through the loss, too.
Thanks for your musings about your Wheatie, and the old dog in the woods. Our dogs, our loving and devoted “children” that live out their entire life span in little more than one short decade, like a great movie you can only watch on fast-forward, have been very much on my mind, too.