As I clean house this morning, I keep finding traces of her. Clumps of her fluffy, blonde hair (she was a shedder) and a plastic food wrapper she had quietly spirited out of a trash can and into a corner for private licking. I already removed her food bowl, hung up her leash, and piled things onto the armchair in our bedroom where she always slept. I look at the remaining dog for signs that he is sad, that he needs to cry, to take a Xanax, or just more time to process the death of his “pack.” So far, he seems interested mainly in his usual business of hustling me for Cheerios and napping on the couch.
Eleven years ago, I adopted the dogs. She was the one I saw in the paper, her sweet, sad face was compelling on its own, but the shelter had, for purposes of advertising, given her the name “Katie,” the same name as my childhood Airedale. I took my three-year-old to the shelter; we adopted her and the beagle-terrier puppy that kept jumping into the air in his crate whenever we walked by. I was a grown up, I had my first real house, and no one was going to stop me from adopting as many dogs as I wanted. “Lady,” said the man at the desk, “are you sure you know what you’re doing?”
I did not. Nevertheless, Charlie and Maisy became our dog people.
Within a day of bringing them home, it became clear that she had been mistreated. The shelter worker had told me that she was brought in by a family that didn’t want her, and that they later came back, took her again, and returned her a second time. She was afraid of loud noises, and sat near a door most of the time, often whining quietly to go out. The vet speculated that she had not been allowed to go out often enough to relieve herself, and that firearms might have been part of life with Family I. (Or, as I like to think of them, the Pond Scum That Mistreated a Helpless Animal). Over the years, we loved her back to mental health. She watched us through the window when we were in the yard, as if to reassure herself that we weren’t going to leave her. She finally got to the point where she would jump onto the couch with me and snuggle, sometimes falling asleep with my arm draped across her fluffy middle. One of the finest moments of my life was when our vet told me that it was amazing how much Maisy trusted me after the cruelty of her early life. If I do no other good, that may be sufficient.
She was also, lest you should think her a fallen angel, a very naughty dog. She ate underwear and dirty Kleenex, as well as the occasional squirrel. She and Charlie ran away periodically, running wild for hours and spanning township boundaries before returning home filthy and exhausted to sleep it off. We never did figure out which of them was the Alpha – she always deferred to Charlie in matters of food, but seemed to be the ringleader and guide on the Great Escapes. Their relationship was, largely, inscrutable; whatever it was, it served them well for eleven years.
Because they were shelter dogs, we were never really sure how old either of them was – our vet guessed that when we got them, Maisy was probably three and Charlie less than a year old. She had produced at least one litter of puppies at some time in her past. About two years ago, she began to have what appeared to be tiny seizures, lasting only a second or two. Next she lost her hearing, and within the past year she began slipping on the hardwood floors, landing with a “thump” and a bewildered look. She was still eating, drinking, going outside for walks, and bringing me her itchy rump for an orgy of scratching.
About a month ago, she began to have periods where she couldn’t get up for a while, and she faltered going down the porch steps. She was going to die, she was at least fifteen years old, if not older, and it was just a reasonable time for her to begin to wind down. Our visiting holistic vet had retired by this time, and we rejected the idea of putting her in the car and taking her to see a strange new doctor unless she seemed to be in pain. If she was suffering, we agreed that we would immediately take her to be put down. Otherwise, we were going to let her be. I prayed, in my own way, for what I came to think of as “compassionate release.” I wanted her to die the way I would like to die – falling asleep in my own house in the arms of someone who loves me. No doctors, no tubes, no strangers, just a gentle, natural transition from this world to the next.
Saturday night, she refused a bite of sausage and we knew it was time. She seemed so very, very tired, and I lay on the floor and held her as she took her last breaths. I wept, of course, my tears falling on her beloved, butter-colored fur, but I wasn’t really crying for her. She was going to be just fine. I was crying for myself, already leaping ahead in a kind of anticipatory hysteria to visions of her empty chair, bowl, spot on the floor, and the absence of her face in the front door to meet us when we came home. The thing is, that it was time. “Nothing gold can stay.”
I imagine her reincarnated as a beautiful girl child born into a family that will love her and cherish her gentle spirit. I think some underwear-eating can be forgiven, in the great karmic scheme of things, if the balance of one’s life was spent giving pleasure and love with an open heart. As for me, I’m honored that I could be a part of it all.