Thursday, January 9, 2020

A Good Dog

Frisbee, January 9, 2020
Here’s the thing: this puppy chose me.

Skowhegan, Maine. November, 2004. I’m sitting within a small pen surrounding by squirming, teetering-toppling balls of fluff. All puppies are delightful but Australian Shepherd pups are inordinately adorable. I’m here to pick one. Choose the future canine member of our family who will make her surprise appearance for the kids under the tree on Christmas Day … and I’m examining their coloring, their eyes, their energy. I think I know what I’m looking for ….

Then the biggest, quietest, slowest, with the least “perfect” Aussie markings (I’ve done my homework!) shoulders all the others out of the way, maybe even stepping on a few in the process, climbs into my lap, curls up contently, and before settling in (and sending her sibs a very clear Back Off! message) turns to face me. To look straight into my eyes.

Hey. Where’ve you been? those eyes seemed to say. A familiar stranger. And like that, we were matched.

This dog has been my constant companion for 15 years and five novels. Her walks have been part of my writing routine. On days when it felt lonely to be trapped in an office, at the computer, while the sun shines, I would look up and see her watching me, waiting for me to take a break and go throw a ball or play hide and seek with her (she could always sniff me out!) And somehow her quiet patience helped me feel like what I was doing was important, worth waiting for.

She has been with us through extremely difficult and extremely joyful times. We have marked the years of our family through her presence.

She had an uncanny sense of our distress, and when you were sad she would press up against you.

She had teeth like razors, and if you stopped to chat with a neighbor during one of her walks she’d bite clear through the leash in order to keep moving. But if you had the tiniest treat to feed her, her little lips could sense your fingers and expertly pluck the bit without even the slightest nip.

She inhaled her meals. She was always hungry; she never said no to food. But these past days I’ve been hand feeding her kibble one pellet at a time, because she can’t bend low enough to reach the bowl. 

My husband hung jingle bells on our doorknob and trained her to ring them whenever she needed to go outside to pee. But in past weeks she has become incontinent, and distressed by her inability not only to control her bladder but to even tell us she needs to go.

On summer evenings we’d take her to the athletic fields at Bowdoin College and hurl frisbees into the air for her. She'd race, feet pounding, Seabiscuit-like, practically half a football-field’s length, leap high and snatch the dang thing from the air. But these past days her back legs have failed her, and she collapses when she tries to stand. I need to hold her up to urinate, to drink. 

This is a bluebird day, and when I brought her outside she seemed to know. She managed to prop herself into a sitting position and point her face toward the sun, and remain like that, still, for a while. Like she was soaking in the last of this dear world which she exulted in. She loved charging through the snow, racing through the woods, chasing pretty much anything we’d throw. She loved going places, anywhere, and when we’d say, “Wanna go for an automobile ride?” she’d run to the car.

These last few days I’ve watched her become imprisoned by her failing body, and it’s time to set her free. This dog chose me and trusted me to always care for her, and hard as it is to let her go it’s the last loving thing I can do. 

The poet Mary Oliver loved dogs, too. Her words help:

A dog comes to you and lives with you in your own house,
     but you
do not therefore own her, as you do not own the rain, or the
trees, or the laws which pertain to them.

Bye, Friz. Thanks for being our dog.

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