i. Isn’t being irreplaceable the whole point?
ONCE YOU’VE BECOME an adult of a certain age, you cease to be surprised by how quickly time passes. I’ve gone from lamenting how long summers used to be to pitying the credulous kids who don’t realize, yet, how fleeting these endless days of freedom will be, especially as they get older. So it goes.
Still, I was surprised to note, this past winter, how five years could possibly have disappeared since my beloved dog, Leroy Brown, went to that great kennel in the sky. People who know me know how much I loved my dog. People also know that I’ve had dogs before Leroy Brown, making me a dog person, which meant that I would presumably want another dog, eventually. Once a respectful period of time had passed (for some friends this was one year; for others it was one day), I began hearing a familiar question: Are you in the market for another pup?
Every time, I try my best not to recite what’s become an almost reflexive response: “I can’t imagine never having a dog again. But…”
And it’s this but that illustrates where I was five years ago; where I remain right now. The but precedes the following sentiment: I’m not particularly close to thinking about another dog at this point. Indeed, the loss still feels fresh sometimes, almost unbearably so on occasion. In fact, in some ways (at times inexplicable, at other times obvious) it is harder as more time passes between today and the last day of Leroy Brown’s life. It’s not just that I don’t want to get over the loss—whatever that actually entails—but that I know I never will, and the most useful attitude going forward will be to reconcile this understanding with an appropriate sense of perspective. Plus, isn’t being irreplaceable the whole point?
Put more simply: I remain grateful for having such a great companion and am humbled I had the opportunity to share time with him for just under ten years. Also, there is no doubt in my mind that if or when another pup comes into the picture, I will love him or her without reservation. That’s what dog people do. And, if it happens that I never do live with another dog, that’s cool, too. For now I’m content to mourn the loss and celebrate the memories. If and when the right time comes, I’m quite certain that I’ll know it, and act accordingly. Just like I did in April 1999.
ii. Dog Days
I am not alone. I have a best friend, who happens to be a dog. He is really good for me, reminding me to eat, sleep, go to the bathroom and generally making sure that I get out a few times a day. He walks me whenever he gets the chance. Our favorite time is after work, when we reenter the building and the walls and halls come alive, warm with the savory smells of home-made meals (you can never smell fast food, although that scent lingers in the elevator, as if ashamed to be associated with the honesty, the effort and industry of these prepared productions).
No one sits down to dinner anymore, but all around me, people are sitting down, eating meat loaf, or some sort of roast that has simmered on low heat all afternoon. Maybe there is even a pie prepared for dessert. Maybe, inside someone’s kitchen, it’s still the 1950’s.
My dog is a trooper.
He’s never called in sick a single day of his life: up at the crack of dawn every day, including weekends, stretched, eager and anxious to take on the world. Or at least take a walk.
My dog takes his work very seriously, and has succeeded in making more friends than I have. He does not discriminate: men, women, cars, trees, and other dogs—especially other dogs. After all, all dogs want is other dogs (I think my dog thinks I’m a dog). People aren’t like that, which, I suppose is why people love dogs. Thanks to him, I am on a first-name basis with all the other dogs in my building, though I have a hard time remembering what to call their owners.
All of us, of course, are more or less the same: we live, we work, we sleep, we eat, we love, we fight, we forget, we try to remember, we think, we wear down and then we die. In this regard, all living creatures are more alike than not.
In the elevator we all become imbeciles.
If two people fall on each other in an elevator, does it make any sound? No.
I work with people and find I’m seldom at a loss for words; how hard is it to bullshit about anything unimportant, including business, sports, sex, politics, the economy, the environment, Ayn Randian apocalypse, anything? But for some reason, no matter how many times I stand there with the same people the only possible topic of conversation is the one thing we all care the least about: the weather.
Even when I consciously resist it, some gravitational force, some irresistible element, something inherent in my nature takes over and I hear myself saying those unbelievable words:
Hot out there, huh?
Or, in winter:
Sure is getting cold!
And then we panic, pause and smile nervously at each other for the remainder of the ten-second eternity until one of us escapes the steel cage. And these aren’t strangers, they’re neighbors! Why is it that I can roll with the smiles and frowns and talk smack with just about anyone I encounter: on the streets, in the Men’s room (only when appropriate and mutually consented, of course), at concerts or sporting events, even in my godamned dreams, but here, only in the elevator, I become a sweaty, stammering deaf-mute. I find myself wishing for scandalous things, like, say, situational Tourette’s Syndrome. Anything to inspire something approximating small talk.
Thank God for my dog. He is usually with me at these moments, and in his inimitable, honest (and wordless) way, he can defuse several seconds of silent agony. He lets his tail do the talking, and with the absence of agenda or guile, he conveys what humans have spent several millennia unable to imitate.
My dog is mad at me.
I can’t blame him.
He knows the rules: If I don’t come home, I’m in violation of the contract (two meals, a bowl at least half full with half-clean water, and a minimum of three walks a day), so he is entitled to cut loose all over the kitchen floor, or even the couch.
But my pal is a team player; he has character. He held it. For me. And, I reckon, for himself. After all, it’s his house too.
His tail does its thing; I’m surprised he doesn’t take flight, and he is happy. Dogs cannot suppress that genuine love and honesty. But then, after the walk (and a piss that would make a drunken mule proud) he recovers and reverts to character: not taking the treat (Who wants a biscuit? I say. Not me, his back says), sitting on the other side of the room. Normally this would be my opportunity, my obligation, to win him over; shower him with affection and praise, but I can’t. I just don’t have it in me. The poor guy, he probably thinks I’m ignoring him. But I’m simply too hung over to address this injustice.
Eventually, inevitably, he comes around. The little wags every time I look over, the overtures of amiability, his minuscule capacity for indignation already exceeded. He follows me into the kitchen, and as I look around—still too ashamed to directly acknowledge him—searching for distraction, the oddly recurring thought once again arises: Can I possibly be the only person afraid to utilize the self-cleaning function of my oven? I don’t trust it. I don’t trust anything that makes promises it can’t keep.
In no time my dog is all over me, drunk from love as well as the fumes seeping through my skin.
I don’t mislead him: the best I’ll be able to offer is space beside me while I doze in and out of recrimination and self-pity. As usual, he has no complaints; happy to receive whatever I will give him. Dogs, after all, are not unlike humans: they need food and water; shelter and support. But they also need love.
My dog punches the clock, chasing after creatures he has no chance of catching. He chases squirrels the way his owner chases women: blindly and brazenly, but with no idea what he’d actually do if he ever caught one.
Bang: Another day ends with a whimper and all of us respectable citizens retire to our tents and our troubles.
My dog is waiting impatiently, and greets me with his usual eagerness. If there is one utterly amenable character in my world, it’s him: he treats me better on a bad day then I could ever pay another human being to approximate.
Outside, the cold does not dishearten him and I remind myself to take notes.
A siren sounds and he howls, ostensibly in approval. Being a human, I think on more practical levels: A siren, at night, really does sound like a woman screaming. Or a man for that matter. And perhaps that’s the point.
Up above, the moon glows, brazen and bright, kept warm (from behind) by a sun I can’t see. Suddenly, my dog becomes very excited, as he is known to do, and I nicely yank him back on the leash, as I’m known to do. When I can’t contain him, and he strains to get where he just was to the point of making loud choking noises, I finally survey the scene and see what he is so enthralled with: a damn trash bag. Half buried in the filthy slush, there must be a discarded bone; I can actually see a bone. A bone that looks a lot like a skull. As my dog sniffs ecstatically around me, I look down carefully and finally understand something that used to be alive is being cruelly preserved in this frigid mound. I disappoint my dog and pull him away from his discovery, and remind him that treats await both of us inside.
When he was a puppy, my dog would whimper anytime I was out of sight. Throughout his infancy, all he seemed to want was to share space with me, inhale the air I exhaled, use his wet nose to flirt with my feet. As he settled into the dog-eared years of adolescence, we got into a good groove: aside from the inevitable, and understandable, teenage tantrums; he was everything I could ever have hoped for.
Once he was old enough to drive he would sometimes scold me: if I stayed out all night or stumbled through another substandard evening stroll, or when I collapsed from exhaustion after throwing a toy once or twice, he conveyed his disenchantment by setting up camp across the room, safely out of reach, to put his head between his hands and sulk. And stare. You can always tell when a dog is unhappy because the rest of the time they are either ecstatic or asleep.
We helped each other through our mid-life crises; after all, what are friends for? And after a few more years, like any committed couple in a long-term relationship, we understood we were in it for the duration. As he got older (but not old, he never had the chance), I took him to vet appointments that became more frequent and expensive. What was, in the earliest days, a process of excitement and discovery increasingly became an acknowledgment of age and reality.
iii. Whispered Words
How long will it take? I did not ask, because I wanted to make every second count. It would be over quickly enough; it was already happening entirely too soon.
It’s okay, I said as I held my dog, flanked by friends and the friendly technicians who split their time between extending or improving lives and facilitating peaceful endings.
“He won’t feel any pain,” they assured me, and I knew it was the truth since this was not the first time I had found myself in this situation. Another dog, another occasion, and the excruciating decision to restrict pain by hastening death. Another time, at a place all dogs hate to go, perhaps because some part of them suspects that someday the person standing over them at the examination table will be the same one who administers that final injection.
I had already watched another small dog slowly go to sleep, just like they said he would. Barely moving when we carried him in, he snarled once the doctor reached for him: an instinctive gesture or perhaps a final, indignant affirmation (I am still alive!) and, as we covered him with kisses and kind words, the calm, considerate doctor reminded us that there would be no pain; it would, in fact, be quite pleasant. This stuff, he said, putting the needle down, would make our dog—could, in fact, make any of us—feel better than we’d ever felt, that this stuff was illegal, and expensive, on the streets.
Another day, different doctor, same drill. My dog’s heart was failing him. It was supposed to be a sluggish, gradual decline; the type you can sluggishly, gradually prepare for. But something had happened (I seem to recall words like torn and internal and bleeding) and my dog could scarcely breathe on his own when I brought him in. Seeing him, panting heavily and near panic in his tiny, oxygenated crate was as pitiful a sight I’ll hope to never endure again. I left the room so they could give me the diagnosis: it was dire and I had minutes, not hours, to make a decision. The moment my dog saw me as I rushed back into the room that default setting took over and all my own concerns evaporated.
(Stay strong, I did not need to tell myself, because I had been here before. I had looked down, yet another time, at another pair of eyes: impossibly lucid and beseeching, charging me to make sense of, or at least assuage, a kind of suffering that cannot be conveyed with words.
And once again I heard that reassuring phrase, or well-meaning mantra, that somehow articulated every hope, fear and aspiration a moment like this can contain. It will be okay, I said, smiling down at those eyes. Eyes I had looked into too many times to count, eyes that told me more about myself than anyone would believe, eyes that, until this moment, I could not imagine never being able to look at again.)
It gets very quiet while time and place and the guarded feelings that enable us to function all fall away and you concentrate every thought into one simple, implausible objective: peace. You think it and you will it and for a moment that might be forever you become it in ways you’re never able to talk about later, even if you are inclined (and you aren’t, especially). You shiver but are calm; you are entirely in the present tense yet you are also somewhere else, somewhere deeper inside that, somehow, connects you to everything else you’ve ever known.
It will be okay, you whisper, actually believing this because it is not even your own voice you hear. You don’t know if this is you, or your mind, or the actualization of that other place (you are hazily aware) you have managed to access, understanding it is not anything you can anticipate or comprehend even though you have been preparing for it (you realize, abruptly) your entire life.
It’s okay, you say, and maybe your vision is blurred or your eyes are closed, or probably you are seeing more clearly than ever before, but now you recognize this voice and, as you look down at eyes that can no longer see you, understand, finally, that you are talking to yourself.
-Are you in the market for another pup?
-I can’t imagine never having a dog again. But…
– I’m not sure I’m ready, just yet.
-You’re not getting any younger.
– If Leroy Brown was still around he’d be twice my age, in dog years.
-Well, you have to settle down sometime.
-I don’t have to do anything of the sort.
-Do you want children?
-I don’t know…I can’t imagine my life without children.
-Then what’s the problem?
-I can’t imagine my life with children.
-I know. If we didn’t need to have jobs to pay the bills we would probably agonize every day over which job to take…
-Exactly. You just do what you have to do and have faith that it’s meant to be, you make it right, one way or the other.
-So all it takes, apparently, is faith.
-So what do you do when you don’t have faith?
-You get a dog.