Charlie’s cat died last week. All systems failed, and Charlie had to make the tough decision in the vet’s office, holding the cat as the end came. Charlie lives alone, now. He talks about coming home to an empty apartment and feeling as if the light has been sucked from the universe. It was an elderly cat, frail and disabled, and yet, of course, when the time came, Charlie was undone.
I drove a large and elderly dog from Massachusetts to Alabama. We stopped only to let him wobble from the car, sniff some grass, do his stuff, and when he looked up expectantly, I picked him up and set him on his favorite blanket in the back seat. I was determined to get him to our new home; I couldn’t let him die on the road. Hopper was an All American dog, probably German shepherd mixed with border collie, rangy and distinguished by a spattering of spots which made him look like a miniature Holstein with a lolling tongue. I fell in love with him while courting my wife; they were a bonded pair, but they let me and my son into the pack. Over the years, I came to love all of them more profoundly, even as I knew that Hopper’s time would likely come well before mine.
He lived large, bounding beyond the pathetic boundaries we set, occasionally doing his own courting until we finally had him neutered. His roaming decreased and he settled into life with his enlarged family. In the last few years he began to have seizures, scary, but not debilitating. We came to recognize the signs and protected him as best we could, putting his blanket and pillows under his head, holding him. I held him in my arms too at the end, when a kind veterinarian came to our home, allowing Hopper to stay in his own bed. That was more than twenty-five years ago, and I still remember the feel of the good dog nestled against my chest
We’ve loved other dogs: a goofy German shepherd, an Australian shepherd with a sweet face and a fondness for cake, a border collie who could run like a typhoon but who as a therapy dog happily settled into the embrace of kids with terminal illnesses. For several years we had a pack of four, matriarch Jinx, oddly humorous Satch, somewhat needy Rogue, and the then newest pup, Banner, all border collies. They started out in California, but moved with us to Southern Oregon, where they quickly found active games in the meadow behind our new home.
Satch is in Massachusetts, a dorm dog working with our daughter in a boarding school. He spends the summer here, but loves shambling amid kids away from home, leaning in, allowing them to sink their hands into his deep soft coat. Rogue and Banner are good company for each other, although Rogue has been hard on her little body, running hard for a lifetime, and is now stiff and often aching. Recently we’ve seen her fall and faint when running hard; we have learned that she is dealing with cardiomyopathy, an enlarged heart.
We almost lost Jinx, deaf and almost blind, who wandered from home on the coldest night of the year, becoming trapped in a frozen pool overnight. She was in a coma when we found her. We wrapped her in layers of blankets and held her in a small room filled with space heaters. She was entirely immobile and unresponsive. When my son arrived, he asked if she was going to make it. Hearing his voice, she lifted her head.
She lived for another year. Once again, I held a dog I loved in my arms as she died.
Time has passed. I still grieve and miss Jinx every day.
We can’t replace Jinx, or Hopper, or Maus, or Fax, or Blitz. I’ll be devastated when we lose Rogue; there will be no replacing her. And so, you might ask, why is a new puppy chewing on something that looks like my slipper as I write?
Why, knowing what’s coming, do I love the next dog, and the next?
The answer is simply because I can’t imagine not loving dogs. My daughter has correctly identified my dilemma as I walk down the street and encounter a schnauzer, or a Boston terrier, or a dog of no particular pedigree with a large block head and bright eyes.
“Must pat dog”.
Which turns out to be a very good thing as my wife is even more devoted to a dog-rich life. The newest dog, Gem, a four-month-old border collie, black and white, strikingly similar to Jinx as a pup, is adventurous and affectionate, less needy than one of her packmates, a very nice addition to the family. She spends much of her day with or near us, often lounging in a very large, tall pen in what was once a family room. The house is full of dog fur. We no longer vacuum as fur clogs the machine, but sweep daily, guiding growing balls of fluff into heaps that can be scooped up and tossed out. Days are ordered around care and feeding, and we don’t take vacations far from home.
I’ll outlive some dogs, and some will outlive me. There’s pain and loss and regret, but love as I know it is about signing on without reservation, even when the stakes are high. I miss the good dogs we’ve lost but can’t imagine missing out on one day with them.
I know how Charlie feels in his empty apartment; he plans to visit the shelter this week to see which cat needs to be his next cat. He’ll love that cat too, anyway.
The big questions remain unanswered; we can’t know who will be the next to go. In the meantime, there are dogs to be scruffled and cats to be pampered, and that sounds good enough to me.