On Loving & Losing Man’s Best Friends

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i.

Schnauzers look at you.

I mean they really look at you.

Not through you, only people do that.

If dogs, in general, are correctly credited for living entirely in the moment, anyone who’s owned or known a schnauzer can confirm that they live within the millisecond. They are not only acting—and reacting—to their own internal and external stimuli; they are measuring your mood.

As a result, their mood is inextricably connected with yours. In this regard they are like all other dogs, only more so. If you are obviously not altogether there, for whatever reason, they feel you. They get it, and they make it clear that they get it.

(We got this, they don’t say.) You can always tell when a dog is unhappy because the rest of the time they are either ecstatic or asleep.

Suffice it to say, they are happy and they need you to be happy. That’s all they want, besides food, shelter and their Dog-given right to sniff other dogs’ butts.

A common misconception is that, as dog lovers, we crave subservience, and it feeds our insatiable egos. That’s not why people have dogs, it’s why people have children (just kidding). In truth, it’s a great deal more complicated, more philosophical than that. Sure, what’s not to love about an incorruptibly honest, obedient, affirmative presence one can count on every second of every day?

And yet, I suspect, if you spoke with people who are not just dog people, but those people—the type who not only talk incessantly about their own dogs, but other dogs, and are up for talking about dogs, and meeting new dogs, even if it occasionally involves stalking an unsuspecting owner on the trail or outside a supermarket, because it’s not only bad form, but impossible to not make the attempt—they’d suggest that the secret ingredient of our obsession is at once selfish and something more than a little noble, in an aspirational sense: dogs, with their total lack of guile and excess of fidelity, are ceaselessly humbling, and remind us of what’s so lacking in our fellow humans, and within ourselves.

ii.

Schnauzers talk to you.

They say different things to different people, but a schnauzer is going to make things abundantly clear.

Most dogs are content, not to mention genetically equipped, to let their tales do most of the talking.

Schnauzers do, too, but if you want to know what’s what, they let you know with their ears, their eyes and their mouths.

The only time they get truly frustrated is when they talk to you and you can’t seem to figure out what they are so obviously telling you.

iii.

Schnauzers also listen to you.

All dogs, of course, are avid listeners, especially when they hear things like doors opening, bags crinkling, strangers (or better yet, friends and family) approaching, thunder rumbling and, above all, the rhetorical—but crucial—question of who, exactly, is a good boy?

Schnauzers are never not on call, and in their long-suffering way, they tolerate our inability to adequately appreciate their oversight of our fortresses.

If you’re lucky enough to own or know a schnauzer, especially one that has not had its ears clipped due to outdated, immoral and aesthetically unconscionable standards (the people who care about these sorts of arbitrary standards and regulations aren’t merely missing the whole point of dogs, they’re failing in any and all attempts to become either more human or dog-like), you’ve seen the way those ears work. The ears are satellites and the tail is signal: affirmative, message received.

iv.

But really, schnauzers look at you, and they convey everything with those eyes.

I’ve never had a dog look at me the way Leroy Brown, who was my designated best friend between 1999-2009, did. It wasn’t obsequious, it was never angry, it was seldom disappointed, it was invariably earnest, and—as anyone who has loved a dog will testify—it was always honest.

Having eyes always watching you does not make you aware of being watched so much as cognizant of yourself. I am accountable, that look reminds you. Aside from the aforementioned things every dog needs and wants, the look reinforces the fact that you are everything to that dog. And while some (probably many) people parent dogs the way they parent their human puppies, with a combination of best intentions, carelessness and competence, the enlightened among us are kept in check by that look.

The world is bigger than you, that look explains.

Companionship and culpability are too big a burden for some. It’s okay: most dogs will meet you more than half-way. And then they’ll meet you the rest of the way. That’s the way it works.

But if you’re sagacious enough to understand, and embrace the responsibility, the look you get from your dog reimburses even the most modest efforts with exhilaration and allegiance that can never be explained with words.

If you’ve been on the receiving end of that look, you’ll do anything in your power to deserve it, and encourage it. You eventually comprehend that dogs do far more for us than we do for them. A dog can tell you more about yourself than anything you can read, say, write or hear. If you’ve tried to see yourself in a schnauzer’s eyes, you can fathom how rare unqualified love is. And you know, with a sadness that can’t overwhelm your gratitude, that nothing else can replace them once those eyes are no longer looking up at you.

*Thanks again to Elephant Journal, in which this piece originally appeared. It’s included in the recently-released collection Murphy’s Law, Vol. Two.

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The Death of an Indestructible Dog: What Quinzy Taught Me (Revisited)

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Portrait of the artist as a young pup.

Wait, did I say artist? I meant barbarian.

No, that’s neither fair nor accurate. It’s difficult with Quinzy– he was many things, frequently at the same time: tameless beast, gentle soul, abominably-behaved, adorable, impish, awe-inspiring (of which more shortly), incorrigible and, above all, utterly unique.

Check it out: I have three separate, visible scars on my right hand. All of them are from Quinzy’s teeth. The largest scar is from a bite he gave me, while I was petting him.

I feel quite confident in saying there has never been another dog that was anything like this Shih Tzu, who I am proud to have liberated from a rather disconsolate puppy mill almost exactly 15 years ago. But I am not the hero in this story; not even close. That person would be the woman who became his mother (and shortly thereafter, her husband, who became his father), who “inherited” him because the woman who was my mother could not handle him. At the time I was surprised and more than a little disappointed that the same woman who had already raised two human puppies decided, in a moment of anxiety-induced weakness, that she was not up to the task. The woman who insisted she wanted a “grand-puppy” (based on her love of Otis, the first Shih Tzu in the family) and, at that time without a human grand-puppy, was looking for somewhere to direct that abundance of love and affection she had in reserve. Fortunately, my sister was on the case and within a year my mother was able to dedicate herself to the proposition of spoiling my (human) niece.

I would have taken Quinzy myself but the complex I lived in at the time did not allow pets. I contemplated rolling the dice but realized (wisely) that it would be devastating for all involved if the little guy got settled in and attached, only to find himself (and/or myself) ejected from the apartment. And so it was that the woman who at one time had been my fiancee was now, abruptly, the mother of the puppy my mother owned for less than 24 hours. And just like that, Otis (himself only two years old) found himself a rather reluctant older brother.

Quinzy? My mother had picked out the name long before we picked up the pup. Growing up just outside of Boston she could attest that one way to sniff out transplants and fake New Englanders was the way they pronounce the town of Quincy: If anyone says it the way it looks (kwin-see) they are suspect; everyone else knows it is actually –and correctly– pronounced kwin-zee. She felt that was a great name for a little dog, and I tended to agree. I especially liked the added touch of spelling it with a Z, as it reminded me of the fact that Led Zeppelin did not spell their name the correct way (Lead) because they knew (correctly) that Americans would invariably pronounce it Leed Zeppelin. To see a two pound, eight-week old Shih Tzu named Quinzy is difficult to describe or surpass, even if he had the all-but obligatory (and quite noisome) case of puppy-worms. Little did any of us know what we were in store for…

Long after he was house-trained Quinzy still had accidents. As a person whose carpets and floors bore the brunt of too many of these incidents to count, I used to call them “on purposes”. Quinzy was a character. Theories abound, from the lazy to the elaborate: he had a screw loose; he was mildly retarded; he was the utter distillation of pure Id; he was the inevitable result of a very irresponsible and poorly run breeding factory (“puppy mill” is at once an appropriate and completely inadequate euphemism for the conditions in which so many of our best friends are bred: when I first took my mom to inspect the pack, I made the mistake of sitting down on the carpet while scores of Shih Tzus –literally– bound hither and thither, and ended up with a urine stain on my shorts that I could never fully eradicate). Like recalcitrant literary figures before him including Whitman, Thoreau and Kerouac, Quinzy marched to his own funky drummer and sucked the marrow out of life –and he wasn’t afraid to kill something in order to get that marrow (of which more shortly).

Quinzy’s “condition” was mostly innocuous (says the man with the scars) and often cute: there was undeniably some type of faulty wiring, or he was part feline, or he was the first of an evolutionary leap forward –even though he often acted like the opposite. When he was being pet his tail would wag, indicating happiness, but he would growl, indicating displeasure. After a while it became clear that it was his way of purring (part cat? based on his hunting prowess and the environment he was born into, this possibility is not totally far-fetched). When he was young he had a freakish ability to jump: his hang-time was more impressive than most adult white males. He was a born predator and while he was seldom without some type of stuffed animal lodged in his snout (see above), he much preferred actual game. His success rate was astonishing considering he did not live on a farm. In his prime (and his prime was pretty much his first year through his thirteenth when he finally began to slow down a tad) he was able to capture and kill several birds. Let me repeat that: he was able to capture and kill several birds. I know leopards with less-impressive track records. His mother, ever sensitive and not supportive of these feral proclivities, felt obliged to tie a bell around his collar so that the birds in the backyard had half a chance. Please keep in mind: we are not talking about a retriever or what some people may unkindly (if not inaccurately) call a real dog: this was a twelve pound Shih Tzu. You know, Shih Tzu; that is Chinese for Sissy Dog.

That picture is cute and all, but it more than half-resembles an alligator lying in the weeds, waiting for an unsuspecting fish or fowl (or human) to amble along. One of my favorite Quinzy stories (and I have dozens: buy me some beers and I’ll keep you laughing for hours) is the brawl he got in with the opossum that had the temerity to live in the wood-pile behind the townhouse. His mother recalls him coming in from a late-night tinkle and laying down beside her. It wasn’t until she saw (or smelled?) the blood that she realized he was injured. Inspecting him, she saw a substantial cut under his throat; he hadn’t barked or cried, he just came back in as if nothing had happened. Naturally a trip to the vet was necessary and it was later discovered that a family of opossums had set up shop behind the wood-pile. Opossums are pretty big, and have rather sharp teeth. They are also kind of nasty, especially if they are protecting their brood. Needless to say, the next time Quinzy stepped into the backyard (and every time for a long time afterward) he ran directly to the wood-pile and frantically looked for his foe so he could finish what he started. Fearless, idiotic and inimitable.

Quinzy bit people. He pissed and pooped with impunity. Another favorite of mine is the electric blanket story. I was taking care of him (and Otis) one weekend during the middle of winter. It was frigid outside and while I was snug inside my bed (and electric blanket) I realized the two poor pups, although snuggled together in their “nest” in the living room, probably would welcome a little extra warmth. I brought them into my room and in short order they were wrapped around me and, presumably, grateful. A few minutes later, just as I was drifting off, I felt what seemed like liquid on and around my legs. Impossible, I thought. And then I remembered the Quinzy factor. I threw the cover off and flicked on the light. Sure enough, this contemptible swine had taken an enormous piss, soaking my sheets, blanket, comforter and himself. It made me recall the old trick we used to always play (unsuccessfully) where during slumber parties we waited until someone fell asleep and put their fingers in warm water. Leave it to Quinzy to perfect that adolescent scenario, much to my chagrin. Yet, as always, when you looked down at him he did not betray the least bit of guilt or even comprehension that he’d done anything wrong. And I sincerely believe it never occurred to him that he had. That was the difference; he was never bad, he just was.

Years and at least one scar later, I would tell people, watching his growl/purr in disbelief that I was almost entirely certain he was expressing deep joy and gratification. Except he still might bite you. Many years later, I’ve had enough experience with dogs (my own and others) that there is no canine I can’t trust and not a single one I won’t snuggle. But with Quinzy, even after a decade and a half, there was always, always the awareness that you didn’t want to get your face too close to his, just in case…

You could not help but love him.

I used to say (and I was more than half-serious) that while I did not believe he could ever die, if and when he did, the medical community needed to study him and find the cure for cancer. I’ve never seen a dog that simply did not show any signs of weakness or age for so long. He was not hyper, he just went at the world in a way that Auggie March would fully endorse. So with apologies to Saul Bellow, I’ll take the liberty of embellishing that famous first paragraph from his masterful novel: “I am an American, (puppy-mill)-born—…and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a (dog)’s character is his fate, says Heraclitis, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles (or muzzling the snout).”

Quinzy treated the world like his bitch and while I couldn’t (and wouldn’t want to) necessarily emulate that approach, it’s hard not to admire and respect it. I’ve never met a human –much less an animal– that slurped so much ecstasy out of every second he was allowed to enjoy. Quinzy got his eyes, ears, snout and occasionally his teeth on anything and everyone within his reach and he never hesitated and he never slowed down. Until he slowed down.

But we never thought he would die. We actually thought he would live forever. Or at least shatter some canine records. I still reckon that scientific minds should study his DNA and come up with the antitode for illness, aging and depression. He was the most alive dog I’ve ever known and I’ve known a lot of dogs. Dogs, if nothing else, are very alive and adept at living (they are dogs, after all).

I won’t get carried away and claim that the scars on my hand, which I can see right now as I write these words, are the ironic gifts Quinzy left me. But in a way I could not appreciate until this very second, perhaps he was giving me something I could not fully fathom, since I’m a human. Did he understood and appreciate that he had been rescued from abandonment or a premature appointment with the veterinarian’s least-loved needle? Who knows. Who cares? What was he supposed to do, thank me? He did more than that anyway, and he did it without guile or the expectation of gratitude, since he was a dog. He showed me how to live a less contrived, more memorable life. He left me with a part of him that I can easily keep in my head and my heart. Finally, in his own incomparable fashion he ensured I had a visible reminder or three I’ll carry with me until the day I finally slow down myself.

*This piece is included in the recently-released collection Murphy’s Law, Vol. Two.

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Remembering The Things We Learned About Terra As She Taught Us About Ourselves (Revisited)

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Boy, it’s been a tough two years for dogs in my (and some of my best friends’) life: first we lost our beloved Otis in September, 2008; then in Febrary, 2009, my own best friend Leroy Brown. Just before Labor Day that fuzzy-eared rascal, Trapper, went to that great kennel in the sky. And now, this week, my O.G., Terra: the one-of-a-kind pitbull mix.

Let me tell you about Terra. I first met her shortly after my great friends Elyse and Jamie brought her into their home, saving her from (at best) a sketchy life in a shelter and (at worst) the lethal injection that is so often the last indignity for ill-treated, unloved and abandoned dogs.

I know I’m not exactly going out on a limb here, but I am definitely one of those folks who is certain that a special, very soulful bond is immediately established between humans and dogs who have spent even a couple of days on death row (because let’s face it, that is the most expected outcome of the borrowed time these dogs are living on).

Terra (or T, as most of us usually called her), was in many ways a cliche. A pit bull who had been abused, probably used for illegal fighting, and discarded. When Elyse and Jamie rescued her she was a bundle of nervous energy, uncertainty and anger. And love (she was, after all, a dog). As she slowly came out of her shell she displayed a delightful capacity for mischief and play. She was strong-willed (a trait she was obliged to develop in order to survive) and could at times be a diva: she was one of those dogs who could just look at you when you called, her expression speaking volumes about her personality.

Perhaps understandably, she was wary around other people. Distressingly (and understandably) she was incapable of being around other dogs. Living in a large apartment complex, as we did, with dozens of dogs being walked all hours of the day, it was impossible to avoid interaction, however well-managed. Watching her react to her canine cousins was genuinely upsetting, because you knew where this anxiety came from (even though you didn’t really know and you certainly didn’t want to know). She would bristle, shudder, and make noises I’ve never heard another dog make. Suffice it to say, it wasn’t the cultivated bravado most dogs learn to perfect (particularly smaller dogs); it was more like an anxiety attack. I share this simply to describe what destructive forces she escaped, and the long road to happiness she gradually strode toward.

As the good friend and neighbor, I was on dog-sitting duty often, and I savored the experiences (especially as I was, at the time, without K-9 companionship). We learned that other than being brought into close proximity with other dogs, the only thing we had to fear from T (the Terror) was her exasperating ability to slip out of her collar on walks. One time, on my watch (because these things only happen on your watch) she gave me the slip, contorting herself like a yoga master and discarding her leash like a string of spaghetti. She actually gave me a look that might have been a smirk before she sprinted off into the evening. I chased that rascal for a good half hour, all the time counting up the thousands of dollars of debt I’d amass once she (inevitably) tangled with some neighborhood poodle or (all jokes aside) child.

Thankfully, all she wanted to do was run, and be naughty. There were no attacks, and (as I should have already pointed out) she never had any actual confrontations with other people or dogs. But I had a confrontation with her once I finally tracker her down told her, in that voice people reserve for the times when our dogs have crossed the line, to get her ass over to me now. She was only ten yards away, but she smirked at me again, and I realized (too late) that she’d heard the fear in my voice that I’d tried to disguise. Don’t get me wrong; I was pissed off, too, but above all, I was nervous. Out of necessity, I learned a valuable lesson: the only way to get a dog to come to you is run in the other direction.

Flash forward a few months. I was finally ready (and willing) to bring a puppy into the mix. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to find friends, spouses and jobs (and pets) who change our worlds knows the genuine humility and gratitude one forever feels after making a choice that is never regretted. The only moment that gave me pause is when I realized, later that day: What are we going to do about Terra? In other words, I understood the situation and I understood it. I couldn’t fault T for the PTSD she struggled with, and I reluctantly acknowledged that perhaps we could simply never have these two dogs in the same room.

After discussing the matter, we decided the only way to know if it was possible was to try it. I can scarcely explain how full of trepidation I was when we brought Leroy over that first night: this wouldn’t just be an older and bigger dog doing damage; if T got hold of the little guy, she could easily (if unintentionally) kill him. I’m a dog person, and if you are too, perhaps you won’t be surprised about the scene that followed. Quite simply, what I witnessed told me more than I could ever hope to know about dogs and their limitless capacity for astounding us. We put Leroy (who weighed about three pounds) on the table and T immediately jumped up with both front paws to inspect and sniff him. It was love at first sight.

Not only did T not attack or terrorize him; she immediately became a big sister and embraced him (literally and figuratively). Having subsequently discussed this so many times I’ve concluded her reaction was a combination of two things. First, his being a small puppy and in no position to assert, or fake, dominance. Second, and more importantly, I believe because T knew me, and respected me, she “got” that this new pup was “mine” and she instinctively welcomed him to the pack. It was equal parts deference, trust and love. After watching (with considerable unhappiness) her inability to be in the same room, or often the same block, as other dogs, this was redemptory and awe-inspring in equal measure.

She not only accepted him, she played with him. And when they played, she would let him get the best of her. When they romped, Leroy would eventually escape to a small space: under a chair or (his favorite) inside of a four-legged cabinet, and she would get on her back and pretend to try and get to him while he took the liberty of lashing out with his puppy teeth on her ears, snout and neck. She let him attack her (knowing he couldn’t hurt her; perhaps knowing he needed that confidence) and when he got too feisty, she (gently) put him in his place. It was precious and priceless, and those months contain some of the happiest memories of my life. I feel all three of us humans learned some valuable lessons from that interaction, and for those who think dog people are hopeless saps, you just don’t get it (that you are also correct is beside the point).

Less than a year later T followed her parents to the Gold Coast: Leroy lost his big sister, and I lost my “girlfriend”. We got over it (dogs are even better than people at enjoying the moment and not lingering on the past), but we always missed her (and her parents). I was fortunate to see T every time I subsequently visited San Francisco, and I thought of her often in the painful days after Leroy’s untimely passing.

Like most dogs who have lived a long, eventful life, T started to have health issues and (fortunately) her decline was mostly slow and measured (as opposed to quick and uncontrollable). I was able to spend some quality time with her this past April and I suspected then (without foreboding or regret) that it was likely the last time I would see her. I was correct.

(I’d like to offer a special and sincere appreciation for the three people who loved and cared for T in San Francisco: Jamie, Elyse and Elyse’s wonderful husband Jeremy. I can speak to how agonizing it is seeing a pet experience pain, but as I’ve told many people, as difficult (and, ahem, expensive) as LB’s last couple of years became, he was –with very few and fleeting exceptions– in good health and spirits; he never seemed to know there was anything “wrong” with him, which was nothing short of miraculous (for me) and provides a familiar reminder about a dog’s ability to live in the unblinking eternity of now.

One of my best memories, which I consider the greatest gift the forces of fate could have given me, is from what turned out to be Leroy’s last walk: he jumped up and surveyed the neighborhood –like he always did at the end of each excursion– and let out a little bark; not nearly as menacing as he hoped but more a “sounding off” to let any/everyone know he was patrolling his hood. It was always about as cute, endearing and bratty as you may imagine. He was himself (even eating freshly baked baguette bread at my sister’s) the entire day and night before things took a quick, awful turn, and even that was relatively brief in terms of actual time (we’re talking hours, not days).

T, on the other hand, has been –like most dogs who live to a certain, welcome age, on a much slower and dragged out endgame. This is when you see what owners are made of, and I’ve never observed anything from any dog owner approaching the compassion, patience and unquestioning devotion those three extended to T. On our last adventure to Hog Island oyster farm, in April, it was an overcast day, but there was no question that T had to join us. Elyse simply covered Terra in a very stylish leather jacket while she laid on her blanket (the pic above says it all, as only pictures can). Between meds, special meals and the obligatory –and seemingly endless– trips to the vet, T’s welfare and comfort were not only never in question; the care she received extended her life, and expanded her happiness here.

Having done my fair share of caregiving and witnessing the unwelcome suffering of people and animals dear to me, I still learned a great deal these last few years. With my friends’ inspiring example, I understand more than I could have imagined about how we honor our commitments and keep faith in the relationships that, inexorably in the harder times, define the better angels of our natures.)

Terra passed away peacefully, with people who loved her, this past week.

Rest peacefully, sweet girl, and thanks for letting us share the journey.

*A post from 2010, which will be in the forthcoming collection Murphy’s Law, Vol. Two

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Every Dog Owner Has His Day

JOHN SEAN

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.)

Okay.

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.

iv. Q&A

-Well?
-Well what?
-Are you in the market for another pup?
-I can’t imagine never having a dog again. But…
-But what?
– 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.
-Exactly.
-So what do you do when you don’t have faith?
-You get a dog.

SEAN JOHN 2

This essay originally appeared on 8/20/14 in The Weeklings.

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You’re My Best Friend

Another post about death and dying.

Another post about the wonder of dogs.

Hat tip to my old friend Anthony for bringing this article to my attention (warning: even the most dog-neutral among you are going to have a tough time reading this without emotion).

All the way from Iowa comes this story, which at once shatters and then restores the heart, about a man wanting to reunite with his dog. On his death bed. Semi-miraculously, it happened. Here is an excerpt:

“In my 31 years as paramedic I’ve never seen anything like it.  This dog, from the moment she got in the vehicle to the time we arrived, she was shrieking and howling.  I think she sensed what was happening.  When we got to the Hospice House she walked right through the doors and led us straight to his room as if she’d been there many times before.”

Erceg says what happened next left her and the Hospice House staff in tears.

“When the dog jumped on the bed she literally poured herself over him,” says Erceg.  “Kevin was unconscious but I kept putting his hands on the dog’s head and guiding him to stroke her.  After a few attempts, Kevin started moving his fingers on his own and petting the dog.  Yurt seemed overjoyed to be connecting with him, licking his face and neck and arms and then Kevin’s eyes came open.  There was a recognition there of what was happening.  Everyone in the room was overcome with emotion.”

Read the entire piece here.

Look at those eyes. The eyes, of course, never lie. And anyone who has had a dog knows that no other creature is capable of looking into you the way a dog does. Dogs, I’ve concluded –and I know I am far from the first to make this observation– are all soul. There is no guise, no agenda. Unless being in your presence and giving/receiving love is an agenda which, I reckon, it is. A transparent, redemptory agenda.

And this story provides me with the opportunity to celebrate anothing thing I respect and cherish: Hospice. The work that these people do, and the comfort and care they are able to lend us, is as close to anything I’ve seen that actually attains the teachings of Christ, that semi-influential Socialist.

Reading about and thinking about death these past few days does not necessarily impart heavy or lugubrious feelings. When one can observe the sort of kindness and grace some of us are able to offer, and which dogs make careers out of, is a ceaseless reminder of what we can do, and should seek to attain. Or at least strive to recognize and celebrate.

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