When the Dog of the Universe died
Sometimes the dogs in this neighborhood start an alarm chain. Little CharlieDog is the fulcrum. The dogs back across the pond begin to bark, the dogs across the street bark, and Charlie runs from one side of the upper yard to the other, transferring the barks with his peculiar strident yelp. His muscles get taut and he squares off his paws. A hint of bulldog reshapes his merged genes, and he barks and barks and barks. As unpredictably as it starts, the barking chain stops.
Last night on Twitter I engaged with a woman about her dog. Her conceit, and perhaps her actual state of existence, is that her dog is the glue that holds her life together.
The interaction made me remember bringing McDougal to Dr. Israel, the Bedford vet, to put her to sleep.
She’d been fading for a long time. She was neglected in those final couple of years. I traveled every week to California and had someone come in to look after her. My ex-wife had decided that she wouldn’t take McDougal any longer; she’d gotten her own dog. That one weekend, when my son and daughter were home, I picked McDougal up and lay her down in the car. She couldn’t move any longer.
Moments like those, we like to think that the dog understands what is happening, that there is a shared resignation, an acceptance of the inevitability of the roles that each of us has to play: her to die with dignity, me to be gentle but determined that the end has come.
She was just a dog though. She could understand that she was failing, in the way that an organism is overwhelmed by the recognition that its cellular composition has stopped regenerating, that its systems are no long repairing, and the sensations of the world are dimming by increments each day. I wished for a deeper shared understanding, but I know that it wasn’t there. The one thing that was there was a recognition of the order of our world, a relationship of dominance and affection, of a two-mammal pack that had been constant for close to 15 years.
The constancy didn’t mean that there was constant care. She had spent too much time alone at the end. I was trying to live a life that was unnatural: build a business in California and return to New York every weekend to take care of my kids. Remembering it makes me tired.
She was light in my arms. I hugged her high to my chest. She didn’t have enough strength to hold herself up. Her head was nestled in the crook of my elbow.
We walked straight into the treatment room and I put her down on the metal table. Dr. Israel and I talked briefly. She wasn’t eating. Her body was eating itself. It was time.
He gathered the syringe and the medicine bottle. The liquid would kill her almost instantly. The long dog life would come to an end. The pain and uncertainty would stop. That would be it: McDougal’s story.
Before he gave her the shot, he stood by her head. He leaned down and kissed her, buried his nose for an instant in her fur, rubbed her front haunch. “You’re a good dog,” he said. “You’ve had a good life.”
She died as the fluid streamed into her body.
I had a blue sheet. I wrapped her in it and brought her to the car. When I came home, Becky and Will were waiting. I slung the sheet over my shoulder and we went to the far back corner of the yard, to the little clearing just beyond the pool. We buried her under a garbage can top. I put rocks on top of the plastic so that no animal would be able to dig into the ground and root out the rotting corpse. We put a grey rock over the spot. I painted the words McDougal, Dog of the Universe, on the stone. It was a bad job. The words didn’t fit evenly and the paint dripped, obscuring some of the letters. We knew who it was though. It was our dog.
In the 15 years of her life, my life had traced an arc from domestic tension to forlorn loneliness. My dog was my stubborn companion. She was distinct, a mutt of uncertain origin, a mid-sized dog that seemed to have a little border collie in her, an ink-stain of black, a cheerful wandering lady who spent hours in the woods walking with me, off somewhere deep, oblivious to my loud calls, McDougal, McDougal, McDougal, over and over, more and more frustrated, until the yelling wasn’t for the dog any more, as the frustrations of a failed marriage and a relentless torment and a desperate desire to know love, a wide, gaping cry out of my heart that wanted to cast doubt and defiance and depression out of my life got all mixed up with the simple, lyric act of calling out to a stray dog who was following the trace of uncertain scents, trying to find her own nature, feeling the deep instinct stir, rushing here and there, and then, just as suddenly, turning, and racing back through the underbrush, fallen trunks, rotting leaves, to me.