Excerpt from a work-in-progress on this National Mutt day for my most beautiful mutt.
I hear, tonight, no distant thud-drone of a beach goer’s car
No shore break. No train.
Seagulls sleep silent in the spring cool.
Your breathing, ended forever, opens a gulf of aching peace.
I want my disturbed sleep back—my dreams punctuated with mumbling monsters that sounded oddly like wet, canine snores. I miss 4 a.m. earthquakes as you threw yourself against the bed to wake me for urgent backyard trips. I want to trip over the dark hulk of you lying curled on the floor next to my bed, your musk gathering on my heaped winter clothes.
It’s a fact that only you can truly fill this dearth of dog.
Your grumbling groans. Your dreamy sighs. Your shifts and turns and the tick
shish tick shish of claws on tired old limbs as you shuffled to your bowl in
the early morning dark for a sloppy drink from crockery.
It’s a fact that though there will be another furred friend, loved, adored even—you are a piece of my soul like no other. There is no Big-Dog shaped peg left in this universe. You were the one and only. I waltz over a shadow in the dark—your pillow, so dense with you—and moments later return and spin, sink into my covers, embrace the silence—and sleep.
Those were the words I used to describe our first encounter
with Big Dog in 2006.
My husband and I had gone to the pet store after lunch at our favorite restaurant to get treats for our ailing female Dalamatian. We’d passed the Saturday adoption dogs with a brief glance at two female Chinese Shar Pei mixes in their crates. We couldn’t consider adding a dog since our old girl had become isolating and aggressive (Brain tumor? the vet surmised).
As we waited in the checkout line, a chunky, brown mutt, loose,
paddle paws slapping the cold tile, dragged a smiling but out-of-breath
brunette across the store and straight toward us. When he reached us, the dog
enthusiastically sniffed us with his significant nose—mm, chicken tikka
masala—seemed to look into us with his giant, knowing eyes and worried brow,
then splayed out on the floor and set about investigating the shelf next to us.
Chunky, brown mutt’s handler said, “He likes you. He’s
usually kind of shy.”
“Must be the Indian food,” my husband said.
The woman then told us, “Yao Ming is completely blind. He’s a total sweetie and still a puppy.” We also learned he was a Chinese Shar Pei mix. Momma and sister were sighted and healthy. Yao Ming, however, might be put down if someone didn’t adopt him that day.
We thought he was pretty impressive. How had he navigated
the store and made his way to us so unerringly? We left full of regret over our
inability to save him.
I cried halfway home. I tried to put the dog out of my mind
and could not. I posted on a hobby forum (pre-Facebook days) in the hope that
someone in the Houston community would see and take pity on the big guy.
As I said above, I began my post on that forum with, “I met
a dog today.” Not, “I saw a dog” or “There was a dog at…”. The distinction is
important. I felt as if I’d met an intelligent being. A personality. A
character. In those couple of minutes of interaction, I met someONE.
That he had fur and paws and a tail didn’t make him any less a character to me
than someone on two legs in manufactured clothing. I wrote my post with teary
eyes and included a picture that the rescue group emailed me at my request.
A month later, we had to say goodbye to our beautiful Bayta
Another month followed.
A month of grief.
Of an empty house.
Of silence and loneliness.
Of guilt and thinking I didn’t do enough for Bayta (because
we never think we do enough for them at the end time).
Then an email arrived. The rescue group that had provided
the picture of Yao Ming informed me that he still needed a home and asked if were
we interested in adopting him.
I don’t recall there being much discussion but maybe there was. Maybe we talked at length about whether we should take the chance adopting a “special needs” dog. Maybe we both had fallen so hard for him that there was no question.
Whether we did or didn’t, Yao Ming (later called Big Dog) was
never really a special needs dog, but he was always special from the very first
day we met to his very last.
To ease my now dog-less life, I walk dogs at the local SPCA. So far, the pups are all friendly and gentle, if energetic from being locked up much of the time. None, as yet, has tugged at my heart or looked into me with giant, knowing eyes. I tell myself, and it is true, as yet, that I don’t want another dog because there can’t ever be another Big Dog.
But at times there are the tender memories I would relive in perhaps different manifestations. There are the little soft moments of silence and loneliness that ache to be filled. In those briefest moments, I find myself hoping I will someday come home and say to my husband, “I met a dog today.”
What is that odd-looking, white object in the picture? What does it have to do with grief or art? What have grief and art to do with each other and why am I writing (struggling to write) this at this moment?
That object is a biscornu which, if I recall correctly, is French for “quirky.” These objects at this size are mostly used as pin cushions and the one in my photo is indeed a pincushion made using traditional Norwegian Hardanger embroidery techniques (as opposed to modern techniques).
As to what it has to do with art and grief:
A few months ago, I struggled with my writing process and wrote about it here. You can see in some truly helpful comments that it was suggested that I exercise my creative mind through other art forms. I thought this an excellent idea although I am the furthest thing from creative in any other way other than writing. I can’t draw a straight line, I failed miserably at the various doodle crafts, and I have long since given away my sculpting supplies because I would have to invest in learning how to do it rather than winging it. I do, however, love to do Hardanger embroidery. I thought I could perhaps design my own.
I can’t. So, I gave up.
2018 waned and my writing continued to stutter like a lawn mower in overgrown St. Augustine. The holidays arrived along with the U.S. government furlough including much time for my husband and I to spend together. I decided to try “new to me” traditional Hardanger as a creative endeavor and to make a Christmas gift for someone, the above biscornu.
Through all of this, the Big Blind Dog was lumbering through his days and nights, taking his medications dutifully, eating heartily, begging for scraps always, peeing the Niagara (diuretics), and growing that snore-and-sniffle inducing lump on his cheek without complaint. He and I sat on our couch together, tv on and spewing the horrors of Investigation Discovery or tv off and only the Gulf waves in our heads. Occasionally my husband left his cave, poured a soda, gave the old gray snoot a pat and a biscuit, gave me a kiss, and wandered back into his hideaway.
I stitched and the dog snored and life was sweet and warm. I finished the biscornu and in all those stitches and waves and snoring came words for the page and these pleasant, if bittersweet, blog entries here and here. Writing was a thing again.
Then I looked at the biscornu and really saw it. I’d failed. While it was pretty, it was wrong. Something I’d planned from the beginning that could not be undone was a major flaw within it. Others couldn’t really see the flaw but I knew it was there. It ate at me.
Finally, rather than wrap it with other Christmas gifts, I decided I would keep it. Better to make a better gift for that person later—something not so obviously flawed, even if only to my eyes. I left it on my desk with a mix of sadness and disgust.
We packed up and went to see family out of town and had a perfectly nice visit.
And on the morning we were to return home, we awoke in our usual hotel room and our beautiful, sweet, old Big Dog with his one great flaw, his useless eyes, had left us.
Somewhere in his dreams, he decided he’d had enough of being lifted and guided and medicated and diapered. Somewhere in his sleep he’d decided those last pets from family, the last sniffs of our granddog, the last bites of Woody’s barbeque beef, and his favorite dog biscuits were a good note to end on.
So it goes.
Twelve and a half of his thirteen years.
And a five-hour drive of tears and emptiness and silence.
And furtive momentary pats to the still form in the back seat as if he would miraculously come back to us.
When we arrived home that evening and I walked into our office, there was the biscornu, that silly, imperfect thing, and I realized why the Universe had me keep it. Nothing at all to do with its imperfection—an imperfection I no longer see—and everything to do with the fact that it is a symbol of those long luxurious days next to him, his paws pressed against me. Of those last few days when he’d taken to lying with his head on my leg as he had when he was younger, as if he was trying to tell me goodbye. I wondered then, but had chosen not to be certain.
I am grateful for that time.
I am grateful for that quirky object I kept that had a major flaw, like the flaw of the Big Dog’s blindness. Flaws that are visible but meaningless in the grand scheme of things.
Now, the biscornu is perfect in that it reminds me of him. He was perfect in his love.
It began as slower walks around the block and clumsier hops onto the couch. When the crisis occurred, we had no idea what we were dealing with and I was completely off the mark.
Some history: Blind from birth, our Shar Pei cross has hip dysplasia and at 83 pounds fighting weight, has always been a lumbering boy rather than an athlete. When he was about eighteen months old, he tore his cranial cruciate ligament (similar to a human athlete’s ACL tear). Because of his blindness, he learns lessons only once and what he learned from the sudden pivot that tore his ligament was that he would not do that again (outside, but inside was okay). From the pain of walking on the injured knee, he learned that he would simply not put full weight on it. So, despite high quality surgery, the result was a flimsy right hip muscle and an overused left hip joint and increasingly dysplastic hips over what he might have had due to genetics alone.
So, when he began to slow down at just shy of twelve years old this late summer, we put the lumber-now-more-of-a-shuffle off to the hip pain.
Likewise, when he put on about four pounds, we blamed the reduced exercise. He struggled more to get on the couch and opted to lie on the tile more often instead. At our beach house, some days he cruised up the steps, others he took them carefully and allowed us to help him.
Then, about two weeks prior to turning twelve, he started dragging his hind feet. He also began to cough occasionally and pant heavily after minor effort such as getting excited when one of us came home after having been out for some time. He snored louder. He grumbled louder as he curled up at bedtime. He fell off his hind legs a couple of times. His walks were now glacially slow. All these things we put off to aging and the dysplasia/arthritis.
A tired old dog on November 14, 2017.
A few days after he turned twelve, he began to cough and wretch several times a day. Now something new was in the mix, but what? A friend suggested perhaps the hacking cough, the wretching, the failing back limbs, were all in line with “GOLPP”or Geriatric Onset Laryngeal Paralysis Polyneuropathy. It was true he had many of the symptoms. I even compared his bark of November to his bark earlier in the year and he clearly was straining and had a higher pitch.
However, I didn’t bring up GOLPP with his vet when I took him in. I did show her the video of him hacking and wretching. On that day, November 15th, 2017, he had gained still several more pounds since she had last seen him in late September. Again, we knew he’d been inactive, so while we noted the weight gain, that was the extent of it. As had always been the case, his bloodwork was “unremarkable” and the doctor had always presumed relative health because of his record of utterly normal bloodwork all of his twelve years.
X-rays showed nothing remarkable. His heart was perhaps slightly enlarged but not greatly. He is a large, geriatric dog, so it isn’t unusual for him to have some slight enlargement. His lungs were clear. There were no obvious spots in his belly. His bowels, etc. looked normal. While he looked a bit heavier than normal, he still had a waist. He didn’t look unhealthy, just fatigued, and clearly he was struggling to breathe comfortably. There was some possibility he had a “dense” area on his trachea that might have indicated infection or abnormal cell growth. The doctor prescribed antibiotics to see if this would calm down the cough. If after a few days he had no relief, we would go from there. Ming was cleared for travel to Dallas, approx. 250 miles away, for a 24-hr. stay.
When we left Saturday morning, Ming was reluctant to get into our truck. There have been times when he has hesitated in the past. This was different. He just sat on the driveway and refused. This should have been a giant red flag waving, but again, we assumed his hips were hurting. We lifted him in and I gave him his pain meds. He had a coughing fit halfway to Dallas, but calmed down after a short time.
We had only been in Dallas about seven hours when I saw something odd about Ming. His stomach looked unusually swollen and when he stood, he arched his back slightly.
Potbelly caused by ascites.
He continued to pant heavily with activity. I panicked and thought, “Bloat!” We helped him into a family member’s sedan and rushed him to a nearby 24-hour emergency vet where he was taken back immediately for x-rays.
Thankfully, he was not suffering from bloat. Unfortunately, we had only a vague understanding of what was happening. His heart rate was elevated and the distension of his stomach was caused by ascites, or fluid in his abdomen. (We can only guess the fluid “hid” in his tissues for some weeks before filling his abdomen). Once again, x-ray showed that his heart was slightly enlarged but not excessively. X-ray also showed the same slightly dense area of the trachea and some dense areas in the abdomen. More tests would have to be run to determine what was happening in those areas and what was causing the elevated heart rate.
Fast forward through some major worry and heavy decision making to Monday and a trip to first his regular vet where 850 ccs of fluid were drained from his abdomen (leaving still many behind) while we gave him oxygen and got him an appointment with an internist in Houston. The internist did the necessary tests to discover that Ming has a bad mitral valve and atrial fibrillation. It remains true that his heart is not grossly enlarged but only slightly. It also remains true that we are uncertain as to what, if anything, the dense area on his trachea means, if the fluid in his abdomen is solely caused by the heart disease, and how well medication will control his problem.
He hasn’t coughed since he came home Tuesday. He breathes normally for the most part. He is back to sleeping and snoring normally and, while still somewhat weak, is trying more often to get on the couch and is more stable on his feet. He is nine pounds lighter than he was on Sunday. We have a somewhat guarded prognosis at the moment and he sees the cardiologist in a few days.
There are a few suggestions we want to pass on from this experience:
Don’t make assumptions about your pet’s (or a family member’s) health based on given/expected circumstances. I based all my initial decisions regarding Ming’s health on my belief that his behaviors were in response to his hip problems and his age and did not consider he might be otherwise ill until it was almost too late.
Pay attention to their emotional and behavioral changes. Ming was behaving differently in sometimes subtle ways that I saw as quirky when in fact they were signs of distress.
Pay close attention to physical changes even if they seem harmless. When they suddenly gain weight, lose hair, or start breathing/barking/snoring/walking differently, consider that it might be something worth checking into. I could have saved Ming at least two weeks of discomfort, and possibly more, had I realized these things were not “just aging.” I am, however, thankful that I saw the expanding belly when I did.
Comparison photos of Ming’s tummy.
My Momma once told me, when I was going through a particularly horrid time in my life, “Make the most you can of the time you have with the ones you love.” Needless to say, we are holding our little, old man close. We are thankful we have him for a little while longer.
Happy Thanksgiving to those of you who celebrate the holiday.
How Saturdays would happen if the Big Blind Dog had language:
I awaken and get out of bed. My husband (hereafter known as Dad) is showering so I leave him in peace and head straight for the kitchen.
The kitchen is part of an open architecture, great room structure with a large portion dedicated to a den area. In the den sits a plump, oversized couch known as Dog’s Bed #1. As I cross the threshold from bedroom to great room, Big Blind Dog (BBD) lifts his blocky brown noggin, eases one front paw off the couch, then another and, bum still planted on the cushions, looks at me. Well, as much as he can be said to be looking. He is listening to find out who exactly has come through the magic portal.
“Good morning, baby boy,” I say, and close the door behind me.
“Oh. It’s you. I suppose you’re going to give me breakfast.” BBD heaves his wide load up, stretches with back legs tall on the couch, causing a whistling intake of air into his back end, and hops down onto the cold tile. “Do get on with it. It’s been two hours since my automatic feeder gave me kibble and I’m famished.”
“I love you, too,” I mumble and shuffle into the kitchen where I ladle one heaping tablespoon each of pumpkin and yogurt into his food bowl, but not quickly enough to prevent a puddle of dog drool on the floor.
“Where’s Dad?” he asks, as he licks yogurt off his nose.
“He’ll be out in a minute.”
“Not good enough. I must register a complaint.” BBD turns away from my loving pat on his back and bumps his pumpkin-yogurt mug against the wall on his way to the magic portal and where he begins to whimper. “Oh, Dad. Please come out. I’m so lonely. There’s no one here but the lunatic woman who curses loudly and often. Please. Please. Please.”
I start my coffee and ignore the doggy drama though it increases with the familiar sounds of my husband’s routine as it nears completion.
The portal swings open.
BBD leaps for joy, raising his rear end slightly off the ground with each bounce like an obese bunny. “Dad. Dad. I’ve missed you so. It’s been forever. I thought you were never coming out. Life without you is drab and empty. Let’s go to the kitchen where we can be happy and eat and dance and bark and drool together forever.”
Dad winds around drooling dog and bouncing dog and nibbling-at-the-fingers dog, the many-in-one dog. In the kitchen, BBD leads him to the biscuit jar. Dad does as he has been trained, picks out a large biscuit and gets to work in his front-room office.
I sit in the den with my coffee—or rather I try to.
BBD walks to the back door. “Mother. I must go out now. Let us not disturb Amazing Dad. He is far too busy and important. This is your job.”
I’m a writer who works* out of my home.
I am always available to my dog, my husband, the Fed Ex driver, geckos that get stuck in the house. I try to be available to my grown daughter via telephone when she needs me.
With this availability, I didn’t expect my dog to be so much like a toddler and decide that I was just too danged available.
Every stay-at-home parent (SAHP) experiences it, that moment when the working parent comes home and the young child behaves as if they have been left ignored and unfed for ten hours by the hopeless and useless SAHP. But honestly, my dog?
Lately, it seems more and more the case, for BBD. Yes, I am more focused on writing now, but a lot of that focused time is on the couch, some part of BBD pressed up against me as I work. There are no fewer treats from the biscuit jar. Quite possibly there are more than when I was working on my MFA. There are no fewer walks. I pet and cuddle with him often, but I don’t crowd him. I am working on decreasing the cursing and if I do curse, I ask forgiveness with a treat. All it takes is a whispered profanity for him to act injured.
Yet, when Dad comes home from work, a new and grand world has opened up and life is wondrous again. While when I go out for morning errands and come back home, BBD herds me to the kitchen for a treat but that’s about the extent of it. No joyous bouncing or finger nibbling.
Don’t get me wrong. I know he loves me in his canine fashion. Much of the time, when his initial excitement over my husband’s arrival has ebbed, he comes to sit with me. Like the toddler who adores the working parent but relies on the SAHP for lunch and dinner, BBD knows who fills the food bowl every night and sits on the patio with him every morning.
This sounds like just a whinge about the dog not appreciating me as if he were capable of understanding the concept. Of course, I know he isn’t. I don’t know why a dog or a child attaches such importance to the arrival of the away parent v. the available parent unless it is some reptilian-brain fear (perhaps more to the fore in the dog) of the away parent not returning.
This is simply the statement of a truth. I sit at home and write all day (well, much of the day) several days a week. I don’t have a “real” job because my body doesn’t allow that but also because, truly, writing is what I have always wanted to do. I’ve been blessed to be able to do this. I am thankful for this. I admit, in my darker moments, when the dog brushes me off in favor of the Dad, when the kids don’t have time for us, when the husband has to work late, when the latest rejection hits the inbox, when I simply look at the page and see tripe instead of the quality writing of which I think I am capable, in those bleak moments I experience complete despair. What value do I have? Is it my purpose in life solely to let the dog out to do his business? God knows, it’s a job I want to do because I adore his fuzzy little snoot. But is it all I’m good for? Well, that and washing dishes and laundry?
I keep telling myself that the raft of emotions I am floating on day to day is a result of the sea of grief still surrounding me since Momma died. That my sense of worthlessness, my fears of the future, my anger with my loved ones, my disgust with the world as a whole, is all a result of those battering waves. That it is not rational.
Believing my precious dog loves my husband more than he loves me (or vice versa) is not rational. He’s just a dog, for God’s sake. But grief is not rational.
*as much as writing and not making money off of it can be called “work”