Thursday, December 20, 2018

As promised (to myself, anyway), my last post

She was Pearly, but hardly ever Pearly. She was Pearly Girl, Funny Face, Fuzzy Face, Goofball, Goof Nugget, Old Girl, Old Puppy. What was her breed? It depended on who asked: TerriBull sometimes, but more often Arctic Pygmy Wolf.

She was Sugar Booger, Sugar Butt, Chicken Butt, Punkin' Dolly, Pearly Boo and Pearly Boom Boom. Sweety Poppers and Kokomo Joe, the Eskimo. Grumpy Gus in her last months.

Nancy called her Pur Pur, which is just silly.

Pearly Ann (with an e?) Turner was her given name, supposedly. It never settled in me that she was another child of the family. "Owner" didn't seem right either because, most days, who owned whom? "Steward," is more like it. She came into our home, became part of our lives. Got fed, took walks, hung out. Win-win.

Pearly passed away Sunday on one of her blankets, in a soft-lit room at the veterinarian's office. The drugs went into a catheter in her front leg, and soon she eased against Nancy, settling as if for one more morning nap, except her clouded eyes remained open, as the veterinarian had warned. Pearly looked as she did so many, many days, stretched across the hallway, her body a hair-trigger alarm, monitoring household traffic for the possibility of a meal.

[Bear with me. This is an ordinary story about an ordinary dog and ordinary people. You've probably been through this, but I — we — are new to it.]

Our dog was a couple of weeks shy of her 17th birthday. After she passed, the veterinarian asked us just to knock on the inner door when we were done, and the staff would take care of the rest. Then she left. We tousled Pearly's warm stiff fur, trying not to say too much because it would only make us cry. The last I saw of our dog as the outer door swung closed was her front paws, having grown long and slender, somehow, in her last year. We composed ourselves for the walk out.

Are we waiting for her ... or are you waiting for us? Nancy asked the vet the weekend before.

She has no quality of life anymore, the vet said. And I'm afraid she is only going to get worse. It's a decision you have to make.

In that week it was getting worse. Her hind legs, stiff and straight, had become stiff and bent. Her front legs splayed out to hold her weight. In the last few months, she stood and mostly stared, at us, at the darkness outside the window. I think it hurt to sit. She leaned against the wall of the kitchen, the carpet giving her traction, watching dinner cook. Her desire to eat had by then been matched her dread of having to ice skate across the slick kitchen floor to her dish. When she slept, it came after the reluctant effort of falling to the floor.

Her voice had gone. She barked hoarsely at the advent of her morning mixture of oatmeal and dry kibble. She whined, but no noise came. When we petted her, she shrank back with a start, unaware we were standing beside her. After a few seconds of petting, she snarled and snapped to be let alone.

But she could eat! She could always eat. She could eat and get sick if we let her, and right away eat again. As our daughter memorialized, Pearly loved people but loved food more.

The veterinarian made us understand it was the wrong barometer to measure her life.

How fierce is youth and how fast it goes, is what Pearly taught me.

We got her at the pound. She was Hope on the paperwork, but became Pearly because her puppy fur was bright, almost shimmery. The fur on her tail braided like berber carpet nearly to its tip. Hope would still have been a good name for her, always hoping for food.

The kids wanted her, and I did not, mostly because it ended up just as I had expected, with me caring and feeding.

But as I suspect for most dogs, Pearly made the burden bearable. Even if she did chew the furniture.

Pearly fit my lifestyle at the time, freelancing from home. We started the day with a long walk, sometimes driving to explore unfamiliar faraway neighborhoods. Her first walk was a disaster, though; after I took off her leash back home, it was another hour before I found her, scootched as far back as she could under our son's bed, afraid of the world. But the next day she was ready to venture again. I was so naive I didn't realize a big reason dogs like walks is so they can poop. A kitchen drawer is still filled with bags for the purpose.

She napped in my office, then sprang up at my slightest movement, hopeful it meant a car ride. She was my errand/delivery sidekick, using every available space in the car to scout the route and bark at dogs. She stood on the back seat and leaned against me, heavy and powerful, to look out the front window. Most days she got soft-serve ice cream as reward for averting danger.

We took her to obedience classes and she became a good girl, showing all the useful tricks. Except how to act with other dogs. The obedience instructor got sick and canceled the class before we got to that part.

On what turned out to be the last class the dogs were let off their leashes for free time. The other dogs chased Pearly into the floor-level compartment of a cat tree, where she batted at their attacks with one free paw. I don't think she ever forgot it, and for the rest of her life, while she could still see and hear and expend energy, she never let another dog pass by without a good chewing out. The same went for dogs on TV. She'd rage against them, then run out to the backyard, where they must be, to give them some more. To annoy dog-less guests, we had only to say, "Doggy on TV!" and Pearly would pollute the air with anger.

Her mortal enemies, though, were garbage trucks. She could hear them from two blocks away and protested nonstop until the trucks passed. And we live on a cul de sac, doubling her outrage. The worst was getting caught on a walk when the garbage truck slowly passed, roaring and squeaking and whining. Pearly was almost impossible to contain.

Somehow she loved horses. She became a superfan, whining and wiggling and tap dancing in their presence. Once we walked near the state fairgrounds, where trainers were taking trotters through their paces. Pearly went wild and chittery in a way I had never seen before; if we could have gone down to the track, it would have been the greatest moment in her life.

Play with her long enough, and eventually Pearly would begin sprinting in boundless glee through the house, up the hallway and back again into the living room, skidding and turning in one motion, gathering again to race across the kitchen floor to the family room, and back again, full speed, the whites of her eyes showing as she looked down her snout. Then stop, panting happily.

Our son reminisces about trips to the beach, vast expanses of sand on which, in the absence of people or dogs, she could run and run and run. And dig and dig. She loved the beach, our son says, but hated the ocean. Hated all water, in fact, except to drink.

Our daughter reminds us Pearly didn't understand fetch. She'd run after what was thrown, but wouldn't retrieve it. Or if she did, wouldn't give it back.

Pearly once could leap from a standing start onto our high bed, and command position for the night. It was almost hard to believe in her last days, when she refrained from even getting into her doggy bed with its shallow stuffed border, and fell to the floor instead.

About two years ago, she decided her walks were done. She'd allow us to attach her leash and lead her out the door, but would stop at the corner, look at the world ahead, then turn around for home.

She stopped going out in the backyard, which meant she stopped leaving a trail of leaves in the house. Garbage trucks and dogs passed without notice, because she could no longer notice them. It was a sort of blessing for her, because the noise no longer tormented her. I think it was some noise or other that once in a while would cause her to burrow deep into Nancy's closet, where she hid, buried in shoes, until found at the end of the day.

I had one other dog, Taffy, when I was a kid. She was sandy-haired too, in memory much like Pearly. We kids wanted her; I don't think my dad did. She was an outdoor dog, untrained; whenever the gate was opened too long, Taffy would dart out and run down the street, who knows where. Because a bully lived on the other side of the back fence, I was not keen to spend much time with her in the backyard. But for my sister, the backyard was her realm, a walled city, and Taffy her subject, her steed, her companion.

Taffy got old and sick and had to be taken away and put to sleep. I found my dad in the backyard by the gate, weeping. I had never seen him cry like that. "She's just a dog! Just a dog!" he kept saying. Stupid me realized at that moment dad was Taffy's carer and feeder. The reason I was shocked the first time Pearly pooped is because I don't remember ever seeing Taffy's poop in the yard. Dad did it all, and never said a word about it. Maybe he thought it one more chore he was tired of trying to get me to do.

I guess I tried to make up for that with Pearly.

[On the morning she would be put to sleep, I went for a cleansing swim. The lake temperature had dropped, 52 or 53, about right for the season, and the current was strong, even at the wide shallow starting point. Good. It would give my body an unrelenting fight while my mind poked at thoughts.

[How far could I go this morning? It was hard to say. The current suggested I wouldn't make it farther than the third bridge. At the rocky island downstream from the second bridge, where the channel narrowed and the current strengthened, I began to make my bid, preparing to zag to the opposite bank where the back eddies lived and I had a fighting chance. 

[A noise came, and then again, rising. Someone was calling at me.

[I fantasize about this. Occasionally a kayaker or fisher will ask me how the water is, and I say it's fine! I don't know how you do it! they say. You get used to it, I say, you should try it! Sometimes fishermen drifting by in their boats will tell me I'm crazy. I smile. It's no big deal; but come on: Cold, current, yeah, I have to remind myself it's a big deal.

[This was not one of those fantasies. I scanned around for the source.

[Hey! Hey! HEEEEeeeeeYYYyy! Watch where you're going! What in the fuck do you think you're doing?!! said the voice. It was coming out of a green and gray and tan shape against the green and gray and tan bank, distinguishable now by the flailing arms.

[I'm, uh, swimming, I wanted to say.

[I'm trying to fish here!! You can't just come through here!

[I gave him a sarcastic A-OK gesture. I'm not sure how sarcastic it looked, drifting backward as I was in the current.

[He may have gone into a recitation of his preparation to fish this spot, or gnashed at the indignity of my blundering in (at the speed of a calendar) to ruin his reverie. I'm not sure: I had wax plugs in my ears, and I was zooming farther away.

[But I did recognize when the Angry Fisherman said, Why don't you pay fucking attention next time?!

[Next time? I thought as I bobbed downstream. You're coming back?!

[So many things I thought to say in response. All I managed was, Calm down, Dude! before swimming back, thinking of more I could have said. Such as, I thought fishing was supposed to be a relaxing hobby! Or, What are you fishing with, gill nets?! I wondered whether it would have done any good to explain that swimming in the cold current was hard enough without you fishing along the shore. Or how I swam this stretch of lake precisely because people like you aren't on these rocky shores; and if they are, they are most definitely not like you, but lift their lines and speak civilly so they don't scare away the fish. Or, You know what, you're really angry!

[I dressed and drove up the road over the bridge to see where the Angry Fisherman was, thinking about talking to him, not knowing what to say. By the time I parked, I saw him walking back into the town, multiple poles in one hand, and decided to let it all go. Maybe he was having a bad day. As I would be.]

Pearly barked as ever for her last meal Sunday, scooting excitedly in circles as best her body would allow. Her last meal, only she didn't know. I had just enough oatmeal left for it. Every other time I cooked up a new batch, put it in the bowl and the bowl back into the refrigerator. Sunday I put the bowl in the kitchen sink instead.

Nearly a week has passed and we're still living by the rhythms Pearly created for us. We'll start to look for her when we get home, or expect her to show her head at the smell of dinner. This morning I scooted my feet on the carpet as I got up, unconsciously dreading the poop Pearly may left because she could no longer control herself to go outside. I reminded myself this morning I didn't have to wait for her to finish breakfast so she could go out front with me as I fetched the paper; I could just go get the paper.

Her crate and water dishes are set aside in the garage for donation. The little rugs to give her traction are picked up and packed up. Her doggy beds are gone.

The sliding glass door leading to the backyard, propped open most days all these years for her, is shut.

Thank you for a good life, little dog. 

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