A Songwriter Says Farewell to the Dog Days
Three Dog Nights, the years of too much, and waiting, and waiting, and waiting....
*Note to my readers- I started this essay over a month ago and couldn’t find the time and the heart to come back to it. I am doing so, now, after the weekend I performed at an event in Seattle, sponsored by Pacific University’s MFA program that celebrates my late father and will help to further fund the Marvin Bell Endowed Poetry Scholarship Fund. It’s always a good idea to sponsor more good poets.
Is a dog even a dog without a nickname?
Three Dog Nights
For five days the dogs and I lived as if in the days when men had nothing.
A freak storm had dropped a tree through our power lines and torn the electric mast off the house. Everybody in the neighborhood was without power, and through a series of unfortunate incidents, we would be nearly the last house in our town to have our power restored.
The kids and my crush were safely ensconced elsewhere, so I was holding down the fort with three dogs and a dwindling pile of firewood.
I kept a fire burning in the fireplace, woke with the sun, worked as best I could with limited resources, and retired to bed shortly after darkness fell.
All three dogs joined me by the fire, and then, at night, upstairs in bed, the brown, part-Aussie herding dog was at my feet, the largest, a black shepherd mix, along the length of my side, and right by my head, curled into the covers, the littlest one, our only boy dog, a Beaker (half Beagle/half Cocker Spaniel).
I was up with the sun, lived in the pack , and ended the day in the lair, with soft breathing and warmth around me. I had always protected them, but that week, they protected me.
It was one of the best weeks of my life.
That was ten years ago.
As of this Friday morning, there are no dogs in this home.
My crush will write a eulogy for Scout, the little Beaker, and the last to go, that will call him “my little buddy” and those words will tear me completely apart.
She will say that his great good luck finally came to an end. And truly he was the most fortunate of dogs, rescued from the middle of a highway and given a life of Reilly that he appreciated like no animal I’ve ever seen.
Scout was our Ernie Banks, the legendary Cub’s outfielder who was famous for the phrase, “let’s play two,” a lovely expression of enthusiasm for baseball and life.
For Scout, everyday was a great day to “play two.”
But Scout would suddenly fall ill, and over a sad and bitterly unfair five week period, go about his life with less and less enthusiasm, albeit with much love from us and a willingness to participate as best he could in the walks and treats that were part of “let’s play two,” until one late night he began to struggle to breathe, and I roused my crush with the words, “It’s over,” and we raced him to an emergency vet clinic, the very last place we wanted his life to end. But end it did.
I cried the entire drive, more for myself than for him, as I knew he had continued his good fortune. I had been sleeping right next to him when he began to suffer so he wouldn’t suffer long. But I knew how much I would suffer.
We have wonderful vets. But we weren’t with them. We were with trying-hard strangers who kept saying all the wrong kind things. Luckily, Scout didn’t know. He was leaving us. And then, he was gone.
I watched them carry his still soft body, wrapped in a blanket, through a steel grey door to where they would create mementos to send us: a paw print, a clipping of his wonderful fur. Then they would cremate him. And just like that, our home wouldn’t have the sounds of a dog.
I don’t think I cried on the ride home. I was done.
The Years of Too Much
There had been so much, lately. Too much. If you’ve ever felt utterly, completely empty, after the loss of a friend, family member, relationship, job, or, like us, an entire pack of dogs, you know how I felt.
We had lost our Aussie herding dog mix, Molly, who was busy, curious, and too smart for her own good, only a few months earlier. An escape artist and jumper of fences who leapt up onto tables, and tugged so hard to the left while on leash that she choked herself. We eventually got smart and bought harnesses that she wore out, one after another, before her old legs finally gave out.
Her legs were her weak point, as she had been so utterly, insanely active that she ground her knees down, and then that caused spine issues, and on and on.
She lived almost 17 years. And like most lucky dog owners, we had to decide when those years had run out. And it was, as it always is, truly horrible.
But we had a vet we love who was with us, and it was so obviously the right time that it was sad, but never regretful.
I don’t know how to think about pet owners who won’t be with their animals in the last moments, but I understand. Being around death and dying isn’t something everybody can do. But it’s another part of our lucky life, being able to put a lie to the saying “everybody dies alone.”
So we came home to a saddened and confused Scout, left alone by the pack he felt so much a part of. We had to get on with life, but he never really got the chance.
We’d had such good fortune with animals that we were certain that we’d have him for at least a couple more years, and he would be spoiled like only an old friend can be spoiled.
In our house, my crush is the one who has her heart most broken by an unfair world, and this broke her heart most, the shortening of his lucky, and happy life.
So when everything started to go south, she cried with me, but rightly, more so for what Scout would lose.
But like I said, it was just the next thing in the years of too much.
We had lost Amy, the beautiful, soft, black Shepherd mix, first, shortly after I returned from Iowa, and the death of my father.
As one would expect of a Shepherd mix, she had a job to do, ever minute of every day.
She kept busy by barking away imaginary intruders, alerting the pack to other dogs passing the house, and serving as a trigger for Molly (who upon hearing the signal, would tear apart any soft item within reach of her incredibly sharp teeth).
After 14 years, more than half of them with hip issues that didn’t seem to slow her down much, Amy began to suffer from rapidly worsening dementia and the failing of those hips.
My crush and I alternated nights sleeping downstairs, something that would become the new normal for us for many nights during the years of too much.
When she was healthy, and that was most of her life, Amy lived for the end of the day, when she could come upstairs to our bedroom and where, like many large dogs, she reveled in taking up huge swaths of our bed, planting herself right in the middle where she would paw at me until I rested my hand in her fur. Only then would she sleep. As I placed my hand on her I could feel my heart slow measurably.
We couldn’t abandon her to solitude as it would be our solitude, as well.
Looking back, once each one of the dogs started to suffer more and more, everything happened relatively quickly, but the waiting, and wondering about when we would have waited too long and increased the suffering seemed endless.
A dog owner can only guess a little about the when of releasing an older dog from pain or insanity, or from utter and hopeless fatigue. And we call it other than what it is, to protect ourselves, but, it’s killing another living thing, and if you aren’t comfortable with that, as nobody should be, the last day will always be with you, loud, and heart wrenching enough to make the wonderful memories, the history, and every kind thing you have ever done for that creature feel a little less, a little futile.
After all, if we can’t save the ones we love, what good are we?
In the series of books by Phillip Pullman, “His Dark Materials,” there are men and there are Witches who fall in love with those men. But the Witches live for hundreds of of years, and the men live the short lives of men. Try as they will, the Witches can’t stop falling in love with men, despite knowing the heartbreak that will follow.
People and Dogs, Witches and Men.
Amy, Molly, Scout, we saved you, you saved us, yet my heart is still broken, for all of us.
The note on top of the boxes is the note my crush and I used to keep from doubling up our little buddy’s pain medicine. And he surely did have “all the things.”
There is more to say, I think, but I can’t bear to write the words.
I Don’t Do This For Love (Homage to the Songwriter) is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.