Sunday, August 22, 2010

Facing life’s flow, ebb in the dog days of summer

"I remember the first time I ever saw mommy cry," Ittybit announced as I opened the car door, officially ending a tiresome five-hour drive and our two-week New England vacation. The car was ripe with the smell of damp bathing suits and wet dog.

She was still sitting in her car seat, surrounded by the necessities of travel and the trinkets of tourism, as I tried to catch empty bottles rolling out onto our driveway.

"What did you say?" I asked, catching the words but dropping their meaning.

"I remember the first time I ever saw you cry," she said directly and with careful enunciation, as if I had recently stopped understanding English.

I cocked my head, interested.

She stopped smiling and said "it was when Maggie …" Her voice trailed off.

We both looked down at Maddy, the surviving member of our canine duo, now 105 in dog years. The champ never met Maggie, her older sister. She left us a few months before he was born.

Maddy just lay there waiting for help down. She was tired from two weeks in vaguely familiar places just outside the ordinary routine of "eat, sleep and eat some more."

My husband helped her down from the car he had helped her into. No one said anything as we hauled the bags from the trunk and carried them inside, but we were all thinking "It won’t be long now…"

That sentence always seems to float around unfinished and unspoken when conversations lead to our furry friend.

It’s what I thought last summer at the beach, and in the fall when her incontinence seemed unmanageable, and at Christmas when she stopped going up stairs. It’s what I think with the increasing dosages and decreasing agility. "It won’t be long now …"

I’m never able to complete the thought, however, despite having spoken aloud that "I can’t wait for her to go."

It’s not true. It’s just gallows humor. Fear talking.

I even hate bringing her to the vet because I know one day she won’t be coming home. I hold my breath until the moment the vet gives his diagnosis. I wonder what expression he sees on my face as he tells me the news: "Other than the incontinence, she seems really healthy," his voice apologetic, as if my suffering was worse than hers.

I didn’t wonder why Ittybit chose that moment to bring back the memory of Maggie or my sadness in saying ‘Goodbye‘ to her, although I imagine she’s turning the same thought over in her fertile mind about Maddy's slow but steady decline. I just assume she can read my expressions better than our veterinarian can.

She was in swim class when I took Maddy for a morning walk the last day at the beach. Our morning walks with the dogs (now singular) have been a summer ritual more than a decade old. Ittybit didn’t see the tears the wind dried as my dog – my first non-human child – stumbled in the sand trying to keep up with me. Ittybit doesn’t have clear memories of her bounding into the surf, oblivious of the pounding waves. Those are pictures that play over and over in my mind.

The playful puppy is gone as are her more troublesome behaviors … the pulling and barking and running away seem like distant memories. On this day, as we walk, Maddy barely touches the moist sand and stops often to rest. She no longer needs a leash.

"It won’t be long now …" I think as I bend to pet her flank and she appears to smile.

I suppose it wouldn't hurt to hope for one more summer.

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