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This essay originally appeared in Freeman’s Journal.
People react differently to our canine situation. From what they say, I glean information about their natures. Of course, one way or another, they judge us—our dogs provide a morality play all their own.
We’re a family of four, or of six: two adults and two kids (ages fourteen and eleven), with two dogs. They’re relatively small dogs, although not (we like to believe) obscenely so. Myshkin is a standard-sized, red, short-haired dachshund whose antiquity is in some dispute: she came to us as a puppy in the fall either of 1998 or of 1999, so long ago we can’t remember. Her junior consort, Bear, a rescue mutt, joined the family back in 2009, at which point he was said to be about eighteen months old. Part terrier and part min-pin, he’s toffee-colored, scruffy and professorial in aspect, with wiry legs and, once upon a time, amazing speed and agility. (Myshkin, incidentally, means “little mouse” in Russian, so we have, in name at least, two non-canine creatures; though only the first was named after the protagonist of The Idiot.)
At this point, Myshkin the matriarch, still silky and fine-featured, is deaf, blind, intermittently incontinent and increasingly weak on her pins. Her sturdy front legs splay and slide with the effort of standing, and her back legs have a way of collapsing. She ends up reclining—like the Queen of Sheba or a beached whale, depending on your perspective—in unlikely places, occasionally almost in her own excrement, which makes constant vigilance imperative. She’s so demented that half the time when you take her outside, she remains immobile but for her wagging tail, apparently unclear why she’s there.
Oh, and did I mention that she reeks? Not just a bit of dog-breath, or even the comparatively pleasant scent of wet dog. It’s a holistic foulness, emanating not just from her mouth, which smells like the garbage can behind the fishmonger’s (hence her nickname: Fishbin), but at this point from her entire body, which, in spite of frequent bathing, carries about it the odor of a dung-heap in hot weather. Her stench precedes her, and lingers in a room after she’s left. It’s hard to sit next to her, let alone take her on your lap, without gasping at the fecal, fishy gusts.
The worst of it, though, is her constant state of existential crisis, which has her either moaning or, more unnervingly, barking, for hours at a stretch. Dachshunds, though small dogs, have big dog barks: they bark loudly, deeply and resonantly, in a way that can’t be ignored. Our house isn’t big, so we’re never far from her barking. She’s barking right now, in fact. If the phone rings, you can’t hear what the caller says. If the radio or television is on, you won’t catch that either. But you can’t stop the barking: lift her onto the sofa; take her off again; check her water dish; take her outside; through it all, with but a few minutes’ respite, she will bark, and bark, and bark. And bark. Like a metronome. Sometimes, when we have dinner guests, we stash her, barking, in the car.
She was supercute as a puppy. We chose her from the litter because she was the first to run to us and nuzzle our ankles; though we quickly came to understand that food is her first and abiding passion, and she may simply have thought we had some to offer. Scent is the one sense really left to her, and she can still sniff out a candy bar in a closed handbag, or a cookie crumb underneath the fridge. It pleases her enormously to do so—the thrill of the hunt! And she can still thump her tail magnificently when caressed. We have adored her, and made much of her, lo these many years, and have overlooked some significant disadvantages (e.g., a lamentable penchant for coprophagia). Before we had kids, she slept on our bed; and latterly, in her great age, as she has taken up existential barking in the dead of night, she sleeps on our bed all over again, although now on a special (smelly) blanket at its foot, with a towel over her head. Myshkin rules the roost; but Bear, too, has his ways. He was, when first he came to us, runty but beautiful, and restless. He could run like a gazelle, and, in the early months, skittish, took any chance to do so: he chomped through leashes and harnesses, he opened doors with his snout, he darted and feinted and fled. Half a dozen times we had to enlist bands of strangers—at the reservoir; on our block; in the parking lot at Target—to help catch him. You felt you got him in the end only because he let you. He could jump, too: one leap up onto the kitchen table, if you weren’t looking, to eat a stick of butter. A single bound onto a wall, or down again. He was fearless.
I loved to walk him. I’ll confess: I was vain about it. He was so dapper and elegant, so handsome and swift. After years of plodding along beside the plump-breasted dowager Myshkin, whose little legs and long body have dignity and power but not much élan (I’ve always maintained that dachshunds really do understand the absurdity of life), I was delighted to dash around the block in minutes, witness to his graceful sashays. And I loved the compliments—he got so many compliments! A certain type of person loves a dachshund (“My grandmother used to have one of those; his name was Fritzie”); but anyone who tolerates dogs was taken by Bear. He had something about him, a star quality.
One late January evening in 2009, when my husband was out of town and a cousin was visiting, when I was in charge of the kids (then eight and five), the dinner, the dogs and life, I took Bear for his twilight round. (It should be said that we’ve never been able to walk both dogs simultaneously, because their ideas of “a walk” differ so vastly.) Regrettably, I was multitasking: I had the dog, the bag of poo, and some letters to mail, and I was on the phone to my parents, who were then alive but ailing, and to whom I spoke every evening without fail. I’d almost finished the round of the block, was up on the main road at the mailbox, when, while trying to manipulate the leash, the poo, the phone, the letters and the handle to the mailbox, I dropped the leash. It was the stretchy kind, its handle a large slab of red plastic; it made a noisy thud on the icy pavement.
Bear panicked, and bolted. I slammed my foot down on the leash. I was wearing clogs with ridged soles; the icy ground was uneven; and the leash, being the stretchy kind, was thin as a wire. I didn’t catch it with my shoe. I stomped again, and again: too late. Bear dashed out into the rush hour traffic. All my parents could hear down the dropped cell phone line was my long wail.
Being small, he was treated by Fate like a tumbleweed: having made it halfway across unscathed, he banged headlong into the bumper of a moving car on the far side of traffic, then rolled beneath it and out the other side. I recall only the headlights, made blurry by my tears, and the noise, in the encroaching dark; and seeing him, then, against the far curb, and hearing him howl.
I took him in my arms; his left eye protruded from his head as if on a stalk, or a spring—I thought, “How do cartoonists know this?”—and I cradled his little bloody head against my chest. I carried him down to our front porch, and sat with him on the step.
A woman, a stranger, whose car had been behind the one that hit Bear, had driven down my street. She had her two kids and her own dog in the car. She pulled over, and offered to help: she knew the way to the nearest veterinary hospital, whereas the one we’d used for Myshkin’s gold-plated back operation several years before was forty-five minutes away, on the other side of town. She’d lead me there; I could follow in my car. I gestured at poor Bear—how could I simply put him on the seat beside me? He was shaking, almost convulsing. She, nameless Samaritan, offered me the company of her son.
That amazing child—a boy of perhaps eleven or so—sat in my car (a stranger’s car) with Bear upon his lap (a pulpy, bloody thing, with an eye upon a stalk), and stroked the dog and whispered quietly to him as we crawled up the highway behind his mother in the rush-hour darkness to the hospital. (I had to leave my young cousin in charge of the kids. Thank goodness he was there. He was very amiable and unfussed about it, but I think supper was a bowl of cereal that night.)
The eye that had burst out couldn’t be saved. The other they retained, though purely for cosmetic purposes: Bear can’t see a thing. In the early days, he’d try to leap onto a piece of furniture that wasn’t there—a wonderful sight in its way, to see him bounce high into the air and plop right back down—or he’d sit patiently facing a wall, his head slightly cocked, as if gazing upon a beautiful vista. Now, he navigates the house as if he could see it all perfectly; unless we drop a suitcase in the hall, or move a chair. The vet assured us that for a dog, sight is like taste or smell for humans, a secondary sense; and that Bear could lead a full and happy life without his eyes. Asked about the possibility of brain damage, she gave a wry smile: “Even if there is some, you won’t be able to tell. It’s not like he won’t be able to do algebra anymore.”
Tiresias-like, Bear is an inspiration, a teacher of how to make the best of things, how to enjoy what you have and not lament what you’ve lost. He has an aura of patient wisdom. No longer skittish, he no longer leaps; most painfully, he no longer runs. He tried, in the beginning, but a few sharp knocks subdued the urge. He’s biddable, patient, and very sweet, largely content to let Myshkin order him about. (The only time they cuddle together is at the cageless kennel: we’ve seen photos, so we know it’s true. At home, if he approaches her sofa, she’ll growl at him.) I suffered grief and guilt after the accident; some part of me felt, too, that I was being punished for my vanity, for having been so proud of Bear’s superficial charms.
I didn’t mention earlier that the handsome Bear came to us with a fatal flaw. We suspect it may be why he ended up in that kill shelter in Georgia in the first place, when someone had clearly bothered to teach him to sit, to stay, even to stand on his hind legs. Bear is a widdler. When the postman comes—or the UPS guy, or the FedEx truck; and because we’re book people, they, too, come almost daily—Bear erupts: he dashes to the door, hopping up and down in a fury; the hair on the back of his neck stands up; he roars for all he’s worth and bares his tiny fangs. Unlike Myshkin, who has a grown-up bark, Bear has an awful, little-dog shriek, an indignity. And then, when he’s danced around in his rage for a while, he all too often lifts his leg against a chair or sofa leg and sprinkles a few rebellious drops, just to make a point, sort of like flipping the finger at the guy at the door.
He did this from the first. We were working on training him out of it—a passionate young man came to the house to teach us how to think like a dog: re: the stick of butter: “Correction! He knows he’s not supposed to do it when you’re in the room. That’s all”—but the training went down the tubes after the accident, apparently along with any memory of it. A bit of brain damage after all. We put a plastic sheet under the sofa nearest the front door, and that’s been an improvement. Dismayingly, the vet has no other suggestions, though she shakes her head in sympathy. So in addition to the walking room-desanitizer that is Myshkin, we live, and our children are growing up, in a faint but persistent ammoniac fug.
So, to recap: we have the obstreperous, incessantly barking, stinky old deaf and blind dog who can’t really stand up; and the completely blind pisser. Whenever we travel anywhere, they stay in a wonderful (spectacularly smelly) old house in Reading, where dogs are free to roam and a bevy of loving young women tend to their needs. It’s like paying for a spa vacation for two extra kids. But we couldn’t ask anyone else to take care of them: one animal virtually can’t walk, the other ambles at his own sniffy pace (where once he looked always ahead and darted onward, Bear can now take half an hour to circle the block). One risks incontinence at unforeseen moments; the other, highly predictable in his incontinence, is virtually unstoppable. Myshkin needs to sleep with humans at night; Bear needs to go outside every three hours in the daytime. Who, we say, who could possibly put up with them?
As you can tell, we complain about our dogs. We berate the barking, perorate about the pissing, lament our enslavement, and throw up our hands at the bad smells. We curse when on our knees cleaning carpets; we curse when trying to quell the crazed barking at four in the morning; we curse when one or other of the dogs vomits yet again. My husband always jokes that a true vacation is when the dogs are in the kennel and we’re at home without them. But we also stroke them and kiss them and hug them and worry about them. (My husband is always concerned that they’re bored. Bear has grown quite stout from the snacks provided to alleviate his boredom, a beneficence I can’t condone.) When we’re in the house without them, we’re baffled by the silence, and amazed by the free space and time (separate walks amount to seven or eight outings a day). We have, it’s fair to say, a love-hate relationship with the animals.
This is where people have opinions. When you tell people about our canine situation, many can’t believe it. They see it as our moral failing that the dogs are still alive. “Get rid of them,” they urge scornfully. “What are you thinking?” We’ve been told that the dogs’ behavior is a reflection upon our characters, that were we better alpha dogs ourselves, our pack wouldn’t misbehave as they do. We’ve been told that we are weak, and that we owe it to our children to have these dogs put down. One friend even suggested that we’re heartless to keep Myshkin going when she’s lost so many of her faculties; although the vet, whom we visit repeatedly in hopes that she’ll tell us when it’s time, will give us divine dispensation, assures us that Myshkin is doing just great.
Then there are those on the other side. They don’t just forgive us, they pat us gently on the back, offer quiet encouragement—“Good for you” or “It must be tough.” Or they see it as hilarious, part of life’s wondrous absurdity. Sometimes people even see it as an act of Christian charity. Or as a case of do-as-you-would-be-done-by. Or just plain old love. We prefer this, needless to say, to contempt and derision.
Really, of course, the difference is between those who believe that each of us controls our destiny and has a right to freedom; and those who don’t. The former contend that we have the right, even the responsibility, to exert our wills, certainly over dumb animals, in order to maintain order and keep healthy boundaries. It’s the only path to sanity, righteousness and good action; and keeping these dogs in our lives is just sentimental claptrap. On the other hand are those who feel that life is a mucky muddle, in which unforeseen situations arise, and possibly endure; and that we must care as best we can for those around us, whatever befalls them, with faith that a similar mercy may be shown us in due course.
Before Myshkin was lame and foul and intolerable, she gave us years of affection and happiness. Even in her dotage, she’s shown her love by inching ever closer, or by pushing her damp nose under our hands for a caress. For God’s sake, she’s shown it even by her barking. She waits up for her master to come home; she wakens us at dawn to start the day. And Bear: he’s sweetness itself, except with the deliverymen and the sofa leg. If he can’t prance or dart the way he did once; if he’s no longer the most handsome dog in town; how, knowing what he suffered—and having caused that suffering, indeed—can I not love him the more?
We’re torn, hoping for a deus ex machina that might liberate us from the discomforts they inflict upon us—my parents’ dogs never barked obsessively, or peed in the house, which would give credence to those who say it’s about our failure properly to lead the pack—but all the while we love their loyalty and generosity and, well, love. The dogs, after all, are the only people who are always glad to see us. Who are we to be anything but grateful for their affection and trust? Who are we to play God over them? And yet, what have we done all along but play God?
Or again: how does our strife with the dogs differ from our general strife: could it not be said that our canine situation is simply our life situation? From deep in the doghouse, that’s what it looks like to me.
Read a Q&A with Claire Messud about “Going to the Dogs” here.