Old Lady, You’re Breaking My Heart (Updated)
It’s just after 10 pm and she’s lying on our porch. Not in either of the shady spots she prefers, on either side of the concrete porch; and not inside, either, where the air conditioning’s running. She doesn’t lift her head when I pet her. She doesn’t seem to be in any pain. She just sighed.
Her name is Hope, and we don’t know how old she is. The day I found her the vet looked at her teeth and guessed somewhere between 18 months and three years; but that was in 2004. We don’t know what she is, either. Part cocker spaniel, part border collie, all mellow.
I’m sitting next to her, smelling like mosquito repellent — can she smell it? she hasn’t moved — and thinking of all the times I could have walked her and I didn’t; all the times I could’ve taken her to the dog park and didn’t. Although I’m not sure she missed the dog park all that much. Few dogs have demonstrated as little pro-dog sentiment over the course of their lifetimes as Hope has.
She had two roommates: Sporty, a black Lab who had been my husband’s dog from the time she was born at my in-laws’ house, and then later Coredump, a tiny, arrogant Pomeranian whom we found in a parking garage. Both times the new dogs became alpha dogs and Hope retreated. She had the jump on Coredump, by age and size and household tenure, but he took over her bed as if it had always had his name on it and she found herself a different corner.
After Coredump passed, two months ago, she seemed different: more cheerful, more assertive. She started dragging things out to the backyard and eating them in a way we hadn’t seen her do even when she’d been much younger. We put boxes on higher shelves but didn’t do much else to discourage her. I can’t speak for my husband, but I was quietly charmed by the idea of my fourteen-year-old dog acting like a puppy in some ways.
My girl, my girl, my girl. “You’re my first girl,” I used to say to her, long after she’d had to cede attention to my two daughters. She didn’t act out — Sporty once experimentally put her jaws near my older daughter, but Hope, no.
Was she happy? She didn’t show the extremes of joy dogs display sometimes. Coredump, if you invited him into your lap, would be absolutely thrilled, and would sneeze on you seven or eight times to give you an idea of how much your beneficence had moved him. Hope, if you gave her a space on the couch, would settle down: Well, this ain’t bad. Sure.
The first time I saw her she was crossing Moreland Avenue, all four lanes of it, at four o’clock in the afternoon. I coaxed her into my car, ran her off to the vet, who was the one to point out she was lactating. There followed a couple afternoons of her and me walking around Edgewood, me cheerfully, ineffectually saying, “Where are the puppies?” I was calling her Lucy until we passed a group of boys who said, “Oh, that’s Hope.” So I walked her back to her owner, a nice woman taking care of her daughter and a cat and the puppies in the backyard in addition to Hope, who by then had a collar and a tag linked to my phone number. And I cried all the way home.
The tag turned out to be important, because Hope kept wandering away. I don’t know what it was that spurred her — whether she felt she needed more food, or something frightened her, or she just slipped through a hole in the fence and then couldn’t find her way back. Each time she escaped, someone would call me and I’d refer them back to her actual owner. Finally the actual owner called me: Would I like to keep Hope, permanently? Yes, I said, I would.
At the time I was living in Virginia-Highland, which was hipster and richer and fairly white, and Edgewood was blacker and poorer; and Hope’s original owner was black, and I am white; and thus one take on this story is that I got a dog for twelve years and Hope’s original owner got nothing in the bargain, and this is just one example of how inequality gets perpetuated along racial and economic lines even by people who think they’re doing good things, like adopting dogs. I don’t have a defense, for the record. But it seemed a thing to acknowledge, sitting out here.
As I’m sitting out here Hope has kicked her rear left leg a couple times, not strongly, as if a fly landed on her stomach and she wanted to shoo it away. There’s no strain on her face. Maybe I’m wrong and she’s just tired, fighting off a stomach bug — she threw up her breakfast this morning, and that’s not par for the course for her. Maybe I’m being melodramatic. I hope I’m being melodramatic.
When her original owner called me and I agreed to adopt her, I had a two-and-a-half-week work-and-sightseeing trip to Europe scheduled. So I said I’d take her back after I got back from my trip — but then she disappeared again. “Tell you what,” said the guy I’d been dating for six months at that point. “Go ahead, and if she turns up while you’re gone, I’ll take care of her until you get back.”
Two days after I flew to New York, I got a call from a vet’s office a good five miles north of Edgewood. The guy I’d been dating for six months moved into my apartment, and walked her twice a day, and cleaned up after she had, shall we say, evidence of digestive issues. Seventeen of them. In one room. Which did not smell by the time I got back. Meanwhile I’d been in Denmark, a trip I’d been hoping to take for years, but: if you are at all prone to mood swings, October in Denmark is not a good idea. The guy I’d been dating for six months put up with my new dog and her impact on his commute and her digestive issues and my moody long-distance phone calls, all without strangling anybody.
I flew back, I hugged her, I hugged him, and I distinctly remember thinking something clichéd like, This is a good man. Maybe not so much thinking as feeling it. But smart enough to recognize it, and act on it: we have been married ten years and change, and he was, he is, he remains a very good man.
So you see how much I owe this dog.
I’ve heard that some dog owners get a reprieve, a window of time before the trip to the vet where the decision is made and the trip to the vet where the injections are actually administered. And they’re able to fill that time with steaks and long walks and lots of petting and sunsets and such. I’m thinking: what will we do if we get a reprieve? If tomorrow morning we see her patiently curled up at the back door like we usually do, and she comes inside when we open it and walks over to her empty food bowl and looks at us reproachfully?
I’ll take her for a walk, let her go as slow as she wants, sniff everything she wants. I’ll give her one of those big bones I get from Costco. I’ll let her go out into the front yard and walk a few steps behind her so that she can explore in peace without one of us yelling at her to get away from the street every thirty seconds.
I don’t know. She hasn’t moved, while I’ve been writing this, except for the occasional kick of one leg. “If you think she’s in pain,” my husband just said, “let me know, and I can take her to the hospital.” But her expression hasn’t changed.
I’ve heard, too, that dogs will withdraw when they sense they’re dying. Sporty retreated to the middle of the yard; we realized something was wrong when she didn’t bark to be let in as she usually did. Both my husband and I went out and petted her and told her we loved her, and then let her be.
If I stay longer out here with Hope it won’t be because she asked me to. It’ll be more about my guilt than her comfort, I suspect. I don’t know what else I can do, or should do. I wish I could do half as much for her as she’s done for me.
Update, 26 October 17: We did, in fact, get a reprieve of a few months. (During which I once took her on a walk she was so enthusiastic about she ended up overestimating her own strength and overheating.) But this morning she was having seizures, and we had to let her go. Many thanks to Dr. Katherine Conlon at Blue Pearl Emergency Vet Hospital in Sandy Springs for her help.