by Diana Dawson Plattner
Today I took our dog Alabama to be put to sleep. She was fifteen, a Pointer mix, white with black ticking, black ears, and a black eye-patch. When she was on her feet and anxiously pacing the room (thank you, dementia, you bastard), she stood about knee-high to me, a bit less to my husband, Andy, who is very tall. She was emaciated, but this was more alarming to strangers than it was to us, for she’d been thin to the point of ribbiness her entire life, and one of her thousand-and-one nicknames was Fishbones.
The woman at the pet crematory asked whether I’d like a memorial pawprint, or maybe a fur locket, before they cremated the dog. The pawprint is impressed into a disk of white polymer; it’s a nice thing, and I have one taken from a previous elderly pet – but that was an unexpected gift from the veterinarian. It felt wrong having one made on purpose. As for the fur locket, it’s the kind of thing you laugh about at lunch with the office buddies: sweaters made of yarn woven from cat hair, taxidermied Fifi on the mantle. I’ve chuckled right along with everyone else, but if the objects are hilarious the emotions connected to them aren’t funny at all. I didn’t get the fur locket, but I didn’t laugh at the fur locket, either.
Anyway, we’ve got plenty of memorial fur. I’ll be finding little white paintbrush-tips of it in this apartment – hiding under chairs, behind cushions, and drifted in every corner – for a long time to come. A few hours ago, when I moved the low chaise on which Alabama slept away the daylight hours for the last couple of years, there were quite a few such paintbrushes. For a short-haired dog, her ability to shed was downright Olympic. The hair came off her in a visible cloud like the one surrounding Pigpen in the Peanuts comics, only white instead of brown. We used to joke that she stayed so thin her whole life because her body put all its resources into producing hair.
She had an unexpected, dense undercoat that made her very nearly waterproof. The smooth topcoat was the part that shed so freely: in sprinkles as she walked, in a spray when she shook herself, in a sheet when she leaned against you. The undercoat, if you looked closely, resembled rabbit fur, and it was so thick it was impossible to part it sharply enough to see her skin. Were it not for the pink skin on her semi-bare abdomen, we never would’ve known exactly what color she was under there. The hairs of the undercoat stayed in place as they were shed, until enough of them clumped together to form a tuft that was expelled to the surface. I’d tug these off and drop them in the trash by the fistful, but still I found them in clumps, about the size and shape of the end of a watercolor brush, in the hallways of our condo, on the sidewalk outside, on the stairways, stuck in the fan, in my shoes.
She was sublimely fast. When we lived on the farm where she found us, we clocked her at twenty-five miles an hour as she followed the truck on the gravel road. She was built like a beagle crossed with a whippet with two or three genes from a spider-monkey for good measure, and could climb the broad, low limbs of the catalpa tree like a goat. Alabama was all dog, though. She had adventures: she once killed a neighbor’s chicken. When she went back for more mischief she received a shotgun-blast of rock salt to her rapidly fleeing ass end. (This was before we understood we’d been claimed as hers, when she was just a happy neighborhood stray that wouldn’t go home.) She chased wild turkeys and a Thoroughbred race horse in a field, and on one memorable occasion, as I sat at the breakfast table drinking a cup of coffee and nursing an evil hangover, brought home the liver of a cow that had died in a ravine. I still remember the jaunty way she came up the driveway, and the way that chunk of liver wibbled at the tip.
Chasing the race horse: that was the pastime that bought her a one-way ticket off the farm. We were living in northern Kentucky, on a rocky hilltop next to the Ohio River. My father-in-law kept a few horses on the track, and one of them, a two-year-old, bug-eyed gantry, was spending the summer in a paddock on the farm, waiting to flesh out enough to go into training. The white dog that had taken up with us thought it great fun to chase the big hoofy thing, which hurtled along the fence in a brainless panic. One morning Andy came inside and said That dog has to go. He went back outside and yelled at the dog, which looked at him in puzzlement – who, me? He yelled louder and she backed away a little, tail between legs, apparently wondering what the big deal was. He picked up a walnut and chucked it at her. It missed, but his meaning was unmistakable: Clear off. You have a home, go back to it. After a few minutes of his yelling and arm-waving and walnut-throwing, the dog got the message and ran down the driveway, across the neighbor’s yard and down the back hill. She stopped in front of another neighbor’s barn and sat in the doorway, looking back at the house. She was slender, symmetrical, like the white queen on a chess board.
Andy came back inside and said Don’t say a word.
I raised my eyebrows – who, me? – and went back to my coffee and whatever I was reading. I didn’t say a word. The dog obviously came from a home where she was well cared for and kindly treated. We already kept one dog, or rather I did, which limited our mobility too much as it was. The slight figure of the stray down by the barn was bright in the morning sun, shifting her feet and looking back at the house.
Andy sat facing away from the window. He looked into his coffee cup on the table, frowning in that especially fierce, puckered-eyebrow way of his. He turned the cup like a dial, scraping it on the table top. Finally he said God damn it, and got up. I watched through the window as he went outside to the edge of the hill, hunkered down, slapped his thighs, called the dog back.
* * *
My attachment to this dog was malformed from the moment I first saw her.
I was out walking in a field with my first dog – at the time I didn’t know this was my first dog; it was just my dog, a tan dachshund mix that stirred the tops of the knee-high grass from an invisible depth as it snuffled along, a twelve-pound menace to bugs, mice, careless fingers, and on one horrible occasion, a baby rabbit. I was devoted to this wretched beast. She was my one and only. I am that way about people, animals, even objects: the attachments I form are few, but they are fierce and absolute, and in the case of this first dog, I would have no other dog before her. One self, one man, one cat, one dog. Just so.
It was a sunny, late-summer day on the farm, blue sky, flowers, glinty dark river down below, distant white plume of smoke from the power plant. I was strolling along in the wake of the little monster when, across the field and the gravel road, I saw this white dog zig-zagging along, nose down, tracking some erratic scent, jumping at the bugs and skippers it flushed up from the grass. For about two heartbeats, maybe three, this long-legged, grinning, oblivious creature was the happiest sight I’d ever seen, but then I thought oh no don’t see us please oh please don’t see us. My own dog couldn’t see over the high grass, and if the playful dog would just bear off toward the woods before we got to the thinner grass by the road –
Too late. The dogs caught sight of each other and raced together, sniffing, tails doing the stiff-brisk wag that says I like you, are you going to kick my ass? Don’t kick my ass, I’ll kick your ass, you.
I sat down cross-legged in the grass and watched, resigned. The unspoken rule: if it enters your world, you are responsible for its care, or else for getting someone else to be responsible for its care. With the latter, I have seldom had much luck.
As we learned later – much later, about five years – the dog did indeed have a good home at the time, as her overall condition suggested. She was thin, but it was the leanness of a marathon runner. An athlete could only wish to be her equivalent: long-legged, but in proportion to her height, with a wasp waist that acted as a hinge, allowing her hind legs and pelvis to reach deep underneath her and propel her forward as she ran. Woe to the squirrel that lingered on the ground with its mind on other matters; she wasn’t a bloodthirsty or aggressive dog, she never once growled, she was submissive to people and other dogs – but if she could catch a squirrel she’d play with the squirrel until squirrely broke. Same with the unlucky chicken mentioned earlier: one day not long after the dog came to us, she came trotting into the yard with her head high, a white chicken in her mouth, feathers drifting in her wake. She put the chicken down, went back to chase the feathers, sneezed, picked up the chicken, and pranced on by.
I put up fliers at the feed stores. I asked all over the neighborhood to see if anyone knew where this dog had come from. People said No, no, never seen ’er before – and their expressions said, Don’t want to keep her, either. Had I traveled another quarter-mile down the road I would have found her original home, but I underestimated how far such a young dog would travel in pursuit of butterflies.
Never has anyone tried so hard to get rid of such a wonderful animal. Andy tolerated the dog I already had, since (1) it predated our relationship, (2) it was small, and (3) it liked him and hid under his chair during thunderstorms. He was absolutely opposed to this new dog, as was I. Compared to the first dog, the new one was huge; also, Andy had just accepted a job in Ocala, Florida, and we would be leaving soon. In the world of rental houses, you’ve got “no pets,” “no dogs,” and “small dog okay.” Rare is the ad that reads “good-sized, slobbering, potentially destructive insurance liabilities welcome.”
Also, as mentioned, I was jealous on behalf of my first dog.
That said, I was growing terribly fond of this new one, whom we began to call Alabama. She was a simple, uncomplicated thing, and had only two settings: joyful and asleep. Low maintenance, not a barker, not a big eater. (I put all this on the flyers.) We predicted that if we came back and saw her when she was old, she’d have not a trace of arthritis, her slim physique and absolutely straight, clean-moving legs putting no more pressure on her joints than a ray of sunshine. (This, I did not put on the flyers.)
At one point, we gave her to a friend in Columbus, Ohio. He had a dog already and probably didn’t want another one, but he took her as a favor to the husband. She came back to us two weeks later, having gone over the fence like a gazelle from day one. The friend sounded truly regretful. She was such a loving dog; his own dog was a shrewd and independent Australian shepherd mix who liked her space, but Alabama liked to follow him around the house and sleep at his feet when he worked. But, man, he said, she does shed a lot.
The husband had driven down to Ocala with our boxes and my little tan dog. I was scheduled to follow with the cat on an airplane a few days later. Every night we talked on the phone, and every night we argued about Alabama. He didn’t want to keep her, and I didn’t want to keep her; we were both stressed about the situation, so naturally, we argued as if in disagreement.
Two days before I was scheduled to leave, as I was steeling myself to take her to the pound, he called and said Guess what. The landlord says we can bring Alabama.
Oh thank god, I said. I was sitting on the fence, using the portable phone. As if she knew she was the subject of the conversation, Alabama came loping up from the woods. I hopped down and reached for her but the smell got there before she did, and I stepped back up on the fence. Alabama, a.k.a. Dainty Dolly, a.k.a. the Speckler (because of her black ticking), had tried to play with a skunk-toy, and the skunk-toy clearly had won.
Psychology has a lot of theories, so there are bound to be a few about bonding. Had I welcomed the new dog with open arms and no reservations, I would have bonded as cleanly and unambiguously with her as she did with us. Instead, the prolonged holding off at arm’s length of my affection created a blank area, like the blind spot when driving a car – a foveal gap not only where the eye picks up nothing, but about which lingers a negative feeling, a sense of worry. I loved this dog enough for a dozen dogs, but I didn’t love her as much as I possibly could. I didn’t love her as much as she deserved, as much as all dogs deserve. How do people with children manage this craziness? Is it more complicated (Jesus, I’d be a basket case)? Does the enormity of feeling strip all the bullshit away, making it simpler? Or is it just me – that I am the only one who makes something so easy and natural into something hard?
We traveled around with the pets for years, living in Florida, Kentucky, and Georgia. The first dog grew old and sick, and her kidneys began to fail. We gave her subcutaneous fluids, the clear pouch of lactated ringers solution suspended from a plant hanger on the wall of the kitchen as I sat on the floor with the dog in my lap. Sometimes she was so ill and tired she didn’t seem to feel the needle as it went into the skin pinched up over her shoulderblades; other times she would jolt upward and screech as if she’d been stabbed, which, of course, she had. For a few hours after each daily treatment, the fluid rode in a bump like a backpack until it dispersed into her system, flushing out the toxins her kidneys could no longer filter. The fluids made her feel a lot better, and at times she was downright perky, toddling around in the grass, snatching treats from my fingers – and the fingertips themselves, if I wasn’t careful – with something like her old gusto. But sometimes, she would have seizures, her back arching, a spine-tingling wail going up and up from her throat. I slept on the floor next to her, on cushions from the couch; one night I woke in the howling dark with my heart trying to escape through my throat.
Should I have taken her to be put to sleep? Probably. There’s no clear line of demarcation, nor a smooth gradation from a state of health to one of intolerable misery. It’s more like the turning of the seasons, when you feel the tingle of autumn on an August day where it is as out of place as a spider in a silverware drawer. Then it’s back to broiling summer and you think you must’ve imagined it, but as the weeks go by the states of summer and fall begin to alternate, first more of one, then more of the other, and you can’t be sure summer is truly gone until you realize it isn’t summer and autumn anymore, it’s autumn and winter.
One thing I have learned, and that I will stand by, is this: when any mammal, whether four-legged or two-legged, begins to recoil from the touch of the sun, you can be sure the summer’s about over. That first dog used to grandly allow me to drag her bed across the floor to keep it in the sun. (One of her thousand-and-one nicknames, in fact, was Sunbug.) One day toward the end, I towed her bed into a warm patch of sun and, when it touched her fur, she got up and went to a dark corner, where she lay on the linoleum and went back to sleep. (Later, a similar experience with my mother, who had cancer and was very near the end: while cleaning her room I opened the blinds to let the sun in, but she made me close them right away. Too much, too much, she said.)
Alabama’s fading was gradual, and there was no one moment I can look back on and say I noticed the sun was no longer a friend. When we moved here five years ago, she enjoyed sunbathing on the balcony, lying with her front paws hanging off the edge and her chin propped on the lower railing as she watched the street life. She supervised the repaving of the street with great interest. She galloped up and down the slick wooden stairs to the bedroom, and at night, when she wanted to be let up in the bed, she’d stand on her hind legs and slap the mattress with a paw until I woke up. Then she’d grunt like a curious monkey, and I could tell her tail was wagging by the way the silhouette of her head bobbed in the dark. I’d scoot over and lift the covers and she’d bounce on up, curling up like a prawn next to me, often resting her head on my shoulder. It would be delightful until I woke up hours later, all my joints singing from being stuck in one position.
One day a couple of years ago, she got what I thought was a case of pinkeye. As it turned out, she had severe glaucoma in her left eye, the one on the white side of her face. Both of her eyes were pretty, but the left eye was dramatic – her city eye, with a ring of black around the edges like kohl eyeliner. The right eye was her country eye, in the midst of the black patch on that side of her face. Kind, utilitarian, no drama. I didn’t realize how much pain she was in until I took her to the vet, who diagnosed the glaucoma and told me the pain was like a severe migraine as the pressure built up inside her eye. There was no cure, and by that point the sight was totally gone in that eye. When the vet asked whether we might consider, maybe, removing the eye, our answer was immediate: God yes, take it out. He looked relieved.
She was still pretty, even with just her country eye, but it did take some getting used to. I knew they would have to sew the eyelid shut over the empty orbit, but I hadn’t realized how much of the lid they’d have to clip away to do this. I’d imagined she’d have a crescent of black eyeliner, as if she were winking, but her face on that side was entirely white. When she slept on the black side of her face, the white side with the small white crater where the eye used to be reminded me of the surface of the moon.
As it turned out, she couldn’t have cared less about that eye. Once her brain forgot what it had known about the distance of objects around her, things got a bit tricky, but she handled it like the happy comedienne she’d always been – Is that a curb? Looks like a curb. How high should I jump? That’s a dumb question: high as possible, duh. We switched from a collar to a harness so we could help her on the steps. She’d make a too-big leap at the bottom step and you’d have to keep the leash high and tight so she wouldn’t crash or tumble backward; sometimes this ended in an awkward but harmless spraddle, other times her leap became a grand helicoptering arc over several steps. I called this fairy-practice.
One day she slipped coming down the wooden stairs, rattling from the top all the way to the landing. Going up was okay, but she needed an escort going down. After a while, we started carrying her down, and after another while, we carried her both ways. The carpeted steps in the condo hallway were fine, but the wooden stairs to the bedroom were out.
A few months later, as we stepped out into the carpeted hall on our way to the park, the change of surface confused her and she peed on the carpet. We started carrying her on the way down, hoisted under one arm, legs dangling – until she started losing control of her bladder while being carried. We found she should hold it pretty well if we didn’t let her dangle, but instead scooped her hind legs underneath her with her back paws sticking out under her chin. We added a thick towel wrapping, just to be sure, throwing it over her back-end before picking her up. This was a fun game and she would play with the towel and gnaw on the leash as we packed her down the steps.
Little increments, every few weeks something else removed from her sphere of capabilities. Her country eye was growing weaker, the field of vision smaller, and the reduced stimulation to her brain accelerated the encroachment of dementia. It was a humdrum dementia, nothing flashy, no late-night purchases on QVC; just pacing. A lot of pacing. Counterclockwise, and woe to the chair or person that stopped in her path. Like a person with Alzheimer’s, she “sundowned” every night, becoming agitated right after the sun went down. This would last for an hour or two and then, exhausted, she’d sleep the rest of the night.
One day I realized she no longer napped or even stood very long in the sun.
Thursday night, September 15, the day after my birthday, something went wrong. It had been going wrong for months, but now it went wronger. I gave her half a can of her special food, which she attacked as if she were starving. She seemed to be hungry still, so I started giving her treats, which she attacked frantically. I noticed, however, that if I put the biscuit in the end of her mouth, she would just hold it as if her lips and tongue couldn’t remember how to move it back into her mouth. If I put it in the side of her mouth, she crunched it as usual.
Her pacing became frantic, and unlike on previous nights, it didn’t wind down. Ten o’clock, eleven, twelve, one, two – still she was burning a path around the apartment. For a while I tried to hold her in the position we used to carry her outside, on the theory that, like tucking a chicken’s head under its wing, this would trigger a relaxation response, but she wriggled and whimpered until finally I understood it just distressed her more. She peed on the floor, slipped and fell in the pee; I cleaned it and her up as she pat-pat-pattered around the room, and a few minutes later she peed again. I noticed a single drop of blood suspended in the urine each time, and wondered if she’d developed a urinary-tract infection – painful and distressing for anyone, let alone a creature already in a fog of anxiety. If it was a UTI, a course of antibiotics would knock it out, but for what? Even in relative health, her pilot light was so low it couldn’t throw a shadow. There was no question. It was time.
Somehow it felt right that I should be the one to take her in. She loved Andy but she was closest to me; for all the hours and miles he’d logged with her in the park, I was the one she was happiest to see in the evening, the one she’d eat for, the one she followed from room to room. Andy and I didn’t discuss it, and didn’t need to. I would take the burden of doing this, and in doing so, I would have the last moments of her to myself.
Not long after the sun came up she began to settle down. She was utterly exhausted, and for the first time there was no light of recognition in her eye, no indication that my touch or scent was any comfort whatsoever. She rode in the front seat next to me, and it probably goes without saying that I cried the whole way. I didn’t begrudge her leaving, it was easy to let her go; I cried simply because I was going to miss her. I missed her already. She had the whole of my heart. There was no blind spot, no complication. The moon-side of her face was the side nearest me, and as I drove, one hand resting on her hip, I realized the moon had been strangely present the last few days. The harvest moon, just beginning to wane, had been disconcertingly bright at night; I’d met a kitten named Moon; on my birthday someone had given me a box of cookies shaped like the man in the moon. Random disconnected stuff, unless you were me at that moment. It was like the world was saying Yes. Now.
Her death was the easiest and gentlest thing I’ve ever been a part of. It was a cool gray morning. The vet tech brought a quilt outside and spread it on the grass, and we sat on it and talked quietly as Alabama paced in an orbit around me. The vet came out and sat on the quilt with us; the tech held Alabama, who didn’t flinch as the needle was placed (later, I would appreciate the alcohol swab, wholly unnecessary and thus deeply kind). My voice wavered as I told her what a gift she’d been, and I held her face between my hands as the barbiturate went in. It took only a few seconds. She simply drooped, like a flower wilting, and her eye closed, and she was gone.
When I got back in the car I saw that, as usual when Alabama had been in it, there was white hair everywhere. By the time I got home the hair was already beginning to disappear from the hard surfaces inside the car. I went inside and we rolled up the rug to go to the cleaner’s, and as I pulled the chaise away from the wall I found a half-dozen white paintbrushes of fur. I saved one, tied it around the middle with a piece of thread. It’s here on my desk. I’ll save it as long as I can, but I won’t be putting it in a locket. These words are my locket, and in them I keep my treasures.
God rest you, my Speckler. Give the first dog our best; we’ll be seeing you before you know it.