Going to the Dogs

Bella, Jane’s dog of many years, and my dog of a few years, is dying this Thanksgiving day. A boxer mix, throughout her life she has been given to alternately barking at perceived threats and rolling on her back to be petted. In short, she is a dog. She is also quite an intelligent dog, attuned to what’s happening or what might be. And she was once quite adventurous, until arthritis set in with its pain and distortions. Until one recent day when she could no longer hobble, collapsed, and could not get up again. Which isn’t exactly accurate, because she did get up again, at least a few times. Until whatever time was the last time. Now she is in a doggy bed in our bedroom, not eating and slowly dying.

Jane recently asked about my childhood dog experience. She wanted to know what happened to Frosty, the white mutt who followed me around the desert near our home. Frosty was good at fetching sticks. Good at chasing balls. And always around. Until he wasn’t. Our white dog, in retrospect probably part Labrador, disappeared. How and where was never clear. My mother said that a veterinarian had told her that dogs often succumbed to some illness or other. And that as part of this, they ran away to die.

I have no idea of the possible truth of this. The desert was full of rattlesnakes. And people with guns who might have described themselves as hunters. Although there was virtually nothing to hunt. An occasional pheasant would manifest. A bullet hole also manifested in our dining room window. Let’s just call them people with rifles. That one of them might have taken a shot at Frosty is not inconceivable.

While I can remember the fact of our dog’s disappearance, I could not remember how I felt until Jane’s question. Then I knew. My parents’ marriage was drawing to its shrill and bitter close, and there was so much loss in the air, so much pain and fear, that the disappearance of a dog was only one more thing. At the time, I must have made some calculation along these lines.

I do remember that a couple of purebred boxers appeared one day, dogs my mother had brought home from somewhere to sort of try out. I didn’t like them. They seemed foreign, completely unlike Frosty. They didn’t stay. But we did get a puppy. I recall nothing about this little dog. We must not have had him very long. But I do recall seeing him, his floppy ears, perhaps a little spaniel, in a shoebox. My mother was crying. She had run over him, backing her Pontiac out of its accustomed spot. My father told me she had backed over the puppy on purpose. Even at the time my 11-year-old self knew better. I didn’t believe him, but I haven’t forgotten either.

After my parents’ divorce, my brother and I lived with my father. He had converted the upstairs of an old house that had been his office for several years. The three of us lived above his medical practice. It wasn’t much of a family. More a remnant. And then somehow my brother got a puppy. Someone must have given it to him. How long did we have it? I don’t know the answer. But I do know that my brother came to me one day to say that the little puppy had wandered into some bamboo behind the house. He couldn’t find it. I could not find. Darkness fell, and we yelled the puppy’s name again and again. We never found him. I don’t think we told our father. Nor did we have much to say to each other.

While it is painful to chronicle these losses, and it is also painful to watch Bella as she dies, the very telling of the story of me and dogs seems to wind up in a better place. Bella has had a good long life. People have loved her. And her death, while slow, is not a lonely one. Jane has been sleeping on an air mattress by her side, night after night. This is life. It could be worse. And it has been.

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