Being bits of wisdom gleaned from daily walks with my dog, Coffee. He left for stars unknown in 2010.
Windows of Donegal
The beast plopped himself down on a shady patch of grass one day last week and let out what Katherine calls a “west of Ireland” sigh. She has been to the west of Ireland—Donegal–and I have not. Apparently it’s a place where sighing is both encouraged and received with a wizened understanding that has yet to emigrate across the Atlantic.
Katherine claims that the dog’s sigh is the same drawn out, world-weary complaint that I release about 50 times a day. Accusingly, she tells me that the dog, who never uttered a sound when he lived with our son, Brendan, learned his dramatic expressions from me.
I’m taking that as a compliment. The only other avenue open to me is to ask her where she thinks I learned it from—having never been west of Derry myself.
At any rate, Coffee dropped to the cool earth, his heavy breathing vibrating his load like an unbalanced washing machine. At least ten feet of tongue hung dripping to the ground. It’s a regular scene these hot summer days.
Sometimes Coffee is able or willing to make it only from one lawn to the next. It drives Katherine crazy because once he stops, there’s no moving him without Paul Bunyan and a log chain.
Katherine seldom walks the hound, not because she dislikes walking or the hound or even walking the hound. If there was actual walking involved things would be fine. It’s just that one doesn’t do much walking with this 13-year-old lumberer.
It’s more an exercise in standing idly by while he sinks heavily into some neighbor’s lawn to consider his options. They are basically two: continue to consider or get up, move 20 feet, collapse and consider some more.
On some nights, walking him out the front door and down the street to the corner and back takes 45 minutes. Katherine’s philosophy is that a dog is man’s best friend and when the man isn’t available, his hound should play by her rules.
It grates on her like a fork on a commode when neighbors tell her how patient is her husband to wait so long and, well, patiently while the dog sits there working through some serious existential issue. In fairness it should be said that behind closed doors, with the neighbors obscured, our patient-impatient modes are usually just the opposite.
Yet out on the lawn hugging trail, I’ve learned to wait calmly for the pooper to recharge and to attempt the next yard along the way. I use the time to scour the heavens, to plumb my insignificant place in the cosmos and to adjust my longstanding mental list of things to do when I win a million dollars in the lottery.
Last week the woman across the street came out of her house while I was cosmosing and asked if my huffing hound needed water. She didn’t wait for an answer but came across the street with a dish of water.
As he slurped she asked me Coffee’s age. When I told her he was 13 she went into a long sad story of how her 13-year-old dog had just been “put to sleep” because of blindness, deafness and other indignities of seniority.
Only the day before, Mrs. Miller, a kindly older woman a few doors up the street, came out of her house to tell me she was going to have her 13-year-old dog “put down” the next morning.
“I told my kids, ‘Don’t let me get another dog. It’s too hard when they die.’ I’ve always had them, but I don’t need them anymore.”
Brave words, I thought. Words I myself uttered each time the two previous aging tail-waggers of my close acquaintance paid their final visit to the vet.
I remember once mentioning to a neighbor that I’d had a dog who’d been “put to sleep.” He then told me of an old dog he’d once had who’d gone the same way. His eyes teared up and spilled over onto his cheeks at the memory. Neither one of us felt any shame or embarrassment.
So it happened that I came home from work two nights ago, with Katherine out-of-town. I found Coffee not his usual excited self, i.e., angling aggressively for a “welcome home” biscuit.
Instead, he lay quiet and cowering in a corner. On inspection I noticed that he was unable to move his back legs. I tried to lift him, but he kept collapsing in a heap. He wore a worried look, perhaps a mirror of the dismay on my own face.
After much coaxing I got him to his wobbling feet and out the door to do his numbers. He collapsed several times and it was all either of us could do to get him back inside.
I called the vet and told her the story. She said bring him right over. When I hung up I turned and my eyes locked onto Coffee’s. He’d heard the whole conversation.
He’d heard his name mentioned and noted the urgency in my tone. And now, he wasn’t about to budge his hundred pounds from his known zone of safety for anything.
Normally, the words “let’s go for a ride,” act like an electric prod. Up he’d jump, trembling with excitement, moaning with pleasure and barking impatiently to hurry me along. Not that night.
He wouldn’t move a muscle when I used the R word. I got down on hands and knees and started pushing mightily on his lard butt, inching him oh so slowly toward the door. Then I’d get around in front and try to pull him toward the door.
And then I did the really dumb thing. I knew he weighed a hundred pounds but there I was trying to lift him. Later than night my back would let me know just how dumb that was.
The whole time I kept hearing the words of Mrs. Miller chanting solemnly through my head like a funeral dirge. “I don’t need them any more.” At 13, Coffee J. Dogg was now the oldest dog in the neighborhood—something like 91 in human years.
And I kept thinking the words “last legs.” Hell, he couldn’t even get up to his last legs.
I called the vet and told her I couldn’t budge him. She said to bring him over first thing in the morning. I said sure and hung up. Then I thought “How am I going to do that?”
Before I went to bed that night I gave Coffee a big hug and told him what a good boy he was. It struck me then and through a teary, sleepless night that Coffee J. Dogg, the forever two-year-old, had long since become the embodiment of a little boy I once knew.
Little boys need to be hugged regularly and told what good boys they are, no matter what. If not, they stop being little boys and endure long years of endless arm-pulling past shady playgrounds, their cries for mercy falling on the deaf ears of those who advise “Stop acting like a child.”
But be advised: little boyhood is a life phase that cannot be circumvented. If you can’t act like a child when you’re a child, then at some point in your future that little dude will reappear and remind you that there are lots of fun and socially scandalous things yet to do.
I think Coffee is that reminder in the fur. And somehow we understand each other. And that is why I don’t like to tug at his collar when he plops down on the grass. It’s why I allow myself to get dreamy on our neighborhood safaris and walk, not run.
The next morning, to my amazement, I found Coffee perky and anxious to go out for his morning ritual. He hobbled down the steps and communed with his favorite bush.
Like anyone waking from a long sleep he stretched his legs, wobbled a little then started out on his morning walk. Over his shoulder he threw me a look that said “Stop acting like a grownup, dude. Let’s went.”
And so off we went, bopping and plopping and staring at the sky as usual. And I wondered if I hadn’t just been goofed on by the cosmos. I followed behind, but not without a long sigh that surely rattled the windows of Donegal.
©Patrick A. McGuire and A Hint of Light 2013, all rights reserved