My friend and blogging partner, QuoinMonkey, has for the past two days been agonizing over her very sick cat, Mr. Stripeypants. Liz, QM’s partner, is also exhausted after nights of staying up, rushing Pants to the emergency vet, and monitoring his intake of food and water. So far, the veterinarians haven’t been able to figure out what’s causing the fever and vomiting.
I can relate to the helplessness that QM and Liz feel. Jim and I have had four dogs in our almost twenty years together, and we’ve dealt with the deaths of two, Roger and Rudy.
Roger I got from the pound for Jim after we’d been dating two months. I sensed right away that Jim was an animal lover — he talked all the time about his childhood dogs Tara and Shadow. Roger was Australian Shepherd mix with one brown eye and one blue. He ended up going with us on our honeymoon in Jackson Hole and the Grand Tetons.
I still remember one cool pre-dawn morning driving through a misty meadow, giant mountains looming in the background. Several cars were pulled to the side of the road and a handful of people with cameras creeping toward a herd of grazing elk. We slowed the Camry to a crawl and rolled down the windows to get a better look. Roger must have just then noticed the elk because he let loose a ferocious bark attack from the backseat. All at once the elk startled and the photographers whipped angry heads back to see what idiot just caused the stampede. Jim stepped on the gas and away we zipped, a cloud of exhaust vapor in our wake.
A couple of years after we got Roger, a mountain-biking friend came to our place bearing a Blue Heeler puppy. She found him clinging to the side of the ditch and fished him out. She already named him Rudy and insisted that Roger needed a brother. Roger and Rudy were pals the way Otis and Rafael are today. Funny how our human children are girls and our dog children are boys.
Except, my dogs aren’t really my children. In fact, I tell my friends that in my culture, dogs are dogs and people are people. My grandfather was a rancher, and in the way ranching families often see things, animals serve a purpose. Dogs keep away intruders; cats eat mice; sheep provide wool and mutton; cows make milk and beef; hens give eggs; and roosters die early and often.
But truth is, my animals touch my heart in ways similar to (if not exactly the same as) how people touch my heart. I fall in love with them, and when they are hurting, I hurt. And the older I get, the stronger I sense the girl in me reminding that I never really did subscribe to my grandparents’ take on animal life.
Jim has influenced my changing relationship to our dogs. He’s even more connected to animals than I am. That’s probably a large part of the reason I fell in love with him. I sensed his expansive heart, his philosophy that life is life and that animals’ lives are to be valued as you would any other.
When Roger and Rudy died, Jim was affected most of all. He stayed by their sides for weeks to care for them. It brings tears to my eyes still to recollect how he couldn’t break away some nights from Roger or from Rudy as each was dying. How he cried and cried.
Three years ago I wrote a short story about a woman who leaves her husband for another man. Later, just over a year after the divorce, her ex-husband tells her he is planning to re-marry, which causes the narrator of the story to wonder whether she made a mistake by leaving him. Here is an excerpt from that story, which is titled “In the Moment.” It’s based on a writing practice I did about Jim and our family when Rudy died.
I hope, QM, it is not in poor taste to do a post about writing and the love and death of animals. I don’t mean to portend a similar ending for Pants. Rather, I hope to tell you that I realize how much your Mr. Stripeypants means to you and Liz. And how I know he is your number one priority right now. Take care of him, and take care of the two of you.
It’s Wednesday morning. As Leila predicted, Jack tells me about Luz. We’re sitting on a wooden bench on the front porch. I toy with the fingers of a gardening glove lying next to me. Jack’s hair is long enough now to make a small ponytail. He wears a t-shirt with a picture of a galloping pony. He looks good.
He apologizes for not telling me before Leila and Pip did. He figured it was a moot point if they didn’t go for the notion first. All this time he scans the yard. A pernicious grass we call foxtail even though we know it’s not foxtail invades the area where his garden used to be.
He’s going on now, talking about how the girls seem to like Luz, how Luz seems to like the girls, how they all love Edgar. You hate small dogs, I want to say.
I think about Olive, who died a couple of months before the divorce. She was Australian Shepherd cross, not that old when she died, maybe twelve, but she was blind and seemed ancient. Jack wanted her to go naturally. For weeks, he’d sit by her, pet her, tell her, “It’s OK, Olive.” Once he tried bringing her into the house but she almost went berserk. It was cold that winter. He fixed a nest inside her Igloo doghouse and carried this bed to whatever new spot Olive had found in the yard.
In the wee hours of the morning, Jack’s side of the bed would be empty and I could spot him outside in his parka carrying the Igloo. I would see him and think, If he outlives me he’ll care for me like that, sitting by my side, petting my head, letting me know I’m not alone. He knew I was having an affair and still he would take care of me. But by then I was immune to Jack’s steadfastness. Resentful of the alloy he and I together created.
The girls bluster onto the porch. They’re ready to get into Jack’s car. I ask them to give the chickens and ducks scraps from breakfast. We’re going to move the birds to Jack’s once he builds a pen. The girls run off. Jack is waiting for me to say something.
“Do you remember the morning Olive died?” I ask.
He looks at me surprised. “Yeah.”
“Remember how she just wouldn’t let go?” I picture a ring of our four bodies and heads bent down toward Olive, all of us crying. Leila saying, “Don’t let her die,” and Jack and me saying, “Yes, honey, Olive is ready to go now.” I tucked my hand under Olive’s front leg, over her heart, and I felt it beat, the valve slowly rising, then dropping. Jack told her, “It’s OK, Olive, you can go now, just let go,” and Leila said, “No Olive, don’t go,” and I cried big tears and snot that dripped from my chin to Olive’s body. I looked up at all three of them and said, as if to warn, “I have to say a prayer.” I waited just long enough for Jack to protest if he needed to, and then I said the Hail Mary. Jack sobbed, which made Leila and Pip sob, and still I could feel the rising and dropping of Olive’s chest and still she heaved out steamy breaths. I asked Mother Mary to take Olive to the other side, and at that moment her heart stopped.
When Jack dug Olive’s grave and laid her body inside, I think he placed his will to save our marriage in with her. I conjured my most perfect memento of us, testimony to the life slipping away. Jack, me, Leila, Pip sleeping outside on the trampoline. A healthy Olive underneath us, grunting in slumbering pursuit of rabbits and squirrels. Me waking up whenever one of the others rustled, and then falling back into dream thinking We’re a forest of aspens, connected by roots under the surface. When Jack shoveled dirt into the hole, I wailed, beside myself with loss. The divorce was final by April.
“I’m happy for you,” I finally say.
Now he watches me. I don’t have anything else to comment about his plans.
“Are you OK, Eve?” he asks.
Maybe he thinks I’m regretful. I brush my hand through the air as if to say I’m fine.
“You’d better get going or they’ll be late for school.”