Friday, April 11, 2008

On being short a Penny . . .


Springtime is the wrong season for a dog to die. 

I know this. I said it about a week ago to Penny as I lay on the floor next to her for most of the day, holding her, massaging her legs, hoping that her inability to get to her feet was a cramp and not paralysis, comforting her through her obvious embarrassment at having to void bladder and bowels on the bed that she used in our bedroom closet.

I woke up that morning ready to plunge into a day of writing. My wife, Deni, was still asleep as I made myself some coffee. Penny usually gets up with me and barks to be let out into the backyard, so when I didn't hear her, I left the coffee perking and went back into the bedroom. She was awake, lying on her side as usual but her eyes were alert. I knew something was wrong immediately. When I thought back later, I realized that when she saw me, there was no motion at all from her tail.

She lifted her head and neck attempting to twist her legs under her and get to her feet, but she had no control of her body.

Let me back up a minute.

Penny was my youngest daughter's dog, but for the last 6 years or so, she has been my companion. She is a small white English setter with large round spots that were the source of her name. She came to us as a puppy. a tiny thing that wanted so much to be with us that she would bark and whine until we helped her up onto the sofa.

She was a runner. She'd dash across the backyard like a streak of doggie lightning in pursuit of squirrels, neighbor cats, birds, and any other invaders real or imaginary. Her favorite game was to chase a basketball as it was kicked across the backyard. I called her "The Hound of the Basketballs". With smaller balls the game played was not so much 'fetch' as 'just try to get it away from me slowpoke'.

She was a runner. She was an investigator. She was hard to take for walks since she would always be straining at the end of the leash trying to follow a scent trail, or seeing just one more movement deep in the shrubbery that she had to identify. I'm sure that some would say that we didn't train her properly, but I have always valued curiousity above obedience. Penny may have half-strangled herself trying to pass her limits, but at least she tried.

She featured in many of my essays about nature. She was my companion on walks, on the porch, in the yard, and as I worked at my desk. She'd curl up at my feet as I pounded away at the keys, every so often barking or whining me away from the desk for a romp.

She got yelled at a lot too: when she barked incessantly in the middle of the night, when she whined at the dinner table until Deni (the soft touch) would sneak her a tidbit from her plate, when, bored with her own food she shouldered the cat aside and feasted on Tuna Delite.

She got cuddled. She was afraid of thunder, of sticks, of water sprays, of other dogs, and of snaky things like ropes or belts. We could always tell when a storm was rolling in ... Penny would try to dig her way through the bathtub or cram herself into the smallest space whether it was a kitchen cupboard or under a bed.

She loved car rides. I'd tease her by saying "Want to go for a ride in the car?" and she would be panting and whining at the door before I even finished the sentence. She rode in the back seat with her head out the window. If I was running errands, as I walked into the store or library, she'd start barking foe me to come back. Sometimes she'd continue for so long that I'd have to cut the errands short.

She loved bones, much preferring them to dog biscuits. She was fastidious about her food. There was only one type of dog food she liked, and she would actually sort out pieces that she didn't want from the bowl and pile them to one side, but she wasn't as picky about other things she ate. She liked peanut butter sandwiches, butter, anything that had been on a plate on the table (I once watched her steal asparagus, another time found that she'd raided the trashcan for artichoke leaves), she also liked eating the occasional flower from the garden.

Her reckless eating habits may have hastened the end. Last summer she ate a large bee and, later that day, went into a series of full-bore grand-mal seizures. She frothed and drooled, her legs spasming and her eyes bewildered at her body's betrayal. Deni and I bundled her into a blanket and drove to the only place open, a distant animal hospital. She had come out of it by then, but was in the post-epileptic stage of constant walking and fear. They warned us at the hospital of likely permanent neurological damage and that the seizures might recur.

She had trouble with her back legs from then on. She could still run, but it was an effort for her to climb stairs and once again we had to help her up onto the couch so that she could be near us. She went from sleeping on the couch to sleeping on an old feather bed on the floor of our bedroom closet. Then came the day last week.

Throughout the course of the day, I lived in hope, I gave her some chunks of beef from some beef stew and some of the liquid. I had to use a shallow bowl and tilt it sharply to let her get at it since she could not raise herself up enough otherwise. I lay next to her, massaging her legs and hoping it would pass.

It was when she tried, desperately to get to her feet, and first whined and then moaned ... a sound I had never heard her make ... a sound of such distress, that it forced me to think. Here was a friend of mine, someone whose entire life is about movement. What could I do for her? It wasn't as if she were partially mobile. Except for spasms and quivers she was immobile below the neck. There was no option for scooter wheels or other partial mobility solutions. As humans we have other resources, we can internalize, creating a mental alternative to the freedom of movement.

It was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I am still tearing up as I write about it. Deni and I took the corners of the featherbed and lifted her up to the bed, where, once again, I wrapped Penny in a blanket and carried her to the car. I drove as my wife held Penny. The vet was waiting for us.

Springtime is the wrong season for a dog to die. Winter is finally over and the grass is coming up. The snow is gone, the peepers are back. Wildlife intrusions into the backyard will be more frequent.

It is a week later and I am still putting food in her bowl, watching where I step, reacting to the barks of other dogs in the neighborhood. It is a week later and I've decided to leave the faded, half-deflated basketballs where they are under the tree and up against the weathered fence.

It is a week later and I just realized that I have my feet tucked under my chair so as to give Penny more space under the desk.

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