|My dog, Claire, in the kitchen at home.|
I got my dog, Claire, back in March of 1999—over fourteen years ago. She was a nine week-old puppy back then. And since then, I’ve spent more hours of my waking life with her than with any person—even my parents when I was growing up.
Think about it: I work at home, so she’s always hanging around—either napping directly behind my chair, or stepping out onto the balcony and watching the world go by. Even during the years when I worked in an office with other people, I would bring Claire along. (I could get away with that, of course, because I owned the businesses.) I once even had a fairly tense meeting with some investment bankers in my office, and Claire was there. No one noticed her: She lay under a corner table, watching everything without making a sound, the squad of banksters completely oblivious to her presence.
Claire was probably wondering, What are these crazy humans up to?
Claire isn’t my child, by the way:
There are some pet owners who—perversely, as far as I’m concerned—treat their pets as if they were children. Or rather, allow their pet to fill the psychic space where a child would be. That’s not the case with me and Claire: She’s the dog, I’m the human. In the next life, our roles might be reversed, but for now—in this life—she’s the dog, and I treat her as such.
I walk her four times a day—early in the morning, then just before lunch, then at the end of the work day, and finally at nighttime just before we go to sleep. She’s never on a leash. I used to have her on a leash, back when she was a puppy. But already when she was six months old or so, she would yank so hard on the leash that sometimes I’d stumble. One time, in fact, she yanked so hard that I tipped over and fell on top of a fire hydrant, cracking a couple of ribs.
This was in New York, in lower Manhattan, where I was living at the time. I was worried she’d run away, if I let her off the leash—but she kept insisting that she wanted off the leash, so . . . We would walk the circuit from my apartment, on Pearl Street, to Broad Street, past the stock exchange. Then at Wall Street, we’d turn right—east—to William Street, until we got to Hanover Square. Then again right—west—on Pearl Street and home.
At first, I was fairly worried she’d run away—but Claire never did. She’d pad along bside me—sniffing around—briefly panicking whenever she lost sight of me amid the crowd of people going to and fro, relaxing when she realized I hadn’t been swallowed by the throng.
I got Claire for my birthday in 1999, from the North Shore Animal League in New York; a fairly well-known animal shelter. I was living in lower Manhattan at the time, and when I decamped in 2001, I left on a six month roadtrip—travelling across Canada all the way to Yellowknife, then west over the Rockies and onto Deadhorse, on the North Shore of Alaska, camping out in the middle of winter in –20º C weather. Then south all the way to Anchorage, then down by ferry to Juneau, and then by three day ferry to Bellingham, then down the Pacific coast to San Diego, then on to Texas, and then back up north to Boston.
Claire of course came along.
She was the perfect roadtrip companion: Never fussy, always curious about the surroundings, always friendly with strangers. In Seattle, a junkie broke into my Land Rover—with Claire in it—and tried stealing my video camera. He succeeded, but he paid dearly for it: Claire literally mauled him, leaving the junkie’s blood all over the inside of the car, the camera gone but the junkie clearly the worse for wear. When I came back and saw what had happened, Claire was drenched in blood but looking very happy with her tongue lolling out, and a look that said, See that? I rock!
But Claire isn’t violent or vicious. On the contrary, Claire is a very affectionate, very easygoing dog. She loves socializing with other dogs—she never barks at a strange dog on first meeting—and she’s very good with children, letting them paw her and yank at her ears without ever complaining; I once saw my year-old nephew stick his whole arm into Claire’s jaw and down her throat, and she didn’t complain. And since she’s so athletic, she’s always up for any adventure, even if it’s no more exciting than a quick 3-mile jog.
Claire never barks, except when there’s someone just outside the door. And she’s friendly with just about everyone—except two very specific classes of people: Bums, and girlfriends (and now wife).
Whenever she sees a bum—or a particularly slobby construction worker—she’ll bark like crazy, really go around the bend. I don’t know what it is, but a couple of times, I’ve had to physically restrain her. Bums just drive her up the wall.
The other class of people Claire definitely does not like are my girlfriends or my wife—and oddly, none of them have liked Claire. She makes them jealous.
With good reason, I suppose: One time, while living in Manhattan, I was dating S., a 26 year-old finance goddess: 5’9”, blonde, athletic, investment-banker, scary-smart. One Sunday, I’m making brunch in my loft, while S. is lying on the couch and watching the Sunday news shows. We’re chatting about the news, while Claire is eyeing us both, sitting on her haunches in a spot a bit aways, where she could observe both of us.
Finally, in a lull in our conversation, Claire quietly goes over to S., stands by the couch next to her—eyes her—cranes her neck and turns to me, her ears perking, making sure she gets my complete attention—
—and then Claire jumped on the couch—jumped on top of S.—and then Claire stomped her head.
S. and I broke up shortly thereafter.
Claire has peed on girlfriend’s shoes, barked constantly at a couple of others, and once physically pushed aside another—pushed her so hard that this young woman fell over. (She was wearing high heels; she shoulda known better.) My wife and Claire are severely jealous of eachother, both of them constantly complaining about the other.
Claire adores my mother, though, and has no trouble with my sister. Claire instinctively knows which girl is a friend, and which girl might be a girlfriend. With the former, Claire is sunshine-and-kisses. With the latter? Ugh.
The weird thing is, living together so long, we can read each other instantly. Even though she has the same expression, I can instantly tell the difference between when she’s bored, when she has to pee, when she’s hungry, and when she’s sick. She can also tell when I’m whiny, and when I mean business.
This ability to read intentions goes to something pretty interesting: Claire has a sense of humor. She can tell when I’m serious, and when I’m just fucking with her.
One time, years ago, it was time for her to go out for her walk.
I got up, got ready to go out—Claire perked up, wagging her tail and lolling her tongue in anticipation—but then I opened the door and told her, “Stay Claire, be good.”
And then I began to close the front door—with her still inside.
She stared at me as the door closed, with a look like, What the fuck? It’s time to go pee!
But then I laughed and opened the door wider—and then Claire made an annoyed sound, and then laughed. Like saying, Good one!
It’s a running joke we now have. Sometimes—not often, or else it gets boring—I’ll pretend to leave her behind, when it’s time to go out. She’ll make complaining yaps sometimes, like saying, Quit it already, that’s an old one. But when I haven’t done it in a while—say a week—she’ll smile and let out a light yelp, shoving her way out the door between my legs.
However, sometimes when I have to go out right when it’s her usual time to go out, she’ll instantly recognize that I’m not kidding. She’ll know that it’s no joke—I have to go out, but she has to stay home. And she’s cool—she somehow understands.
Claire is dying. I can tell.
Claire is fourteen, and I can see how she is getting older. She can’t jump anymore. She used to be able to jump up on her hind legs, put her front paws on my chest, and stick her snout up into my face. She’d do this all the time, but not anymore. It’s because of her back: About four years ago, she had an operation to repair a slipped disc; it was successful, but she wasn’t as big into jumping after that. And as the years went by, she lost her confidence.
She used to be able to jump so high . . . as if she had springs in her hind legs. Near my apartment, there was a thick retaining wall about five-and-a-half feet high, about six inches wide: In a single bound, Claire could jump on top of the retaining wall effortlessly, standing on the six inch width as if it were all the space she needed, turning around to look around from that height, then leaping off the wall effortlessly before going on her way.
Not anymore. When we pass even small obstacles—no more than a foot high—which she used to leap over as casually as taking a step, she eyes the obstacle, then goes around it.
In 2011, doctors removed a tumor. Last year, doctors removed another tumor, this one on one of her teats, and another lump on the side of her ribs. They checked her and found more tumors throughout her body. A team of veterinarians outlined a treatment plan. But it was clear that the consequences of the treatment would not be particularly good for Claire, so I desisted.
It’s not that the treatment would be painful or expensive, but rather, Claire would not understand what the treatment was doing. When a human gets treated for cancer, the short term pain and misery is offset by the knowledge that the patient has during the treatment: The knowledge that, after the treatment is done, the patient will get better. Or at least might get better.
But you can’t explain that to a dog. To her, the treatment would feel like dying—worse than dying, probably: It would just be misery. Worse still, it wasn’t clear that Claire would recover, after the treatment. So several months of misery-inducing treatment might well end up with her dying of cancer anyway.
The head veterinarian was a very decent guy. “She’s a fourteen year-old dog: With or without treating the cancer, she might last a year, she might last five years—no one can say,” he told me, when I asked about treatment options.
So I decided to forget about it. I decided that Claire wouldn’t get any treatment. If she dies in a year, it’ll be a good and happy year. If she dies in five years, they’ll be happy years too. I don’t see much of a point of making her suffer so as to maybe extend her life for my sake.
Because any treatment wouldn’t be for her sake—it would be for my sake. I would be happy for her to live longer—but Claire would be suffering through the treatment. My guilt would be assuaged—I would be able to say, “I did everything possible, spared no expense, got all the best treatment.” But Claire would feel miserable—and have no idea why this misery was happening to her.
So we live every day like it’s the last. Because it is, every day. For the dog. For me.
I very much regret not allowing her to have puppies of her own. When she was in her prime breeding years, I was just too busy with stuff. I couldn’t be bothered, to have a dog with puppies, and the hassle that that would entail. And when it was too late, I realized how much she would have needed puppies of her own. How happy she would have been. Not only because having had puppies would have likely prevented her from getting breast cancer. Puppies would have made her life . . . fuller.
The fact of the matter is—and as insane as I know it surely does sound—I recently had a child of my own precisely because of Claire. Like everyone else, I’d always thought I’d have plenty of time to have a child, just as I always thought that there would be plenty of time for Claire to have puppies. But after Claire’s bouts with cancer, I realized that it was too late for her—and that it would soon be too late for me. This wasn’t some sort of big reveal; it didn’t even rise to the level of being articulated. But it was a feeling of missed opportunity, whenever I looked at Claire. Her compressed life—because compared to a human’s, a dog’s life is severely accelerated and compressed—taught me better than words ever could that life is short, and that once an opportunity passes you by, it does not come back. Which was why, when the opportunity came to have a child and start building a family, I didn’t hesitate.
Claire taught me that. I have her to thank for my new family.
When she was a small puppy, I would tickle her belly. That would get her kicking up into the air, thrilled. As she lay on her back, expecting me to tickle her some more, I would sometimes instead spin her around and around, and then shove her across the shiny wood floor of my apartment. Because it was so polished and smooth—and because she was so small and light—she would slide a good five-six feet away from me. But even as she was sliding, she would be scrambling to get back on her feet, scrambling to get back to me, her little paws scampering ridiculously as they tried to get purchase on the polished, smooth wooden floor. And when she did get back to me, she would roll over on her back again, her belly up, her tongue lolling, her shiny brown eyes alight, looking up at me as if saying, “Do it again! Do it again! Do it again!”
She's lying right behind my chair as I write this: An old fourteen year-old dog lying on her side as if guarding me. She’s asleep, and she’s dreaming. I can tell: Her paws are twitching as if she were running, and she’s gently yelping, her woofs high-pitched and eager. She’s dreaming about chasing something, a rabbit or a cat maybe. Sometimes, her woofs turn nervous, as if the dream is turning sour. So as she sleeps, I’ll say in a calming voice:
Good dog. Good puppy. It’s all good, Claire. It’s all right.
|Claire at rest.|