When I married my wife, I got more than just a spouse. Turns out she came with her own flatware, some cool kitchen appliances, a good number of gardening tools, a disturbingly large collection of plastic garbage bins (six, by my count), and three dogs.
Duncan was the oldest and he was the first dog in my wife’s life. He was a rescue who had been pulled from a domestic dispute call by a smart cop. When I met Duncan, he was supposedly an old dog but he acted like a puppy – running around the house, whining to go for walks, poking his sister repeatedly trying to goad a reaction, air humping the same sister if the poking didn’t work, playing with toys like he just discovered them that morning. He had a little edge, but that came from the fact that he was always on alert, taking his job as alpha dog seriously.
A couple of years ago, around Christmas, he seemed to be in decline. He slowed down, had trouble getting up quickly, started eating less. We braced ourselves. He was fourteen. … He survived and started running around a little more than usual just to show off. A few months ago, he stopped eating, became lethargic. We braced ourselves … then he pooped out a knee-high stocking and it was like he had been dipped in magic waters. He was almost seventeen. We made all kinds of Dorian Grey comments because he still looked fabulous and I said that if this kept up, he’d grow his balls back.
My wife got Lily about a year after Duncan. Lily was a pure bred puppy – a munsterlander. Always gentle and lady-like, she was imperturbable, even while being poked and air-humped. She was somehow both beautifully graceful and pant-wettingly clumsy at the same time and, speaking of pant-wetting, she was good at that as well. You could count on her to pee somewhere in the house about three times a year. She did flyball and obedience and she was a St. John’s Ambulance therapy dog. She slept in the craziest of positions but always looked relaxed and despite a well-earned reputation for aloofness, one night while my wife and I were just dating, Lily jumped up on the couch, crawled onto my lap and started moaning with pleasure when I scratched her neck.
Tercer, the youngest, was rescued from the mean streets of Hamilton. She was some sort of terrier-Chihuahua cross with an emotional radar that was peculiarly well-tuned to my wife. Whenever my wife was upset, Tercer would climb into her lap and lick my wife’s face in an attempt to turn her mood. Tercer liked to bark – when we first met, I honestly thought I would have to shove her into the fridge to keep my sanity – and she hated my guts until I introduced her to the magic of tummy rubs. “Little T,” as I began calling her, spent her time chasing things – balls, squirrels, her tail – sleeping curled up like a cupcake, or cleaning herself. You could eat off this dog.
Together, these animals became a big part of my wife’s life and then mine. Through a decade and a half, they bore witness to every transition my wife could throw at them. They moved homes without complaint. They bore discipline and training in the spirit they were intended. They ate the same boring kibble twice a day like it was prime rib. They went to groomers and veterinarians with a business-like attitude. They sat still while we put hats or reindeer antlers on them and took their pictures.
Their presence, their needs and their love saw my wife through career transitions, a change in cities and most importantly, the break-up of a marriage. There were times when their joys and routines turned dark days into decent ones. There were times when a snuggle with them, a trick for a treat or a few seconds of smelling their musky coats had more therapeutic value than all the red wine and chocolate in the world. They embraced me when I arrived on the scene and they made no fuss when a baby took over the house and forced changes in their routines, depriving them of our attentions.
Then Lily got sick. In retrospect, it was quite a long time coming – there was a drop in energy level, a change in personality that seemed to strip a little of the goofiness away, an unsettled restlessness that went against her normal sleepy acceptance of whatever came her way. Officially, though, it started about six weeks ago with her right eye, an eye that became slowly more red as the days progressed. Three weeks ago, the vet prescribed treatment for the eye and this week, when the eye didn’t get better, we all knew it was something else.
We didn’t do blood tests – the best guess was lymphoma – but the eye, the rapid weight loss, Lily’s age and the fact that she was likely in pain though hiding it gamely, put us in a position to make the hardest of decisions. That decision came Thursday night. Friday morning we scheduled the appointment and Saturday, shortly after 11:30 am, Lily left us. She was eating treats, held tightly in my wife’s arms with me staring straight into her one good eye. She let out a little moan like the sound she made when I first fell in love with her on that couch, and she went as we all should – with our families, without fear and after a long and rewarding life.
When she got to wherever it is that dogs go, we knew she would be fine because Duncan would be waiting.
Just over twenty-four hours before, and about twelve hours after we decided that it was Lily’s time, Duncan woke up with almost no control over his body. The magically-energetic dog with the perfect teeth and soon-to-reappear-testicles collapsed in a heap and couldn’t lift his head. Forty-five minutes later, I carried him into our vet’s office. It was the last thing we ever did together.
We like to think that Duncan knew something was up, that he understood what was about to happen with Lily – and so he went on ahead to make sure she would be alright. They were apart for just twenty-seven hours.
Now, Tercer doesn’t know what to do with herself, though she knows she doesn’t want to go to the vet’s office any time soon. And just to be safe, better not get in the car either. Duncan went in the car – didn’t come back. Lily went in the car – didn’t come back. Nanny went in the car – she didn’t come back either (though that’s because we drove her home to Toronto).
While Duncan and Lily have gone, the lessons they have taught us live on. From our dogs I have learned …
Always pee on the tree as high as you are able.
Eat first. Ask questions later.
Someone is always in charge and it’s probably not you. Figure out who it is and fall in line.
Sleep is a joy, just like waking up.
Scratch every itch until it doesn’t itch anymore.
Trust your sense of smell.
And finally, this may sound strange, but our dogs live on in our daughter, who benefits greatly from our dog training days. Her easy daily bedtime routine, for example, and Lily’s spin trick are two skills taught the same way.
The blow of losing our two dogs is still heavy, but I think what will stay with me most and fill me most powerfully with regret is that my daughter never really got to know Duncan and Lily and certainly will not remember them. It’s a shame, too, because they would have loved each other … if only dogs lived forever.