I can’t even talk about Alabama because, if I do, if I even start thinking about it, I’ll start hating on people and that’s contrary to where I want to go with my life at this point since I’ve resolved to stop making people I differ with my enemies and to start finding common ground with them but there is no common ground to be found with people, men and women, who would force a younger me to have a stranger use a wire to end a pregnancy that I couldn’t have a doctor end because he would be breaking the law and so I had to take my life in my hands because that was less terrifying than what would lie ahead if I continued to be pregnant, and that’s what I’ll think about if I think about Alabama, that they wouldn’t care about the wire, it wouldn’t mean anything to them, but it could have killed me.
We had a red cocker spaniel named Rusty. We had this dog for a long time, from before I was born until I was nine or ten. And then she disappeared. My dad said she just walked off. She was very old, he said, and that’s what dogs do, go off somewhere to die.
That seemed strange to me and I wondered why no one was looking for Rusty. We lived on a dirt road, in a working class suburb of Detroit on the edge of a farm field which would catch fire every so often and we’d all have to run over there with our shovels to beat down the flames and ashes.
So I envisioned Rusty mindlessly leaving our yard and walking across the farm field, maybe all the way to the creek where sometimes I went to sit in a cave I found, just an indentation in a little hill with an overhang thick with moss and tiny ferns.
When my dad said Rusty had wandered off to die, it had a finality to it that I couldn’t argue with. After all, he knew Rusty a lot longer than me although I never heard the story of their meeting. My dad wasn’t a dog lover so there must of been something special about Rusty. Maybe my mom wanted her. I knew that Rusty had had puppies and that she and her puppies were put in the window of my dad’s auto supply store where people in our small town gathered to watch. What is cuter than a dog and her puppies? Nothing.
No one was ever mean to Rusty in any way, so don’t go thinking that my dad tired of her in some way and put a pillow over her face or dropped her from the car on the far outskirts of town knowing her cataracted eyes couldn’t negotiate her return. He wasn’t like that. He was too busy working to be mean to anybody, even a dog. He had decided it was futile looking so we didn’t. None of us.
I don’t remember grieving about Rusty. We might have. Or maybe not. My folks had a fatalism about them that was contagious, working its way around the dinner table faster than the mashed potatoes. She was there one day and the next she was gone and that was all there was to it.
There were 200 dogs in the dog yard. Each one was tethered to a raised wooden platform with a big plastic cylinder that worked as a doghouse. Each dog’s name was on a sign on his platform, some had sleds parked in front. The platforms were arranged in rows that mimicked the rows of trees at the end of the yard. The sound was wild and deafening and weirdly joyous, the dogs leaping on to their platforms, barking, jumping down, each dog more handsome than the last. We were at Nature’s Kennel in McMillan, Michigan, deep in the woods of the Upper Peninsula. We were there to pick up our new dog, an about to be retired sled dog named Swirl.
“I’m going to unhook him and he’s going to take off,” said Tasha, the kennel owner, and then she yelled “Dog loose in the yard!” All of this happened before it sunk in that we were standing in front of our new dog. Swirl bounded off his platform and headed for the driveway, the woods, the kids, the car, the puppy yard, and back. He was huge. Probably twice as big as I’d imagined him, having watched a ton of sled dog racing. He was a big, beautiful, exuberant dog.
Tasha told us about him. He was born in a litter of four. As is the habit in mushing kennels, litters have themes. Swirl’s litter’s theme was bread. So there is Pump, Rye, Hallah, and [Cinnamon] Swirl. Later, driving home, we looked at the paper with his family tree and saw that his grandparents were dogs owned by Iditarod royalty – Deedee Jonrowe and Lance Mackey. Back even further was a great, great grandparent from the kennel of the first woman to win the Iditarod, Susan Butcher. But Swirl had never been an Iditarod dog.
He raced some but he was mostly a touring dog. Teamed up with eleven other dogs, sometimes in the lead, sometimes not, he took tourists on rides through the forests around McMillan. And he was happy doing it, Tasha said, until he started to look less excited about going. Oh, he still joined the team but he didn’t have that sparkle and so she decided it was time for him to retire. He wasn’t having fun anymore.
We walked around the driveway, talking about Swirl and what he was like. Sweet, gentle, friendly, totally trustworthy with children and other dogs. “You will never have to worry about him.” This was great because I’ve done plenty of worrying about dogs I’ve owned. And then she said this, “You just have to say no to him. Anything more than that and you’ll break his heart.”
He had been raised that carefully.
It shows. He trusts people. He’s not afraid or shy or aggressive in any way. He is quiet and sure-footed, able to nap anywhere. He’s gone from sleeping in his dog house on top of a wooden platform to sleeping on the rug next to our bed. He seems to sleep a dreamless sleep, he may have yearning for the dog yard but it doesn’t show. He seems at home here, as at home with us as we are with him. Our dog. His people.
Of course, I come in my office, sit down at my desk, and there are two Milk-Bones sitting here.
I’m waiting for the Cardinal to appear in the tree outside. Or a row of pennies leading me down the back steps. Not really.
I don’t believe in signs, angels, spirit animals or any of that stuff. Other people do and that’s fine. Who am I to say?
My dog died yesterday while I held her muzzled head. The muzzle was a precaution, a needless one probably, this dog was never a biting dog, but she didn’t like folks messing with her legs and, well, that was part of the deal. The vet listened to her heart not beating and then she reached over, unbuckled the muzzle and slipped it off. She told us to turn out the light when we left.
So we left, just minutes later, and that was that.
I gave myself the day to feel pretty bad about it and the day is just about done. I figure there will be days and weeks of missing her, thinking she’s coming up the stairs to sit with me here, coming for those two juicy Milk-Bones.
I’m thinking of doing a dog wall with all our famous dogs – Davey, the Doberman-Husky puppy bought right after we got married, Jack, the regal Samoyed I got as a graduation present and a consolation prize, having just found out I couldn’t have any more children, Tiny, the crazy, furiously loyal blue-eyed Australian Shepherd-Collie who was the last dog at the Humane Society, BowWow, the pugnacious, profane Bichon, brought home by my husband for a ‘sleepover’ that lasted 13 years, and, finally, Minnie, my son’s sweet dog who grew too big for efficiency apartment living and turned up here one fine afternoon. “Mom, can you take Minnie?” “Sure, for how long?” “For a while.” It turned out to be a long while.
I made the mistake of anthropomorphizing the last two dogs, giving them personalities and voices in a series of Minnie and BowWow conversations published on this blog. It was fun but made them seem more than dogs so letting them go was much harder almost like I’d not have been surprised to have them actually utter dying words to me.
In thirty-five years together, we have had no more than two or three months without a dog in the house. And a couple of those months were dead of winter months of great unhappiness, hollowness, that were made better, mended, healed, by the joy of a new dog.
So now we’re without a dog but we aren’t unhappy or hollow but our house is empty and rambling with just us but it will soon be real spring and time to start over with a new dog. That’s what we do in spring, yes, start over. It’s what life expects of us.
We have another dying dog here.
Our beloved Minnie is on her last legs. She stumbles going around corners and down stairs, her back legs weak and spindly, sometimes going in the direction opposite her destination. It’s awful to watch.
On top of that, she has an ever-increasing dent on the right side of her head, the consequence, the vet said, of some neurological event which paralyzed that side of her face. As the muscles in her head and face atrophy, the dent deepens. She is still beautiful, this dog, despite all this.
Our old girl has an aura of patience and forbearance, tolerance and peace. And loyalty. She will always find where we are and lie down. She will wag her tail at the prospect of a walk and so we walk around the block slower than one might with a baby just learning to take her own steps.
So we are wrestling with the prospect of putting her down which we know we have to do and probably should have already done because we are treating her the way my grandmother treated her 99-year old mother, smoothing all the creases from her wrinkled sheets every twenty minutes.
A dying dog is a sad thing. But there are 10,000 sad things on any given day. This one is hardly the most tragic, it’s just the culmination of the relentless passage of time which, I suppose, is itself tragic if you’re in a mood to think of it that way.
I miss the young Minnie, the Minnie who ran on the beach and could fetch a stick in Lake Superior’s waves and bring it back to the shore holding it in her mouth like a cigar. I loved that dog, that fearless, quiet, sweet dog who swam in water just freed from the spring ice.
Who are we talking about here? You or the dog?
I don’t know what you mean.
You’re old enough to know that old dogs die.
Of course. It’s not my first rodeo.
Maybe it is. I guess it’s all about how you think about it.
Sit in front, don’t hide
Your body is a statement
Presence claims its space
I was raised to be secondary.
That never occurred to me until the other night when I was talking with a friend about his possible retirement. It’s a big challenge for anyone whose work life has been central to their identity.
But I realized that it was less of a challenge for me than I thought it would be. And it wasn’t because I didn’t love my work. I did. Almost more than anything.
When I quit, I felt like I had nothing left to prove. I’d already exceeded people’s expectations of me. Actually, I’d probably done that five minutes after taking my first professional job forty years ago.
All I was supposed to do, all I was shaped and raised to do, unwittingly, just naturally because that’s how it was, was this: get married and have children. And maybe help my husband if he was in a situation where my help would be needed which, if I made a decent match, would be unlikely.
Remember I am a person who took shorthand in college. I wasn’t a gal in the aim high club.
So when you think about how I was raised and what was expected of me, I’ve done okay. Moreover, being raised with low expectations gave me a weird kind of freedom. Nobody expected much of anything from me. So in that context, my whole professional life has been gravy.
In contrast, my male friend, having been raised to be primary, feels burdened by the expectations laid on him by his parents, by society, by himself. Though he has done an extraordinary amount, he can’t be finished yet. There is a pinnacle he thinks he hasn’t yet reached. It’s burdensome, those expectations.
I think things have changed for women and men but I don’t know that to be true. And until this conversation it never occurred to me really that I was raised to be secondary. But I was. And it has had its peculiar benefits.