Between Old Dog and New Life

This and dozens of other essays are compiled in the book Between: Living Live in Neither Extreme. Check it out!

My childhood dog Cuddles died on my twelfth birthday. We drove 100 miles to bury her on my grandparents’ farm, because all dogs in my family were by definition considered farm dogs even if we lived in town.  That’s where we saw them happiest, living out their days (or, in Cuddles’ case, their visits) herding children into the chicken coop, enjoying the open air, and chasing cars.  Those of us in subsequent generations since my grandparents seem to have a connection with farm dogs. Or at least big dogs that are happiest working and pleasing people. And sometimes herding them.

You may find it funny that our big farmlike dog was named Cuddles.  This is because six-year-old Michelle was charged with naming the dog, who was fluffy and small when we got her.  When she got bigger the name seemed less fitting to my brothers, who affectionately called her Crud until she died. Not me. She was always Cuddles, because size has nothing to do with cuddliness.

This inherited connection with dogs, and kinda large dogs at that, is why, one spring morning around Eastertime about twelve years ago, I went and got Maggie from the Humane Society. I had visited a garden store and saw a bunch of baby bunnies being sold outside. I had not yet experienced the moment where I watched a TV decorating show with tiny dresses for curtains in a baby’s room and immediately felt compelled to have a baby, but seeing those bunnies made me feel an urgent need to take care of a critter of some kind. Bringing a new life into our home seemed fitting for Easter, too.

And so, I visited the shelter, and Maggie and I made eye contact and that was that. Neal was out of town that day. When Neal returned to a note that read, “There’s a very nice dog in our house named Maggie. I’ll explain later,” he thought we were dog sitting. A day later he proposed a deal that we could keep Maggie if, when we had a child, he could maintain his largely volunteer work with our college’s cross country team. “Deal!” I said.

Maggie  is a herding dog, which means she likes to have us all in the same room at the same time. She doesn’t bite, but she has been known to push people’s butts forward so they are nudged into a direction leading them to a room full of people. She even slept a lot closer to me when I was pregnant, probably because she could be close to two people at once.

When Aaron came along, she fell in love. Or maybe we could call it falling in deep tolerance.  The only negative thing she did out of jealousy was temporarily hiding my wallet, chewing the corner, and then sneakily placing it in the middle of Aaron’s floor, only after I had canceled all my credit cards. She also chewed the corner of a stack of my students’ papers, forcing me to admit to them that “my dog almost ate your homework.” And there was the time she stole the entire wedge of brie off the coffee table during a cocktail party. After hearing more than one story about a dog who came into a new baby’s room while the mommy was breastfeeding and then pooped in front of the mommy and ran out the open door into the street and never returned, these things seem pretty tame.

Maggie was two when we got her, and now it is twelve years later. She is slow and  old and deaf and has some digestive trouble. She started getting “old lady lumps” about the same time I did. Mine happened to have been a thyroid tumor which was promptly removed.  Hers are lypomas that are hard to see but easy to feel when you pet her through her fluffy black fur.

We celebrate her birthday every Easter, because we don’t actually know when she was born. At the risk of anthropomorphizing my dog even more than I have done, I am now imagining a kitschy combination of “The Last Supper” and “Dogs Playing Poker” on a velvet canvas, but I digress.

I am cherishing all of these days with her as her snout gets grayer, her farts get smellier, her days consist of more and more sleep, her nights consist of more and more digestive discomfort, and her ability to hear the doorbell is dwindling day by day.

Pets bring a heartbeat into a house even when we’re not home. They give us a life to take care of. They make us feel needed. They make messes, which is good for everyone to have to deal with. They simultaneously give us routines and make things unpredictable. They bark and make us feel protected. They stick their snouts in our lap when we’re enjoying our morning coffee. They perk up their ears or twitch their little eyebrows as if to say, “You know I’m almost as human as you are, except I’m not wearing pants.”  They lie in inconvenient places, willing to risk getting stepped on for the pleasure of being near all the feet of the humans they love.

And they dream about running on farms, which I know is happening when her little paws move and she utters muffled barks while she is sleeping. Someday she will join my Cuddles and they will chase cars and herd small children in the great farm in the sky.

Until then, my Maggie lies at my feet and takes care of me in ways she will never understand, which gives me a bit of new life every day.

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