Human beings wind up having the relationship with dogs that they fool themselves they will have with other people. When we are very young, it is the perfect communion we honestly believe we will have with a lover; when we are older, it is the symbiosis we manage to fool ourselves we will always have with our children. Love unconditional, attention unwavering, companionship without question or criticism.
For children, the point of having a dog is something like the point of having a mother and father. OUr job is not to do but to be, not to act but to exist. We are bedrock, scenery, landscape, to be often ignored and then clung to during difficult or frightening or, occasionally, happy times. My mom, my dad, my dog, my home, immutable, to leave and then to return to at will and leave again.
It is true that once he had grown into his tremendous feet and his tremendous tail, he settled down considerably. His circuit narrowed, from the whole wide world to the house down the road where the owners forgot to put the lids on the garbage can, and the back swamp, where there was always some chance of running into a deer carcass. Some days he would emerge, wagging wildly, with an entire ribe cage in his mouth. And he still had a predilection for certain sorts of trouble.
She learned her lesson in subservience well; she followed him everywhere slavishily and developed a habit of occasionally stopping to lick his face while he was sleeping.
In the fashion of the frail elderly, he seemed to shrink, and his skeleton became more prominent until eventually he was all vertebrae and pelvis beneath the flat black fur. For long periods he lay, alert, his mily eyes gazing mysteriously inward, as though he was reliving the past.
Soon I learned that if you choose a puppy out of pity, you may well wind up with a crazy dog trying always to prove her mettle.
I have to choke down the temptation to respond that life is messy, and that its vagaries go down hardest with those who fool themselves into thinking they can keep it neat. But the truth is that we were far messier without dogs than with them. AFter Pudgy dies, when the click of claws on the floor was merely a spectral phenomenon, I discovered that the children dropped more in the kitchen than they ate.
"You are such a good boy," I would murmur, freezing in the dew-drenched grass as the night eked out its closing hours, remembering the deep and endless darkness during nighttime infant feedings as Beau danced a puppy dance under the stars.
Life is a great mystery, that's for sure. If anyone had described all this to me when I was twenty, I would have scoffed at that domestic routine. When I was thirty those children were just a gleam in our eyes; at forty I had only the vaguest notion of who they would become. And still today I am never really sure of the future, whether the quiet will stretch on for many years or be interrupted by change or cataclysm. There's not much I take for granted.
But the life of a dog is not much of a mystery, really. With few exceptions, he will be who he has always been. His routine will be unvarying and his pleasures will be predicatable - a pond, a squirrel, a bone, a nap in the sun. It sounds so boring, and yet it is one of the things that make dogs so important to people. In a world that seems so uncertain, in lives that seem sometimes to ricochet from challenge to unheaval and back again, a dog can be counted on in a way that's true of little else.
There's one other mystery in the lives of people that is not much of a mystery in the life of a dog. That's the question of how long he's going to be with you, although people gloss over this part of the deal most of the time.
The trajectory of Beau's existence had reversed itself: While he once ran off, leaving three children at home to worry and wait, now they had sailed free while he lay by the door, patiently anticipating their return. I knew just how he felt. My husband and I live in a cleaner house now, with only canine company, waiting for the noise, the disruption, and the delight that the return of our three native brings. The tables have turned for us all.
Over a period of several weeks, what little light was left in the Big Guy's pale, blind eyes had seemed to dim, and when he cried, he no longer seemed to be looking for attention but to be seeking an end to pain. For a long time we had kept him alive because he still had some life in him, some curiosity that made him put his nose to the ground to see what other animal had recently passed his way, some faint scamper to his step when his chow rattled into the bowl, even if the bowl had to be placed right up against his face to show him where to find it.
Then one day we suddenly realized that we had been keeping him alive not because it was good for him, but because it was good for us, because it was too hard to make the decision to let him go. And in the joyful bargain between dog and person, that is the one unforgivable cheat.
I've never really believed what people say, that death smoothes the lines of life away, that the tension and the worry disappear. Yet somehow after the vet had packed up and the children had gone, Beau did look more like his old self, before his legs and eyesight and hearing began to go. He looked more like the kind of dog who would try to drive a horse from his stretch of the road, or swim in circles, his tail a feathered rudder, in pursuit of geese. He looked like one of those handsome Labs on the cover of a dog book. He looked like what he was : a really good dog.
The life of a good dog is like the life of a good person, only shorter and more compressed. In the fifteen years since Beau had joined our family, nine pounds of bellly fat and needle teeth, he had grown ancient by the standards of his breed. And I had grown older. My memoery stutters. My knees hurt. Without my reading glasses the wrods on a page look like ants at a picnic. But my blood pressure is low, my bone scan is good, and my mammograms are so far uneventful. I love my kids, and they love me, and we all love their father, who is still my husband. Starting out, I thought that life was terribly complex, and in some ways it is. But contentment can be pretty simple.
And that's what I learned from watching Beau over his lifetime: to roll with the punches (if not in carrion), to take things as they come, to measure myself not in terms of the past or the future but of the present, to raise my nose in the air from time to time and, at least metaphorically, holler, "I smell bacon!" I'm not what I once was, and neither, by the end, was he. The geese are making a mess of the pond, and the yellow Lab gets to run every morning with her master. The first couple of times she was walked by herself were particularly sad. Beau misses Beau terribly, I suspect, but I may just be projecting again.
Each morning I used to check to see if the old guy was actually breathing, and each day I tried to take his measure - was he huring? was he happy? Was the trade-off between being infirm and being alive worth it? And when the time comes to ask myself some of those same questions, at least I will have had experience calibrating the answer. Sometimes an old dog teaches you new tricks.