One of Joan's pugs -- Narnia/Sweet Pea -- who was returned to Joan when her owner could no longer care for her -- has lost the use of her legs, just like my pug Vader did. Unlike Vader, she likes to squirm and move and get herself trapped in all sorts of strange places, so Joan pretty much has to take her with us everywhere. Sweet Pea, as her owner called her, or Narnia, as we first named her, came back to Joan because her owner Nancy had an ill father. Traveling back and forth to Florida to care for him was not fair to Sweet Pea, so Nancy gave her back to Joan. She has missed her ever since. Narnia was born on my lap 10 years ago and stayed at Joan's for many years before going to live with Nancy. As a result, I have always had a fondness for her. When I hear Nancy talk about her my heart almost breaks. There is such affection in her stories. I contacted Nancy via email the other day because I wanted to know more about Narnia's time with her. I thought I might write about it. She told me how she named Narnia after a can of antique wrinkled sweet peas and how she misses her still. Narnia is tiny and frail in body but her mind is active, her spirit downright feisty. Nancy's one request when she surrendered her was that we not tell her when she dies. "It will break my heart," she says. She wrote that she hates to think of Narnia's legs. She remembers how much she hated the cold and how she wouldn't put all four paws on the ground at once. "It makes me sad to write of her," she said. "She is a dear little bundle of black love and I miss her all the time.
I followed Joan from the doctor's office to scheduling where Walter checked us out. They began their familiar dance of friendly flirtation -- he charming the older woman, she putting on the coquettish airS of a young southern belle. "You're wearing pink today," she purrs. "Yes, I am," he winks.
"I don't suppose I can get you down here at 7:45 in the morning?" he asks, consulting his computer. Joan and I both laugh. "She's not exactly a morning person," I explain. "She's the only person I know you can call anytime of night and she will answer. So, if you ever want to call..."
"Hi, this is Walter," he says in a creepy voice.
"Yeah, maybe you don't want to call," I said.
"Where are you from again?" Walter asks Joan. "Warren?"
"Up near Sugarbush," she replies.
"Are you from there, too?" he asks.
"No, Bethel," I respond.
"I used to live in Bethel. River Street," he says. "Where in Bethel do you live?"
"I live at my parents," I say, "John Gifford," remembering that Walter used to work with my father years ago at Sears.
"Oh, sorry I didn't place you," he apologizes. "So, how do you two know each other?" And, there it is...the moment I explain Joan. I could just answer friend, because that is true. But I give the answer that is most obvious and also makes Walter raise an eyebrow. "She's my pugs' breeder," I say.
"You don't know what images that conjures," he says.
"I went looking for a pug 15 years ago. I met her and we've been friends every since," I elaborate. That is the truth, but it leaves out so much. A trip out west stuffed into a van with three other passengers and Joan's tales of her life to keep us awake as we drive through the desert. Heading into a hurricane to travel to pug nationals, getting quarantined at another pug nationals because of a virus that spread through the attendees, births and deaths. Staying up all night trying to keep a litter of puppies alive by feeding them goat's milk and when all seemed lost, Vodka. Losing them anyway. Aggravation, laughter, adventure. Driving all night half awake to arrive at a Dunkin Donuts only to have Joan bring out stale, dried up biscuit for us to share -- "I brought some dried biscuits," she announced. "And, I erupted in a spiel of contagious laughter that she caught and left us clenching our bellies as we guffawed through the night. Joan is old enough to be my mother and yet we are the best of friends -- kindred spirits in many ways -- not least of which is the fact that she is only person I know who I can call anytime of night just to chat or tell her the cute thing your dog has done.
When you own a lot of dogs like my friend Joan, some of them blend into the background and some of them stick out. Soup, the dog of several names, stuck out. Part of this was because of her unique appearance – as a wee pup she leaned against the heater for too long and burned herself down her whole right side causing a moccasin-like appearance as she recovered and grew. Later, we referred to this scar as her racing stripe, an apropos name as, like her mom Suteki before her, she was always trying to run away. Often accompanied by her friend Teddy. It’s hard for me to remember who would run away more, Soup or Suteki, but they both made their fair share of escape attempts, usually visiting the house down the road or showing up at the other end of town or being turned into the vet’s by a good citizen.
Soup, littermate to Moses, was originally named Zipporah after Moses’ wife in the Bible. This was shortened to Zip and eventually due to several mispronunciations on Joan’s part became Soup. Soup was feisty and a real survivor. Sometimes throughout the years I have felt sorry for some of Joan’s pugs, being one of so many. Soup was one of those pugs I never felt bad about – she was in no way needy, content to be part of a large pack.
She was happy to pile up in one of Joan’s pig troughs in front of the fire, sitting atop her mother, father or friend, happy to be petted, addressed or fed.
As she aged her tongue began to hang from her mouth, perhaps in empathy with her friend Teddy who had a protruding tongue since birth. Earlier this week Soup, who was only eight years old, got in a squabble with the other dogs and hurt her leg. At first Joan thought it was broken, but she quickly stood on it and there seemed to be no reason to take her to the vet. A few days later, however, she seemed to be acting poorly and Joan decided to schedule a visit. Before she could get there, however, Soup who was sleeping on her bed between two of her other friends died – quietly and contentedly, making little fuss or demand, acting just as she had in life. I will miss this happy girl. It is easy to mourn losing one so young. But, if one could pack a life in eight short years, this girl did and it is hard to mourn that. She, like her owner Joan, did things her way and was not one to be controlled. Perhaps her premature death was her attempt to make the ultimate run – perhaps she runs still, her racing stripe showing, her long tongue flapping in the breeze.
A day after I last wrote about him, Gandalf died. I was never blind Gandalf’s owner in any official sense, but he owned my heart. Part of the attraction, no doubt, was guilt because the loss of his vision – at least in one eye – was partially mine. He was one of the earliest litters I saw born at Pugdom, my friend Joan’s home. I named him and his brothers – each after wizards, magicians or spells of some sort: Copperfield (who we officially called Copperfeld because of some AKC rule not allowing us to use the names of real people); Merlin, Dumbledore, Hocus Pocus and Gandalf; two fawns and three blacks.
Shortly after their birth, Joan, our friend Jessica, and me were scheduled to take a trip to Joan’s condo near Florida and Joan being Joan piled the litter of five and their Momma into the van, not to be deterred from our travels. They made the thousand-mile trip south before their eyes even opened. It was Thanksgiving time and in typical Joan fashion we traveled with few stops. We enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner in the condo and turned back for Vermont a few days later. On the way home, the puppies began to open their eyes. Ghanny, however, seemed to have something wrong with one of his. It was crusty and gooey and I worried that Joan, who had developed a bad cold on the trip and was in a sleep-deprived state. might not be staying on top of things. So I bugged her and then bugged her again to give him some medicine, which she finally did. Problem is she had two types of eye drops along – one with steroids and one without. One was okay to give, the other not. We gave the wrong one. In the morning, little Ghanny’s eye was bleeding. We had stopped at Joan’s son’s house in D.C. for the night and he rushed the puppy to the vet only to learn he would probably lose sight in that one eye. It was sad and I felt horrible. We didn’t talk about it. Joan, too, felt guilty and over the years memory has kindly blanketed these feelings with a new version of the tale. Sometimes Joan recalls Ghanny being born blind, other times she remembers only the accident that took his second eye, believing it took both. That time a small stick got him while he was playing outside and our one-eyed boy became officially blind.
He never seemed to mind. Ghanny was born docile with a gentleman’s disposition and after the loss of his vision, he settled down even more, developing a trotter’s high-step prance as he would feel his way from his livingroom nest outdoors to the deck and down the steps to the backyard. This was his routine for much of his life – sun on the porch, strolls in the backyard, warm slumber in his corner bed broken by dinner and the occasional concert by me. I always hoped he saw something, that my song would evoke a momentary return of vision, a small grace, but he adapted and never seemed to complain. When he heard my voice, he would rise from his bed, cocking his head and high-stepping it to the livingroom gate where he would wait for me to pick him up and sing. A brush of his cheek to mine and then the anticipated kiss.
For many years I had dreams of taking him home. I knew I could not have three dogs where I lived, so I daydreamed of a camper or building my own home in time for him to become mine. These dreams never saw the light of day and by the time my other dogs passed, Ghanny had grown accustomed to his life at Joan’s. He was a Pugdom dog.
In his old age, the other dogs turned on him as they often do. Perhaps triggered from some pack mentality where weakness could hurt the whole group, they attacked him leaving him wounded. Not long after, he suffered a stroke. I wanted to grab him up then and take him to the vet, make sure that the wounds had not caused an internal infection. But, Joan nursed him and bathed him and I knew that in spite of any ministrations we each could give that his time was drawing near.
We took him on a rare outing to the Tunbridge Fair his last weekend and out the day before for a visit with our friend Norma. He was better the first day, almost comatose on the second. I leaned down and whispered in his ear. I sang his song. On the first day, he still managed a kiss, on the second it was me who kissed him, right below his chewed up ear. In that moment, I hated dogs for being dogs, for the beatings they instill on each other. I hated Joan for having so many, for not taking him to the vet, for not being able to do more. I hated me for not being able to give him a better life. But then, as he stirred beneath my hot whispers, I felt only compassion. We all live by our instincts, we each adapt. I felt an amazing grace settle on us both. No judgments. Things could have been different, things might have been worse. Gandalf might have come to live with me and had snacks and toys and known the noise of a busy home, but he had sleepy days in the sun, home-cooked meals, a dry bed by the stove. He was independent, loved and serenaded, and in his final moments, he knew the comfort of Joan’s hand. Blind, he knew the smells of home.
The amazing thing about grace is it swallows guilt whole, leaving the sweet aroma of love.
Joan leaned against the gray chicken’s cage, cooing quiet comfort to the interested bird. As the bird grew closer to her, I reminder her of the time the llama had spit in her face because she had overstepped the boundaries and suggested if she wasn’t careful we might be rescheduling her upcoming eye appointment from November to an emergency room visit. She backed away, but not before clucking one last “sweet nothing” to her new-found friend.
That’s what going to the fair with Joan is like. You can’t really talk about animal love without bringing up her name. For me the two have become synonymous. Not everyone would live the way my friend does. A former concert pianist, Joan has let her house go to the dogs literally, having one in every corner of the house and many more on her bed at night, where the climb upon her hip, curve into the crook of her neck and the small of her back and on top her head, making it impossible to turn.
Also a former nurse – she’s had many careers – she helps her animals through to the end of their days, nursing them when others would choose to give up. Before I met her and in the beginning, I was sure I knew what it meant to love an animal – limited numbers, vet care, a peaceful goodbye when the pain gets too bad – and, there’s wisdom in that, but now that I’ve known Joan I’m no longer as sure my way is the only way. I have been with her when dogs passed on car rides to pug socials and while I would have rushed them to a medical end, she has wrapped them in towels and blankets, placed her palm on their brow and sat with them until their labored breathing ceased. As I look at her with blind, failing Ghanny and see the deep affection pass between them, I wonder once again, is it the worse thing to die where you have lived – in Joan’s bed or in the car where you rode as a pup, head hanging from the window? If you could talk would you choose the comfort of that palm and the familiar smells around you to a doctor’s needle?
But, this story is not about death. It’s about life, with Joan it always is and that’s why my beliefs expand. I see the life all around her and the love pouring out of her. She can’t pass a dog, donkey, chicken, goat or frog without stopping to caress and chat with it. For a while, she volunteered, helping during rainstorms to move frogs safely off the roads. She had a pet toad that hung outside her door and she would occasionally have to save from the pugs. She once brought it inside and placed it on the bed beside a litter of puppies, so I could take pictures of them both. The toad was bigger than they were. She has even been known to leave spider webs up in her home so as not to disturb the creatures.
But what I love most is seeing the immense and simple joy these animals bring Joan each time she meets a new one. Her face lights up, her blue eyes literally twinkle, she puckers her lips and begins chattering away. The story goes that she received her first pug from Prime Minister Clement Attlee after she burst in on a meeting he was having with her husband. She had just been outside Harrods in London and saw her first pug on the street. She ran into the meeting breathless, exclaiming, “you wouldn’t believe what I saw and describing in detail the little fawn pug on the street.” Shortly after she returned home to the United States to be greeted by Attlee’s gift of her own fawn male, Harrods Bugle Boy, who came with a mile-long pedigree that unrolled like a scroll.
When I see Joan interact with an animal, she experiences pure, unadulterated glee and being witness to it, I feel a little bit rub off on me. Joan’s unconventionality, her child-like joy reminds me to open myself up to wonder, to crow with the chickens and howl with the dogs. She may not be right about everything, but she is right about this and so, I learn to open my mind, but mostly my heart to possibility, to move beyond judgment to awe.
Love doesn’t always look like we expect. Today, it looked like three old dogs. None are pretty. One is blind, bitten, unable to sit up on his own. Another looks like the Creature from the Black Lagoon – all folds and skin and gaping mouth. She breathes like a labored guppy and hops on three feet like a rabbit, holding her right, rear leg in the air. She has a luxating patella; her knee pops out. The third’s tongue hangs from her mouth where a horse once kicked her in the jaw. If her youthful luck was poor, age itself has caught up with her and her legs are now crippled and buckled. Still, she moves with the speed of a slithering sci-fi alien, clearing an expanse with surprising grace. They are not the dogs one would choose to bring home. No cuddly puppies, here. The ears of two are bitten from rambunctious play and pack rumbles gone awry. Some would say these dogs have seen there day.
My friend Joan doesn’t think so nor her friend Norma. Looking at Norma with fractured hip hobble ever so slowly to and from the car, one might suspect she has seen her day as well. She has suffered strokes and broken bones. Yet, Norma shuffles and picks up blind Ghanny to take him in the thrift store, to show him off to her friends. I worry as she lifts him with shaking hands that she will drop him. I worry she will slip on the wet ramp and fall. I worry she will hurt him. I worry she will hurt herself. She lifts him anyway and I hold my breath and scurry out from the car to spot them both. “Who do I catch first?” I ask Joan.
But with a luck reserved for fools and children, both make it inside. Norma falls into a fading upholstered chartreuse chair amidst other furniture that has seen better days. Ghanny buries his head into her shoulder. He cannot walk any longer. Joan thinks he may have had a stroke. If he were my dog I would scoop him up and take him to the vets. Spend the hundreds and thousands on tests and medicine. She does not. She nurses him as she has done many before him, cleaning his sores and soiled bedding, letting nature take its course.
He is limp and ungainly like a pile of wet laundry spilling out from a hamper; he spills over the lips of Norma’s folded arms. She announces him her “grandbaby” and I monitor the reaction of the chunky, bearded twenty-something store clerk. He approaches to see “the puppy.”
“He’s not a puppy exactly,” I warn. I want to apologize, embarrassed for Ghanny, for Joan, for the young man. “He’s an old one. He doesn’t exactly look good.” And, then I wait, watching for any look of distaste – daring him to make one, expecting it at the same time. And, I am disappointed and simultaneously made happy when all he says is, “Aww, sweet puppy and smiles at Ghanny and at Norma.” He is a good young man.
He even stands and chats for a few minutes as Joan peruses this palace of discarded items for a few finds. She debates over two seven dollar molded chairs, considering them for the kitchen of her new house. I survey them for stains. Was the tan molding once white or always tan? Joan and Norma both deem them “wonderful, a good price.” They lack disdain for the worn; they don’t seem to need everything to be in good shape.
Still, we slip from the store without the chairs amidst a friendly goodbye from the young man and a declaration from Norma that “that place has everything.” We make our way to the feed store where Joan debates over dog food, comparing prices while I offer to buy Ghanny a can of grilled salmon and chicken and Norma throws in a stick of beef jerky. We split it among the other geriatric dogs. They gum it down, drool dripping from the side of their mouths. Each squeals for more.
Dogs fed, it’s our turn and though Joan parks as close to the Chinese restaurant as possible, we still have to walk a block or two. If Norma were my mother, I wouldn’t have her go, but she stifles our protests and makes her way out of the car. We totter down the streets and I remind myself to exhale. We will get there.
We do. We feast on curried chicken, wonton soup, fried rice as Norma struggles to hold her quivering cup. Joan makes a not-too-subtle jibe in my direction about eating out too much. Norma offers to start crocheting a blanket for Ghanny – an undeclared death shroud because we know his days are numbered. We chat about pleasant things, too. It is not how everyone would describe love, but as we return to Norma’s apartment and let the two old-lady pugs out to do their business, another young man awards us with smiles.
“What’s wrong with them? Poor puppies,” he says, watching them hobble, but still reaching down to pat their heads and chuckle.
“They’re old,” I offer, resigning myself to the fact that not everything needs to be fixed. Sometimes love looks like three old dogs. Sometimes it is about letting go and experiencing grace.
“Ma, let’s just sit here a spell. “Let’s.”
His joints are stiff, his eyes clouded. Her knees pop out of joint. They are mother and son and they spend most days on a faded dog bed, on a stone wall in the front of a pale yellow house. They claim the summer sun. They sit like two black gargoyles, strange sentinels, appearing to guard the house -- a blind watchdog and his feeble though feisty mom. Life has slowed for these two old dogs, but they are content. Their dog days are now.
He sits war weary on the lawn, soaking in the golden light of his golden years. Not a soldier, but an old dog whose wagged his tail and done his faithful duty at the side of two women -- first one’s dog then another’s. In this moment his own man, surveying his first yard, the expanse of his kingdom, the battlefield, where his life has played out. Now he waits as all good dogs do, without complaint, for his ladies, two friends, to return home. He laps at clean water, turns his face to the sky, and closes his eyes. It is well past mid-day, but the sun feels warm, the grass cool and even now there is still a wag to his tail.
He soldiers on – the symbol of perpetual hope, living in expectation that bones may rain down upon him, good fortune and good food come his way, and the people that he waits for may now turn the bend. Old dogs have the patience and faith of saints. What else do they hope for, what more can an old fella’ want than a patch of sun, a pat on the head, and to hear the words “Good Dog” echoed like bookends at the beginning and end of his days.
“Like all of us in this storm between birth and death, I can wreak no great changes on the world, only small changes for the better, I hope, in the lives of those I love. – Dean Koontz
This is not a post I wanted to write as it is not a happy one. I called home from Georgia the other night and heard from my Mom that Joan had called and left a message that our little Tuff Twikett, the sole surviving puppy in Releve’s litter had died. Death is an omnipresent entity in the short lives of dogs and the longer I am around them, the more I realize how true this is. Not all puppies survive birth or the short weeks following and this time around there must have been something truly wrong because Releve never really accepted this litter. But Twikett was indeed tough and survived a couple of weeks.
Why? That’s always the question isn’t it? Why is life so short? Why does this one die and this one survive? Grappling with death is an ongoing debate. Some prefer to avoid it. What’s there to add? It happens to us all. This is especially true with dogs. The discussion can become repetitive, maudlin, overly sentimental because something touches us to the core when we lose one of our companions and we all struggle to make sense of it; sometimes dwelling in this stew of emotions. But Twikett hadn’t been around long enough to be such a companion had she?
She had. That’s what my time at Pugdom has taught me. It has become a microcosm of life and death, helping me to understand the process, to deal with the pain and questions. Twikett’s life was so brief yet she made her presence known. Joan’s friends gathered at her house to help her be born. We held her, named her, fed her. We grew from our care of her and from our support of each other. She knew the hand of a human, the warmth of her mother’s breast. She crawled and cried, snuggled and suckled and like with all of us, her time was too brief, but she lived. She may never have opened her eyes, but for two weeks she made small changes on the world. We may forget her name in the years to come, but not her presence. Life brings change and growth. It can’t be dismissed, overlooked or glossed over. Tuff Twikett survives in the love we gave her.
The surviving puppy, the second one born, is alive and kicking. She is strong and well. She knows how to nurse, kneading her mother like Rocky Balboa going to town. I have taken to calling her Balboa, but Joan is calling her Tough Twikett (spelling uncertain) and I imagine that will stick. For some reason we all keep calling her a "he." Her Mama is letting her nurse now and Joan keeps supplementing her. I think she's a fighter and a beauty.