The summer of my first year of law school was one of the hottest I can remember. I was living with a man who’d never learned to acknowledge, much less share, his emotions, and he wasn’t about to start at the age of thirty-five. I’d thought that our living together would draw him out, but it hadn’t. I felt lonely and isolated.
Although my boyfriend and I had discussed getting a pet to complete our household, he claimed he was a “dog man” and didn’t want a cat. I’d grown up with cats and periodically felt compelled to take one into my home. Unable to agree, we remained petless.
To get away from the house, I began spending long hours at the law library. Early one Saturday morning, I got there before the library opened, and as I pulled into the parking lot, a mangy-looking orange tomcat timidly emerged from behind a parked car. He was walking gingerly: one of his hind paws was completely smashed, and his tail was covered in motor oil. Distressed by the sight of him, I went to pick the cat up, but when he saw me approach, he disappeared in the opposite direction, dragging his injured foot behind him.
A week or two passed. Each day I’d leave some cat food by my car, and each day the food would be gone when I returned. But I didn’t see the cat again. Sitting in class, I thought about the soulful expression in his green-gold eyes and wondered how he was managing to survive on the city streets in the unbearable heat.
One steamy day in August, the law school’s air conditioning broke down, and I cut my afternoon classes and headed for the parking lot. When I got to my car, I saw the orange cat lying underneath it to get out of the blazing sun. Determined not to scare him away this time, I crouched down and slowly approached him on my hands and knees. He didn’t move. For a moment, I thought he was dead. Then I saw that he was taking shallow, panting breaths. I held out my hand, and he lifted his head and sniffed it tentatively. I petted him before picking him up. He was surprisingly light.
In the car, he refused to lie on the seat, but instead curled up in my lap while I drove. Purring loudly, he stared up at me with a grateful look. His foot was bleeding and he was half-starved, but he nuzzled against me all the way home. At that moment, I realized I was truly a “cat person” and didn’t belong with a “dog man.” When I got home, I told my boyfriend I wanted to move out.
Yesterday was Shivaratri, the Indian New Year, but I didn’t go to the chant and celebration, because I wanted to go cross-country skiing with my dog at my side. When my husband returned home from the festivities, he said, “Jacob missed you. He says it’s a shame a dog can keep you away from Shivaratri.”
What Jacob doesn’t realize is that the love I feel being out in the woods alone with my dog is at least as great as the love I would have felt chanting the name of God for three hours.
After much consideration, we bought eighty acres more than an hour’s drive from the nearest supermarket. One of the deciding factors was the bobcat tracks we found circling the spot where I had peed the first time we’d driven out to look at the land.
We share this place with cougars, coyotes, and bobcats. Seeing how they spend their days has taught me a lot about how to spend mine: Sleep often, but not always in the same spot, and stretch luxuriously when you wake up. Engage in physical play whenever you can coax a sibling or a mate to join you.
Find just enough food for yourself, and savor every bite. Howl whenever the magic is right — especially when the sun is setting or the moon is full. Mark your territory and be prepared to defend it. Bear no more offspring than your environment can sustain. Groom the ones you love. Don’t mingle with overly domesticated species. And, when it comes time to die, choose a beautiful place to lie down and leave your bones so you won’t be a burden to the rest of the pack.
Wendy P. S. Lynch
Fort Rock, Oregon
People said, “You’ll know when it’s time to put him down,” but I didn’t. I knew Big was getting worse — up all hours of the night, unable to stand on his own, his hoarse bark signaling a need for help. I knew that, at fifteen and a half, he wouldn’t be getting any better. He’d led an extremely active life, but now his world had shrunk to the size of a sheepskin rug. Still, it seemed such an arbitrary decision, more about how long I could tolerate nights of interrupted sleep: more about me than him. How could I make that decision, when his spirit was still so strong?
By Thursday, things had changed. Big was in pain. I could see it in his every step. I called Steve to let him know; Big had been his dog, too, for more than fourteen years, and, though we had separated, he deserved to know that the time had come.
I felt like a contractor trying to coordinate schedules: Steve’s, the vet’s, John’s (the man who would pick up Big for cremation), even the city road crew’s, since a sewer line was being laid that week, occasionally closing the road. Sunday, it seemed, would be the most convenient time for everyone. But death is inconvenient; Big couldn’t wait. We settled on Friday night.
Thursday evening, I let Big out and was sitting quietly with him outside when R. P., a man I had met briefly a couple of times, pulled up to visit a neighbor and waved hello. From across the yard, he asked how I was, and before I could get a word out, I started to cry. R. P. came over and sat down with me and Big, and I told him of my dog’s impending demise. R. P., it turned out, was a Buddhist, and he said he had some pills, blessed by the Dalai Lama, intended to help animals in their passing. Immediately, I felt a weight lifting. The timing of the act now had grace. I could do this. I could let him go. The signal had come straight from the Dalai Lama himself.
Big had had a great life. And he certainly had a great last day. Friends came to spend time with him. Maureen fried bacon for him. Viola, the neighbor he’d walked thousands of miles with (and knocked over only a couple of times), came to say goodbye. Deanne arrived with Häagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream, his favorite. And R. P. brought the pills.
Unable to concentrate on work, Steve showed up before noon, and throughout the day he and I reminisced. We recalled our first cross-country trip with Big. After several weeks, the dog smell in the car became unbearable. We found a dog groomer and dropped Big off. When we picked him up several hours later, we couldn’t believe our eyes. He looked like a show dog, all silky, willowy, and regal. On the top of his head, the groomer had put a tiny blue bow.
For his last dinner, I cooked Big a steak, and Steve and I fed it to him bite by bite. At 6:30, we gave him the last food he would eat — the pill from the Dalai Lama, wrapped in cheese.
That evening, there was a beautiful sunset. Watching it, I knew that when the sun rose the next day, my world would be different: without Big, it would be a lonelier place. Steve carried him to different points in the yard and placed him gently on the ground, where he sat peacefully, looking around, alert but calm, the breeze blowing his fur.
The vet was supposed to be at the house between seven and nine, and from seven on, every car on the road made my heart pound: Was this it? Were these Big’s final moments? In the meantime, Big was curled up in the living room on his sheepskin rug, mostly sleeping, but occasionally looking up at Steve and me — happy, I think, to have us both together and with him all day.
The vet arrived at 9:30 with a couple of black bags. She had given me a brochure explaining the procedure months before, so I knew what to expect. The first shot would inhibit the vomit reflex. Big didn’t like it. He’d never much cared for shots or visits to the doctor. That’s one reason I’d wanted this done at home, in familiar surroundings, rather than on some cold metal table.
The second shot went into Big’s back hip, and he didn’t like that one either. It would take about five minutes for him to lose consciousness. These would be our last moments with him. Steve and I lay on the floor with our heads together, facing him, each of us scratching a side of his face.
“It’s OK, Big. Don’t be afraid,” I said, my heart pounding. “It’s a big adventure you’re going on, and then you’ll be free to run and jump like you used to. You can let go now.” Tears ran from my eyes.
He looked at us with trust in his golden brown eyes. And then, very simply, he closed them. We laid his head down, adjusted his body, and waited for the final shot to be administered. With an electric shaver, the vet clipped a small patch on Big’s front leg, then found a vein. It would be quick now.
But it wasn’t. He kept breathing; his heart kept beating. We waited five, ten minutes.
“Sometimes this happens,” the vet said. “I’ll have to do another leg.” And she repeated the process with a different leg. Again we waited, but Big kept breathing; his heart kept pumping.
“I’ve had to do this only once before,” the vet told us. “I’ll have to go right into the chest cavity.”
Oh, my God, I thought. Maybe he wasn’t ready.
She found the place in his chest, my favorite part of him, where his fur was soft and white, and put the needle in. Ten minutes later, with Steve and me lying beside him, he stopped breathing.
The next morning, we sat a vigil with Big, waiting for John to come and take him away. In spring, we’ll plant a fruit tree in the yard and sprinkle his ashes around it.
Some Buddhists believe that dogs are failed monks. Maybe the pills were the Dalai Lama’s way of calling Big back — I don’t know. Steve thought it would be hard for him to go back to the ascetic life of a monk after living such a decadent life with us. Maybe he’ll fail again. If he does, I hope he comes back to me.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
“If anything ever happened to you, there could never be another man for me. I’d just get another dog.”
I can still hear myself saying these words to the man I thought I’d grow old and die with, the one who, for more than a decade, wrote poems and love notes on yellow legal paper and left them for me on the kitchen table. The last time I found the yellow paper propped next to a vase of flowers, it said that he had changed his mind and didn’t love me anymore. He left shortly after that, and, true to my word, I took in another dog.
Like me, Rudy had been discarded by someone who’d had a change of heart. Once he joined the two dogs and two cats already in residence at my home, it was as if some silent announcement went out to the four-legged homeless of the neighborhood. They came to my house in droves, and I always found room for “just one more”: a litter of pups dumped by the road; a kitten tossed from a speeding car; a dog wandering aimlessly; a mangled cat on the freeway. The list included not only canines and felines, but also ponies, goats, and poultry. I found homes for some, but most stayed with me. Almost overnight, there was a new focus to my days and less time for self-pity. I was needed and loved again.
Now, every morning, thirteen bowls are lined up on the counter to be filled with assorted pet foods: lamb and rice, Fit-n-Trim, wet food, dry food, milk. Some of my charges wait politely for their breakfast, while others prance and whine. I’m their slave — and their lifeline. I fear that one day, many years from now, I’ll show up on the evening news: “Elderly woman found dead and half eaten by her starving menagerie.”
“How can you live like this?” some people ask, their noses wrinkled in disgust. They pick at their hair-covered clothes and cringe at the sight of cats sitting on tables and counter tops. Those aren’t the people who matter, though. My real friends enjoy coming here. They say it’s a happy place, full of joy and energy.
My animals make outrageous demands on my time, stamina, and budget. I spend more on their needs than I do on my own. But it’s worth it to see my dogs’ unbridled joy as they bound across the fields. When I observe their fascination with the simplest things, my own troubles fall into perspective.
Ultimately, it’s all about love. Theirs is consistent and offered without reservation — unlike that of the men who have said they loved me. Those men are all gone now, and I don’t ever want to hear their empty declarations again. I’m glad that dogs and cats can’t speak.
Karen L . Kirsch
When my friend Rick split up with his wife twenty years ago, she got the children, the house, and most of the money, and Rick got the cat. He moved from Virginia to California and settled into a small apartment to start over. While the cat adjusted easily to its new environment, Rick did not adjust so easily to life alone with the cat. He soon concocted a scheme to get out of caring for the animal.
During one of his weekly phone calls home, Rick told the kids that the cat was unhappy and had lost its appetite and interest in grooming. He couldn’t figure out what the problem was, he said; the cat just wasn’t himself. (In fact, the cat was fine.)
Over the next month, Rick continued to relate news of the cat’s mysterious decline. He reported that he’d taken the animal to veterinarians and tried new diets, but nothing seemed to help. The kids were bitterly upset and started to regret their decision to let the cat go. So far, so good, Rick thought.
The next call, Rick informed his ex-wife and the children that the cat had disappeared. He had placed ads everywhere, but things did not look good.
Finally, when several months had gone by, Rick packed the cat into an animal-shipping crate and put him on a plane back to Virginia, where he was picked up by a friend acting as Rick’s co-conspirator. The friend drove the cat directly to the family home and let it out, whereupon the cat trotted up to the door.
To this day, that family believes it once had a cat who scaled the Rockies and swam the Mississippi for love.
I once volunteered at an animal shelter for six years. It wasn’t the most progressive shelter, but not the worst of them by far. For the first several years, I believed that the most we could do for dispossessed pets was to offer them comfort and solace and maybe a bit of fun before they were either placed in new homes or euthanized. That many had to die, I had no doubt.
I became familiar with how selections were made and could pretty accurately guess which animals would make it and which would not. There weren’t enough homes for them all, we told ourselves, and so they were chosen: This one has a cold. That one has an injured foot. He’s too old. She’s too skittish. They’re unweaned. She’s pregnant. He’s too shabby-looking. This one doesn’t like to be in a cage. That one’s been here too long. There are too many of the same color.
People think putting an animal to sleep means the animal closes his or her eyes and slips peacefully away. And for some it is a quiet death, but for others it is not. The little ones, the wild ones, and the ones who are terrified do not go gently. Although I was not directly involved in the killing, I often worked in the room across the hall, and many times I heard them cry out before all was silent. I saw many friends dumped into barrels and carted off: just garbage now, ground-up flesh and bone.
As time passed, I began to ask myself how we could proclaim the value of these animals in the front room, and then kill them in the back. Many times, our reasons for killing certain animals were as arbitrary and heartless as the reasons people gave for getting rid of them.
One day, I arrived to find several of my friends were gone. They had not been sick or restless. There was plenty of space. But somebody had found an excuse. That day was the end for me. I am left with a few boxes of pictures and notes about the hundreds of animals I knew at the shelter. I remember them all.
When my husband, Bob, was laid off, we moved to Portland, Oregon, because it was a bigger city and I had a sister there. Life went from bad to worse. The lender repossessed our car shortly before Christmas, and we bought a ’69 Rambler so Bob could attend his “job club,” a kind of seminar for the jobless that recycled the same tired strategies for success. He endured it just to get the hundred dollars they gave out at graduation.
After that, Bob took to wearing his Marine raincoat every day and brooding about the Vietnamese grocers down the street, who he thought were a nest of Viet Cong. I was worried about our son, Joe: tiny plastic bags kept turning up in his pockets, and he was only ten.
Our cocker spaniel, Peaches, was our other concern. We enclosed a little dog run for her out back, but she cried so pitifully that we gave up and let her play in the front yard with Joe there to watch her. She was so headstrong and goofy that it was only a matter of time.
Four days before Christmas, we heard the screech of brakes and the cries of a dog in pain. Joe came running into the house, and Peaches was right behind him, crawling on her belly into the kitchen. The guys kept insisting she was fine — why do they do that? — but I couldn’t find her left hind leg below the knee joint. At last I located it, driven backward up into the thigh. It would have been better if it had been gone.
In the car on the way to the vet, Peaches lay absolutely rigid across my lap, every breath sucked through gritted teeth. It was a ghastly sound, like a faraway chainsaw.
Bob made a wrong turn, thinking he knew a quicker route. Suddenly, we were in a holiday traffic jam. We’d entered Laurelhurst, a neighborhood of magnificent old houses, where driving by to look at people’s Christmas lights was apparently a Portland tradition. Cars were backed up through every intersection. There was no way out. We were stuck for nearly an hour. All the while, Peaches made that chainsaw sound.
At the vet, they said an orthopedic surgeon might be able to do something for Peaches, but it would be a lengthy and expensive process, probably followed by an amputation, anyway. We decided to put her down. I held her nose against my face until the light in her eyes went out. We maxed out our last credit card to pay for it.
On our front porch when we got home was a single dog turd: all I had left of Peaches. I nudged it off the porch so I could secretly go out and look at it every day.
Bob couldn’t get through Christmas without another dog, so we scraped up fifty dollars and got a black Lab-cocker spaniel mix. We tried for two months to dredge up some love for that brick-headed puppy while it peed all over the house, but there was something diabolical about it. Bob took it to the pound one day, and we never felt a thing.
University Place, Washington
Not long after I went away to college, my parents’ dachshund died. They missed having a dog but said they would never get another since they were in their sixties and didn’t want to leave behind an orphan when they died. I always felt there was an emptiness in their lives after the dog and I departed.
That was twenty-seven years ago. Two years ago, my father died, and my mother was forced to move into an apartment to be near me. With Dad gone, she now wanted a dog, but her new building didn’t allow them. She was distressed and downright angry, and complained often and loudly of her loneliness. If only she had a dog, she said, her life would be bearable.
I told her that there was a stray cat living on my front porch, and I thought it would be a good pet for her. She vehemently rejected the idea because she “wasn’t a cat person.” This went on for months, and my mother’s mood grew worse and worse. Finally, I made a more forceful push for her to take the cat. After all, I told her, winter was coming, and the cat would die if it had no home. She took it.
Since then, my mother has noticeably perked up. She dresses better and takes better care of herself. She is positively chirpy on the phone and jumps into my car when I come to take her out. Oddly, though, she complains incessantly about the cat: it caresses her too much; it always wants to sit on her lap; it stares at her; it’s too soft. The other day, I volunteered to find it another home, if it bothered her so much. My mother was horrified. “Absolutely not,” she said. “What would the poor thing ever do without me?”
Weehawken, New Jersey
Nell, my gentle Irish setter, was expecting a litter of puppies, just as I’d planned. I kept telling her what fun this was going to be — puppies stashed in sweater drawers, wriggling between bedsheets, peering out from fresh laundry. She would slowly raise her head and look at me a moment, then resume her nap. She napped a lot while she was pregnant. I, on the other hand, rushed around, generally behaving like an expectant mother myself: gathering soft blankets, buying stuffed animals, consulting experts.
During the birth, unbeknown to us, the lining of Nell’s uterus was torn. The infection from the wound “went systemic,” the vet said, corrupting her milk. Two of the eight puppies died overnight. The remaining six had to be separated from Nell, and I assumed responsibility for their round-the-clock feedings. Bottles of formula and a basket of puppies accompanied me to the office.
Three weeks into this routine, fatigue was taking its toll, and I left work early one day. When I got home, Nell greeted me at the door, bleeding from a gash in her side. A broken window on the porch told the story: she had crashed through it looking for her pups. Though Nell would be OK, the logic of guilt told me this was all my fault. I’ve never bred my dogs again.
After fourteen years of attempting to have a baby, my husband and I gave up, and I had a hysterectomy. As part of my recovery from the surgery, I began to take short daily walks. The cat showed up on the second day, slipping quietly out from under a tall patch of milkweed by the roadside and meowing softly. He was small and white with random splotches of black and a solid black tail.
My family and friends said the cat was an angel sent by God. This comment made me uncomfortable and angry. How could they possibly think that a cat could fill the void?
My mother, who was visiting, named the cat Meatball, because of his fondness for her meatloaf. Meatball began waiting outside my front door for our daily walk. He never rushed me, but seemed to respect my need to go slowly. As I got stronger and walked farther, I discovered that Meatball’s territory had limits: he would stop at the corner, jump to the top of a large gray boulder, and sit there, as if to say, “This is it for me. You go on. I’ll wait here.” When I returned, he was always waiting and fell smoothly into step with me once more.
The day my mother went home, our house was too quiet. My husband had gone to work. That was the first time I let Meatball inside. He examined each room like a tiny Sherlock Holmes, then stretched out in a patch of sunlight in the family room. I put my head down next to his and felt the rug’s warmth.
One month after Meatball first appeared, he disappeared just as suddenly. When he’d been gone two weeks, I stopped by the local animal shelter to see if he was there. I found him pressed against the back wall of the very last cage. The woman in charge said I could leave with Meatball only if I was willing to adopt him. After years of debate over whether to adopt a child, I found the situation strangely exciting. I enthusiastically signed the papers, and Meatball sprang into my arms.
Since then, Meatball and I have settled into a companionable routine. At night, he sleeps snuggled behind my knees. I feed him twice a day, clean his litter box, and worry if he doesn’t eat enough or stays out too late. I tell him to look out for cars, and I watch him from our kitchen window as he makes his way lightly across the frozen pond out back. I intervene when he gets into fights with other neighborhood pets. I’ll never fill the void at the center of my being, but now, on particularly melancholy days, I look for Meatball, and together we find a warm patch of sunlight to share.
Susan Pettitt Luelsdorf
Ossining, New York
Today is the day mother has been calling “burial day” for two weeks now. She wakes me early, pushing cats off my bed and pulling away blankets. “Time to put those blessed souls to rest, darlin’,” she murmurs. “We have a big job to do.”
After breakfast, she backs the car in as close to the basement entrance as she can get it. “None of their friggin’ business what we’re doing,” she says of the neighbors, whom she has clashed with and written off as ignorant and bound for hell. I follow her down to the basement, where we open the freezers and lift out jumbo packages of Eggo waffles, bags of mixed berries, and a case of sausages to get to the bodies at the bottom: all the animals who have died this winter and could not be buried until the ground thawed. They are in bags, each labeled with name, time of year born, and date and cause of death.
There are mostly cats in this batch — including a few who were beaten and strangled by our Satanist neighbor for one of his rituals; Mom and I found them in a snowbank with dented skulls and ropes around their necks, eyes bulging, teeth shattered. We transfer their remains into boxes. I dig deeper into the freezer for the hamsters and rabbits she has missed.
The rain pelts us as we dig the large grave fifteen miles out of town. Mom breaks the newly thawed earth with the shovel. I smooth away dirt with a trowel. My heart is heavy, and my hands are gritty and smell of death and freezer burn.
When the grave is deep enough, we cut open the bags and lay the cold, hard bodies in the earth. Finding room for them all is like doing a puzzle. I cannot look at Phoebe or Socks, two of the ritual victims. I also cannot look at Molly, who one night leapt into the food storage bin and was trapped when Mom put on the lid and sealed it tight. Molly ate happily until there was no air left.
Solemnly, Mom instructs me to say goodbye. The rain is coming down, and she needs to cover the animals. My eyes ache from crying. I touch the ones I loved the most, trying in vain to shut their frozen-open eyes. And Mom, sobbing, begins to fling wet dirt onto the rows of bodies.
Victoria, British Columbia
I was thirty-two, single, and buying my first house. Before moving in, I spent nearly a month painting each room and generally making the house mine. One day, a big orange cat showed up at my basement window, and every day thereafter she would greet me with a chirp and gaze at me with her beautiful sea green eyes.
Taking a break one hot July afternoon, I sat on the front porch stroking the cat’s long, soft fur. Just then, I spotted a handsome rust-colored spider weaving a web under the eaves. That spider’s making a home, like me, I thought. I decided to call the cat Charlotte, after the wise spider in E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web.
After moving in, I realized that Charlotte never went home at night, and she seemed hungry. I wasn’t sure what to do. Part of me wished she would go away. Obviously, Charlotte was no cuddly kitten but an adult cat with a fully developed character who didn’t much like to be held and resisted using the litter box. Yet despite this, I liked her. Perhaps she and I were meant to come together, I thought. I bought some cat food.
For a while it was “just us girls.” Then, after five years, I decided to move to Portland to live with my new partner. I was bringing Charlotte with me and thought it was time she had some shots to ward off big-city diseases. When the vet asked if Charlotte had been spayed, I admitted ignorance, but noted that she had never had kittens. The vet then examined my cat and told me why she had never had kittens: Charlotte was, in fact, a neutered male. I can’t remember what I said, but I would give a lot to have seen the look on my face.
For several days I felt a deep ache, as if I’d lost a friend. I was confused and depressed. The cat I’d grown to love now felt like a stranger. Of course, I knew Charlotte had not changed at all. Yet my image of my pet had been shattered. I felt betrayed.
It didn’t help that I also felt like a complete fool. Friends and family never even tried to hide their amusement at my error. And nearly everyone thought Charlotte must have a new name. I winced at their suggestions: Charles, Charlie, Charlo. Referring to Charlotte as “he” was hard enough. For a time, I stopped calling my cat by any name at all.
Then I realized that my situation was, in a way, comparable to that of a mother who learns that her child is gay or lesbian. In the past, I’d thought poorly of parents who were too narrow-minded to accept their child’s sexual orientation. Now I could empathize with both parent and child. I understood that, even if the parents want to accept their child, they may need some time to adjust and redefine their version of reality. That understanding was the beginning of my own readjustment to Charlotte as he really is.
And, yes, we still call him Charlotte.
Whenever I wondered how it was that I ended up on a dairy farm in rural Vermont, I always blamed it on the dogs. They were my boyfriend Tim’s before they were mine, and though I loved them, I often found them a pain in the ass.
If it weren’t for the dogs, Tim and I would have moved into a cozy apartment in Burlington. But the dogs needed a yard to run, so we found a large white farmhouse with a big red barn, surrounded by acres of rolling green hills. How could I say no? Sure, it would be an adjustment after Boston’s Beacon Hill, but the price was right, and it was perfect for the dogs.
We moved in September, Tim started his job, and I began churning out résumés while acting as reluctant mother to the two dogs: Buddy, a sweet and loyal black Lab-shepherd mix; and Willy, a troublemaking border collie whose primary interests are food and climbing into laps.
One afternoon, Buddy and Willy discovered that by burrowing beneath the back porch they could escape the fenced-in yard. I caught them before they got very far — but not before they’d rolled around in some liquid cow manure.
When Tim got home, we washed the dogs and blocked off their escape route — or so we thought. Willy turned out to be a champion digger, and escape became a common occurrence. But the dogs always returned. Either our neighbors would find them, or they’d come back on their own, around dinner time. Then one night, they didn’t come back.
It was late November, the start of hunting season, and Tim and I took several drives around the farm, yelling and whistling for Buddy and Willy, but they didn’t show. On separate occasions, we heard two rifle shots ring out. By 7 P.M., Tim was certain they were dead. A week earlier, an irate hunter had come to our door to complain that our dogs were interfering with his hunting. If it happened again, he’d said, he was going to shoot them.
Tim and I spent the evening in silence. Though I refused to give up hope, he began putting away their bowls and leashes; he couldn’t bear to look at them, he said. We went to bed late, tormented by visions of Buddy and Willy lying dead in the woods. The most devastating part was how quiet the house was without them. I never truly appreciated the life they brought to our home until they were gone.
At 2:30 A.M., the phone rang, and my heart leaped in my chest. I was almost too scared to answer. A young man’s voice said, “I’m sorry to call so late, but I think I have your dogs here.” We sprang out of bed, threw on some clothes, and drove in the dead of night to retrieve Buddy and Willy. The next day, I spent hours removing burrs from their hair and bathing them, but I did it gladly. Cow manure never smelled so good.
That was nearly a month ago. My job hunt continues. The weather has turned cold, and the dogs are spending more time indoors. Pet hair has become my mortal enemy. I vacuum daily in a futile attempt to keep the place clean. Between the hair, the flies, the isolation, and the unemployment, I’m on the brink of insanity. I let the dogs out; they bark to come in. I let the dogs in; they bark to go out. I love them; I want to kill them.
Growing up, I could hardly keep track of the succession of puppies and kittens my family acquired and lost. The kittens were subjects for Dad’s photographs, but once they became cats, they seemed to disappear. Had my mother been healthy, the animals would have been treated differently, I’m sure. But Mom was dying and had little energy to spare.
After Mom died, Dad collected pedigreed dogs, most of which didn’t live past puppyhood. Often, Dad ran over them by accident when they got beneath the wheels of his car. A fox terrier named Penny supposedly killed a neighbor’s chickens, so Dad paid my eldest brother to take the dog into the woods and shoot her. I clung to my brother, begging him not to do it, but he pointed the gun at me and ordered me out of his way. Something in his eyes told me he meant it. I’d glimpsed the same look in my own face. We all went a little nuts after Mom died.
If a new dog didn’t get crushed under a wheel or develop a taste for chickens, invariably it would commit some doggie sin. Maybe some of them just grew up ugly; I don’t know. Each time one disappeared, Dad would say innocently, “Where’s so-and-so? I think he ran away.”
When I grew up, I was glad to leave Dad’s house. I got married, had kids, and eventually acquired pets. The first dog, I gave away because I couldn’t housebreak him. With the second, I left the gate open and told my son, “I guess Mitch ran away.” Hearing the echo of my dad’s words woke me up like a splash of ice water. I vowed to reform.
Our next dog, the honorable Gretchen, lived with us for fifteen years. We all cried at her passing. When the kids mention her as a part of their “growing up,” I think, My growing up, too.
Las Vegas, New Mexico
When I was sixteen, I ran away from home, and I began to take in a series of kittens to replace the childhood pets I’d left behind. None of the kittens lasted more than six months. The first was hit by a car. The next, I am convinced, was stolen. The third stayed with my boyfriend when I left. All these cats had come from the SPCA. As a good Samaritan, I’d thought it my duty to rescue them from the gallows. Because each of them had been a bit on the psychotic side, however, I was determined my next kitten would come from a “good home.”
The good-home kitten got along well with my roommate’s cat, but then my other roommate got a cat, and my new boyfriend moved in with his two cats. (He had a series of them named Irie, Irie 2, and Irie 3.) Suddenly, the cats went into territory-infringement overload and began shitting and pissing all over the house. When Good Home went into heat, there were cats fucking everywhere: in the driveway, on my bed, in the kitchen. My roommates and I began to hate cats.
When the cats started disappearing one by one, everyone was a suspect. Eventually, we became convinced that our newest roommate, the one who never paid his bills, was sacrificing them as part of some satanic ritual in the woods behind our house. My boyfriend and I moved out, catless once again.
Irie 4 was a long-haired black kitten from a good home. Unfortunately, he suffered a grievous wound in a cat fight. The wound spread and began to fester and finally to crawl with maggots. Our humanitarian roommate was horrified that we hadn’t immediately taken the cat to the vet. But I was twenty and pregnant and working for minimum wage mopping the floor in a pizza place. My boyfriend was working at a surf shop and making not much more than me. The last thing I wanted to worry about was a cat with maggots that made me want to puke. I wished Irie 4 would slink off into the woods and die a noble death, but he refused to comply. So we paid the vet $180 to clean out the wound and give the cat some antibiotics.
Two days later, Irie 4 got hit by a car. My roommate came to me, his eyes burning with rage, and held Irie 4 before me in both hands, as if I had personally thrown the cat into the path of the vehicle. All I could think was that we had just spent $180 on a fucking cat that had the audacity to get hit by a car.
Our present cat, a gift from friends to our children, is well taken care of and, at one year of age, surprisingly long-lived. I can’t help but wonder, however, if I am not lacking some integral cat-loving gene. Not too long ago, a friend told me she’d been crying because a cat she knew had died of old age. It wasn’t even her cat. With the exception of my first cat that got hit by a car, I never cried once.
Gianna De Persiis Vona
Bodega Bay, California
Tubby, my twelve-year-old male cat, sleeps with me and jealously guards our bed. When, upon occasion, a man shares my bed, Tubby gets very nervous. I try shutting him out of the bedroom, but he cries at the door. I often relent and let him in. He mostly ignores any sexual activity, just curls up on the foot of the bed to sleep. Still, some men find this improper.
Here’s what I’ve learned: If a man can’t accept that my sweet, simple-minded little cat has to be in bed with us, then there’s no future for our relationship. Or, if Tubby isn’t comfortable with a particular man, I know it’s no good. Take the last relationship I had: We spent some happy times in bed, talking, laughing, making love. The man tolerated Tubby’s presence, but Tubby didn’t completely tolerate his. While he was there, Tubby would act restless. One time, my cat jumped up on the bed and looked at the man as if to say, “This is the right room, and Mom is here, but who’s this man in my place?’’
Sure enough, the relationship ended when I found out what a liar the man was. I should have listened to my cat.
We always had dogs, because my mother was passionate about them; we also had cats, because she routinely picked up strays. It’s peculiar how a woman could be so tender and nurturing toward animals, yet so callous and neglectful toward her children.
The cats invariably plowed across our mantel, knocking down clocks and tchotchkes. Every dog had to be walked on a short leash with a full harness and a muzzle, because they were wild and inclined to bite. My brothers and I hated them for their wildness, and even more so for the lavish affection Mom showered on them — but never on us.
After my father passed away and as we children moved out of the house, Mom’s affinity for animals appeared to wane. The last of the cats died when she was sixty-six, leaving her completely alone in the house for the first time since she’d married. My brothers and I assumed that, any day, a stray would cross her yard in need of rescue, or a neighbor would drive her to the pound. But the seasons rolled along, and no pets appeared. Inexplicably, Mom’s temperament seemed to improve. She never became the loving, concerned mother we had pined for, but when I visited, she occasionally seemed pleased to see me.
At seventy, Mom notified us that she was dying of pancreatic cancer. My brother John and I moved closer to her and rearranged our work schedules so that we could help her through what was sure to be a painful demise. At this point, her disposition reverted to the old nastiness we knew so well, and she regularly lashed out at us. Nonetheless, we persisted: she was our mother, and it was the right thing to do. It occurred to me that having a pet around once again might comfort her, so one day I asked if she would like me to pick her up a kitten or a puppy — “a new companion” was how I put it.
“No,” she said with a great sigh, “I’ve given enough to the animal kingdom for one lifetime.”
More than we knew. When Mom died, we learned that she had left her entire estate — house, car, jewelry, everything — to the animal hospital two towns over. A year later, they built a new operating suite and named it after her. The administrator wrote an elegant letter to my brothers and me, congratulating us on having a mother of such exquisite warmth and kindness.
Garden City, New York
I was miserable the day I moved into my new apartment. Then Billie crawled out of the basement. She was a filthy, thin yellowish brown mutt with big clumps of matted fur hanging from her coat. The tip of her nose was cracked, oozing, and bloody. Though painful to look at, she soon won me over. As I stroked her greasy fur, I felt my spirits lifting — a temporary break in my spell of loneliness and depression.
The next day, I took Billie to the grooming shop around the comer. Four hours and three soapings later, she emerged with a splendid white coat peppered with faint silver-gray markings. From neighbors, I learned that Billie’s former owner had abused her: never walked, petted, or groomed her, fed her poorly and irregularly, and left her alone for days at a time while he traveled. She’d survived on table scraps the neighbors threw over the fence. When I took Billie in for her shots, the vet diagnosed her with two systemic illnesses brought on by years of neglect. At home, I nursed her with food, medicine, and the one thing she craved the most: love.
After several months had passed, her former owner showed up at my door. Apparently, he’d learned that Billie was once again a magnificent creature. He told me I could keep her, but he wanted money. When Billie heard his voice, she cowered and tried to hide behind me. I threw him out, threatening to sue him for all the vet bills and charge him with animal abuse and trespassing. I felt fierce and strong and necessary. From that day on, Billie slept in the doorway of my bedroom with one eye open.
Abby Joslin Letteri
San Francisco, California
I was taking Parker, my large mixed-breed dog, on a run in our neighborhood when trouble arose: he spotted a cat and broke his lead to give chase. After a few close calls, the feline escaped up a tree. The cat’s owners witnessed the scene and angrily accused me of having traumatized their animal. I hurriedly apologized, thinking only of getting away as quickly as possible. I abhor out-of-control situations, and my embarrassment grew as Parker and I made our way home.
Once we were safely behind closed doors, my embarrassment turned to rage. I hit Parker until my fists were bruised and screamed until my throat was raw. Only when my anger was spent did I realize what I had done. Parker had pressed himself against the door, his entire body trembling. Clearly, all he wanted was to escape — from me.
There were no broken bones or serious damage, and Parker was soon his old, lovable self again. But I was changed. The image of him cowering against the door never left me. The shame of attacking this defenseless dog forced me to face my shadow. I enlisted the help of a therapist and began my painful journey of recovery.
Years after the beating, I still feel the sorrow of not being able to ask for Parker’s forgiveness. Loving him and healing the abuser in me will have to be enough. I am grateful to him for enduring that terrible day and helping me grow.
I measure my life by dog lives. I am four dogs old. April is my fifth.
Lately, April has developed a new habit: puking on rugs. She never pukes on the indestructible vinyl floor, only on the rug. My response has been to develop a new skill: cleaning up puke. It’s a job, and I do it. Beyond wondering if I’ve bought a bad bag of food, I never consider that something might be wrong. Clean up the puke, clean up the problem.
After a month, I take her to the veterinarian. April’s weight is down three pounds. She’s always been sixty-seven pounds; now suddenly she’s sixty-four. I tell Nancy, the vet, about April’s lower-than-usual energy level, but April puts on a good show, dancing on the linoleum, turning this way and that. She is the picture of health for an older dog.
Nancy orders a change of diet and medication for April’s diarrhea, but these measures fail to bring about a change. My dog’s weight stays low. I perfect my rug-cleaning technique.
Come October, I have to go out of town for a week. Normally, April is my traveling companion, riding in the front seat and putting nose prints on the window. I am not immediately friendly, but she welcomes the world. She is my ambassador. Even a dog princess isn’t welcome, however, if she is puking more than once a day. The neighbor who usually looks after April isn’t as skilled at puke-cleaning as I, so I call Nancy and arrange to leave April in the kennel.
While April is there, they observe her behavior and run diagnostic tests. After a week, April’s low weight and puking habit have a name: lymphoblastic leukemia — cancer of the blood. Nancy advises me of the remission-inducing medicines available, and of other, more advanced diagnostic techniques for managing April’s disease. She encourages me to consider these options.
But I have to ask myself: Are such measures for April or for me? Time was when dog oncology was not available. But Americans have heavy pocketbooks. We can afford to keep our “companion animals” alive.
I elect not to do the drug therapy, resorting instead to chicken soup and calls to Jesus: “Save this animal, O Lord!” A neighbor says, “You got the wrong vet; ain’t nothing the matter with that dog.“ And April looks good: she shines; she barks at squirrels. But her weight has dropped to fifty-three pounds. I feed her by hand: rice, eggs, white-meat chicken, and low-fat beef.
April lives. She greets the mailman. She continues to carry out her part of the contract. But her weight loss is relentless: forty-eight pounds. What’s my part of the contract? How do I know when to let her go? Contemplating euthanasia is akin to thinking about cutting off my hand. Our contract is simply to be together and be good to each other.
There is small print in the contract, however — a stipulation that I might be required to kill my best friend if she looks at me with eyes that say, “Let me go.” I hope I have the sense to recognize that look and heed her request.
In late December, April helps celebrate my birthday, posing for a picture with family and friends. But that afternoon, Scott and I dig a hole. It’s cold and due to get colder, and we need to make the hole before the new year turns the ground to iron. The hole will be three feet in diameter and three feet deep, located so that she can see the house, shaped so that she can curl up in the bottom. The act of digging a grave colors the afternoon. April lies in the sun, leaning up against the freshly turned pile of red Virginia earth, and watches us struggling with our tools, going deeper and deeper.
I’ve taken to sleeping downstairs on the floor so that April can wake me easily when diarrhea demands a trip outside. There are many trips outside. Puking in the house is one thing, but housebreaking runs deep. At first she wakes me by barking. As her energy ebbs, she simply stands next to my head until I hear the music of her dog tags. We take a 3 A.M. walk under a waning moon. Forty-three pounds.
The time comes when she can’t make it outside; she is racked by spasms of diarrhea in the kitchen. I’ve got to tell you, I really don’t care about the shit. I am a cleaning person. I did diapers for years. I’ve cleaned adults in the hospital. I have shit stories you wouldn’t believe. But as I sing to her and clean up her not-so-bad mess, she is giving me a look. It doesn’t say, “Let’s walk.” It doesn’t say, “Give me some food.” It is a new look to me. It says, “Let me go.”
On a Wednesday afternoon, I call Nancy and ask if she makes house calls.
“For this,” she says, “we do.”
Forty-one pounds. April wags her tail when Nancy walks in the room. I am there, and my lovely ex-wife, and my best friend. Nancy talks to April, looks at her gums (white), speculates on her red-blood-cell level.
Am I Jesus, or am I Judas? Hell, I am Bill, and this is my good dog April, and I am letting her go in the cold first week of the new year.
April’s bed — a foam mattress covered with a cotton blanket — is next to a radiator, beneath a window that dumps northern light into the room. We all sit around it in a semicircle. Nancy finds a vein, inserts a catheter, and gives April a sedative. A big dose of phenobarbital follows the sedative, and the life that was in April is gone.
Fifty years ago, when the owner and builder of my house died, he was “laid out” downstairs, in the northeast corner of the room. Black crepe ringed the front door, and neighbors visited. And so it is with April, minus the black crepe.
April lies in state for twenty-four hours. Thursday afternoon I bury her, surrounded by food and water for the afterlife, favorite T-shirts from her friends, a special toy from each of my godchildren. Though the Christian God does not officially recognize dog souls, I read his words. I swaddle April in a cotton sheet and two blankets. I say goodbye. I heap red earth on top of her. She is gone into the ground.
I am five dogs old.