There’s nothing like an old dog to remind a man of his own decline. Just a few short years ago Jake and I used to take daily five-mile jogs together, but now we’ve both got arthritis — his in the hips, mine in the knee — and we’ve had to give them up. Instead we take long walks through the woods near our house. Jake practically grew up in these woods. He knows where the blackberries bloom in the summer (he pulls them delicately off the bush with his teeth, like a horse) and where the groundhogs awaken in spring. For Jake there’s no higher sport than chasing groundhogs. Most get away, but every once in a while he catches one too far from its den. He kills painlessly, one hopes, quickly shaking the animal to death by its neck. Once, thoroughly exasperated at my inability to break Jake of this behavior, I screamed at him as loudly as I could and then made him sit like a soldier while I pretended to walk home by myself. It was, I realize, a foolish way to act.
Jake’s never been the easiest of dogs. He has a seemingly ineradicable stubbornness, as well as a boundless neediness — common to golden retrievers, I’m told — that can at times be exhausting. I must confess I lack the steely resolve necessary to train an animal properly. I’ve never been able to banish the feeling that every time a dog learns to sit or stay or pee on a small square of newspaper, as much has been lost as gained.
My partner, Pam, and I recently found out that Jake has cancer and probably has just a few months to live. We took him to the vet this morning to have the stitches removed from his biopsy incision. He’d been panting a lot, and we were concerned the cancer might have spread to his lungs. Fortunately his X-rays were clear. The vet says the panting is due to the prednisone we’re giving him twice a day to reduce the swelling in his lymph nodes; a major side effect of the drug is thirst. It appears to be working. A few days ago it seemed to me I could actually see the glands in his neck bulging beneath his fur, and they’re much smaller now, although Pam says I’m spending too much time feeling them in an attempt to determine whether they’re closer in size to golf balls or marbles and what, if anything, this might portend for the rate of Jake’s decline.
How nice to be a dog, I often find myself thinking. I imagine Jake doesn’t fret about his cancer or the knotty moral implications of killing groundhogs for sport. Nor does he sit around pining for the good old days when he used to go running with his master or, even more absurd, lose one wink of sleep over whether or not he’s got a “good soul” or a “gentle heart,” the way I so often do. He just is, and that’s the way he will be until the moment when he is no more.
There’s been much discussion about how we should approach the subject of Jake’s impending demise with Jessica, Pam’s five-year-old granddaughter, who’s lately formed a strong attachment to the dog — or, at least, to the idea of the dog, as she’s a bit intimidated by his size. If she’s not crawling around our house on all fours with his leash hooked to her pants, insisting we call her “Jakey” and begging to be “walked,” she’s playing with a large collection of toy dogs, almost all of which bear some permutation of Jake’s name.
My own opinion, based on the theory that children should be spared life’s cruelties for as long as possible, is that we shouldn’t tell her anything. When the time comes, we can just trot out that old fairy tale about the dog having gone to live on a farm, the kind where he’ll get to run and play with other animals all day. Pam disagrees, arguing that experts now think children are better served by frank discussions of death. She also points out that while I might have been dumb enough as a boy to swallow such a story, Jess is a sharp kid, and we’d be putting ourselves in the awkward position of having to fend off questions concerning the location of said farm and possible visiting days.
Pam’s daughter Heidi, Jess’s mom, is undecided on the matter, but I think I’m losing her too. In an attempt to win her over to my side, I dredged up a story from childhood about my neighborhood playmate who hadn’t been permitted to go to her father’s funeral because her mother hadn’t wanted her to see the coffin. I’d never heard that word before and thought she was saying her mother didn’t want her to see the “coughing.” For a long time afterward I was tormented by the grisly image of dead bodies undergoing some sort of ritualized coughing fit prior to burial, a spectacle so nightmarish only adults were allowed to watch.
Heidi was quiet for a moment on her end of the phone line, and I imagined I’d convinced her. Then she said, “But, Al, wasn’t the fact that nobody bothered to explain things to you what caused you to imagine something so horrible?”
I ’m grateful for my relationship with Jess and her little brother Will, because I’ve never had children of my own. The truth is I never felt I deserved them. I was an active drug addict and alcoholic for many years and could barely take care of myself, much less a kid. If I’d had any doubts about this, they were settled once and for all the day I struck a girlfriend’s eight-year-old son. I was drunk, of course, and high on pills, and I slapped him hard across the face because he wouldn’t stop pulling at my shirt. All he’d wanted was a little attention.
Until that day, despite my many difficulties, I’d always thought of myself as a gentle person, almost constitutionally incapable of violence. Giving up that cherished notion of who I was has been painful. Granted, I was a “sick and suffering addict,” as they say in the twelve-step program that saved me. And, granted, I can’t conceive of doing something like that while sober. But I have to accept that, under certain circumstances, I’m capable of hurting a child. I’ve had to watch myself slap that little boy in my mind’s eye countless times since then, a self-imposed torment I’d give just about anything to escape.
When Jess was born, I made a solemn vow that I’d be a good honorary granddad. I made the same vow with Will. Keeping it hasn’t always been easy. I’m a private, introverted person with limited patience for chaos and noise. Also it’s hard for me to get close to people, including children, around whom I often feel clumsy and self-conscious. There are occasions, especially during the kids’ weekend-long visits to our house, when it’s all I can do to keep smiling.
Yet I love them as if they were my own. What I appreciate most about Jess and Will is their near complete lack of inhibition, along with the almost animal pleasure they take in the world. There’s just about nothing in their environment they don’t find appealing. Once I found Jess, then two, swishing a toy around in a toilet I’d somehow forgotten to flush. When I told her that it probably wasn’t a good idea to be playing in urine, she said, “But, Pappy, pee is good,” in exactly the same tone she’d used the week before to tell me that rocks were good, after I’d asked her to stop putting them in her mouth. In both cases I had the impression I was in the presence of a higher consciousness — or, at least, an unspoiled consciousness — and I found myself regretting the small part I must play in taming this wild young creature.
As to little Will, watching him sprawling on the floor with the ever-affable Jake, both of them gnawing on toys with an air of easy collegiality, is to observe two beings at perfect parity. Will’s one of those sweet-natured babies who seem preternaturally endowed with an inner sense of the world’s essential sacredness. I love his rudimentary speech and find myself pointing to objects for the sheer pleasure of hearing him name them. He and I were recently taking inventory of our Christmas-tree ornaments, and I pointed to one of the small, glowing bulbs. “Laaahhtt,” he said after having pondered for a moment, a sound that seemed to arise from a great depth, as if he were a visitor from a distant planet trying on for size the primitive tongue of a lesser species.
It turns out Jess isn’t the only one in the family with a penchant for impersonating dogs. I recently found out that Pam as a girl used to crawl around the house on all fours, barking and doing tricks and begging for treats. From time to time her mother would reach into the cupboard and give her an actual dog treat, which Pam would happily eat. And Heidi was similarly inclined, although she liked pretending to be a cat as well. It doesn’t stop there: Pam has a first cousin who used to beg his mother to tie him to a tree in their front yard, where he’d bark at passing cars. (It doesn’t seem to have harmed his reputation, as he’s now a respected veterinarian in the same town.)
To me this all sounds borderline nuts. I just don’t see the point. I’m pretty sure even as a kid I’d have found it tedious. But, of course, whenever Jess gets down on her hands and knees and asks me to walk her around the living room, I’m quick to oblige. More tiresome still are those times when she decides I should be the dog. “Here, Pappy,” she says. “You be Jakey for a while.” Round and round the living room we go. “Bark, Pappy,” she commands after we’ve made a few circuits. “Bark like you’re a doggy.”
“Woof, woof,” I say, trying to ignore the pain in my knee.
“Louder, Pappy! Bark louder!” she cries. “Like Jakey.”
“Ruff, ruff!” I say with as much volume as I can muster.
When she finally tires of leading me around, my relief’s generally short-lived, as the choices for the next activity are invariably more dog games. Take your pick: doggy hospital, doggy dollhouse, or doggy beauty contest. At least, with these I get to sit down.
Meanwhile, after a few weeks of having looked as well as ever despite his diagnosis, Jake’s beginning to appear haggard in a canine kind of way: his eyes red rimmed; his face a bit drawn, if one can say that about a dog. He’s so tired by the time we get home from our afternoon walks, I have to call him several times to get him to come to supper.
We’re all tired these days. Because of Jake’s nearly constant thirst, Pam and I have taken to bringing his water bowl up to the bedroom at night. Between his panting and his long, noisy drinking, Pam and I aren’t getting much sleep. I try not to be annoyed, but every once in a while I find myself wishing the dog would quiet down so we could get a little rest. To make up for this bit of selfishness, I reach my hand over the side of the bed to pet him. This calms him, and, with a heavy groan, as if giving into something neither of us understands, he lies down and goes to sleep for a while.
I still have trouble believing the life I have today. I often think about how lucky I’ve been, no doubt much luckier than I deserve. How is it even possible that neither Heidi nor Pam has ever seen me anything but stone-cold sober? In fact, Heidi recently told me that she couldn’t imagine me drunk.
“Then we’re even in a way,” I said. “There was a time — not that long ago, really — when I couldn’t imagine myself sober.”
I say this because I want to be as honest as I can, though I worry she’ll think twice about trusting me with her kids. I don’t have the words to tell her how much I appreciate that my past has never been a problem for her. She doesn’t hesitate to let Jess and Will sleep over at our house, sometimes two or three nights in a row.
When Jess stays the night, she usually asks either Pam or me to keep her company until she falls asleep. When she picks me, we pass the time before sleep by talking about Jake (who else?) and about what kind of dog she’d like to have someday. At the age of five Jess knows more about breeds than I do.
Now that Jake is sick, I find myself trying to steer the conversation away from him as much as I can. So we also play little word games. I get a kick out of teaching Jess concepts many older kids wouldn’t know. I lie on the bed next to her, both of us staring up into the darkness, and I try to explain what a metaphor is.
“Can you give me an example of a metaphor?” I ask, after it seems she has the general idea.
She thinks for a minute and then replies, “The sun is like a lamp, Pappy.”
“That’s exactly right,” I say. (OK, it’s technically a simile, but pretty impressive for her age nonetheless.) Delighted at her quickness, I ask for another.
She thinks a little longer this time and finally says, “The moon is like a lamp too, Pappy.”
We both laugh, and I tell her how smart she is and that she can be anything she wants when she grows up. Enjoying the kind of moment I’d given up hope of ever having in my life, I’m suddenly more convinced than ever we shouldn’t tell her about Jake — at least, no more than we absolutely have to.
It’s my inclination not to show my emotions too much around kids, but Jess is an intuitive girl, and not a lot gets past her. I think she knows I’m feeling sad, because she reaches over with her little hand and starts stroking my head. I’ve always been self-conscious about my coarse, wire-brush hair, and I must stiffen slightly, because she asks, “Why can’t I touch your hair, Pappy?” So of course I tell her she can touch my hair all she wants.
Only now she’s not just rubbing my head; she’s also pinching the tops of my ears, where in the past few years I’ve started sprouting hairs I sometimes forget to yank out, and about which I’m also self-conscious. There are times when I can’t believe how old I’ve gotten. I think back to when I asked my parents if it was true I was going to die someday. I remember the exchange with near-perfect clarity: the uneasy glances they shared and the hesitation before my father said, “Yes, it’s true, but not for a long, long time. Such a long time it’s practically forever.”
It was, I think, just the right thing to say, because to a kid “practically forever” means exactly that. I felt a great relief, and the dark cloud that had been following me around receded to the far edge of a distant horizon.
Now it’s my turn to think of the right thing to tell a child about death — or, at least, to have some input into the decision — and it depresses me to admit I don’t have a clue. I’ve lived more than half a century, and I’m as lacking in wisdom as ever. All I know for sure is that I don’t want this child to have any more heartache than she absolutely has to, or to grow up one second sooner than necessary.
So I allow her to continue exploring my face, not giving the slightest indication that it’s hard for her honorary granddad to accept not just her love but any love, for reasons both known and unknown to him. I lie as still as I can as she slowly runs the tips of her fingers along my cheek to my mustache, then down to my lips, where she lingers for what feels like a long time before at last moving on to my beard, which with each passing day seems to turn a little whiter, like the muzzle of an old dog.
“Good Pappy,” Jess whispers, gently scratching behind one of my ears. “Nice Pappy,” she croons, while the tears that have suddenly filled my eyes begin their long, slow descent.