Monday, September 01, 2008

Good Girl - Part IV

Every summer, in the Italian town of Siena, they run a horse race called the Palio. They don’t run it at an established horse racing venue, or even at a local dirt oval that is pressed into service for the occasion. No, they run it in the Piazza del Campo, the cobble-stoned town square.

Shaped like a semi-circle, the Piazza is covered with a deep layer of dirt, and mattresses are positioned against the exterior walls of the buildings at the corners, to protect the horses and jockeys. The interior is cordoned off and packed with race fans, much like the infield at Churchill Downs or Pimlico. But this is neither the Kentucky Derby nor the Preakness. It’s the Palio, and it’s a much bigger deal.

The town of Siena is divided into districts, called Contradas, and each district enters a horse in the race, so the outcome is a matter of civic pride. During the days leading up to the race, every district brings its representative horse and jockey into their local church for a benediction, an event so important to the community that the seats for it are sold out a year in advance. At night, the local restaurants and bars are filled with partisan citizens arguing the relative strengths of their district’s horse, and boasting of their impending victory. By day, parades and pageantry turn the town into a giant festival, Mardi Gras and Carnival with horses. In fact, it is safe to say that the horses, trainers, jockeys and citizens of Siena spend the entire year preparing for and building up to this race. And how long does the race last? The winning horse generally completes three laps around the Piazza in less than a minute and a half. A whole year of preparation for 90 seconds of action. That’s what it was like for Poppy.

Poppy loved to eat. Throughout her life, nothing other than Eukanuba Lamb and Rice ever filled her bowl, but she truly loved that kibble. She wolfed it down so fast, that I used to say that she spent 23 hours and 59 minutes every day thinking about eating, and one minute eating. For Poppy, every meal was the Palio.

That’s why I should have known something was wrong when she stopped finishing her food .

My first thought was that after ten years of eating the same kibble she had simply grown tired of it, so I tried an alternate. Then I considered the possibility that, as a function of her aging, her mouth had gotten a little tender, and maybe I simply needed to soak her food in warm water to make it softer. Any change I made seemed to solve the problem for a while, but soon afterward she was leaving food in her bowl again. Then, I was looking for a simple answer, because I didn’t want to consider the possibility that it was something serious. We never want to imagine the worst. Now, years later, I wonder how I could have been so stupid.

Pretty soon, I started to notice the weight loss, and then it occurred to me that she seemed to be drinking more water than usual. But there was nothing in the way she was behaving that suggested anything serious. She was as playful as ever, and seemed healthy enough. But when the loss of appetite continued, I decided to take her to the vet.

Poppy had always hated the vet, and this visit was no different. She tensed up and spread her paws wide, dropping her belly to the floor and refusing to walk on the slick tile. I had to lift her onto the scale and the examination table, and when her blood was drawn, she looked at me sadly with her big brown eyes and whimpered. The vet asked me a few questions, nodded knowingly at my answers, and evinced a somber manner that was more than a little troubling. But when the assistant cracked open a can of wet food, a delicacy which Poppy had never tasted before, she ate enthusiastically, and my spirits were buoyed. On the way out, the vet asked me if I had recently changed the radiator fluid in my car. I had. He nodded knowingly, and told me he’d call the following day with the results of the blood work.

On the way home from the vet I stopped and bought all sorts of wet food, some in cans and some in pouches. I bought it with the awe and wonder that might be felt by an immigrant from a less affluent country who suddenly steps into an American market and sees all the bounty to be found there. I simply had no idea that so much variety existed. I bought beef and fish and chicken with rice and peas and carrots, some with gravy and some without. I bought it giddy with excitement at the thought of solving Poppy’s problems with something so simple as a change of food. But truthfully, I bought it with a combination of a vague unease and a profound understanding of the futility of the endeavor.

The following day, a Friday in late October, the vet called and gave me the news: Poppy had kidney failure, the kind of condition that is often brought on by consuming even a small amount of ethylene-glycol, the chemical component found in anti-freeze. He asked again about me changing my radiator fluid, but I assured him that Poppy’s appetite had started to wane a good month before I had done so. No matter, he said, and suggested I bring her back in right away for a complete flush of her fluids, a process he said would require a three day stay in the animal hospital. When I pressed him he admitted that at most it would buy her an additional six months. Poppy was dying, and there was nothing anyone could do about that.

I called a colleague and asked him to cover my fourth block class, then drove home in a daze. I started to question my memory of the time line of her illness. Had she stopped eating that long ago? Could I be responsible for killing her? The thought was too awful to bear, so I set it aside and started considering the alternatives. How miserable would a three day stay in an animal hospital be for Poppy when she couldn’t stand a fifteen minute visit to the vet? What would those six months (at most) be like? And finally, sadly, pitifully, what would it all cost? As a third year teacher working two side jobs to make ends meet, I had only recently decided to replace a blown head gasket in my Pathfinder myself because I couldn’t afford to pay my mechanic to do it. I simply didn’t have the money to cover an expensive vet bill, particularly one that would only buy her another six months of dying. I called the vet and told him we wouldn’t be coming back. Then I called another vet, a close family friend who made house calls, and asked her to come by the following Monday afternoon.

That weekend, my cousin’s husband Lewis helped me fix the Pathfinder. We broke it down to the engine block and replaced the head gasket. We took the opportunity to replace the timing belt, water pump, thermostat, starter and distributor cap as well. It took the better part of two days, and whenever we were working Poppy was lying in the back of the car. I would pop back periodically to check on her, make sure her blankets were keeping her warm, and give her a hug. When Lewis went to get lunch and brought back Arby’s, I fed her roast beef and curly fries, an event so unheard of that it probably tipped her off that something was up (that and the fact that her kidneys were failing). At meal times, I fed her from the cornucopia of wet food options I had picked up, and generally spoiled her in every way possible, even letting her sleep on my bed.

Sunday night I had a horrible dream. I think it was brought on in some way by a photograph I have on my refrigerator of Poppy lounging on an inflatable blue raft in the middle of the pool at Mike Nevins’ family home in Montclair, NJ. She looks altogether natural, even comfortable, a contented mass of chocolate brown surrounded by a deep, cool blue, and her expression seems to say, “What? You still think dogs don’t belong in the pool?” It’s a photo that has always made me happy, but the dream was anything but. We were in a pool, but Poppy was on the bottom, and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t bring her to the surface. Eventually, running out of air, I had to choose between trying to save her and saving myself. I woke in anguish, thinking not of cool blue but of bright, iridescent green.

I went in to school and taught my first two classes, though I can’t imagine it was much of a lesson. Then, with the same obliging colleague covering my fourth block, I left school around 11AM and headed home. I had asked the vet to be there at 3, which I figured would give me enough time to prepare. On the way home I called my aunt, Aunt T, who dearly loved Poppy, told her the dream and asked if she wanted to come over and say good bye.

Whenever I needed someone to watch Poppy, Aunt T, volunteered. Over the years she had come to love her, and I knew she would miss her deeply. She is, like me, a dog person. She is also the world’s most prolific note writer, and whenever she watched Poppy I would return to find my refrigerator stocked with Tupperware containers with post-it notes saying utterly superfluous things like “soup,” and “vegetables.” Sometimes I’d find one on Poppy’s food bin saying “need food,” as though it weren’t obvious enough. And always, always on the green plastic 1997 WSL beer cup cut down to just the right size to measure Poppy’s food, “fed dinner.” I used to make fun of her for her notes. In fact, I still do. But on this day, there was no making fun.

When she arrived she stepped through the door purposefully, clutching her date book in her hand. She went straight to the kitchen counter, flipped the book open, and pointed. There in the same hand that had written so many useless things over the years, was a single line: “P didn’t finish dinner – need to tell K.” The date was almost three weeks before I had begun working on the car. “It’s not your fault,” she said. “Just let her go.”

I left her with Poppy and went outside. The air was crisp, and fall rode on the steady eastward wind that blew leaves across the yard. I walked down to a corner of the garden and, in an open patch of grass where Poppy used to lie in the sun and watch me tend the plants, I started to dig.

To say that the soil in my yard is unforgiving is putting it mildly. I’ve been ameliorating the planting beds in my garden for seven years, but in the area I’d chosen for Poppy the composition is still about two inches of grass roots in topsoil on top of a bed of Carolina clay. After clearing off the top layer with a square blade shovel, I got to work with the pick axe.

I had imagined the exercise would be both nostalgic and therapeutic, with all the wonderful memories of her life running through my head like a slide show, dulling my grief while I prepared her final resting place, but it wasn’t. It was mindless, my head empty, the steady rasping of the pickaxe and random rustling of leaves undercut by my labored breathing. Periodically I’d lay the pickaxe aside, grab a small shovel, and add to the growing pile of dirt beside the deepening hole. At those times, without the steady rhythm of the pickaxe to build on, the rest of the sounds seemed to disappear. Those were the times when I felt the worst, when the enormity of what I was doing was inescapable. I grabbed the pickaxe again quickly.

I have no idea how long I was digging, but because I wanted her to fit comfortably, I made sure the hole was wide, and because I wanted her to be safe, I made sure it was deep. Looking back, it must have taken hours and by the time I was done my shirt was wet with perspiration, and Aunt T, her eyes red with tears, was ready to go. She gave me a hug at the door, Poppy pulled herself out of bed, and in the most heart-rending moment of the day, gave her last five holes.

When the vet arrived I was lying next to Poppy’s bed. The door was unlocked, and I called to her to come on in while I stayed with Poppy. She did, and got right to work, unpacking her bag quietly. The whole process was incredibly quick and, I hope, painless. I held Poppy in my arms while she gave her the first shot, the one that put her to sleep. Unlike at the vet’s, she never got agitated, and didn’t make a sound. The second shot, following soon after, stopped her heart. Though I still held her in my arms, just like that, she was gone.

Being a family friend she refused payment, and though I knew it was the right thing to do it felt positively bizarre to thank her. She drove away and I took a walk in the woods alone, on the same paths we had walked together thousands of times. I thought of the life she had led. For seven of her ten years she had lived on this property, running through the woods chasing animals or their smells, bounding through the creek, rolling in the mud. She would never run off, so she never had to wear a collar or a leash. She lived a good life, was universally loved, and on this day those thoughts should have brought me comfort, but they didn’t.

They say the most unnatural thing is a parent burying a child. By contrast, even those of us who treat our animals almost like children know from the very day we get them that we will probably live to see them die. So why does it hurt so much? More to the point, why do we do it? Why do we tie our hearts to these creatures knowing full well that someday we’ll live to see them at the bottom of a hole, waiting for us to cover them with dirt? Why do we knowingly let our pets occupy huge places in our lives when we can just as knowingly anticipate the day when that same place will be hopelessly, irretrievably empty?

Returning from my walk, I pulled my black Cojones shirt out of a drawer, and a rawhide bone off a shelf, then went outside and placed them in her grave. Back inside, I found her collar and clipped it on. Then I wrapped her in her favorite blanket, and just as I had all those years ago on the very first day I saw her, I held her in my arms and carried her home.


James said...

Good stuff, Ken. Thanks for sharing.

dar said...

thanks for sharing this glimpse of your friendship with Poppy. i have a 5 year old vizsla who is without a doubt my best friend. we just removed some tumors from between his toes and his eyelid, and were then told to wait several days for results of those melanomas.

a week later and two days before leaving for santa cruz, i get a call from my vet who tells me benign. that's all i heard in that conversation. only thing that mattered. my brother in law always advises that i treat Crash like a dog.

my response every time is that i like dogs more than people. my brother in law is just benefiting from doubt. there's no doubt how i feel about Crash, and when the day comes that i have to dig a hole, i'll remember this story.

thanks again for sharing.


Anonymous said...

Absolutely amazing writing. I didn't want to read the last entry because i felt like i knew how it would end. It was your writing that made me finish this.

I have an aging dog, and feel like i will be in this same situation very soon.

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

yep, its a dogs life.....whatever that means. I had to dig 4 holes in a 18 month period. The first was the hardest by far, as she was the sweetest, stongest, youngest and the mother of an army of black and white dogs that made brooks field their doggy paradise. After good girl part 2 i knew this story wouldnt end good but i have faith that there will be a good girl(or boy) part V. When you are ready poppys' reincatnation will find you. And being that you are a dog person it shouldn take long.

Anonymous said...


Everytime I see a new post from you, I set aside time out of my busy work day and read. It took me almost a week to finish up a few paragraphs this past post.

Thanks for making me smile and going home and hugging my pets.

Michael Hudson said...

Thank you so much for sharing this story and tears were running down my face at the end. Just like they did when I buried my beloved dogs over the years. I still think of my Newfoundland Samson and my White German Shepherds Hekse and Risa. We used to have a pet cemetery when we lived in the country, and I’m sure the crosses are still there deep in the woods, although overgrown now with grass and trees.

Michael through tears