I was lying on the cool black-and-white tile of our kitchen floor, resting my head on Booker’s huge, hairy chest. It was late. The house was quiet. He smelled like cinnamon rolls baking in a barn. I smelled like dog.
I went to visit Booker’s nook of the room often, lying along the side of his beige orthopedic mattress, which sat these days more like a hospice bed rolled into the heart of our home. At fifteen years old—your nineties if you’re a dog, and a big, big dog at that—he had trouble walking, trouble even getting up. For two years, my husband, Matt, and I had been using a harness, which had become a part of him, warmed from the inside out like his fur, to lift him—an act that at some times took on acrobatic grace and at others reminded me of the shame my elderly grandparents showed when they started needing similar help. It’s about time to wash it again, I was thinking, his smell now more barn than pastry. As we moved him he licked us as if to say, That hurts, or Thank you, or It’s going to be okay. It was a glossy, bleak place at which to have arrived, but there we were every day, trying to figure out if he was ready to die and, if he was, whether we were ready to let him. What do you know about death, dog?
“You’ll know,” people told us. “Animals have their ways. He’ll tell you when it’s time.”
As I stood in the kitchen washing the dishes at night or packing lunches in the morning, looking over at his bed amid the maze of cheap rugs we lined the slippery floor with so that he could navigate the path to his food bowl and the outside, I wondered, Does he still want to be here? Somewhere down under the sleek white poof of his skull, is he scared? These thoughts would fill up a good part of me until finally I’d cue up “The Only Thing” by Sufjan Stevens so that I could cry—sometimes in private, thinking I might upset Booker, and sometimes with my whole body on top of his. Fur, wet and matted where my face pressed in.
Explaining Booker’s health to our human kids was complicated—yes, he was still with us, and yet a great big part of him was already gone. Historically, the sound of the back door opening had sent Booker leaping up and out onto the lawn. Now he didn’t even flinch. His eyebrows quivered in mild recognition of the pressure change, but his body held firm to the floor. Was it his heart that had turned? Matt had the remarkable capacity to approach Booker with the same big grin no matter how Booker responded. I feel like even the dog knew my smile was pretend. Or was it my heart that had turned? Was this feeling proof that it had started making space for the hurt where only love had been?
Nine years. Nine years since I’d met Booker and Matt on that downy path in the woods. Nine years I’d been feeling myself walk farther away from my old, broken selves toward the woman I’d hoped might be out there. For nearly a third of my life I’d been Mom to this bucking, benevolent beast, several years even before I had human children of my own. Before kids begged me for more milk, more love, more “Baby Beluga,” I had Booker begging me for just ten more minutes in the woods, Mom, please? Ten more minutes in this muddy glop? Before panicked visits to pediatricians there were late-night visits to the vet—why won’t he open that eye? Use that leg? What’s this lump on his head? Lying in bed at night, I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around it: the dog that had brought Matt and me together was the same dog who might now be looking to us to bring him peace. How could the life that brought me peace be the thing in question here?
There was no baseline for canine happiness anymore. If a dog is a wolf whose heart thumps toward something human, we didn’t know what the wolf or dog in him was telling us. What if the wolf longed to slink off into the woods and die, but the dog still felt tethered to the ache in our eyes, the way humans sometimes can’t die until their loved ones hop home for a shower?
* * *
I’d cried through the entire appointment when I’d last taken Booker to Heather, our vet. I was too bewildered trying to answer her questions, too stuck in my heartsick search for clues. On which side of comfortable was he? And how far?
“Are you making your mom sad, big guy?” she asked him, reaching into her white coat pocket, the one always filled with treats. “Why would you do that?”
He would have wagged at her if he could have, but he hadn’t been able to wag in almost two years, having lost nerve control throughout his back end. It was what I imagined it would be like to live with a person who’d lost the ability to smile. It wasn’t uncommon for us to help him up and get him started toward the door, only to find that he’d pooped on his bed.
“He’s like a chicken,” I said to Matt one morning, trying to make light.
“Yeah,” he said, “except those aren’t eggs.”
I’d become increasingly worried about what exactly Matt was taking in. Having focused his life’s work on emotional transparency and presence and not relying on the seductive trap of denial, this was the closest I’d seen him come to a defensive dismissal, greeting Booker on his bed at the end of the day with cheer that suggested they might just as easily set out on a five-mile run together like they used to. The at-home parent from the beginning, I’d been Booker’s primary caretaker for eight years, feeding him, walking him, driving him to the vet. While Matt was at work, I spent my days now buried in the nuts and bolts of canine geriatrics. He was surely aware of Booker’s age and limitations, but as much as I wore these things like a layer of burdensome skin, I worried about what he wasn’t facing in the inevitable loss of his old beloved. It did feel like a gift my deep involvement could allow them: their time together could be solely focused not on death, but on dog, man, friend.
Herein lay the dilemma: In almost every way, Booker was a hearty, healthy dog. But structurally, he was like a building whose central I-beam had collapsed. There were times when he stood in one spot for long enough that his back end sank so low he looked like a sea lion or furry mermaid out on the lawn. And so what we were really wondering was whether he was happy even so—whether he’d still choose these physical discomforts in exchange for more of life with us.
I’d returned from that appointment preoccupied by what he might begin telling me. Loss of appetite. Loss of interest. Loss of lakes reflected in his eyes. But, happily, none of this was happening. He panted a lot, but it was spring—it was shifting hotter. He stranded himself in all corners of the house and yard when his feet gave out on him and he couldn’t pull himself back up. But when we found him, he licked us. He made his best dog face. When he’d last jumped into his favorite lake, the one he’d jumped into for fifteen years, he’d immediately started sinking, no longer able to swim. Matt and his brother David had had to jump in and rescue him. But was it fair to say that he seemed happy for having tried? Within the panic was there still the exquisite, cool smell of the lake?
Finally, though, came the day when the panting’s origin seemed to be not heat but preoccupation, misery maybe. It wasn’t that hot. Our other dog, Safari, wasn’t panting. Like that—and without hesitation—I knew. Whether or not he was telling me, I had come to the place where I was ready. As his human, I knew more than he did. I knew the way to make it all better.
When Matt came home, I tried to speak but cried instead.
“I think it’s time,” I finally got out.
He cried so quickly I knew he thought so, too.
I emailed Heather and asked all kinds of questions. Would she come to the house? How does it work? What would it look like? What do we do with Safari, whose lifeline for seven years had been this magnificent dog? We felt lucky. She would come to us. She would give him a sedative first so that he would fall asleep, then she would deliver the lethal injection. It could look like a lot of things, but most often, it was peaceful. Safari shouldn’t be there for the procedure, but we should let him visit Booker’s body once he was gone. Animals have their own way of acknowledging death and their bond was so great there was worry Safari might otherwise spend the rest of his life searching for his friend. But we should be prepared for anything. Safari might lie on top of him and refuse to get up. He might hump him. He might have no interest in him at all.
We set a date. Saturday, June 20. My parents, who live nearby, would take my kids for the overnight before to give Matt and Booker and Safari and me some time for our love, space for our sorrow. For a few weeks, Matt and I talked more and more with our son, Jackson, five, and our daughter, Rae, two, about how Booker wasn’t doing so well, he wasn’t as happy anymore, he was starting to fade. We didn’t say sick, because what if they or we got sick? We tried to keep it vague but truthful and not scary. Before I could acknowledge the scope of what was happening, I was standing at the smoldering, bright epicenter of death—the planning for it, the anticipation of it, all the gold, gritty details that come to define the echo-shaped absence of life—and I’d never done death before. Which is not to say I’d never loved anyone who’d died. I’d just always kept those deaths, those uncontainable losses, at an arm’s length, or a heart’s length, so as to feel them less. As much as I could, I’d looked the other way. Not this time. This time was different.
My children didn’t know it, but Booker was the first dog of my adult life. He was the dog part of the marriage that had patiently discovered in me a human I had yet to know, the one I’d been hiding from ever since I first learned about dogs—and with them, the immediate, if unsustainable, interpretation that a dog is a fine cocoon in which a human can grow. Though it would take years to see it, it wasn’t until I had Booker as my steady witness, my driving muscle of dog love, that I started to surrender to the frightening but worthwhile world of human love. He accompanied me in being me when I’d always thought that being the dog was enough. So his death, like his life, was not only gigantic—it was the first time I’d experienced the dog from the outside, as part of the vital forces encouraging me to separate and grow. Out of gratitude and despair, I made Booker’s death my full-time job. There was no alternative, mind or body. Soon I would have blisters from spending the week digging a grave for him with Matt.
“I just hope he doesn’t die,” my son said one afternoon.
I was relieved he’d said the word first and I didn’t have to.
“Well, he’s going to die,” I said. “We just don’t know when.”
“Yeah, because everyone dies,” he said.
“That’s true,” I said.
“When do you think I’ll die?” he asked me.
I didn’t tell him that he’d already died a million times in my head.
“Not for a long, long time,” I said.
“Do you think I’ll die before you?”
“I don’t think so, love.”
“I think Moma’s going to die before both of us because her hair is the whitest.”
Moma is what he calls my mother.
“Well, she’s also older than we are, so that would make sense, but I don’t think she’s going to die anytime soon either. I think we’re all going to have a lot more fun together.”
“Yeah,” he said, but he had Jupiter Eyes, as he called them. They were far-off.
That afternoon, my daughter, who called Booker “Buh-ber,” pulled her tiny red rocking chair from the living room into the kitchen, right up next to Booker’s bed. She didn’t say anything. She just rocked, pushing her foot into the corner of his bed.
* * *
It was the night before The Day, and Matt had moved Booker’s bed into the living room. It was hot. Matt was sweaty from having just finished digging the great hole into which, the next day, soon after eleven, Booker would go. During my last digging shift, it had occurred to me that his grave was the size of a child’s and that he was our baby, after all.
Matt opened a beer, got down on the floor with his friend of fifteen elemental years, and turned on Game of Thrones. I have a picture of them sitting there, from behind. For that one moment, they were back to their essentials, the way they were before I met them, man and beast, getting each other through another day of it. Matt periodically wept as Booker seemed to vacillate between vast gratitude and panting discomfort.
Afterward, Matt brought Booker and me outside and took some pictures of us in the fading light, since I’m the one always taking pictures. If dogs have their one person, Matt was certainly Booker’s, but I think I was a close second. Actually, I think you could say that I was Booker’s mama, complete with rules and regulations and ferocious, bone-crushing love. Matt was Booker’s one true friend—the one who snuck him leftovers when Mama’s back was turned.
The night ended quietly with lingering kisses to Booker’s still-warm head. I looked at Safari as I went up for the night. He couldn’t know what was to come, could he? We’re going to be okay, I told him, but I was crying. What did he make of crying? Of butterflies? Stone walls? Dancing? God? Memory? Sex? Death? In Amy Gerstler’s poem “The New Dog,” the new dog wonders, “Who’s the ghost in the universe behind its existence, necessary to everything that happens? Is it the pajama-clad man offering a strip of bacon in his frightening hand (who’ll take me to the park to play ball if he ever gets dressed)? Is it his quiet, wet-eyed, egg-frying wife? Dear Lord, is it me?”
I pictured the two of them spending the night together on Booker’s bed—Booker, preparing for death, and so, preparing Safari for life.
Here’s how you fly, my friend. You get your running start just outside the cottage door and you run batshit down the path, listening for them to say, Car! Car! but if they don’t, you just keep fucking going. Slow down when you hit the top of the stairs on the other side of the road. If you don’t, you’ll make an ass of yourself going tail-over-head all the way down to the water, which I’ve never done, but the close calls stay with you. You could tear a leg, and I’ve torn two legs, and you don’t want surgery no matter how nice they are to you in your shrunken cone-hole of a world after. So, like I said, you’re doing a careful Steph Curry quick-step down the stairs, which will feel funny, but funny is a human thing. Remember that. Either way, just get yourself there, to the hot, splintery landing of the dock. Don’t be distracted by the little stone beach with the dead fish on it. There’s time for dead fish later. Now is the time to run. If you stay the course on the wood to the right, you’ll have a sharp left turn to make onto the dock. Maybe try to use your tail the way cheetahs do, like a rudder. As you should on the stairs, keep a sane rate of speed here, but don’t look like you’ve gone soft, like you’re not still the fastest fucking canine that’s ever come down the runway. Which you aren’t, of course. I am. But, hey, you go, Dog. You’re almost there. Be the rocket. Dig deep. Sink those fucking claws in. Your only job here is to run, run like the squirrels when they hear Her let us out at dawn, though straighter. You’re almost at the end, and when you get to the end, you’re going to lift off and jump all at once. Does that make sense? You want to get up as high and out as far as you can. Ready? One, two, three …
* * *
The morning was endless. Matt and I paced about the house, as if movement would bring the hour of eleven closer, sooner, but also, maybe, push it all the way back to never. Though I couldn’t yet fathom what we had to survive to get there, and though we certainly weren’t ready to be without him, we were ready to be on the other side of this. We were ready for him to be peaceful.
After it dawned on me quite suddenly that I’d put no thought into what would suffice as his last meal, I rummaged through the refrigerator and came out with two hot dogs. Momentarily racked with guilt that I hadn’t prepared a stuffed goose or filet mignon, I decided this was Fun Mom’s answer to a life spent saying no to table scraps. The last great gift of junk. (Though I’m not sure hot dogs aren’t filet mignon to a dog.)
Heather and her vet tech, Lori, arrived. My stomach tingled in the excited way it had that first day I met Man and Dog, but with a terrible dread shot through. I’d never hugged Heather or Lori before, but that’s how we began. If vets have their secret favorites, Booker was one of Heather’s. The sound of her voice usually made him bounce, but not today. Today he waited for her to join him on the floor. I took a picture of them there together.
Heather and Matt walked Booker out to the back of our yard, where we’d laid the big blanket we’d wrap him in. I made sure Safari was inside, then followed in the narrow path of everything right before me. There was no broad, bird’s-eye view of this. It was too big. There was only the muffled immediacy of being inside it. I was light. I was leaves. I was human. I was air.
I arrived under the crabapple tree given to us by our dear friend Dee when we moved here. Dee was one of Booker’s favorites, so it felt good that she was somehow here with us—with him—too. Booker was on the ground, so we got on the ground with him. He was panting hard. He must have known this backyard gathering was unusual. The vet belonged in the vet place, not here. I held his paw. Matt scratched him the way he always did, behind the ears.
Matt and I cried from beginning to end. We watched him, kissed him, held him, as his panting slowed and he gently lowered his head. That head had bones in it you could cut stone with. That head got so hot by the summer lakes. I remember realizing as he finally closed his eyes that I’d never see them again. Those enormous brown eyes filled with goop and sun. When his heart stopped, he was on his side with his front paws arced up under his chin like he was midleap from wherever he had been to wherever he meant to go.
I didn’t think he’d look much different once he was dead, but he did. I’d never seen anything so still. He looked like a picture, like he was already a portrait memorialized on our wall. All the leaps those legs took—up a ledge in the forest, off our back porch, out into the cold blue ripples of Keuka Lake. I hoped to God, if there was a God, as he lay there that that was what was playing for him against the pink-to-gray insides of his lids.
I leaned in for a last kiss where I’ve kissed every beast I’ve ever loved—right between the eyes, where what I’ve always called the Wild Eye is. It was so hard to pull away from the only thing I’d ever watched die, the only beating thing I’d ever watched stop.
Then Matt let Safari out. We all stood back to give him room. When you live with dogs, you learn their patterns. They famously thrive on a schedule. They find comfort in routine. But when you live among dogs you must also be ready for the dog in the dog to step out and surprise.
Wagging softly, Safari walked right up to Booker’s face. Their noses touched. Then Safari backed away and came over to us. We gave him a few supportive scratches. He trotted a large circle around Booker’s body, returning once more to the place he’d licked a billion times, the place he’d looked to most those seven years they’d had together for direction, companionship, faith—Booker’s face. Their noses touched like strawberries on a shared stem. I wondered if what he was doing was similar to what I’ve heard grief looks like in the world of wild horses, that they gather to breathe deep, hot breaths over the dying horse’s muzzle. Then Safari trotted back to us. He seemed neither anxious nor distraught. I thought this moment would break him, because I thought it would break me. He wagged the low wag of acknowledgment, perhaps. He seemed to understand. The only unusual behavior he exhibited was that for the first time ever, he spent the entire afternoon on Booker’s bed.
If only we humans were so lucky as to mourn with such brazen immediacy. We so often instead hide our broken hearts in shame; a dog becomes the broken heart.
We hugged Heather and Lori again, wrapped Booker in the moving blanket, and lowered him down. When the kids got home, we would find rocks to paint and place over the spot where Booker now lay.
Copyright © 2021 by Chloe Shaw