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Her front legs were too short. I would never have known this and cared less, but a breeder with knowledge of Labrador retrievers pointed it out to me after I told him of comments Miss Dutchie had drawn on walks with me in New York City. Calling her Miss Dutchie with the formal Southern twist was my idea; I added it to amuse myself and because she always seemed to have an extra-regal feminine presence about her that wasn't done justice by simply calling her Dutchie. My wife had formally named her Pennsylvania Dutchess, and that's what we entered on the forms for the Kennel Club of America. The forms were given to me by the breeder I bought her from and I figured I might as well follow through and fi ll them out, even though we had no intentions of breeding her. Though every day that passes I wish I had bred her if I could have one of her puppies to comfort me now.
Miss Dutchie was euthanized five weeks ago. It was the most painful thing I've ever gone through. I had no idea losing a pet could be so painful. I had been through the wrenching loss of a parent, but I had not lived with that parent, my father, for the thirty-eight years prior to his death.
Her loss I cannot get used to. Her absence is the greatest presence in my life. It presses against my consciousness every hour of every day, sometimes every minute of every hour, for long stretches. This is not a slight to my wife, whom I adore. In fact, Lynn and I are in the same painful funk, a nearly paralyzing cafard. Neither of us can adjust to Dutchie's loss. We carry on, we do what we have to do, but emotionally we don't move on. We are both learning in a profound way, me I suspect more than Lynn, what Dutchie meant to us on a permanent basis. For an hour tonight here in the country we sat on the sofa and mourned the loss of our "girlfriend," as we were fond of calling her. We talked and laughed about things she'd done, habits she'd had, quirks she'd made us used to, great times and loud laughs she'd given us, her antics endearing, her capacity for joy inexhaustible, her passion for life unrelenting.
Lynn reminisced about the early days when Dutchie, as a puppy, resembled a miniature black bear. Back then she was endlessly mischievous. "Remember," Lynn said, "how she bit the heads off my tulips?"
"Remember," Lynn said, "how she wrecked all the flowers I had started in the planter under my studio window?"
"Remember," I said, "the day she ran into the backyard and then into the field and I couldn't catch her and all the neighbors watching from their decks got hysterical?"
Lynn did. We laughed. Even then, at about ten or twelve weeks old, Dutchess was really fast. I had no chance of catching her. Within the year, when she was in Manhattan, I would take her to the dog run beside the Museum of Natural History and she would keep up with the rescued greyhounds as they tore around the perimeter in a racing pack, a canine peloton. Other dog owners would remark to me that she was the fastest Lab they'd ever seen. I knew then nothing about dogs so I couldn't agree or disagree with any authority, even though by that point I was hopelessly in love with her. Actually, I'd been hopelessly in love with her since the fi rst thirty-six hours I spent in her company. I'll tell you all about that in a minute.
First I want to tell you what it's like right now. When Lynn and I finished reminiscing on the sofa tonight, she went up to bed. I usually read or write late into the night. Whenever I did this, Miss Dutchie would always get up from her lair in the kitchen and join me in the living room for a middle-of-the night snack. That is, lately she would do that—for just under the last five years, to be precise, ever since, like a star tailback, she blew out her anterior cruciate ligament, her ACL, and had to have an artificial replacement inserted in her right hind knee. A wizard of a veterinarian named Paul McNamara surgically repaired her knee, but she was never fast again, and she couldn't even climb stairs in comfort. That's how the breakfast nook became her lair; we put twin dog beds in there for her. Before blowing out her ACL she slept in a dog bed beside our bed upstairs. When she was forced after the ACL operation to stay downstairs, neither Lynn nor I ever got used to not hearing her monster sighs in the middle of the night, or her dramatic shifts of position, involving flops and thuds, or her nightmares, in which she would whimper and keen and flail her legs, air-running, escaping her demons.
After Lynn went up to bed I was left downstairs alone. Whenever I went into the kitchen for a decaf refill, I had to remind myself I didn't have to be quiet so as not to wake the Dutchess. Still, as I stood at the counter pouring the coffee, I would glance behind me at her lair. Her black bulk, curled and comfortable, always occupied the corner. Now, momentarily, I was fooled by a dark package of Sure Care underpads sitting where she used to curl up. We needed the underpads after Dutchie's spine gave out and she lost control of all four limbs, her bladder, and her bowels. For her last five days of life she was effectively a quadriplegic.
The Sure Care underpads sat on the bare quilted foam rubber of her bed, the cover removed for cleaning. Right behind the package on the baseboard were the dark stains deposited there by her bleeding tail. At the end, during those dreadful last five days she had lost control of everything but her tail. This she could still wag forcefully. With it for years she used to knock glasses off coffee tables with ease, so thick and strong was it. For those last five days she beat her tail so hard against the baseboard that blood and matted hair congealed on it. Even in the reduced light of the nighttime kitchen I could see the black bloodstains on either side of the corner.
Why didn't I clean this up? Why didn't I take people's advice and throw out everything associated with Dutchie? Her toys. Her beds. Her bowls. Her leashes. Her water dish. Her chewed tennis balls. Her car bed. Why didn't I vacuum up her hair still left in the bathroom in our city apartment? Why did I stare obsessively at the leg of the sofa in the city where she used to crouch beside my reading chair? By rubbing her back against the sofa leg she had worn off part of the fabric. Whenever I stared at this threadbare spot I could feel her presence again.
Then again, why did I keep the sympathy card from the New Baltimore Veterinary Hospital, where she was euthanized, signed by the veterinarians who always took care of her? And by the veterinarian who euthanized her. Perfunctory though this card was, it was still thoughtful. The vets at New Baltimore, which is in the adjoining town north of Coxsackie, where our upstate house is, had always raved about Dutchie's unbeatably sweet disposition. She always cooperated and never complained.
Why at night in the country did I sometimes go in and look in the little green shopping bag atop the sideboard in the dining room? The little green shopping bag held a cream-colored canister decorated with blue wildfl owers. Dutchie's ashes were in the canister. Why couldn't Lynn and I spread these ashes? Why couldn't I, after Dutchie died, instead of having her cremated, bring her body home and bury her in the backyard, as I had always intended to? I couldn't, I just couldn't.
Why was I obsessed with the fate of Barbaro, the Kentucky Derby winner? He was in the University of Pennsylvania's Bolton Center for Large Animals, waiting, I feared, to be euthanized. Crazily I checked the ESPN subscripted news banner for the latest word on him. Religiously I read the news stories on him in The New York Times and the Albany Times-Union. Fearing he was doomed, I rooted for him maniacally. Just last night on ESPN I learned that Edgar Prado, the great jockey who rode Barbaro to the winner's circle and the garland of roses at Churchill Downs, had gone to visit him that morning, driving six hours round-trip from New York. Prado was currently riding at Belmont. The day after Dutchess was euthanized, Prado had been projected to ride Barbaro to the Triple Crown on June 10, 2006—until Barbaro broke his leg in twenty places running in the Preakness, a fate that would, as I suspected from the beginning, cost him his life eight months later after a gruesome struggle.
I did all of this because I couldn't help myself, I couldn't let go of Miss Dutchie. Of course it was all arguably neurotic. That's the given. Henry James said every book had a given. He high-toned it and used the French word, the donne. From this you can tell I was an English major. I'll tell you more about myself, but only incidentally, and only in passing. What I really want to tell you about is Miss Dutchie. Consider this large statement: she taught me more about life than any teacher I ever had. And she never said a word.
If you're the kind of person who takes a dog out behind the barn and puts a slug in the base of its skull when you determine its life is over, and thereby save the dough on any possible vet's bill for euthanization, skip this book. It will only annoy and confuse you. If a dog to you is just another barnyard animal, you won't find anything interesting or extraordinary about Miss Dutchie. But I assure you she was all of that and more.
The day before Dutchess died, a friend in the medical field (for humans) came and looked her over. With the imperious callousness of many people in the medical field, this friend snapped, "Put this animal down."
Next day Miss Dutchie was euthanized. But I never "put her down," a term whose connotations I despise.
In fact this whole book is about raising her up.