I’m house sitting again, this time for a couple of lab and shepherd mixes named Mona and Nola. Nola is a plump, giddy critter who loves walks more than even her desperate yelping and wiggling can express. She lives for attention, and will leave delicate long blond hairs all over the various parts of your body that she nuzzles or lays on. Her name stands for New Orleans Louisiana (LA), where she was found as a stray, rescued and brought up north. I’ve found it very difficult to say her name without affecting a strong southern drawl and imagining long weekends on a care-free bayou, and by now I don’t even try. Her reclining skills are on par with even the most indolent southern dogs (see photo), but she can only relax if you are touching her, or at least looking at her, or at least nearby. She can wag convincingly even curled up in a ball, and she has found this to be the most effective way to warm up the bed for me before hopping off to dutifully sleep guard (as opposed to stand guard) when I climb in to rest. If a burglar were to come in she would bark hysterically until the intruder agreed to pet her, and if he did not, she would employ her one and only martial arts move: the nose flick. This maneuver, by which she uses her snout to deftly fling an idle hand on top of her head for maximum petting potential, is not rare among caress-dependent dogs. Yet nor can it be taught, even by the greatest nose flick black belts. Nola is just a natural lover.
Mona is a very different dog. She is trim, picturesque and independent. She likes to be pet on occasion, but she won’t come looking for affection, and when Nola inevitably comes barging between her and her belly rubs, she defers to that jealous golden dumpling as happily as grandpa deferring to grandma in the kitchen. Her tail hardly moves (which is fine because Nola wags enough for two) and she often has a suspicious, quizzical look as if in a perpetual state of deja-vu. I quickly gave off trying to convince her than I’m not a Soviet spy. The name Mona is short for nothing, but I can’t say her name without thinking of moan. As in, adj: a prolonged sound of lamentation or complaint. Poor Mona. For though she is a very sweet and happy dog, she sometimes makes me sad.
If you were you to meet her you might not immediately notice the way that the degenerative mylopathy has begun to paralyze her rear legs. You would probably notice the little boots on her rear paws, but if she was sitting or standing normally, you wouldn’t suspect that she wears them because she so often drags her rear legs that she would rub
her paws raw were it not for the protective shoes. After living with her for several days, you would get used to carrying her up and down the stairs, and cleaning up after her occasional lapses in bladder control. You’d be happy to help her up onto her couch, or straighten her legs and uncurl her paws beneath her. After a week or so, you would hardly bat an eye when squeezing her lower belly in the back yard to force her bladder into action, and might even get used to inserting the Q-tip into her anus to stimulate the gland and help her evacuate. You would get very good at strapping her into her harness and connecting her to her cart so that she can go for walks, and you would feel pride in her, and not embarrassment, when people on the street stopped and stared. No doubt you would come to love her dearly, all the more if you had actually raised her from a puppy. You
would spare no effort or expense in preserving the pleasure of her company as long as she remained reasonably happy and healthy.
Defining “reasonably happy and healthy,” however, would certainly become ever more difficult. John Steinbeck was born in Oak Park; his birth home and museum are just down the road. I think of the scene in “Of Mice and Men,” where one farm hand pressures another older worker to put down his old dog. The smell of the old dog moves the man to
offer, with the cruelest generosity, to put him out of his (whose?) misery, quickly and immediately. The old man is heart-broken to lose his long and faithful companion, but gives in to the social pressure of the bunkhouse and retreats to his cot where he cries quietly as the shot comes in from outside. There’s a sadness and inevitability about
the scene which is typical of Steinbeck and indeed of any end-of-life situation. It’s clear in the story who the bad guy is, but to be honest, if I didn’t know Mona (let alone raise her from a pup), if she was nothing more than a prognosis on paper, I think I might be as cold
in my prescription as the fictitious farm hand. She’s undeniably past her prime and only getting worse, so encouraging the Pet Parent to look past sentimentality and say goodbye almost sounds reasonable, or at least practical. Whose benefit are you considering by prolonging her life: yours or the dogs? Will you wait for organ failure? Multiple organ failure? If saying goodbye is too hard, then for mercy’s sake, let someone else do it. I struggled to hold back tears as the vet gave our family’s young rescued Weimaraner, George, a final injection, because I was afraid my tears would make him uneasy in his last
moments, and his comfort was at that time the only relevant concern. That’s why I stroked him gently as he breathed his last, and it’s why, when all I knew of Mona was a long list of troubles and needs, I felt both hard and soft as a calloused farm hand.
It isn’t only Mona that needs lots of care. Mona’s human has never been away from her for so long, and so was understandably nervous about leaving her with a relative stranger while she flew around the world on business. I have never had a moment’s doubt about the scope of the responsibility I’ve been entrusted with. Mona has been a loving and loyal friend for a decade, and like most dogs, probably the one constant and reassuring fixture in the midst of life’s innumerably trials and changes. Such is the nature of having a canine companion, and so I can imagine the sea-sick grief her owner felt the day she first noticed her limping, and the light-headedness she felt driving home from the vet amidst echoes of “incurable” and “degenerative.” Shortly after moving in to the house, I went next door to introduce myself to the nice neighbor who I was to call upon if I needed anything. Toward the end of our conversation, she leaned in and whispered to me “she has spent so much money on that dog!” Of course I can understand how, to an outsider, vet bills would stand out as major characters in Mona’s story. Steinbeck’s farm hand would doubtless rant and rage upon hearing the sums. But I am, now, no longer an outsider. Every day I’m more and more oblivious to how unusual, how demanding, how impossible Mona’s situation is. Not just because it’s my job, or because I can fathom the scale of the trust placed in me, but because the time I’ve spent curled up with Mona stroking her soft neck and telling her, telling myself, that she is happy, that she is doing okay, and that if I just try hard enough, I
can keep her well forever.
Mona has good days and bad days. On good days, she just looks stiff, and maybe a little tipsy. On bad days, she drags her legs straight out behind her and sometimes falls into a sitting position and can’t pull herself out. She also drags her boots off, and one bad day early in my stay when I was both struggling to win Mona’s trust (in addition to being naturally reserved, I think she also has an instinctual wounded-dog mentality and so feels especially wary of new people) while trying to give the pups as much outdoor time as possible, Mona’s poor paws got quite chapped as she avoided me in the yard. There was
no blood, but the little scratches have since gotten worse. I’m horrified. Mona’s boots are not only perfectly positioned to collect dirt and mud as she drags around but also, being of a wetsuit-like material, trap in moisture and create an environment in which nothing
can heal. Several times a day I wash her paws with soap and water, dress and medicate them, and duct tape them into freshly washed and dried boots. I don’t let her play in the yard very much, and I carry her around more than she would like. Mona’s mom knows about the scrapes and was not overly concerned (she was even good enough to console me about them), but it hurt to look at them. I hate them. I feel as if they are the embodiment of her illness, and if I can just fix them than she will be just fine. She’ll dash around the yard and up and down the stairs like a puppy, and I’ll finally get see her wag her tail. That alone would be reward enough for every effort on her behalf.
I never realized how important tails were. They’re like neon Time’s Square marquees announcing a dog’s mood and interest to us dense and self-preoccupied humans. I think dogs are much more observant of body language than we are, and by now Mona has gotten the message that I like her and will protect and care for her as best I can. I can sense
a relaxing of her posture lately; a softness in her shoulder and neck muscles and side-out rotation of her big pointy ears. She’s no longer watchful of me as I approach her from behind, is delighted when I start to pet her without warning, seems to hop into my arms when I bend over to cradle and carry her, and leans into me for many kinds of support. She’s lately begun playing with her toys more, and even challenging Nola for cuddling rights. I wish I could just once see that little furry appendage on her backside beat out a “yes yes yes,” but I’ll have to make do with the look in her eyes to tell me that she is happy. “Smiles” can be deceiving (think of dolphins and crocodiles), and people are surely self-deceiving. Still, those eyes don’t lie. Even though I know that she is not technically healthy, I’m convinced that Mona is happy and will be happier still when mom gets home. Her sores notwithstanding, she seems to be doing well within the new relative scale imposed upon her by her condition. And what is her condition? Just words on paper, to an insider.
I used to affect cheerfulness so that she wouldn’t perceive the frustration her disability imposes. Because it’s not her fault if she pees on the floor, and so on no account should she feel guilty about it. But by now, I don’t have to pretend. I’ll gladly do whatever I can to summon the image of a wagging tail. When I curl up next to her and pet her and tell her about how I like her and how she is a good girl as she softly licks my hand, in that moment she is happy because I am telling her the truth, and I am happy because I’m proud of her and the comfort I’ve been able to give her. In that moment her well-being is real and palpable; her disease is completely forgotten. Just like with my George, her comfort is all that matters, and I know that her comfort is attainable. So when does one draw the line? Would I know it if we’d already crossed it? Maybe to an outsider it would be clear as ice. But maybe the bad guy in the Steinbeck scene isn’t the farmhand with the gun, but the old man who too easily gives in. Maybe inevitability is the real villain, and we should strive to defy it as long as we can. I don’t know; it’s very hard to see. I know only that for me now, as for Mona’s mom, it is painfully difficult to imagine that Mona’s beautiful wagging tail will ever stop.