I talk tough, but smother the dog in kisses.
All over her face, just like her mother used to do.
Don’t tell anyone. I don’t even let my family see.
She’s our last Drifter, I swear. (We named our first dog, a runaway golden retriever, Drifter.) This Drifter is a black knee-high something or other with a part-Corgi mom and who-knows-what for a father. Something with normal legs, anyway.
Age has delivered reverse raccoon eyes — white around black. She has that old, old lady’s boney bod, which has gone skinny after a well-fed life. She paces, paces, paces. Always moving. Only sleeps on our bed. Otherwise she’s all on the move. Doesn’t even lie down.
She has to be 100 in dog years. Can’t hear, can hardly see. But she stops when I’m near and loves to be petted. She’ll even start snoring in my hands, which hold her up, and then startle herself awake. And get back to pacing, on some mission the humans couldn’t possibly understand.
She loves to eat. The bowl’s a mess. Food all over, her nose right in there, her mix of heated hamburger, bread, vegetables flattened into a sort of paste under the pressure of nose and tongue that can’t quite find it all efficiently. So we stir the mess, pile it up so she can push it down and get some more bites in the process. Then we sweep the bits up, so the mice have less to steal.
Too bad the old cat died a couple of weeks ago. There was a mouser, a wild cat from the barn at the old place who moved right in, tamer than the house cats at the time back in 2003. He liked to eat so much that he got diabetes, then had to have shots twice a day. But he caught mice right up to two days before he passed.
The kids are gone, too, off to their own lives. The cats are down to one, and the dogs down to Drifter. Yes, we’re crazy. We moved here with eight of the damn things. It was an accident.
We only had four, all strays, in California. Then this Corgi-looking mutt showed up. She had been hit by a car, and of course only my wife could save her. She had a broken hip and a big appetite. Turned out it wasn’t just the regular feedings that fattened her up. It was puppies. Three of them.
“Don’t worry. We’ll find homes for them.” That turned into one puppy bonded with our daughter, another with our son and Drifter tied to my wife’s heart. “You can leave anytime,” they practically said in unison when I mentioned the deal about finding homes for the dogs.
Dad learned his place. I liked to think I was between the dogs and the cats. But as I think about it, I’m pretty sure the damn cats outranked me, too.
The years passed. The kids grew up. The animals grew old and began to peel off. The animals in our lives do teach us so much. Among those lessons are aging and passing — the hardest ones.
My son got the short stick. “When Dad gets like Drifter, he’s all yours,” his mother told him. To his credit, he did nod while laughing. Guess I’m in good hands, then.
Meantime, Drifter paces and spins. She spins to eat, and she spins faster and faster and then sweet relief, she goes, if you know what I mean. We’ve gotten swift with the towels and spray cleaner.
She also gets lost. Under the table among the forest of chairs. In corners. Wherever there’s a crevice, and there are a few we had never noticed before. If we don’t close a door or a gate, all manner of minor disasters can happen. She can’t safely be left alone. So it’s like when the kids were babes and we couldn’t find a sitter, or afford one.
The dog’s in no pain that we can tell. She still smells sweet, and her long fur is smooth and shiny. She eats better than we do, after all, and gets plenty of exercise with the nonstop patrolling. She’s probably more fit than we are, too.
The one thing she seems to remember well is the bedtime snack for the old diabetic cat. The cat is gone now, but ol’ Drifter still shows up in the kitchen. She loves cat food. Think of your favorite desert.
When she’s tired, she takes herself to bed. We lowered it a level so she can hop up and down on her own.
She’s sleeping heavily these days. Sometimes she’s a rock, not moving for hours.
Yes, I do feel guilty wondering when I check on her — could this finally be, could she have passed? And torn when I catch myself hoping so. Then I smother her in kisses, after making sure no one is looking, knowing this phase only seems like forever, and missing her already.