Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Shaggy dog story

The dog cancer took from me is shaggy, lovable and weighs 130 pounds. L. will kill me for saying it, but she was a lousy dog by any conventional definition -- but lousy in grand and amusing ways, the kind of bad dog that someone might write a best-selling memoir about.

Her behavior was bad, but her heart was good. She would follow us around the house, lying down with a sigh and a thud when we settled. Her head was heavy and noble, and she would lay it on my feet when I sat on the couch. When she desired petting, she would sidle up in front of someone and present her mighty expanse for a rub, leaning into her human by ever greater degrees, until they staggered back or braced themselves against something solid enough to take the weight, something like an anvil. She was a fierce, if overzealous, protector of her home and family; woe to the UPS man approaching the door or the house cantering down the road. Abby was always ready defend our home against shipments of Amazon books or potentially rabid equines.

Her appetite was ravenous, even if dog food was often too pedestrian for her tastes. Her great size and athletic ability meant that nothing on the counters was safe from her predation; she mastered the trick of setting her feet, rising slowly and silently like some great crane or drawbridge, and snatching a peanut butter jar, baguette or small child from the countertop. With her prize tucked within her capacious jaws, she would drop to the floor with a snap, then stealthily but quickly run to her dog bed, or “office” as I called it, which would at times be littered with plastic wrap, ceramic bowls, even the occasional pilfered chef’s knife. To this day, almost two years since she’s been gone, I still find myself setting my cooking mise en place on top of the refrigerator -- but not on the edge, because Abby could occasionally manage to snare things from the fridgetop. This was a big dog.

It was the refrigerator, ultimately, that proved her undoing in our home. Before I was diagnosed with epithelioid sarcoma, I spent about seven months undergoing a succession of exploratory surgeries and the like while my tumors grew ever-more symptomatic. By the time I was diagnosed with the cancer and began chemotherapy, I had already been staggered by the illness for some time. With my health troubles, and with two kids four and under in the house, Abby wasn’t getting walked and her behavior began to decline precipitously. She finally learned how to open the refrigerator -- a jab of her long nose into the seals. We made a few feeble attempts to stack furniture in front of the door (she moved it out of the way easily), but it was clear that we needed to focus on our kids and my treatment, not on cleaning up the carnage that results when a dog learns to open the door to culinary paradise at will. In one of the most loving things anyone has done for us, a friend drove her nearly 300 miles to a Newfoundland rescue group, which exercised and rehabilitated her and found her a great adoptive home.

Now I find myself increasingly longing for another dog, and resenting the uncertainty that shrouds my present and future. I could walk and groom a dog now -- but what about six months from now? (Hell, two months from now?) What if I get sicker? I can’t summon any logic to support the proposition that getting a dog now makes sense. But I want one anyway.

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