Lean on me: Loving and losing a dog
Fiona Apple's recent decision to postpone her South American tour to stay home with her elderly and ailing dog may have caused some upset among her fans, but she's won a whole pack of new ones who thoroughly support and understand that decision all too well. I am one of them.
Mordred told us when it was time for him to go. I'd always heard that a suffering animal would do that, but he was my first dog, and I was thoroughly unprepared for how clear and desperate that message would be.
"Mordred" was a massive name for a mammoth dog, the Irish Wolfhound my now-husband owned when I met him. He became mine also, and I his -- so fiercely that he escorted me down the aisle when Douglas and I wed a year and half later. We were not always so gracefully aligned.
The night I met Mordred, he tried to kill me. I tried not to take it personally, as he was being a good dog protecting his Dad from the strange lady who'd apparently come over to eat his face. It was our second date, and I was deeply enamored of the notion that in New York City, I'd found an attractive, single, straight 30-something man with the wherewithal to be responsible for the welfare of two animals who had to be escorted outside to poop.
We were perhaps a shade distracted by frantic kissing as we arrived at his apartment, and failed to take the time to warn the four legged residents that they'd be receiving a visitor. Douglas inched the door open, and a snarling, drooling wall of cream-colored, Muppet fur burst forth. I stood paralyzed, having never seen an animal that size in person outside a zoo -- and certainly not lunging directly at my throat.
With Douglas holding him back, I could finally fully appreciate the scale of this beast. With his paws on my 6-foot-tall date's shoulders, he still loomed a full head higher. He was couch-sized. He was pony-sized. He was the most majestic animal I'd ever seen -- and he wanted nothing to do with me.
Some dogs -- like Mordred's little companion Morgane the whippet -- give away their full and sloppy hearts as a matter of course. They're in love with the world and show that with enviable abandon. Mordred cared only for his Dad, and whatever bites of food he could snag from the tabletop. I was, at most, a barrier between him and the exact spot on the couch that he wished to occupy.
But that was OK, somehow. I had Morgane (and her Dad) to curl up with elsewhere, and I enjoyed being part of Mordred's orbit and entourage. If you've ever walked an Irish Wolfhound through a New York City neighborhood, you've had a small glimpse into what it's like to be a celebrity. People stare. They gawk. They take pictures at the grossest moments possible. They ask endless, repetitive questions. "How much does he eat?" "Is he a pony? Can I ride him?" "How much does he weigh?" "How much does he poop?"
(Answers: Lots, no, no, 135 pounds, why in the world would you want to know that?)
He strode along the streets of New York City with us in tow, and ran through fields in upstate New York, and I fell into his strong and solid rhythm -- until one day that changed. He stumbled, walking up the steps to the apartment, and then threw up his dinner. As Douglas set about the massive task of cleaning up after that, I ran to the store to get some stomach-soothing soup for him.
I warmed it up on the stove for him, then let it cool in his bowl as he stared up at me, slightly dazed, through his long, shaggy eyebrows. He lapped up every last drop and then leaned against me for the very first time.
Dogs express their love and trust in many ways -- some lap at your face, knock you down with kisses as you come home, leave a half-dead animal on your pillow, or sit on your lap and sigh with contentment. The large and stoic ones tend to lean. It's a hug. It's the best feeling in the universe.
But Mordred -- big, proud, poor Mordred -- he leaned against me the next day after losing control and wetting the carpet for the first time ever, and Douglas and I leaned onto each other, hard and sobbing, when we heard the word "tumor" the day after that.
Some violent dose of medication shrunk the squash-sized lump then, and earned him and us a year-long reprieve during which that initially jealous beast became a member of my family -- our family. The leans came more and more frequently -- and even the occasional chin lick, which made me feel like the queen of the world (or at least the new Brooklyn apartment that we all now shared).
One lazy summer Sunday, with our dogs flanked around us on the couch, Douglas asked me to be his wife, and that very autumn, I walked down the aisle toward him with Mordred at my side, and my best friend holding Morgane in the front row.
Our bliss did not last long. The tumors came back with a vengeance, and cancer -- and its treatments -- hollowed my big, beautiful, lush-coated boy to a weak, wobbly, 85 pound skeleton covered in clumps of patchy fur, and unable hold his bowels or bladder.
Through a small, saving grace, I had a boss who was a dog lover, himself, and did his best to accommodate my working from home sometimes so Mordred wouldn't have to be alone -- and because I was terrified of what we would come home to.
A colleague with whom I was working on a project did not share my boss' point of view. I tried to convey to her what was going on at home -- that every surface was covered in plastic drop cloths, and that a person-sized creature was gasping and shuddering and dying inside my house, and that I needed to hold him up while he urinated and lift his head to the water bowl.
And that while Douglas and I didn't and don't have children, and these dogs aren't our children, they are our family -- our pack. I could not leave a single one of us alone and in pain -- and I respect that so thoroughly about Apple's decision. My entry-level advertising job was infinitesimal compared to the fandom and expectations of a whole continent, and yet she chose to stay where she was needed and care for her own. My boss, for the record, told the unsympathetic co-worker to back off.
And one day it was simply all too much. While Mordred had labored and wobbled and leaked, he had still managed to find some moments of peace. A complication from the cancer treatments left him with pneumonia in his rattling, papery lungs, and he ached through every breath. He summoned his strength to lift his head at his Dad, and we made a phone call.
Mordred was too weak to walk, so Douglas lifted him into the back of the Jeep for what we knew would be the final time, and we all gathered together on the cold linoleum of the vet's office as I bawled my heart out and Mordred laid his head on Douglas' lap, grateful for the comfort.
The shot went in, and the thing that made him Mordred simply drained out, leaving a giant, wasted husk of a dog on the floor, and I watched Morgane sniff it, trying to understand where her friend had gone.
For days, she looked for him, under bushes and behind corners, sniffing in the familiar places -- and I suppose Douglas and I were doing the same thing, too. It's impossible to have a creature that physical and spiritual size in your home and not have it leave a gaping wound when it's excised.
I suppose that's exactly what Apple was facing when she made her bold, brave and likely costly decision, and she wanted to be there to honor her beloved friend up until the very end.
Because once you get leaned on by a dog who loves you, you just can't help but lean right back.
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