Two days ago I unloaded my creaky old boy Simon from the back seat of the car and helped him wheel himself into the veterinarian’s office to essentially ask his doctor what’s impossible to answer: How long does he have?
We were only a few steps from the door. But the journey took an eternity, me holding up his front legs via a lead attached to Simon’s cart, and Simon doing his best to power his way along. There’s an art to keeping the lead just tense enough and with the right forward pull to keep him upright and in motion, but not tense enough to lift him off the ground and choke him, or rush him so he loses the ground under his halting, deliberate steps.
It’s an art we’ve perfected together, my boy and I, since he lost the ability to walk on his own. Several times a day for the past 16 months, I load him into his cart and roll him along the street so he can feel the pavement under his paws, sniff the grass, do his business, greet neighbors, joggers, other dogs.
People always ask the same questions…
What happened? He’s in a doggie wheelchair because his rear legs are paralyzed. (I can tell when someone works in the medical field, because they ask excellent follow-up questions, at which point I sometimes tell the story of his syringomyelia—I’ve discussed it so often I can actually pronounce his condition now—and the way the brain swells in his head to press on his spinal chord, effectively, over the years, paralyzing him.)
Is he in the cart all the time? No. Only when we come out for a walk. Otherwise, he lies down on his bed. And I carry him around the house—to the water bowl, or his kibble bowl, upstairs, downstairs, wherever he needs to be.
We’ve worked out a system: He yips a short, clipped bark when he needs something (or sometimes just because he’s bored). It’s a little like responding to the persistent chirp the smoke detector makes when it’s time to change the battery. But it works.
Aren’t you wonderful for doing that for him! This isn’t really a question, of course. But I get this comment a lot. I never know what to say in response. I’m not really wonderful, of course, unless wonderful is just doing what you do for those you love. Unless wonderful means I don’t know what else to do.
Some days, I feel like a poser when I get this comment, because I’m busy and aggravated and possibly was just complaining loudly at the inconvenience this walk is right now causing to anyone who will listen. I have things to do, but I can’t just let him out in our big fenced-in yard that’s been a haven for every other dog I’ve ever had. I can’t just one time let him take care of business on his own because, well, he can’t.
So I have no choice but to buckle him into his cart and lead him into the snow or rain or cold or stifling humidity or air that’s thick with my own resentment.
There’s a lot of drudgery that goes into care-taking. And, I suppose, there’s a lot of drudgery that goes into love, too.
Simon wasn’t always this way, of course. For almost 9 years, he could walk and run with the rest of the dogs. But he was never easy.
I could never break him of the impulse to jump up with gusto on anyone he met, his tongue lapping the air maniacally as he tried to kiss them straight in the mouth. (Not on the mouth. But in the mouth.) He sometimes accomplished this with small, shocked children.
His stomach had the drive of a goat’s. He ate trash, tissues, toys, acorns, rabbit poop. During a walk once, he suddenly ducked his head and swallowed a dead frog, whole, right off the street with the fluid ease of a royal hitting a polo ball.
When we were still getting to know each other, he managed to poke a hole into the side of a stored sack of Basmati rice and (as I realized what was happening) fill his stomach with it, raw. I later learned this is how the Japanese tortured prisoners during World War II. I also later learned that this doesn’t kill you, but its resolution will require several days, another generous contribution to your vet’s child college fund, and a countless supply of clean towels.
He hated to be more than a few feet away from me. He barked—a loud, shrill, relentless bark that made my eardrums recoil—when he was left behind for any reason. I could hear him from the car when I pulled out of the driveway. I always offered a silent apology to the neighbors.
Oh, that bark. His determined bark. I heard it for the first time on the five-hour drive back from Poughkeepsie, NY, to Boston where we had gone to pick up this boy from his Cavalier King Charles Rescue foster moms. We pulled over several times—in Connecticut, and later Massachusetts—to see what was causing it. What could possibly be the matter? What was so distressing?
Eventually I learned that the answer. Nothing. Or maybe everything.
His name was Champ then. And then, briefly, his foster moms called him Jamie. We renamed him Simon, for no reason other than to signal a new life. He had epilepsy—frequent seizures that caused his original home to turn him over the rescue. We brought him to a neurologist, got his seizures under control, and prescribed him to a lifetime full of three different medications, twice a day, every day, and a low-salt diet. He still had the occasional seizure that made him foam at the mouth, shake violently and loose all bladder control. But it was manageable.
I’m kind of laughing at that word: Manageable. Was it really? Or was it just something we got used to and learned to view as normal, the way a hoarder doesn’t see the crazy all around her?
Are you thinking: “Simon sounds like a horrible dog”? He sounds like a lot of work. He sounds like a pain in the ass. Why did you bother?
Why did we bother. I don’t know, exactly. I’ve been thinking about that myself. Why did we bother?
Maybe because despite all of this, he had a generous spirit—he was the only dog I’ve ever known to scoot over and make room for another at his kibble bowl.
Maybe because he loved with his whole heart, and he wanted to give it to you all the time, like how about now. Or now. Maybe because he assumed everyone he met loved him. (And if they didn’t, he assumed they just didn’t know him well enough yet.)
Maybe because even when his rear legs failed—when he was relegated to dragging himself around by his front legs, and then, eventually, lost the strength to do that, and later lost the strength to even sit up or, some days, lift his head at all—he never lost the will to try. And he never lost the ability to track me with his eyes. He was following me still at my heels, even if it was only in his mind.
Maybe because he never lost his “happy head,” as his vet said. My friend Matt, who knew Simon only from photos on Facebook, nonetheless got it exactly right: He was a battler, an achiever, a glorious optimist.
So why did we bother? Because I sometimes thought that no one could love this irritating, impossible, aggravating, big-hearted boy as much as I could.
Because some of us require a little extra effort to be loved.
Because he needed it.
Because he was mine.
Two days ago at the vet’s, Dr. Johnson looked him all over. He couldn’t tell me what I wanted to know: How long does he have? Nor could he answer the unspoken question within that question: How long do I let this go on?
Instead, he could only recount Simon’s issues (the syringomyelia and more: his heart murmur, his atrophied muscles, the weight loss, his compromised inner organs, the cough that suggested other issues). He was kind, and supportive, and talked things through. He said I wouldn’t be wrong for thinking as I was. He offered to euthanize him right then, if that’s what I wanted to do.
I didn’t want to.
Instead, I loaded him again into his cart—such a furry bag of bones that it was like fitting a bag of potatoes into a bin. We rolled back out to the car. I lifted him in.
That night, and yesterday, I gave him whatever I thought he would want. Extra kibble at dinnertime. Slices of apples (he loves sliced apples). The best spot on the bed, with every towel in the house placed underneath him in case the inevitable accident happened.
Then: A second breakfast. A rest in the sunshine, basking on the warm stone of the patio. I thought of anything he might want that he never had: Anything that a lifetime on a low-sodium diet had precluded. Cheese. Chunky peanut butter. Bacon.
In some ways, it was a mind game for me, a running commentary all day long that frayed my nerves and set a permanent lump in my throat so that I could barely ask the gas station attendant for Unleaded.
This is the last time I’ll fill your bowl.
This is the last time I’ll carry you downstairs.
This is the last time you’ll lie in the sun on the patio.
This is the last Milkbone from the jar they keep for car dogs at the Sunoco station.
I’d like to think I gave him another 24 hours with me. But the truth is, I gave me another 24 hours with him.
Yesterday afternoon, I loaded him into the car for the last time. I didn’t take the cart this time. I just lifted him into the back seat and drove with all the windows down, so he could feel the movement of the air around him.
It was a gorgeous, brilliant, breezy day in Boston—more like a perfect mid-September day than mid-August. Almost to the vet’s, I pulled over to a grassy knoll, got out, and lifted him onto the grass, setting him down like a bone china.
We sat there together one last time. I stroked his frail body. I kissed his head.
He mostly ignored me, for once. Instead, he sniffed the air, nose aloft, wondering what adventure he might follow next, just beyond the horizon.