Stories & Lit
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A Boxer’s greeting is a joy to behold. They jump into the air in such a jubilee of delight, it’s as if your return to hearth and home were the most noteworthy event of the century when all you’ve done, say, is walk to the mailbox and back. Return after an hour or more and you’ll get backflips, trumpets and a procession of drum-beating pageantry befitting a king.
But this last time, my Shelby outdid herself with the circus greeting, and a few moments later, her hind legs began to falter. As she tried to recover, her front legs failed, too. She staggered about the house slamming into furniture and walls, wagging her tail all the while. Was she having a seizure? Had her heart failed to pump enough blood to her hindquarters? Or had the cancer already spread to her brain?
She was eleven years old, this big brindle beauty to whom I was not going to get too attached. I was certainly not going to let myself love her the way I’d loved the one before her. When my previous Boxer died in my arms at age fifteen, I felt as if a part of myself had died too. I emerged from the vet’s office into a black-and-white world, a world literally devoid of all color. An hour went by before my color vision returned. I vowed right then and there: Never again.
But dogs have a way of finding the people who need them, filling an emptiness we don’t even know we have. So it was for Shelby, who took all of five minutes to stake her claim to my bruised heart. At nine months, she was big and bold, bright and brash, the daughter of two champions. My wife didn’t want another dog, and my daughter, then seven, was wary of this bumptious intruder. They held out only slightly longer than I had before they, too, were summarily seduced.
As canine crimes go, Shelby’s were all misdemeanors: she had three accidents, chewed one shoe, and swallowed a single bar of bath soap. That was her entire rap sheet. At the first light of day, with an exuberance she never outgrew, she’d come bounding into my bedroom to play. My friends and associates dare not wake me before noon (“I don’t care if it’s nuclear war, don’t ever call me in the morning!”) Yet I understood the natural world and couldn’t blame my little angel for her uncontainable high spirits at the first rays of dawn. It took me more than sunbeams to get on with my day, but when I’d finally consumed enough coffee to come back to life, Shelby and I shared our invariable breakfast: a can of King Oscar sardines. She got the three biggest. Next up: Quaker oatmeal. I served Shelby hers on a plastic Ronald McDonald plate that I set just outside the back door.
On cool days, she would run fifteen miles with me. She shredded three cotton ropes a month playing tug of war. She ran down Frisbees; she wrestled and boxed with me. In hot weather, she could dive and retrieve in depths that exceeded six feet. Like me, she was at home in the water. On a visit to my mother’s summer cottage in Wisconsin, I heard a child say, “Daddy, look at that duck.” It was Shelby, of course, a quarter-mile out on the lake, swimming after a mother duck and her flock. One large, square head surrounded by little round ones; a sort of Loch Ness Boxer, I guess you could say.
When I became diabetic, and had to walk off high blood sugar readings in all kinds of weather (mostly rain), Shelby splashed through the puddles beside me, nearly pulling my arm out of its socket. Our neighbors referred to us as “the two thugs.” That was outdoor Shelby.
Indoors, she was delicate as a cat, taking great care around my young daughter. She calibrated her strength according to each customer, sensing precisely how much each could endure. We had similar tastes in people. Friendly but discriminating, Shelby liked the same visitors I liked, but merely tolerated the people I only pretended to like.
Fun and games are all well and good, but like most dogs, Shelby liked to work, too. To stave off boredom and enhance her self-esteem, I devised various duties for her, appointing her chief of security. It wasn’t until later that I would realize she’d already taken on the job of looking after me. The fact that I’m still here is a testament to how well she did it, despite all those dog IQ ratings that only place Boxers somewhere in mid-range.
I’ve read that fifty percent of all dogs can smell epilepsy and warn their owners of impending seizures. I have simple partial seizures—twitches and jerks that come on toward the end of the day. Before I switched medications and got them under control, Shelby would throw her shoulder against the back of my legs, as if to say, “Hey, pay attention!” Sure enough, within minutes, the seizures would start.
Shelby was still a young dog when, as a writer with a hot book, I got a call from ABC’s “20/20.” The producer asked me to appear on the show. He was under the impression that I had grand mal epilepsy and wondered how long it would take after I quit my medication to have a fit in front of a camera crew. Seizure dogs are trained to sit near their masters to protect them in the event of grand mal seizures. The well-intentioned producer pointed out that millions of people watch the show, and suggested I could sell lots of books. I politely declined in light of the stigma attached to epilepsy, to say nothing of the fact that I had a personal life. Besides, I was just having twitches, which I doubted would make for thrilling TV.
I was teaching in Iowa City at the time, and had just written a Village Voice piece. Having eaten a fairly small breakfast, I drove downtown to fax them a revision. The forecast called for heavy snow that day, so instead of going straight home, I stopped at the market to stock up. By the time I unloaded my groceries, I had a vague sense of my blood sugar dropping, and realized I needed to eat. It was my last conscious thought before I hit the floor in what proved to be a diabetic coma.
I’d always assumed that a coma was akin to sleep. It is not. Soaked in sweat, my teeth chattering like joke-store choppers, I was essentially paralyzed. I felt as if I were being strangled. Meanwhile, the insulin pump attached to my body was delivering drop after drop of insulin, putting me in deeper trouble. I needed sugar and each succeeding drop of insulin became a kind of poison.
As I lay there immobilized on the kitchen floor, I became aware of Shelby licking my face and bumping me with her snout, then leaping onto the couch and sounding her deep bass alarm out the window, then coming back and licking me some more. A neighbor heard her barking and looked inside, saw me lying there, and called the paramedics. Saved by my boisterous four-legged nurse, the one with the mid-range IQ.
When we left our subdivision for a house in the country, Shelby took on expanded duties. She was never happier than when she was chasing deer from our clover field. She also kept close watch on the horses next door. I was standing in the kitchen eating a sour apple one day when I spotted one of them back by the fence. I fed him my apple and after he’d eaten it, I got another one out of the fridge. It must have been mighty sour; the horse took a bite, then spit it out. Shelby, who had been standing there taking this in, suddenly took off for the gate like a brown cruise missile. She was soon a mere BB on the horizon. I watched in amazement as she crawled through the gate. She was soon standing on the other side of the fence wolfing down the sour apple. From then on, I waited till my jealous darling was asleep before venturing out to feed the horses their treats.
My life—the writing life—has its fair share of perks. It’s a stay-at-home job, for one thing. It allows me to sleep until noon, for another. And given that I like to write—at least some days—I haven’t had to “work” for a living for more than a decade. Shelby was at my side for most of those years. She watched me write countless stories, lending moral support. She rode shotgun in the passenger seat of my Saab or my daughter’s Checker whenever I drove to the video store, or made a library run. We lived our lives side-by-side, me and this singular dog to whom I was not going to get too attached.
I used to travel the world at the drop of a hat, but that, too, changed when I acquired Shelby. Book tours, visits to relatives—any trip that involved breaking out a suitcase, induced separation anxiety in us both. It got worse as she aged; the older dogs get, the more they seem to like their routine. I put Shelby on Sinequin, an antidepressant. There were times when I took it myself. It helped us both some, but it wasn’t until I walked through the front door that her sense of well-being was fully restored.
A few weeks ago, as the long, rainy, Washington winter gave way to a rare sunny day, Shelby and I drove downtown to the park. We took a leisurely stroll, then sat on a bench for a while soaking up sun. I couldn’t help but think back to the days when our “walks” had been runs. We were both slowing down. At the same time, however, we were still in sync, keeping the same, steady pace, stride for stride.
An old dog has a beauty and dignity all her own, with her graying muzzle and soft, knowing eye. Her silliness gives way to serenity; more time is now spent in sleep than in play. In a perfect world, we would die, man and dog, as we lived: sideby- side, simultaneously. No one who’s given his heart to a dog should have to walk in the door to this deafening silence. Or come upon a faded Ronald McDonald oatmeal plate. Or a chair whose cushions are forever imprinted with the shape of the slumbering dog.
But the world isn’t perfect. And so, the end came—much too soon, the way it always does. She did not succumb to her lymphoma, an incurable cancer that led to four surgeries over her final six months. Shelby’s faltering legs turned out to be a sign of low blood sugar, caused by a tumor on her pancreas. While I’ve long heard it said that dogs come to resemble their owners, I never knew it could happen to such a degree. The condition that led to my Boxer’s demise was in fact the mirror image of my own.
I am still in the early stages of grieving, still disoriented, still easily brought to tears. She is gone, but somehow, she’s still with me, her invisible presence watching my every move. I can’t open the door, or a can of sardines, without feeling her like some phantom limb—severed but still part of me, always here. As she will be for as long as I live.
Photo by Markus Gann