Loving a Special Dog

Eternal Mysteries
By Abigail Thomas, September 2016
Loving a Special Dog Woodcut by Howard Towll

The dogs are my early-warning system. I have three hounds and a small scamp of indeterminate heritage. All rescues. They bark. They bark at people walking dogs. They bark at people not walking dogs. They bark at kids on bikes. They howl at deer, rabbits, squirrels and phantom creatures I can neither hear nor see. They usually stop after a few minutes and return to the house, but one afternoon, like Saint Teresa at prayer, they barked without ceasing.

I looked out the window and saw a man sitting among the trees across the street. He was bent over a guitar. How could he stand such a racket? I thought, and coaxed the dogs inside. Later I ran an errand. “You had quite an audience,” I called from the car. He looked up. “They make more noise than I do,” he replied, perhaps a bit defensively. Well, I thought, for god’s sake, of course they do. You keep sitting there.

I took soup to my friend Chuck and stayed longer than I’d expected, talking about, of all things, death. Death is on my mind. Another friend had died a week ago. Life dealt her any number of bad hands, but she emerged a strong, generous, inspiring woman. She was a Catholic, and her faith was unshakeable. “She is in the arms of her Savior,” I said to myself when I first heard the news. I don’t believe in heaven or hell. I don’t believe, really, in a god I can identify, but I am as certain of where she is as I am that day follows night. I have faith in her faith. I told Chuck. “Even though I don’t believe in heaven,” I said, “I know she’s there.”

I doubt Chuck believes in heaven, but he is kind. “Heaven was waiting for her,” he said. We were lying on separate couches, discussing certainty (death) and mystery (what, if anything, comes next). We decided we were both comfortable with mystery. Nothing explained, nothing explained away.

When I got home, I looked for the guitar player, but he was gone.

That evening, Daphne, my black hound, lay at the bottom of the stairs and barked and barked and barked. She stopped when I moved the vacuum cleaner whose hose had configured itself into the shape of a striking snake. But she started up again. I had an unwelcome thought. I never lock my door. What if the guitar player was hiding upstairs? What if that was the reason for Daphne’s incessant barking?

I reviewed my options. I could give in to paranoia and go upstairs and search. But what if he was crazy, and attacked me? (This is where a tiny bit of paranoia can lead.) Or I could ignore the whole crazy idea. Gradually I calmed down. So did Daphne.

I called Chuck. He is interested in paranoia. “I don’t think the dogs would have been much help,” I said. “They bark, but have no bite. I would’ve been done in.”

“Yes,” he said, “but they’d never let him hear the end of it.”

The dogs woke up in the morning at six o’clock, as usual. We’ve been sleeping downstairs in the sunroom for several months. Climbing stairs had become too much for my oldest dog, Carolina, and I’d had a few bad moments myself. This room has a glass ceiling. Staring up at the night sky had taken some getting used to. All that eternity.

Three of my four dogs shot through the dog door, barking their heads off, searching for interlopers. Not Carolina. She took her time. She’s a tottery old girl, a lot like me. She went into the yard, peed, looked around and came back inside. Carolina needs a boost onto the sofa, but once there, she is happy. Like me.

She had a bad stumble late in the afternoon. It took me several minutes to help her get to her feet again. I led her into the bedroom, and heaved her up on the bed. Then I went out for dinner with Chuck.

When I got home, I checked on my Carolina. She wasn’t in bed. I went through the house calling her name. I even looked upstairs. She was nowhere inside. This was unlike her; she never went out at night. But even with the car’s headlights, a flashlight, a lot of yelling and wandering through the dark yard, I could find no sign of her. I repeated the search a couple of times, calling and calling. Finally I went to bed, leaving the kitchen door open, hoping to find her there in the morning. It was hard to sleep. The night was supposed to be in the 40s, and I worried about her.

I got up before the other dogs, and slipped out of the house at first light. Carolina was lying on the grass. She looked beautiful, and at peace, her coat like satin to the touch, but her body was cold and rigid and she was dead. I was shocked and sad and horrified that she had died alone, but there was also a kind of simplicity that impressed me. She chose where she wanted to die, and she lay down under a blanket of stars.

We buried her that afternoon, wrapped in blankets, dog biscuits sprinkled around. Good dog, we said, you were a good dog. My friend Roland loaned me a post-hole digger so I could plant zinnias around her grave.

Carolina was the last of my original pack. My old Beagle, Harry, died; my beautiful Rosie died; and now Carolina. Actually, I suppose I am the last of the original pack. But I’m 73 and there is way less left of life than the already-lived part. I understood now that you could go to bed at night and be dead in the morning.

The house I live in already belongs to my children, but it was becoming clear that my real dwelling place weighs about 175 pounds. Its hair is turning gray. It smokes and coughs. I feel terrible for this residence whose lease may soon be up. I’ve paid scant attention to it besides a little lipstick now and then, and a lot of sun. What part of me is me, and what part is not, I wondered idly, reaching no conclusion.

The dogs and I went to bed, all of us subdued. Daphne slept in Carolina’s customary place. I stared up at the stars, dead now for eons, their ancient light still traveling.

Abigail Thomas is the mother of four children and the grandmother of twelve. She is the author of seven books, including the memoir A Three Dog Life, which was named one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. Her most recent book is What Comes Next and How to Like It. She teaches writing and lives in Woodstock, N.Y.