Like I often do the night before a trip, I awoke early, without help from alarm clock. The clock read 5:00 on the dot, and I could feel a tremor on our bed. I figured it was Maddie, our Cocker Spaniel, chewing on her nails or the fur between her toes—a habit that has annoyed me for years. Mostly due to my inability to help curtail it with careful grooming and frequent discouragement. But there was enough of a difference in the movement that I didn’t do the typical maneuver where I shovel her over on top of my wife’s feet with my own. I grabbed my glasses and iPhone from the bedside charger and swiped open the flashlight app. I saw she was panting and causing the bed to shimmy. Panting. That was peculiar. The room was plenty cool. I carried her to the living room. When I sat Maddie down on the floor, she had leaden feet, slogging her way towards the area rug—a very untypical behavior for this otherwise energetic pup (yes, even at 13, she’s always been a puppy to me; as naive and clueless in her latter years as she was at the beginning. Maddie never demonstrated much curiosity or cleverness besides getting into every trash can we ever owned).
This lack of energy was concerning to me, but I tried to frame it with our visit to our vet just this past Wednesday. Ironically, I was feeling puny that day, and had called in sick, and here I was, at my wife’s behest, taking the typically-healthy of our two dogs to the vet. Maddie had developed a bit of a cough that wasn’t going away on it’s own. The vet couldn’t tell me anything conclusive after the inspection, but only speculate about her pre-existing heart murmur. She couldn’t hear any labored breathing or the telltale gurgle of fluid buildup in the lungs. She was careful to remind me of the broad spectrum of ailments present in an older dog before ending on a higher note of a possible sinus infection. Two prescriptions and $75 later, I was out the door with Maddie. I even filmed a short clip to send to Kim to show that she was doing okay after the visit.
And so, I thought perhaps that this sinus infection had escalated into a more advanced case. I watched as she made her way to the back door I was holding open, then peed on the small pile of snow I had shoveled off of the deck these past few weeks, and made her way around her typical circuit. To forestall my own impatience at this turd-sniffing routine, I made coffee and ushered Glory, our two-years-older-and-much-more-decrepit Sheltie out the same back door. Minutes later, Glory yelped. Not the typical “all done” bark, but a yelp. One that means, “Hey, human. Something’s not quite right out here.” I grabbed my jacket, stepped into my mud boots and went to find Maddie. The freezing rain was now starting to come down with a bit of force, pattering audibly on the deck and hot tub cover as I swept the yard with a flashlight. She wasn’t anywhere around the fence sniffing for bunnies and squirrel scent. She was lying in the doghouse. In a freezing rain shower. I knew what this meant, but didn’t want to jump—couldn’t jump to that conclusion.
You see, this dog has been everything to my wife. I remember when Kim had mononucleosis over a decade ago. Maddie snuggled with her every day she was bedridden during that bout. Then again, there was the time Kim had her appendix out after a terrible misdiagnosis, which led to a shit show of a surgery which meant a terribly extended recovery time for Kim. Bedridden again, Maddie was her faithful canine-hot-water-bottle, bringing her comfort and company while I begrudgingly went to work for the very tiny boss I was betrothed to at the time. Two years ago, Kim was once again laid up, for what we hope to be the last time in a long time. The ordeal wasn’t just the typical physically draining one. Kim was as emotionally and mentally incapacitated as well. But her dog was by her side, while I continued to go to work.
You see, I’ve been oddly jealous of this dog. It sounds peculiar, but she has had more cumulative time snuggling with Kim than I have. It’s just the way our lives have unfolded, and in some ways, being Kim’s “snuggle buddy” was her entire bailiwick. Generally, Maddie was better at it than the frenetic redhead Kim married a couple years before we adopted Maddie from Megan, Kim’s sister. And because of this, I am genuinely concerned for my wife. Maddie was my surrogate for her on trips like this very one that I had to leave for. She kept Kim from worrying about noises that went bump in the night (mainly because that dog was the majority source for said noises as she made midnight prowls for forgotten snack plates, and tasties discarded in the trash). In short, Maddie kept Kim from feeling like a travel-widow on so many occasions she deserves a presidential medal of honor for her proficiency at the task.
When I went to get Maddie out of the doghouse, she wouldn’t move. She didn’t resist, but she didn’t have any desire to comply. I pulled her out with a gentle tug of the collar, and she unwillingly stepped down, and I honored that by scooping her up and carrying her in. She started panting again. When I put her on the floor, she stayed where I left her for several minutes as I went about my morning routine, preparing for my trip. It was like she was missing her cues. “Maddie, I’m about to leave, and I need you to clock in and take care of Kim while I’m gone, ‘kay?”
“Right, Dad. I know. I want to. I just don’t think I’m feeling so great.”
About the third time I whisked past her and saw her literal hang-dog expression, I scooped her up again and put her on the couch, where she laid down her head, but continued to pant. And shiver.
“Maddie, you know I’m counting on you, right? I need you to keep Kim company. I can’t always be there for her.”
“I know. Yes, Dad.” she somehow communicates back shifting her big brown eyes to me while keeping her chin on the pillow, her hindquarters shivering.
And I then realized, for the first time and for the first time considered what it meant. My god, Maddie. You won’t always be here either.
I wasn’t comfortable with heading to the airport with Kim finding her like that. But I was also not eager to wake Kim up to tell her I was concerned. As though she sensed something, Kim awoke and came into the living room so quietly I didn’t notice.
“Maddie’s not doing well, babe,” I told her. And then I repeated to her what I’d seen. Like Maddie had done thousands of times, Kim returned the favor of gently snuggling up against her on the couch, asking her what was wrong. I couldn’t even watch.
Fifteen minutes later, I was out the door, like a coward, off to the airport, a thousand some odd miles away from this…decision.
I arrived at my gate and the phone rang. It was Kim calling to tell me she was at the nearby pet emergency facility. The doctor had told her that the x-ray revealed an enlarged heart and that the prognosis wasn’t good. They advised we put Maddie to sleep. As Kim relayed the information, I started denying that it was time for this ultimatum, bartering for second opinions and the like. I hadn’t realized that Kim wasn’t asking me for advice—asking me to be strong for her where she was weak. She was already at a place of decision; one that demonstrated her strength.
And as I type this, crying like a baby in front of a bunch of other travel-weary midwesterners at O’Hare International, I’m worried about my wife. I don’t know what this loss is going to do to her. But I worry without a certain empathy I’ll likely never be able to achieve. I’m referring to that capacity to fully realize what this other person, my wife, is capable of in feats of strength. Whether it’s one of the many illnesses she’s battled, or the ultimate betrayal of an inept employer, a financial hardship, or complete and utter ideological meltdown resulting in us both quite literally losing our religion, I’m convinced she handles them all with so much more poise and with the stability of a slab of granite than I could ever muster.
Of course there’s a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy I’m attempting to conjure with that statement. There’s a sliver of hope I’m trying to manufacture on a day when it feels like we lost one of our human relatives. And I hope I can be forgiven for resorting to such a coping mechanism. Because, that’s exactly what that is to me—a coping mechanism. I need it not just to mourn a dog that drove me apeshit most every day with the messes she made, the midnight moments she made me stand on the deck in my boxers signaling in at least three different languages how in earnest I yearned for her to come in immediately so I could go to bed, and all other sorts of idiosyncrasies…I need to end on a hopeful note because I’m away from my wife for the next week and for the first time, she won’t have Maddie next to her in my stead. That breaks my heart and unnerves me like I never anticipated. So forgive me that schmaltz, that codependence, that weakness. Or not. But at very least forgive me for needing to write about the death of a dog, a family member, a sort of colleague and put this out there for my own selfish and mesmerizingly debilitating reaction to this loss.
That need I’ve had is one I’ve never really taken notice of until now. That need I had for Maddie to simply be there for Kim. I took that entirely for granted. And that’s why it hurts so bad. I can’t say thank you to this creature for her faithfulness nor can I fill that void. All I can do is be grateful she left this world as quietly as she burglarized all those boxes of crackers, half-eaten cookies, and roast chickens left to close to the edge of the kitchen island. Even in that final act, one I know in one in which she had no choice, just a heart that was giving out, at least she spared Kim a drawn out decline.
Maddie took care of Kim one final time.