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Monthly Archives: June 2013

Cricket, the Town Sheriff

Cricket thinks she’s the Town Sheriff. She’s fluffy, and barely fifteen pounds, but she believes it is her job to protect her home, to the death if necessary. She rains barks on people, but she can’t discern between deserving targets and innocent victims.

Cricket, mid-bark

Cricket, mid-bark

As soon as we moved into our new apartment, Cricket realized that her greatest challenge, by far, is the Seven Eleven up the block. We live just around the corner from what is clearly the neighborhood hub. People fill the parking lot and the sides of the street and flow in and out all day, for the twenty varieties of coffee, a wall of sandwiches, miscellaneous doodads and a chance to schmooze.  Cricket thinks schmoozing will lead to chaos, so she barks warnings at truck drivers, moms, teenagers from the local high school, and men who hesitate to leave the safety of their cars.

Cricket's disapproving look

Cricket’s disapproving look

            As we walk past the Seven Eleven, there’s a bus stop and then a train station. A lot of innocent bystanders, waiting for transportation, see my cute fluffy dogs and get a big surprise when Cricket opens her mouth with a blast of rat-a-tat-tat. More than one victim has clasped his heart in shock. (Women are never shocked. I find this interesting.)

Cricket also guards the car

Cricket also guards the car

            When people come to visit us, Cricket’s bark-o-meter gets jammed and she can’t shut it off. She barks at anyone who dares to enter her sacred space and continues to bark even after they leave, running to the door as if to say, “and another thing!”

The only way to calm her down is to hold her in my arms, or let her climb on my head and neck like a monkey. With enough physical contact and reassurance, she will sputter down into an occasional rumbly growl. But if I let go, or, God forbid, put her down on the floor, all hell breaks loose again.

            Most visitors expect Cricket to quiet down, eventually. They figure, I’m nice, I’m not here to rob anyone, she’ll figure that out and give up the fight. Nope.

            Cricket barks at the maintenance men when they come to mow the lawn. She barks when she hears a door closing in another apartment, or footsteps in the hall, or the mail being delivered. When she’s on the stairs or in the lobby of our building, her voice resonates like she’s barking inside of a tuba.

I had hoped that Butterfly’s calmer demeanor would help Cricket reexamine her prejudices and maybe learn some Zen, but the improvements, in this area, have been minor. If anything, Cricket has recruited Butterfly as her deputy.

Deputy Butterfly

Deputy Butterfly

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The Dina Years – The End

The Shadow

Dina’s Shadow

When Dina, my black Labrador mix, was fourteen years old, she started to lose her hair. The clumps of hair were like little bushels of hay, black at one end and white, with flakes of grayish skin attached, at the other. I relished pulling out clumps of hair and dropping them into the growing pile on the floor.

Dina had been with me since I was sixteen years old and we accepted each other. She accepted that I was afraid of loud noises and strangers and telephone calls. And I accepted that she was afraid of children, other dogs, thunderstorms, and walking across wooden slats.

Dina never had Cancer or Diabetes or Parvo or heart disease, but by the time she was fifteen years old, she was dying. First it was her kidneys. Then there was the arthritis. She began to trip over her feet, and then her hips dropped. Defecating was too hard of a job to do while standing. Her legs shook and she fell and squashed the pile of feces under her folded tail. Her legs splayed in splits on floors that had never before seemed slippery to her.

            She paced from room to room, up the stairs and back down, endlessly, as if she didn’t know where she was or that she’d already done the route ten times in a row. She peed indoors, mostly, by the end. She couldn’t remember what the need to pee felt like, and even if she could, her urinary tract was completely befuddled. When I asked her if she wanted to go out to pee, she would lift her head, consider, and more often than not, go back to sleep. I didn’t know that dog. My Dina heard the word pee, or walk, or go, or leash, and ran down the stairs panting in desperation.

When she was younger, Dina could walk for an hour, to the point of utter exhaustion, and still want more. And the drool! Long strings of white, bubbling drool would hang from her mouth and she’d shake her head and the strings would paste themselves to her neck or her chin and her tongue would be heavy with sweat and her eyes shining. And she would sing. Whenever we sang high enough notes, she’d warble along and howl like a wolf. But now I had to inch her food dish closer to her feet because she couldn’t eat standing up or even squatting. She sat like a child with her useless legs splayed around the bowl.

Dina's favorite activity - eating

Dina’s favorite activity – eating

            The doctor kept offering us medications to cover her symptoms: an expensive drug to make her less senile, antibiotics for the endless urinary tract infections, Pepto Bismal for the diarrhea. I wanted the doctor to be compassionate and tell me that it would be okay to put Dina to sleep, but he didn’t. And my mother wasn’t ready to let go. Or, rather, she wanted Dina to decide the day; to walk off into a field and choose the moment to die.

And then Dina’s hair stopped clumping. Her body was covered with a fog of loose hair at all times, no matter how often she was brushed.

Dina died on a fuzzy blue blanket on the floor in the vet’s office when she was sixteen years old. I sat against the wall, petting her back. My mother sat under the examining table, petting her head. And we stayed with her through both shots, knowing it was time to let go, but still not ready.

I imagined Dina running into a field of roasted chicken growing like wheat from the ground as far as she could see with her eyesight fully returned. I saw her galloping, unable to decide where to start, unable to believe the joy ahead of her, that she could eat a whole chicken and never worry about the bones sticking in her throat, and splintering through her esophagus like a broken needle. She could eat without end and without rice as filler!

But she’d never learned how to make friends. She depended on her people for company and communication. What would she do in heaven without us? Who would laugh with her and at her and scratch her belly and pull on her ears in that way she hated so much?

            Would all of that chicken really make up for being alone?

When we got home, we packed up her left over pee pads and pee absorbing powder and anti pee spray. We packed her food and water bowls and her collar and her leash and her brush. But we couldn’t throw any of it away.

            I had to put away the scarlet bathmat she used to sleep on. She liked the ray of sunlight from the bathroom window and the softness of the mat. The bathroom was her favorite place and I had to fight with her constantly to get her to leave so I could pee in private. As she aged, it only got worse. The slow aching rise of her elderly body onto shaky feet, one long stretch where she tilted and threatened to fall, and then the drippy-eyed stare as she stood two feet from the door asking why this horrible exodus had come upon her and who was I, what fresh evil was I, that I would make her flee her home, however slowly.

            Dina took up so much space and sound that her absence was profound. I felt the silence deep in my body; it reverberated. No jangly collar, no tap tap of uncut toenails on hardwood floors, no scrape of food bowls against kitchen tile.

            Her hair was everywhere in the apartment, cropping up under chairs, in furniture crevices, trapped in corners of the floorboards.

            I cleaned every surface in the apartment, scrubbed the walls and the floors until my hands were raw and my knees ached, but her hair still lingered.

            When Cricket came home, Dina had been gone for nearly eight months, but the smell of her was still in the apartment, especially on the small rug in my room where Dina did a lot of her napping.   Cricket could smell her big sister in the floors and behind the furniture, and I think they had talks about how to handle Dina’s people. Sometimes I could even see Dina, like a mirage, sleeping on the floor, opening her eyes for a second to check on me, and then falling back to sleep.

Dina's smile

Dina’s smile

The Dance of the Leashes

The knotted Leashes

          When Butterfly came home from the shelter in November, she didn’t know how to walk on a leash. She learned by watching Cricket, following her tail wherever it went. She sniffed whatever Cricket sniffed and peed wherever Cricket peed.

            Seven months later, Butterfly has her own ideas about what to a sniff, and where to pee, and who to greet, and when to stop randomly in the middle of the sidewalk and refuse to go forward.

            For their first pee in the morning, Cricket yawns and stretches, and waits patiently for her leash to be attached. Butterfly, on the other hand, does her flibbertigibbet twirls, and runs to drink some water and load up on dog kibble, fitting it into her cheeks like a chipmunk, or gulping it straight down.

            Within seconds, Butterfly’s leash is wrapped around her torso and through her legs. Then Cricket’s leash tangles around Butterfly too, threatening to pull off Butterfly’s paw, or her head.

A Tangled Butterfly

A Tangled Butterfly

            When Butterfly has hopped and twisted herself free, the girls pull me outside, often in opposite directions. I am yanked like a wishbone at the breaking point, one arm forward and one behind. We look like a stretched out version of kindergarten children in museums, where everyone holds hands single file so no one will get lost. And then the dogs turn me around until my arms are wrapped behind my back and I have to switch the leashes from hand to hand and do a twirl to find forward again.

I wonder what this would look like if done by rhythmic gymnasts.

            The dance of the leashes becomes even more complicated when a third dog is introduced. The third dog will inevitably have one of those skinny retractable leashes that could slice your leg off if it wraps around you. Then there is the moment when the dogs line up in a sniff train that either transmutes into a sniffing circle or a free for all where each dog is trying to protect her hind end while simultaneously attempting to sniff another dog’s butt.

The Three Dog Dance

The Three Dog Dance

And add a pole

And add a pole

The highlight of the dance is when the dogs sniff eachother’s tushies for inspiration and then do a simultaneous pee routine, like a synchronized swim team. This does not happen every day, and must be cherished.

            When Mom and I take the dogs out together we each take a leash. This, theoretically, should iron out the problems, but then it’s me and Mom square dancing, as the dogs weave in and out, and we pass the leashes back and forth.

            Cricket likes to use her leash to shepherd Grandma. She will quietly walk around to Grandma’s other side and then pull the leash forward, corralling Grandma. Clearly this would all be easier for Cricket if Grandma would agree to wear a leash.

            Back in the apartment, with their leashes removed, it’s as if the dogs are back in their pajamas, and I start singing my wistful version of a song from Annie, “You’re never fully dressed, without a leash.”

The Dina Years – Separation Anxiety

Dina and her shadow

Dina and her shadow

 I was supposed to outgrow my separation anxiety. People expect small children to cling to Mommy, but as you get older, not so much. Except that, I grew up afraid that my mother would leave. My father would yell, and yell and yell some more, until she ran out the front door to get away from him. I could hear the door slam from my bedroom upstairs, and I was afraid that this time she would leave and never come back.

But she always did come back. And when I was twenty-three and she was truly ready to leave him, she took me with her. I wasn’t ready for graduate school yet. I needed a cave to hide out in, and I needed my mother. I was like a little mouse, scampering up and down the stairs, terrified of being caught, and eaten.

Our dog, Dina, a black Labrador mix, was almost eight years old, and Mom wasn’t sure about bringing her with us, but I insisted. I had made a commitment to Dina and I couldn’t leave without her. My father didn’t even ask if Dina could stay with him. I would have said no. I would have screamed and run away with her in the middle of the night. But he didn’t ask.

We left behind most of the things my mother had accumulated over thirty years of marriage, but we did take the living room couch. Mom had picked it out from a charity shop to replace the faux leather couch Dina had destroyed during her rampaging-puppy years.

We found an apartment that accepted dogs, and the couch was now our central gathering place. When Mom and I sat down to watch TV, Dina climbed up to be the glue between us.

My father had refused to let Dina get fixed, even though she’d been having hormonal problems and false pregnancies for eight years, tearing up carpets to create bedding for imaginary puppies. One of our first priorities when we moved was to find a new vet and get Dina her operation. They shaved her belly pink and left a long black scar, but even though she was woozy and sore, I knew we’d finally done right by her.

Within months, something changed: Mom and Dina started to bond. My mother woke up early to take Dina outside for the first pee of the day, now that we had no backyard to let her loose in, and then my fifty-five year old mother would get down on the floor with Dina and pounce and growl and throw dusty tennis balls every which way.

Mom became the fun sister, and I was the fuddy duddy, the disciplinarian. In our new life, I was responsible for cooking and cleaning. I put out the garbage and made up menus and shopping lists and budgets. I made sure Mom ate healthy food and had lunches to take to work. I planned TV watching and other entertainment. I also took Dina out for long walks every day; two or three miles of wandering around the neighborhood, with poopy bags and fresh water and paper towels to clean off her drool.

And yet, when my mother came home from work each day, Dina’s ears perked up, and her tongue stuck out and she made guttural sounds as if she were trying to squeal, “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!”

I knew that Dina had been out to pee at three PM and again at six, and I knew that she could actually hold her bladder intact very well for eight to ten hours without incident, but Dina’s manipulative brat persona would surface – Bam! “Oh Mommy, I just have to pee or I’ll die!” and then, “Oh Mommy, I am so hungry I could faint!” even though she’d been eating Twizzlers and string cheese with me all day long while I was supposed to be writing. She’d even eaten a few stray chunks of her own dry dog food.

I think that, finally, Mom felt like she deserved to be loved. By both of us, because Dina’s excited greeting was pretty similar to how I felt. I couldn’t begrudge her this joy which was suddenly part of her every day life.

My separation anxiety didn’t go away, though. I still worried that Mom would die. She would have a heart attack on the train into the city, or get into a car accident on the way home from the station. Something would happen while she was out of my sight and I wouldn’t be able to save her.

And Dina started to develop similar separation anxiety symptoms, around me. When I left the house without Dina, even for an hour, she would run up to my room and sit on my bed, releasing hair and drooling until my room smelled like stale dog breath. I wonder if she, too, was imagining all of the awful ways I could die and never return to her. I’m pretty sure her scenarios would have involved squirrels, and cats. An assassin cat and his squirrel assistant were clearly plotting ways to get me as soon as I walked out the door. That’s why Dina had to push past me, and bite my leg whenever I tried to leave. To protect me.

Dina, keeping me safe from the jigsaw puzzle.

Dina, keeping me safe from the jigsaw puzzle.

The fact is that I don’t think I could have handled sitting in an empty apartment all day while Mom was at work. I needed Dina as much as she needed me. Even if all she wanted was to rub her head against my leg when her nose itched.

As a result of her operation, and with the addition of her extended walking schedule, she wasn’t tearing up carpets anymore, and her remaining neuroses were manageable, as long as I never left the house without her. And, actually, I could live with that.

Me and Dina, out for a walk.

Me and Dina, out for a walk.

The Barbecued Ribs Fiasco

A Poopoo platter. Not my picture.

A Poopoo platter. Not my picture.

               As a kid, I was a fan of the Poopoo platter at the Chinese restaurant. I liked the blue fire and the drama of the contraption brought to our table, and the fried, oily, sweet and sticky finger foods on the trays. My brother and I also really liked saying “poopoo” out in public.

As I got older, I learned how to cook lighter versions of my Chinese food staples, but every once in a while, when I’m tired and grumpy and do not want to cook, Mom and I order take out Chinese. I’m usually careful to order non-fried dishes, with light sauces, and tons of extra vegetables. If I get dumplings they’re steamed and filled with vegetables. But sometimes the crappiness of the day is so awful that it requires extra special yummy, greasy, sweet food with no redeeming value. Like barbecued ribs, which are, only slightly, a more grown up take on the food in the Poopoo platter.

Before we adopted Butterfly, Cricket was an only dog, and took advantage of her role as only grand dog as often as possible. She knew her best bet was to sit on Grandma’s lap, because Grandma’s guilt buttons are stronger than her hunger buttons. So as soon as Mom had finished with one of her barbecued ribs, she handed it off to Cricket. We were eating special food, Mom said, why shouldn’t Cricket?

Cricket and Grandma sharing a snack.

Cricket and Grandma sharing a snack.

and another snack

and another snack

I knew that chicken bones were dangerous for dogs from way back, because someone, probably my brother, had given me a vivid description of how the bones could splinter in my dog’s throat or intestines, and pop them like balloons. But since I’d spent a large part of my childhood kosher, I had no idea what to expect of pork bones. I assumed they were the same as beef bones. They looked the same to me.

            Cricket sat on the floor with a bone between her paws and not only did she clean off the fat, and gristle, she started to eat the bone itself, crunch, crunch, crunch until it disappeared. There were no signs left, no garbage, just some stubborn oily stains on the hard wood floor. The first one went so well, I gave her my own leftovers. That way I could leave all of the extra fat on the bone and not feel guilty for wasting food.

            I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of retching. I called Cricket over and rubbed her back, and she went back to sleep next to me. But in the morning, there were two piles of predigested bone on my carpet and one spot where, clearly, there had been puke and it had been re-ingested.

            Much scrubbing later, I found older piles downstairs on the wood floor, and as the day went on the vomiting continued but became less productive, just puddles of spit, preceded by those awful, whole body spasms. I was afraid some of Cricket’s vital organs would be left in those piles on the floor. But after all of that, she was smiling, and asking for Parmesan cheese on her dog food and wondering when we were going to have ribs again.

            Sometimes you can only learn a lesson in the most vivid way possible. Just reading it as a list of no-no foods isn’t convincing, but seeing your dog turn inside out does the trick.

I try to be careful about what Cricket and Butterfly eat now. I looked up multiple lists of no-no foods and cross referenced and studied. But Cricket still prefers to eat whatever her Grandma has touched, and blessed for her. She would rather eat a piece of Grandma’s peanut butter and jelly sandwich than a flurry of Parmesan cheese on her dog food that never passed through Grandma’s hands. Food is love; food is relationship, even for dogs.

Butterfly and Cricket, begging for pizza.

Butterfly and Cricket, begging for pizza.