In the camper on Tuesday night Roo became too uncomfortable to rest. I wished I knew if it was pain or discomfort from the lumps in her or sickness from the end stage of her cancer. She became increasingly agitated and I didn’t know what to do to help. With her eyes half closed she panted and made an effort to keep her head off the floor. Maybe she knew, in the way dogs seem to, that she was dying. My worst fear was that she could sense that I was ordering her death the next day, though I relied on the hope, as does everyone does who has to have a dog’s life ended, that her trust in me ran too deep for that thought to occur to her.
I didn’t want to give her morphine because of how bad that had seemed to make her feel the last time I gave it to her. In spite of my decision not to give her any more pills I had given her anti-nausea meds earlier, but they weren’t helping. She was so sick of being given pills that I hated to give her another one, but it seemed that the possibility of calming her outweighed that and I gave her a milligram of the Xanax that had been prescribed to her for there Fourth of July, apologizing to her for the last pill as I slid it quickly down her throat. Then I kneeled on the floor with her with my arm across her forelegs so she could rest her chin on it. When after some time the pill began to relax her she lowered her head and I felt the soft fur of her throat on my skin. Kneeling like that, my face was positioned at the base of her skull, between her ears. I thought how the fur there seemed too healthy, too rich and soft and golden to be the fur of someone who was dying.
As she began to rest, it was a struggle to make good on the obligation I had begun to feel was my most important: I could not let on to Roo how sad I was. Maybe it was unreasonable to hope that the fact that she was about to die might not occur to her if I didn’t let on that I knew. It was the same thing, a version of, the way I had taught her to trust me when I told her that some loud sound wasn’t a noise, something she had learned to take my word for. It might not sound like much, but this was a key accomplishment that kept her from doing things like cramming herself into a culvert at the sound of a tree stump being dropped into a truck. It was a trust I never abused by telling her that a gunshot or thunder or fireworks wasn’t a noise so that she would always know my word was good when I did tell her not to be frightened by something, something that had happened many times each day. It was one of the great successes of raising Roo. Now, there was nothing more important to me than helping her believe that I believed, as I told her, that tomorrow she would be better. I didn’t want her to know that now that was because tomorrow her pain would be ended forever.
Over the years, I had given Roo a long list of nicknames. When we drove in the car and she lay sleeping beside me in the passenger seat, anytime she woke up she would bat at me with her paw to make me pay attention to her. Because Roo grew up in confinement and without the necessary environment to learn language in a place where whatever human voices she heard must have come from whoever had been cruel enough to abuse her, she always had more difficulty than most dogs learning words. It was different with her dozens of nicknames. She knew, presumably from the hints she detected with her fine dog senses in my tone of voice, that theses names were hers and referred to her alone, that every one of them was a variation on the idea that they simply meant her, my girl, and nothing else. She knew they were a demonstration of the connection I had to her and that she felt in equal measure to me. Maybe in her mind she also thought of herself by those grand and heroic-sounding and dignified names. These names constituted a secret language of dozens of words that amplified the idea, the very essence of, Roo, and to Roo these were her love song.
Her names were all strange and made-up fabrications. They were like the garbled syllables one might hear from solitary small children separated from remote and noble tribes and lost as they were driven from their forest or mountain homes and into oblivion. Their words as they might have sounded to the strangers they had been reduced to begging for food, when the children, now ragged, were asked their names and misunderstood when they said them. I won’t repeat those names. For one thing, I never quite figured out how to spell most of them, containing as they did sounds I was never able to work out in our alphabet, but also because repeating them might break the spell they still carry for me. I have nothing but words any more. Those few I’ll hoard.
But, when Roo and I drove all those hundreds of thousands of miles together and she slept curled in the passenger seat, and when she batted me with her paw to get me to talk to her, what she liked most was for me to string those names together in a sort of chant-like recitation. Had any other human heard this it would have sounded like someone practicing to cheat an audience of rubes out of their wages by speaking in tongues, but on Roo this had a hypnotic effect. She loved hearing this stream of words. If I stopped before she had gone completely back to sleep she would immediately object, insistently batting me on the arm and giving me her most serious and imploring look.
Now, on the floor, on this last of Roo’s nights on Earth, I began to whisper this litany of herself into the soft fur at her ears. It had the old effect. She grunted with approval and shifted herself into a slightly more comfortable position and relaxed her neck to let more of the weight of her head rest on my arm, just as she used to rest her chin on it as we drove and drove and, until only days before, drove together and never would again.
Lately, lying on her side had been too uncomfortable for Roo, but now she relaxed enough to want to roll onto her side. I helped her by lowering her left shoulder and her head to the floor and straightening her legs. Now I was able to lie down on the floor beside her. We were facing each other. My nose was near hers and she fixed her eyes on mine. Her panting had stopped. She wanted to bat me with her arm in the old way, to let me know that she hoped I wasn’t planning on getting up, but her arm was too weak now, so I lifted it gently and put her paw on my shoulder where she wanted it to be. She looked at me.
“What a beautiful little girl you are, Rooki,” I said. “Of course I know you’re not a little girl. You know I only call you that because that’s just the way daddies think of their little bears. I know that you are the biggest and bravest dog of the whole world. And in the world there is no one better than a dog, which makes you the biggest and bravest of everyone there is in the world, on top of being the most ferocious mouse hunter ever. You are my brave daughter bear and you will always be my big brave, beautiful daughter bear. And I will always be your daddy. So excuse me if I call you my little girl.”
She stretched her arm and pressed her paw on my shoulder. The swelling in that arm had made it so sore lately and it seemed uncomfortable, but she did not want me to move it to the floor.
“Rooki Bear Beker, do you know who the daddy loves her up and down more than anybody else in the world?” I said. It was a question I asked her every night. My hand was on her shoulder and I felt it move and her paw flex at my neck.
“That’s right. The Rooki. That’s who the daddy loves her up and down. And, do you know whose daddy loves her up and down more than anybody in the world?”
Again she moved her weakened arm to prompt my answer.
“The Rooki’s daddy. That’s right, my little bear.” I said. I pulled the flap of her ear through my hand a few times.
With all the strength she had, Roo moved her head to give me several licks on the face, the way she had only recently in these last stages of her illness begun to do after a lifetime of limiting herself to a lick on my ear out of some uncertainty that a full licking might not be a proper thing to do, a relic of her troubled puppyhood.
“That’s right. Your daddy loves this little fat bear more than anyone.” I rubbed on the soft fur of her chest and held my hand there to feel her heartbeat.
“Little Bear, I want to tell you a story. The story of Rooki Bear Beker, Junior, the dog. It’s the story you daddy will always always carry with him, even after everything else is gone and lost. I want to tell you the story that will always be there. And will always be the best thing your daddy has.”
Roo’s eyes were steady on mine. They did not look like the eyes of a dying dog. Even in the dim light of the camper they were bright and full. And even though it was late and Roo was exhausted and ill, she breathed easily and her eyes, a snout’s length from mine, stayed unblinkingly fixed on mine.
“The story of Rooki Bear Beker. The story so far, anyway. Would you like that?”
Roo had never before kept her eyes on me as steadily as she did now.
“Okay, Little Bear. Here we go,” I said, and I began.