Today, once again, I find myself reverting to the habit of watching the weather radar the way I always did when there were thunderstorms to worry about when Roo was alive. Today, though, I watch the thing to see when the rain will stop, because the rain is casting the inside of this camper in a sickly gray that I’ve never experienced before. Until now, the light Roo radiated kept away.
I was going to write that I’m sitting in the dark camper in the rain parked in the driveway, losing my mind, but that’s just a lazy figure of speech. What is happening is quite the opposite of losing my mind. It’s a sharpening of it now that I am able to look back on the week leading up to Roo’s death and the days following it.
I thought a short piece would suffice to tell the story of the last ten days, but it won’t. I don’t know how long this will stretch on. It will until it’s over.
I write this to honor her and the grace she brought to her life and mine. I write this to honor the strength and spirit and goodness and courage and love that defined Roo. I write it to honor all of you who loved this great dog. And I write this in the hopes of learning whether I failed her as badly as I fear I did. I don’t know if I did or not. This is the only way I have of finding out whether her end was as irretrievably unforgivable as Orville’s was. Whether the actions that I – a broken waste – took were to help her when she needed my help the most or for other reasons I need to understand.
* * *
After I posted about Roo’s dip in the Atlantic, which she took on Monday, September 2nd, Roo began to feel too weary to do much more. One of the worst things about watching a dog you love get sick is not knowing exactly how they feel. Her swollen arm was bothering her, I knew that, but it didn’t make her limp or sniff at it. I could tell because it began to make lying down uncomfortable. But there was more than the arm. More lumps were appearing. Swollen lymph nodes don’t themselves hurt, but they can press on things. On organs and airways. Roo was in the end stage of cancer. She must have been feeling bad in many ways. I kept looking up how lymphoma patients feel, but that was useless. There was so much going on – chemo, the disease itself. Roo just looked more and more weary. And other dreadful signs popped up. She would eat a cookie, but leave the crumbs behind. She stopped eating jerky altogether. Her throat, where a lymph node was hardening, was making swallowing uncomfortable.
I bought her goat yogurt and goat milk. I cooked her meats and chopped it up into tiny pieces. She ate these things for a while but became progressively more selective. I softened the Dogswell duck jerky she always loved in water and cut it into tiny pieces. She refused them. A sharp corner must have been gone down wrong. Even when I trimmed the corners off the softened pieces she wouldn’t trust them. I bought her a selection of other treats and jerkies, dried liver that I moistened, cold cuts. She would eat some of the cold cuts. She would eat ground beef. She ate a little spaghetti with parmesan cheese. Before she stopped eating entirely at the end, she was down to sliced turkey and licking butter from a spoon.
On the day after that dip in the Atlantic I was obliged to take the trailer to the dump to empty the tanks. This idiotic little camper has such small holding tanks that it’s impossible to go more than a week before they are filled. I had been fearing the day Roo would be too unwell to come with me on these trips to the dump. Virginia and Jim were working, so there was no one to leave Roo with. She would have to come with me.
Over the last four years Roo has been present at hundred of hitchings and unhitchings of the camper, and yet it still concerns her. She doesn’t – didn’t; I keep writing about her in the present tense – like being in the car for the operation because of the small clinking sounds of chains being clipped on to the hitch and a bump when the trailer was lowered onto or raised from the ball hitch on the car. Here in Maine, she had a spot in the bushes in front of the Raker house where she liked to wait and hide. On that Tuesday she didn’t want to leave the camper. She was always a late sleeper, though, and I thought it could have just been because she was still too tired, on top of feeling sick. I waited as long as I could, but eventually she had to come with me and she came out of the camper when she realized I was positioning the car.
She wasn’t feeling too bad. She always liked the ritual of a big round of Good Morning, Chigi greetings when she woke up and came outside, standing there and letting me stand over her and pat her shoulders and belly while she held her tail high and wagged it slowly and that was how she stood that Tuesday before peeing for the first time in 20 hours and then retreating to lie down in her position in the bushes. After the trailer was hitched it took some convincing to get her to come with me. She didn’t want to. She wanted to stay where she was, but I could neither leave her alone nor not empty the tanks. I didn’t press her or hurry her. I waited until the last minute before the dump would close, for two hours or so, until finally she came out of the bushes and accepted my help lifting her in, her slow wagging indicating her embarrassment over needing the help. She lay down on the floor in the back seat. I apologized to her the whole way for having to do what I had always called “the works” we had to do.
On the way back from emptying the tanks Roo decided to come from the back to take her traditional shotgun seat beside me. She was unsteady on her feet as she tried to climb over the armrest to the front. I wrapped my right arm around her torso to steady her while I brought the rig to a stop. Someone in a pickup was upset at my pulling over and tuned his motor and honked at me while I helped Roo move. She had some difficulty finding a comfortable position with the lump in her arm pressing pressuring her. I stretched her arm out to relieve the pressure and she felt better and rested her head on my forearm the way she began to only some months before when I taught her how to in Oklahoma, and when I thought I had created a problem for myself because once she learned of this position she always wanted to do that and though I loved having her head resting on my arm, it was difficult sometimes when maneuvering the camper was an issue.
This time, though she hated to be in the car when the trailer was unhitched, I talked her through it so she wouldn’t need to go to the trouble of getting in and out of the car more than necessary. I opened the tail gate so she would hear me tell her there wouldn’t be a noise and handled the chains as if they were eggs. The part of the process that frightened her was the lowering of the height of the car by means of a push-button control that allowed the car to drop clear of the hitch receiver on the trailer. The separation of the hitch makes a bump and drops the car a few inches and that always scared Roo. That was what she hid from and the thing she had, in hundreds of camps, distanced herself from. But I set things up so that I would be with her when the drop took place, and she only had a moment’s mild worry and it was done.
The reason I wanted her to stay in the car was because of how much she had enjoyed her brief walk and dip in the ocean the day before. I thought I’d try again and take her to a pond where we could drive right up to the bank. Even if she didn’t want to get out, at least she could lie there in the car with the doors open and spend some time looking at the water and the birds and the sky and the passing squirrels. It had to be better than being stuck in the camper. The lone parking spot there also happens to be right at the spot where she buried what would turn out to be her last, and one of her most impressive kills, a good-sized groundhog a few weeks before. She liked checking on that kill. She was waiting for it to rot sufficiently to be ready to eat.
I backed the car into the spot and opened the doors.
“Who wants to go swimming?” I asked her. At first she didn’t. For ten or fifteen minutes she was content to just sit there and look around or rest her head on my arm. Eventually, though, she decided she might after all to come out. She stood up and gave me one of the licks on the ear she liked to give me that indicated her anticipation of our pack going to the park. She came to the door and with a slow wag of embarrassment – I’m sure that’s what it was, because for her whole life she had considered being helped into or out of the car well beneath the acceptable limits of dignity, and Roo was one of the world’s most dignified dogs – welcomed my lifting her to the ground. I am weak and so variously injured that I was not able to do this smoothly, and she grunted a little when her paws contacted the ground.
The water was right there, no more than 20 feet away, and she trotted in and smiled at the coolness of the water and dunked her head a few times. The old vigor with which she normally shoved her head from side to side was gone but still she dunked and dunked again and came up with her tail held high.
Frog pond was farther down the trail. Not far, only a few hundred feet, a walk of not even two minutes, and when Roo came out of the water she indicated that she wanted to go there.
“Are you sure, Chigi Bear Beker?” I asked her. “We’re a couple of tired old bears. Maybe it’s too far.”
But she stood facing in the direction she wanted to go, the way she has stood at every fork in every trail to let me know which way she preferred, looking back at me until we agreed on a heading, and we walked to the frog pond.
Roo surprised me by walking swiftly and even charging a squirrel who crossed her path and laughing at him when he made it to a tree. To anyone who didn’t know how ill Roo was, she would have appeared normal. When we got to the frog pond Roo looked to me for permission to go in. This was because starting with the surgery on Roo’s paw, when she couldn’t go in the water in Oklahoma while the wound healed and I had to stop her all the time, she had begun to defer to me on the question of going swimming. It was only one of the many ways she acknowledged not so much any question of who was boss, because that was never a position I wanted to hold over her, but that there was something to be said for the ways I looked out for her.
“Of course you can go in,” I said. In fact, I was desperate for her to go in the water, for any opportunity for her to enjoy herself, for her to seize every one of the little grains of happiness left to her. She went in and stood in the shallows with the water cooling her shaved belly. She had some bald patches on her behind and her tail that being wet made stand out. These outward signs of her body’s deterioration, of the difficulties of her disease and the treatment for it and of the way she stood up to it all with such bravery and grace, these marks of the brutality the chemo drugs and the way they chewed her body up and the questions of whether making her go through them had been the right thing to do, always hit me hard.
The sun was shining on the short stretch of the bank of the pond there and a few frogs were squatting there taking advantage of the warmth. I pointed a frog out to Roo, the way I always have since she entered this recent frog hunting phase, the last hunting stage of her life, and she took a good run at the frog. Then she spotted another fat one and took a big leap at him and into the water. with a lush splash. She waded along the bank to a spot where she had to exit the pond because of a downed tree and came out. She looked happy, but she also looked tired.
I got down in the dirt to talk to her and hold her head. “What do you think, Sweet Bear?” I said. “Maybe we should go back to the car.”
She looked down the path in the direction of the rest of the pond and the other frog hunting grounds and thought about it. I know – damn it, knew – Roo, and I know that one of the things she was thinking about was her duty to me, to taking me to the park, to taking me frog hunting to holding up her half of this pack of two. She thought about her duty to the old man and the pleasure of being a dog who had always and without fail lived up to all the duty a dog knows is hers. But she was tired.
I placed the onus on myself. “The old daddy is a very tired old bear, Chig,” I said. “Let’s go back to the car.”
She smiled at me and lowered her head in my hands and agreed. I kissed her on the top of her wet head and stood.
We walked slowly from the last of seven years of swims.
By the time we got back to the camper Roo was too tired to get out of the car. She looked worried that I would make her get out. There had been plenty of times, after all, before she got sick, of course, when I would hurry her out because she would need to be hosed off, dried and brushed. But I would never rush Roo again. Even if the forces of the universe that had stricken Roo with cancer were to discover that they had made an accounting error or had misaddressed her disease to her and taken it back and let her live, I would never again rush Roo, and certainly not now. The car was parked right outside the camper so I could keep an eye on her and lift her down when she decided to come home, if the camper can be called that, and she slept in the car for a couple of hours.
She was mostly air-dried by the time she came out, and I made quick work of the damp spots with a blow drier so that she wouldn’t be uncomfortable all night and she came inside and ate some fresh meat I cooked her and went to sleep while I watched her. Her snoring was beginning to change. It had to be that lump forming in her throat. I tried not to let her see how this affected me.
When it got dark, Roo got up and came over to where I was sitting in the dinette. She smiled and placed her head on my knees so I would scratch her ears. I did this for a long time, until Roo had an idea.
I don’t know what the relationship between Roo’s disease and her decision not to get up on the bed any more was, but since she got cancer she had stopped wanting to go up on the bed. As it was when she was well, she only liked to go up there to sleep in the evenings. Now she went it the bed and sat at the foot and put her chin on the bed.
I took this as an almost incredibly hopeful sign. It meant she was feeling better, that she was in a good mood. It meant progress for once, a deviation from the lethal course she had been on.
I helped her up onto the bed and she had a good wiggle and lay down the way she always had.
Other than at bedtime I almost never lie down on the bed in this camper. I don’t nap. I don’t rest there. I’ve always felt, stupidly, that lying down is tantamount to some small act of surrender, and I’ve been too close to destruction for too long to chance it. But now I lay down on the bed beside Roo and she lay with her back pressed against my legs until later in the night. Until later in the night when things would start to go wrong.