The Other Things We Do: Going to the Dogs
I like words. I like the way they roll around in my mouth like hard candy. I like to suck on them till they become part of me and trickle out through my fingers onto the page. I love words so much I want to sleep with them, marry them, love them forever, and I do. All of these. I do.
Just like any other relationship to which I say I do, there are times when I need to say I don’t. There are times when I need to be away.
That’s when I go to my dogs. I have two. One is named Rugsy. Not Rugsby, or Roxy. Rugsy. He’s a gentleman and a scholar. He’s the kind of dog who, when Lisa and I aren’t home, dons a smoking jacket and puffs a pipe. He strokes his beard and ponders the meaning of life. He’s a prophet who foresees everything, but has been struck mute by the gods. He worries for the state of humankind.
There was a time in my life when I desperately needed No Words. For months, I’d been watching my mother slip between the seam of this world and into whatever comes (or doesn’t come) next. I was spectacularly fucked up about it. My grief took the form of dogs. I wanted—_needed_—a dog. As my mother slipped out of my life, Rugsy slipped into it.
I had just picked him up to bring him home for the first time. He’d been in prison (actual prison: inmate training program), one of their longest canine residents, because “he didn’t show well.” But the first time I met him, he scanned the prison lobby, then bee-lined across the linoleum, and sat on my feet. When he hopped into my car the first day, I felt elated. And in that same moment, my phone rang.
“BK,” the voice said. “It’s time.”
My mother had seemed near death several times. But I’d never heard the nurses sound so certain. And here I sat, with an unnamed dog in the car, a stranger.
I swung by home, picked up Lisa, and together the three of us went to the Nursing Center, where they didn’t allow dogs.
This “no dogs” policy had prompted me, two months earlier, to give my mother a toy dog for Christmas. She’d been asking for a dog for years, and when I gave her the wrapped box a few weeks before Christmas, I told her she had to be very careful with it.
“Is it alive?” she asked.
I nodded, yes. We were playing make believe, like when I was a child. It was fun. We petted the box. We spoke to it. We loved its playful promise.
On Christmas day, she opened it, saw the fluffy toy, and her eyes lit with a kind of passion I knew was her essence, but hadn’t seen for years. With Parkinsonian arms that usually flailed no matter what she told them to do, she held the dog close to her. She looked into its button eyes. “Is it really alive?” she asked.
We were still playing. I said, “Yes, it’s your dog, Mom!”
Stuck in words as I am, I didn’t understand that my mother could no longer comprehend the difference between_ real_ and pretend. But the moment when I realized that she believed the toy was actually alive slices me to this day. There was a bulky silence between us, joyous at first, and then awkward. Then just plain empty. She pushed the toy dog aside. She said, in her weakened voice, “Open my gift to you next.”
In the months that followed, that stuffed dog became a pillow to help my mother sit upright in her wheelchair, nothing more, nothing less.
The last day of Mom’s life, Lisa and I had no choice but to bring our new dog into the Nursing Center. Fuck the rules. On this day, they would allow dogs.
Mom always lit up when Lisa and I walked in, and on her last day, her eyes blazed with recognition. But when she saw the dog, that elicited an even stronger light. He went straight to Mom, as if she’d called him (wordlessly). Gently, one paw at a time, he climbed onto Mom’s bed. Mom spooned him. He moaned.
We sat in the room, the four of us. Nurses came in and out. My mother’s “roommate” transferred to another room, but the noisy oxygen machine that regulated her breathing stayed. The machine pumped like a wheezing metronome. And this dog, who I now know can’t tolerate loud noises, lay still throughout.
Lisa and I slept on the floor. The dog slept on the bed, Mom’s arms wrapped around him.
Somewhere in the night, Mom woke. “Rugsy,” she said, to the dog. (Not Roxy or Rugsby. Rugsy. She said it clearly.) I can’t remember everything exactly. But naming him was one of the last words Mom ever spoke.
After my mother’s death, when our grief began to subside slightly, Lisa and I finally opened Rugsy’s papers. We learned this: Rugsy is a purebred German wirehaired pointer who was rejected because his ears are all kinds of wrong. He was born on Valentine’s day. Mom passed on Valentine’s day, a year after his birth.
Words make that coincidence sound cheap and impossible. But it’s simply what happened.
Words are my life. They are what wake me in the morning. They are ten-million lovers with whom I never get bored. And they fall short every time.
It’s what I learn from dogs that I bring back to the page. It’s the spaces between, the things that cannot be said, the silences that pound like metronomes, the final words in my mother’s mouth, and the unfathomable quiet that followed.
That’s what hits the page. That’s what matters.
Nuff said. I’m taking my dogs for a walk now. Fetch. They bring it back to me every time.