I think of the children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant’s way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in.
Subscribe and Save up to 55%
To distract myself from the fact that my dog is dying, I check the headlines. This is August 2017, so the news is not good, but it keeps my gaze from drifting over to my dog’s curled-up body, trembling on his bed in the corner. In a lot of ways, reading the news is like watching my dog die, just easier to bear.
Many of the articles anticipate the moment the moon will block out the sun and a narrow strip of America will go dark. Others show a crowd of angry white men carrying backyard-cookout torches across the University of Virginia campus. They could be on their way to a luau, if not for their humorless demeanor.
No one would suggest these two news items, the eclipse and the white-nationalist demonstration, are connected, but I am trying to keep my attention off the facts in the room with me, and my mind wanders to the possibility that these men in Charlottesville are marching because they are convinced an eclipse has already come for them.
The facts in the room are these: My dog, Maynard, is nearly fifteen, and his kidneys are failing. There’s cancer — most likely a brain tumor — growing inside him. He is not healthy and never will be again. But also, importantly, he’s not gone yet.
Maynard’s a Chihuahua. Small breeds like his can live to be twenty, or so I am told. My wife used to say that he would make it to twenty-five and set a world record. Mostly joking, I would say that I hoped not; just imagine how tyrannical he would be at a quarter of a century.
Now, instead of imagining world-record longevity, we wonder if he will make it another week. When I go to the dog-food aisle, I have to calculate my optimism. It’s currently somewhere between three and seven cans’ worth. I weigh the addition to our credit-card balance against the inconvenience of making more-frequent runs to the store. This calculus of dying is hard to get right. In the end I walk out with five cans. It feels like a safe guess.
Two months ago was the last time we bought Maynard’s dry food. There was a promotion on his senior kibble: buy two bags, get a five-dollar gift card. I put one twenty-pound bag in the cart and asked my wife if I should get a second. A bag that size could last Maynard for months, and even back then I knew he might not be around that long. She said of course I should: if, heaven forbid, we didn’t use it, we could donate it to a shelter. I hoisted another bag, wondering whether I was being more thrifty or hopeful.
The day after the tiki-torch march, a Saturday, I see only the changes in Maynard, and I have trouble accepting them. On his morning walk he moves slowly, losing his balance and falling into his own stream of urine. He doesn’t have an appetite. It’s as if whatever invasive growth is taking root in him is edging out the Maynard I know. As soon as we return to the house, I check the news.
The big rally in Charlottesville is scheduled for today; last night was just a preview. Already it is building to something ugly. Factions assemble in parks and city streets. One side looks like a crowd heading to a concert, with maybe a few more bandannas. The other side, with their improvised armor and weaponry, appear to be extras from a low-budget post-apocalyptic film. There are shields, flagpoles that can double as bludgeons, and cloth-wrapped fists. I see Nazi flags in American streets and men wearing desert camouflage in a heavily wooded corner of Virginia. Some cradle a loaded AR-15 across their chest. “Our blood! Our soil!” they scream, as though their feet were not planted on Algonquin land.
My first instinct is to say that what I’m seeing is not my country, or that this nation, like my dog, has developed a new illness, a cancer. But my grandmother is Native American, and her father lived through allotment, when the U.S. government, after forcing tribes onto reservation lands, broke up those lands to make them available to white settlers. So my first reaction fades fast. What I’m seeing may be malignant, but it is not new. My country’s illness is chronic.
By 11 AM, as Charlottesville begins to erupt, my wife and I are on our way to the vet. I wait in the car while she goes inside to pick up some pain medication for Maynard. He doesn’t eat when he’s hurting, and he’s hurting all the time now.
Parked next to our Honda is an older-model American-made truck, painted bone white where it isn’t jagged with rust: an artifact of another era. A man exits the veterinary clinic walking two gray pit bulls and heads toward the truck. He wears a short-sleeved T-shirt and denim shorts, and his exposed skin is covered in tattoos. His white skin looks like old paper, where it isn’t suffused with black ink.
Then I see the swastikas: one on each forearm below the elbow. A few more are hidden among the storm of tattoos on his shins. The leg swastikas are sort of bubbly, like puffs of smoke or long, bent turds. I want to roll down the window and tell him that his tattoos look like shit.
Here is an infectious cell. Here is my country’s sickness. Meanwhile Maynard lies in the passenger seat, trembling. Cancer in the car with me, cancer right outside my door.
Seeing a Nazi in real life, not safely contained by a computer screen, I am filled with disbelief, then disgust. How could he leave his house looking like that?
I won’t know until later the extent of the violence in Charlottesville. As I sit here, protesters are clashing. A black man is being assaulted in a parking garage. There is shoving and shouting amid clouds of pepper spray. A white supremacist fires a shot in the direction of counter-protesters. As I study this man’s tattoos to confirm that my eyes are not lying, I wonder why someone so in love with his whiteness would try so hard to paint every inch of his body black.
We have entered into our own standoff, the tattooed man and I, though he doesn’t know it. I’m hoping that my wife doesn’t exit the clinic and have to walk past him. I will be forced to intervene then, step out and position myself between her and the tattooed man. Thankfully, the man turns, and his dogs follow him to the fenced yard where the vet’s patients relieve themselves. As hideous as the man is, with his hate written on his pallid skin and his greasy hair dangling from under his baseball cap, his dogs are beautiful. They wiggle as they tag along after him, often looking up to read his intentions and feelings, to satisfy his wishes. They look like good dogs. They want to make him happy.
I have been told that love trumps hate. And in this moment, with my dying dog on the seat next to me, I want to be a good man. I try to extend my empathy in the direction of the tattooed man. His dogs love him, and it appears that he loves them back. He has taken them to the vet. They are well-fed. Though their ears are cropped, they are clean and muscular. I wonder how he talks to them. I imagine the affectionate voice he uses. I can tell by their coats that these are indoor dogs. Perhaps they sit on the furniture. Perhaps they sleep in his bed. Even if I cannot comprehend this human, I think I understand his dogs.
My grandma’s people, the Osage, say that dogs were given to us by the Creator when we lost our way. The people had fallen into discord. They could not get along and refused to help one another in times of need. The tribe was in danger of succumbing to a war of all against all. So the Creator sent dogs to show the people loyalty and selflessness. Because of dogs’ love, the Osage were healed.
Glancing at my dog in the passenger seat, I believe this story. How many times has he shown me how effective a little compassion can be?
When my wife was still just a woman I was attracted to, and our conversations were as careful and deliberate as a dragonfly alighting on a pond’s surface, the topic turned to my dog. She asked what kind, and I — knowing it was not the right answer but not about to lie — said he was a Chihuahua. She raised an eyebrow and crinkled her nose. I could see the first strike go up on the scoreboard of my suitability. She was a big-dog person, as I had been for most of my life. “Just wait until you meet him,” I said.
I didn’t begrudge her this prejudice. Small dogs are yippy and annoying, not to mention strange-looking. At least, that’s what I’d thought until, lonely and in need of structure, I had decided to adopt Maynard. He’d been taken from a family member who was struggling with addiction, and I figured we could both use somebody.
A week and a half after that conversation, the attractive woman and I had been on one date, and she came over to my apartment to tell me we wouldn’t be going on another. She intended to let me down easy. The timing was wrong, she would say. She was still hurting from her last relationship. But as she entered, Maynard greeted her — yipping, yes, but also dancing, hopping on his back legs with his forelimbs overhead. He jumped for her acknowledgment.
She sat down to deliver her prepared statement, and he leapt into the chair with her. He licked her face and wriggled in her lap, then snuggled between her thigh and the armrest.
Stories suggest that Mesoamerican peoples placed Chihuahuas on injuries or aches because the dogs were thought to suck the pain into themselves. Their small size and desire to be held close made them perfect for this. As my future wife began to lay out the reasoning she had thought so sound on the drive over, Maynard started to soak up her worries.
Watching the tattooed man pace along behind his dogs, I wonder: Can I hate a person who cares so much for his animals? If I let him hold my dog, would it ease whatever pain made him this way? Would he try to understand me as I have tried to understand him? Hippocrates said that healing is a matter of time but also a matter of opportunity. I have one hand on the door handle and another on my dog’s steadily rising and falling chest.
As if on cue, the man turns his back to me. His jean shorts are sagging, and his ass crack is visible. He makes no attempt to correct this malfunction.
This man, this Nazi, who has the gall to use my vet, walks around the dog yard like he is just another person. Seeing him with his ass hanging out and his tattoos and his utter comfort, I can’t stand it. No doubt this man would be pleased if his dogs attacked my half-Chinese half sisters; that he would encourage his pit bulls to bite my half-black cousins. That is what his skin is telling me. That is the message he has written on himself with indelible ink.
And if he gave the command, the dogs would obey, because they love their owner.
Hitler had dogs. I’ve read that he rescued and adopted a stray terrier from the front during World War I. He chased it through the barracks, no doubt laughing, no doubt calmed by its presence. Imagine Hitler smiling and laughing. Imagine Hitler chasing his dog past the bunks and boots of other German soldiers. Imagine Hitler loving anything.
Under his rule Nazi Germany had some of the strictest animal-protection laws in the world — laws that, if they were in place today, would still make Germany one of the most progressive countries when it comes to animal rights. This at the same time that Germany was rounding people up and sending them to death camps.
After World War I Hitler had German shepherds. His favorite, Blondi, was in his Berlin bunker with him until almost the last. It was Blondi, not mistress Eva Braun, who slept beside Hitler in his bed as he hunkered beneath the earth like a mole while his people died fighting for him. It was Blondi who tested his cyanide capsules to ensure they worked.
My wife gets into the car with empty hands. She scoops up Maynard and cradles him. I was so busy watching the Nazi trundle around the yard that I didn’t even see her approach.
She says the vet is not in today, and the vet didn’t leave the prescription waiting for us, and because the pain medicine is a controlled substance, the vet technicians cannot give it to us. Never mind that our dog weighs seven pounds and gets only a small dose. Somewhere out there, people get pain medications for their pets and then take those medications themselves. I wonder if any addicts adopt dogs simply for this purpose.
Later, after a car hurtles through a crowd of innocent people in Charlottesville, I think of the tattooed man and blame him personally.
Maynard, meanwhile, is so uncomfortable he snaps at me as I try to fasten his collar for a walk. He bites me as hard as he can, barely denting my skin but pissing me off. I grit my teeth, and even though my love for him is what’s got me so twisted up inside, I take the bite poorly: as if we, the 185-pound human and the 7-pound Chihuahua, were on an even playing field; as if he were being aggressive and not defensive.
Maynard’s illness culminates a couple of days before the eclipse. At about midnight he starts shivering. His head jerks to the side: a tic. It happens again. His jaw clenches and the tic takes hold of his whole body. I lift him up. He seems to be choking. His legs extend and jerk.
“This is it,” my wife chants behind me. “Oh, no, this is it. Don’t let this be it. He’s going.”
She is at once resigned and pleading for intervention. We alternate between refusal and acceptance as he spasms before us. Finally thought overtakes panic. I listen for breathing. It’s there: short, choppy breaths. He sucks them in through his nostrils between jerks, like a person fighting drowning.
“He’s not choking,” I say. I press him to my chest, cradle him against me. “It’s OK,” I say. “It’s OK.”
By the time the seizure stops, I am covered in the froth from his mouth. An insistent and pathetic yowl comes from Maynard for nearly an hour. We take him to the vet, who says the seizure has blinded my dog. Maynard is panicking because his world has gone utterly black. An eclipse has come for him.
After a couple of exhausting days he recovers somewhat. He acts normal enough that we are lulled into a cautious optimism, which is really denial. Maynard will hold out for almost a month before the seizures return, this time in clusters, and I will choose to let him go. Afterward I will return to the news for a distraction from his absence, and for a sign that this darkness will pass.
I appreciate that Maynard continues to touch others far beyond the reach of his little legs. I sense that, as animal lovers, Linda Stein and I have much in common, and I was surprised she came to so negative a judgment from my selective sharing of this period. But then, “Eclipse” does also portray my encounter with a man whom I judged solely on the messages tattooed on his skin. It is dangerously easy for any of us to presume.
“Eclipse” wasn’t exclusively about Maynard’s decline, but I expect that part of the essay resonates with anyone who has cared for an ailing companion. Nor was it intended to provide a full accounting of the quality-of-life calculus I computed each day, under our vet’s guidance, for Maynard’s last month. It sounds like Stein also has an intimate understanding of that math. It hurts. The in-between period when decisions must be made about another’s well-being are fraught. There are few easy answers.
Dan Musgrave’s essay “Eclipse” was poignant [January 2018]. I love the spin of the author’s dog changing his girlfriend’s heart — so sweet. In addition to being a pet owner for more than seventy years, I was a small-animal veterinarian for almost fifty. I’ve had similar struggles at the end of my pets’ lives, and I’ve shared those moments with owners whose pets I served. I found joy in my practice mostly by being a part of the human-animal bond.
Dan Musgrave’s treatment of his dying dog, Maynard, [“Eclipse,” January 2018] was deplorable. Musgrave allowed Maynard to suffer for almost a month, reporting that the dog was “hurting all the time” and would struggle for breath, suffer seizures, panic from blindness, and cry “for nearly an hour.”
It is extremely difficult to have an animal companion euthanized. Like Musgrave, I have waited too long, and my terminally ill animals suffered because I could not bear to say goodbye. But allowing animals to live in pain for this reason is cruel. After discussion with my vet, I recently had my dying cat euthanized as soon as he had difficulty breathing. I miss him immensely but believe it was the merciful choice.
I hope Musgrave and his wife will be more compassionate to their future animal companions.