Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Bork: April 29, 1993-June 10, 2008

I have been useless this week.

I understand that there are more important, and even sadder, things than the death of a good dog. I know there are reasonable people who believe too much energy and money that might be better applied to alleviating human problems is misdirected to animal welfare. I know there are people who roll their eyes at yet another writer writing about yet another dog. I understand their point, there is something about it that feels cheap and exploitative.

No one should cry for me or for Bork. His death was not a tragedy. He was an old dog who lived a long and pampered life. He ate ribeye and milkshakes, and he went for long and famous walks and when he could no longer walk we put him in his wagon and rolled him around the neighborhood. He liked people and had lots of human friends. For hours every day he stayed beside me, usually sleeping behind my chair as I worked. We had a very good run together.

He had a couple of bad weeks at the end, but I don’t believe he suffered overmuch. We noticed he was having problems a couple of weeks ago, he was drooling a lot, there was a foul smell and had a poor appetite. Always a svelte dog, he’d lost a little weight.

Though Bork wasn’t cooperative when we tried to pry open his mouth and have a look inside, he didn’t seem to be having any trouble eating. We thought he had an infection — a trip to his vet, the remarkable Dr. Bill Ormsbee at Town & Country Animal Hospital confirmed this.

Dr. Ormsbee warned us that he wasn’t able to thoroughly examine Bork without putting him under sedation, a risk we thought unnecessary under the circumstances. Bork was very old and getting frail, and if he responded to the antibiotics we wouldn’t need to go further.

And he did respond to the antibiotics, he was almost himself again for a few days. Then he relapsed, and I scheduled a return trip to the vet’s. But he rebounded again, so I canceled the trip.

But last Sunday, Bork was drooling blood and we realized the ham we’d left in his bowl that morning was untouched. Karen had fed him a hot dog by hand, but she’d noted that he seemed not to chew his food — he bolted the bite-sized pieces she’d torn off.

We cleaned him up and I sat on the floor with his bowl and fed him a few bites. He took them, he seemed to be hungry and I was again encouraged. Maybe, I thought, it was a dental problem. I worried that I’d canceled the vet trip prematurely, that we might have saved him a few days of discomfort, if we’d gone ahead and had him examined. I worried that I was overthinking the situation, that my fear of what might be found was muddying my judgment. I worried that I wasn’t doing what was best for Bork.

By the time I dropped him off Tuesday morning, I had convinced myself that whatever was wrong with Bork was fixable. I knew he wasn’t going to live forever, that he likely wouldn’t make it another year, but I fully expected to be bring him home that afternoon. I went to the gym.

I’d been there less than a half hour when Dr. Ormsbee called me with bad news: The cancer we had cut from Bork’s tongue more than a year ago had returned. The was a large malignant mass in the back of his mouth that was making it almost impossible for him to eat. There was a decision to be made.

I called Karen and told her. I drove back out Highway 10 to Town & Country. I saw him one last time, although he was heavily sedated and likely didn’t realize I was there. I didn’t go back for him. I went for me.

And I am writing this for me, because I am no damn good for anything else right now.

I know it is self-indulgent. But I also know what matters and that it’s not always what we pretend. What matters is what your heart tells you.

Mine tells me to take a week or so off, then to start scouting rescued puppies.


muleboy303 said...

What matters is what your heart tells you. Mine tells me to take a week or so off, then to start scouting rescued puppies.

an absolutely fantastic plan. as there will always be more good dogs than good masters/providers.
(so go for two if you can)

PM said...

The world of dogs is strange and wonderful (April 20, 2008)


We slept through the storm three weeks ago. Karen says we heard the sirens and rose briefly, but I don’t remember that. I recall some lightning, some rain and an unsuccessful fumble with the clock-radio.
And I remember Bork, our 15-yearold Lab-Chow-Good Neighborhood mix, pulling himself off his bed and padding down the hall to the bathroom, where he spent the rest of night. I don’t know what impelled him to do so, I cannot imagine he was following some weatherperson’s advice to seek shelter, but that is what he did. There are reasons one survives to be an old dog.
He is still curious to me after all these years. Last night he upset bowls of water and food in the sunroom, an action we took as a protest of some perceived injustice. What? We ask, expecting something like an answer, but the old dog just lowers his head, focusing on a point in the ether halfway to the wall. Inscrutable, he is at times, this furry Yoda.
He watches as I mop the floor and sweep up kibble and dump it back into the bowl. Bork doesn’t eat much kibble these days, it serves mostly as a kind of pilaf, a bed upon which momentarily rests the ham or sausage or steak on which he routinely dines. He is spoiled in this way; he had surgery to remove a tumor on his tongue a little more than a year ago and since then he’s been on a high protein diet. His coat is lustrous, his eyes are bright and his expectations impossible to meet. A glop of stewy stuff from a can? Sorry, he’s not that hungry.
It is a strange and wonderful thing to pay attention to an animal for 15 years; Bork was a delightful puppy, an intelligent and faithful (if sometimes needy) companion. For years he was a contentious lieutenant to older dominant Coal Dog. Now he’s grown into a grumpy and fussily particular old dog, with a passive aggressive streak I usually—but not always—find amusing.
He has learned where to stand to block the infrared rays from the remote control to keep me from pausing the DVD player. He thinks this is hilarious, and I do too—though I wonder if he’s considered the health effects of those rays he’s absorbing. I figure that, at his age, if he wants to start smoking a pipe, what could it hurt?
Here’s his other not so delightful trick: He has a bed which we dutifully shuttle from our bedroom to living room depending on where we (and hence our dogs) are likely to be. Bork does not always avail himself of his bed. Often he’ll lie beside it, sometimes with his paws draped over it in what we consider to be a claiming gesture.
Sherpa, the white dog who’s been with us for more than a decade now, understands her place well. She knows she isn’t top dog and is content to let Bork eat before she will start her supper. (It doesn’t matter that she has her own bowl; she lets him finish then eats from his bowl. They both snack from the second bowl.)
She will, however, occasionally steal upon his bed. This inevitably occasions a little ritual on Bork’s part: He walks up to his bed and looks at his sleeping sister. Then he looks at me. Then he proceeds, clicking his nails down the hall, to make a circuit of the house. He returns to his bed to peer at his sister. He looks at me again. He goes clicking off.
This cycle will be repeated until, meanie that I am, I speak sharply to Sherpa and tell her to get off her idiot brother’s bed. (The actual command is “Sherpa, zoom.” ) She then skitters off, terrified, looking back over her shoulder at me accusingly. (Sherpa is a rescued dog who apparently suffered some primal injury at the hands of someone who resembles me. At least that’s what we believe. After all these years, there are still only a very few circumstances in which I can approach her without her reacting dramatically. )
Then Bork will come in and walk in circles around his bed for a few moments before collapsing heavily into it. He sighs, and if we are lucky, goes to sleep.
If we are unlucky, he scrunches around for a while, then gets up and clicks down the hall and out the dog door. He checks his messages, returns a few phone calls, then clicks back down the hall, only to find Sherpa back in his bed. He shoots a plaintive look at my back, because I’ve turned over and am pretending to sleep. So he clicks back down the hall, makes another circuit of the house, and arrives back at his bed to gaze dolefully at his peacefully dozing sister.
While I might hold out for a time, sooner or later I’ll repeat the “Sherpa, zoom” command and send her fleeing in terror. Bork will once again climb into his bed and settle in. At which point he might decide to scratch his left ear or chew on his right rear paw.
Sherpa, meanwhile, sulks off to the leather couch. Sometimes she returns, just before we wake, to make a circle on Karen’s side of the bed, where she presumably feels safe from the zoom monster.
I don’t pretend to understand the dynamic—Bork seems not to care at all for his bed unless it’s occupied, though I imagine it must be more comfortable than our hardwood floor. And he never directly reproaches Sherpa for usurping his place, though she’s invariably submissive to him in other situations.
And I don’t know why she’ll try to sleep on his bed when doing so puts her in easy reach of the thing she fears most in the world—me. On occasion, I’ve touched her as I’ve commanded her to zoom. She always reacts as though I’ve applied the burning tip of a cigarette to her back. (I don’t want to contemplate what may have happened to her before we took her in.) I mean, why sleep next to the scary ogre man when you could be on a leather couch? There’s some sort of doggie imperative to be close to your humans, I suppose, and they say even mistreated dogs bond with their keepers, but why can’t Bork do his lead dog’s duty and kick Sherpa out of his bed? Or at least give her a little backof-the-throat growl to let her know he’s not happy? Why can’t they share? I’ve observed them nestled up against each other in all sorts of situations—mostly when they didn’t realize I was looking.
For whatever reason, it falls on me to be the heavy. And they both expect me to do the dirty work. There’s a mess? Well, clean it up, you. My sister’s in my bed. Do something.
It’s little enough to put up with, and I can’t imagine a life without these pairs of beseeching animal eyes. They have such confidence in us, such sweet faith. While they forgive us our inadequacies, failing them would break our hearts.

PM said...

We all have our work, animals and humans (May 7, 2006)

Philip Martin

We got back from New York on the eve of The Mayor of Hillcrest’s 13th birthday; he puppybounded in and licked our knees in greeting. We unpacked and squared away the house and hooked up the tandem lead to take his honor, Bork, and Sherpa—who for all we know is 20 years old—on a walk.
As he has for the past six months or so now, Coal, our battered champion, stayed home. He is retired from walking. His back legs fail him and now I fear his heart is going; his seizures seem milder in the moment but seem to take a deeper toll. From a polite distance, he seems becalmed; up close he’s a neurological disaster, a mass of tiny tremors and misfiring tics.
Coal seems untroubled by the mutiny of his body—aside from fugitive annoyance with his stupid back feet, his countenance is perpetually, uncommonly sweet. He doesn’t know what’s going on, but I think he trusts us. He has no need to run after a ball anymore, he can take his time limping to his supper pan. If the birds eat his food, there will be more. Coal will not go hungry.
What do dogs know? Bork can dread, he sees the suitcases come out, he knows when we are leaving. Pavlov demonstrated that dogs have the capacity to anticipate. But for them it’s all short term. They don’t worry about the thing that none of us can quite imagine—the possibility of our own nonexistence.
Dogs have no religion, though they have beliefs and superstitions. Bork understands his neighborhood is his domain. He takes a proprietary interest in the comings and goings, the various block parties and street fairs. He investigates and questions novelty. He looks forward to his daily outings and I believe he misses them when we leave for a few days. He wants to go in rain and snow—his world is larger than those of many other dogs. He struggles toward a comprehension that, if achieved, would seem to bring him little profit. A dog need only be so smart; Bork borrows worry with his incessant seeking.
But it also keeps him, if not young in spirit, at least engaged with the churn and flow of the world beyond. Bork has advanced into some no man’s land between beast and angel. He lives as much in the fraught, nervous-making world of his people as the doggish nod of his brothers. Which is why he has become The Mayor of Hillcrest, a slightly ridiculous self-impressed figure who makes his daily rounds secure in the illusion that the church bells toll to announce his approach. Like all politicians, the fact that he is often wrong hardly dissuades him from forming theories; he perceives uncertainty as weakness and endeavors to be strong—for us, his unreliable constituents.
Yet like all evolved creatures, Bork has his terrors. Thunderstorms are bad, and city buses make him cringe when they rumble past. At night, he wants to sleep near us. We’ve made him a pallet on the floor. Sometimes I hear him crying in his sleep and wonder what pictures form in his furry yellow head. What dreams come to this fuzzbucket prince? Does he understand them as dreams, as something apart from “real” experience? Or is sleep for Bork another kind of outing, a romp in another world beyond the gate? Does he rule there as well?
I understand the human impulse to anthropomorphize animals and gods and accept the epistemological limits of my own mind. We’re all blind to whatever ultimate truth exists, we hazard guesses and place bets and try to figure out how to live without causing undue pain. Our dogs make us happy and we provide for them; they seem capable of joy and love but we don’t know what they think or even if they can be said to think.
I prefer to believe in some kinds of magic, in the possibility of love and the indestructibility of something we call the soul. And if we have souls then dogs have them too, and lizards and snakes and beetles as well. Life is not personality, but it is not just the animating wash of some vital chemical over tissue. Maybe it is a dream from which we will one day awake. I don’t know.
What we do is the best we can, Bork and I, and day to day we neither consider nor recognize the limits of our understanding. We love each other. He is my friend, part of our blended family. Coal is his brother, Sherpa his sister. He is the Mayor of Hillcrest.
That is my operative fiction; it works because it makes the world more endurable. Lots of people love their dogs and lots of people believe there is something silly in that—cardinal emotions ought to be reserved for others of our kind. They might be right, I understand that human life ought to be given legal primacy. I understand that foreign babies are worth more than the lives of my dogs and if by sacrificing them I could save one nameless starving stranger I would do it.
I suppose.
But that sacrifice is not required of me. And those strangers who might be saved don’t exist for me either, though intellectually I know the world is sad and pain is inescapable. I would rather not add to the heartbreak, so sometimes I write checks to assuage my conscience. I have my work and The Mayor of Hillcrest has his, and maybe we both imagine that what we do is important in some larger scheme that we can only pretend to understand.
I sit at a desk and fill up screens with glyphs that some people take for words. You make what you will from them, they conjure pictures in your head. The Mayor of Hillcrest barks at creatures he doesn’t recognize, he patrols his yard, he checks his traps, he rolls on his back in the grass that needs cutting. He sniffs the air. He leaps. He lives.
He teaches me things.

bojomojo88 said...

I just wanted to say that although I have only lived in Arkansas (Rison) since 2003 I have become very invested in your stories about Bork and the others. Your touch of humanity and personal happiness (and grief) are part of my sunday, every sunday. I feel like I knew Bork! I was so sad to hear of his passing but trust this: He IS in the Happy Hunting pain, no problems, an always full food dish and water...legs to chase rabbits and he knows he is loved!

God Bless!
Bonnie Johnson

Steve Nawojczyk said...

Bork+Phil+Karen=Unconditional love.