Photo by Susan Bender
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Deborah Thompson
Let Dog

My husband lies dying in the living room back home, while I roam the dog park. With our three dogs, I inhale the meeting of mountains and plains in the foothills of Northern Colorado. To the west looms Horsetooth Mountain, and beyond that the great Rockies. To the east the prairies stretch into forever.

But dogs know only now, only here, only nostrils and panting and dirt.

The night before, the long night of May 31, our dogs kept watch, preternaturally still, while their human leader, my 38-year-old life-partner, lay on the hospice-supplied bed, dying of liver failure caused by colon cancer. Rajiv had been in that somewhere-else state for over 24 hours: watching, looking with jaundice-dyed eyes at something beyond my scope. When he thrashed, I measured out an eyedropper of liquid morphine and massaged his throat into swallowing, as I'd learned to do with the dogs' oral medications. I gave myself tasks to hold together through the most important labor of our 13 years together: giving Rajiv the best death I could. When I changed his sweat-soaked tee-shirt for a dry one — his arms obediently raising at my coaxing, though he didn't seem to recognize me — the dogs sniffed at the discarded wet shirt with dismay. They worked the scent with drooped, unwagging tails.

By the dark of morning, Rajiv stopped responding to my coaxing touch. I turned, exhausted, toward the sofa and the pull of needful sleep, but immediately he grabbed my arm and held tight, almost ferociously. Was this a new burst of life, or of dying? I lay on the edge of the narrow bed and held his once-cinnamon hand, now otherworldly golden. His arm curled around my waist, a move his body remembered how to do without his mind telling him. We lay that way all night, neither asleep nor awake, clutching together on the bed that rhythmically inflated and deflated to prevent bed-sores. Our dogs breathed with us to its hissing rhythms. Pretzel, our black mutt, devoted to Rajiv with border collie intensity, slept at our feet, his crooked and underbitten jaw set stoically. Chappy and Houdini, fawn cocker mixes, my dogs more than Rajiv's, settled on the stairwell overlooking the bed, their spaniel noses open for a change in scent. We waited, all five of us, for light.

The next morning Rajiv was pushing me away, throwing off clothes, turning his head aside fiercely when I tried to swab his mouth. Pretzel stirred restlessly on the bed with Rajiv's stirrings, rearranging his limbs without settling. Chappy and Houdini barked without direction, running from window to window to locate the source of their unrest. Did Rajiv know what was going on? Was he still there inside that reactive, bilirubin-soaked body?

By mid-morning, as Rajiv's throes subsided while mine accelerated, our doctor friend Kelley arrived to relieve me. I can't live without Rajiv, I told him, I won't do it. Kelley urged me to go to the dog park. When I protested, he commanded, Go, with Cesar Milan-like calm assertiveness. I submitted. He knew it was my sanctuary and sanatorium. It would re-arrange my thinking, he said, and pull me back from nevermore to now.

* * *

The meaning of now was defined by the wagging of three tails — two bushy, one a stump — in response to the question, "Dog park?" Now shook uncontainably out of "stay" as I fastened collars. It unleashed, at the release command "okay," into staccato play-bows.

"Dog is my Co-pilot," one bumper sticker blazoned to us as we pulled into the parking lot. Another car sported a "Praise Dog" sticker. Rajiv and I never fit in here in Protestant Fort Collins — nicknamed "Fort Caucasian." Rajiv, a Hindu agnostic to the end, and I, a devout Jewish-raised atheist, were regularly subjected to proselytizing and occasionally warned that we were going to hell. But in the dog park, evangelism was off-limits, except for the dog religion that we all half-jokingly practiced. One regular confessed to me that she thought that dogs were angels made flesh — and she meant this literally. She'd reached the danger zone of dogolatry toward which I was headed. When forced to hear or recite religious material that I didn't believe in, I mentally substituted "Dog" for "God": "In Dog we trust"; "One nation, under Dog." "Let go and let Dog."

* * *

June 1 is a brazenly golden day. In the heat of noon, the dog park is vast. None of the regulars are here, fortunately, so I don't have to talk to any humans in words. I walk around in a daze, checking my cell phone every ten seconds for missed messages from Kelley while the dogs scamper and scout, refreshing the inventory in their nostrils. But I don't understand the sunlight. I don't understand the overwhelmingly blue sky, the striated clouds in mysterious pastel textures, far, far away and near enough to touch. The looming mountains to the west, the horizon to the east, I don't understand. They are too big to see. The only reality is Rajiv dying in our living room on a bed that inflates and deflates with a sigh. When that ends the world will end.

But dogs insert reality into the void. Once inside the fence, they do the noses-to-anuses circle dance, then trot along the fence to check their pee-mail. Pretzel is already drooling. A misshapen, misbegotten, Dr. Seuss-like creature — his spaniel head too small for his leggy, border collie body — he's got a crooked underbite that pushes his blackberry nose off-center. Kelley, who trained in pediatrics, said that in the old days of medicine, when a child didn't look right, the doctor would note FLK (for "funny-looking kid") in the chart. So Rajiv and I called Pretzel an FLD. Now, after clenching his jaw all night, he finally relaxes it into a dog-smile.

The cockers, too, come back to life. Houdini, the cocker puppy, runs in three wide circles before plopping flirtatiously on a young woman's feet for adoration. Chappy lifts his sharp nose to divine a scent. Locating it, his triumphant tail flaps like wheat in the wind.

As if nothing else existed. As if unaware that, in a few hours, life will stop being livable.

Now — as Pretzel grins, as Chappy inhales, as Houdini scampers, as my husband lies dying — Allie, a grotesquely obese blue heeler whose every snort bears the despair of a last breath, emerges from the shadows, crawls under my palm, and butts it for a petting. Her breath stinks, and she teeters dangerously. "She has heart and thyroid trouble," her owner apologizes to me. "There's nothing more we can do. She's not long for this world." But when I roll my palm along her scalp, her snorting — for just a second — tops. They say that petting a dog lowers not only the human's blood pressure and heart rate, but also the dog's. I feel my vitals lowering in the dog park. When I quietly pet Allie, away from the ruckus of the other dogs, I can feel her vitals, too, calming under my hand.

As Allie leans harder into my hand, I stare at the dark spots on the white background of her heavy coat under the startling sun. In an instant they switch to white spots on a dark background. It's like the way the patterns of the black-and-white tiles in the bathroom used to shift for me when I was a little girl, when I learned how to stare hard and then let go. I step back, and the mountains become real, and then the endless stretch of prairie, and more real still is the big Colorado sky. The dogs and I are spots. My pulse steadies, and I breathe deep enough to howl into the intersection of now and eternity.

* * *

The moment was quickly past. Back home, we found Rajiv awake and thirsty, though unable to swallow. But when I swabbed his dry lips, he closed them around the sponge end of the swab and sucked the water — hard. Kelley said that the sucking instinct is one of the first a baby presents, and one of the last a body lets go of. Rajiv was going back in time, back into his animal body, before language or loss. I dipped swab after swab in water and fed them to Rajiv's sucking mouth.

At some point late in the night, while I was absorbed in the last rhythms of Rajiv's body, Pretzel jumped back onto the foot of the bed and curled into his pretzel figure, his rounded back touching Rajiv's ankle, his paws not overlapping pretzel-style as usual but pressed together as if in prayer. He lay in vigil at his master's feet until the last breath.

* * *

Years later, my dogs are still straining at their leashes to pull me back from nevermore. After a few days and weeks of mourning in their all-too-present ways — Houdini's explosive diarrhea, Chappy's refusing to leave my side, Pretzel's vomiting and taking refuge under the futon — the dogs quickly recovered their now. I took longer.

We're still dog park regulars. The events of my life have been marked here. If I were a dog I would still smell the markings: our strolling hand-in-hand, Rajiv and me, in shorts or in ski-jackets; my limping the perimeter through injuries and after surgeries; my walking with the dogs, outside myself, while Rajiv lay dying; my avoiding eye contact with other humans after his death; our eventually meeting, the dogs and I, a new generation of canine and human regulars.

I can still sense Rajiv's presence here, too, and the presence of his dying, the meeting of life and death in the panorama of mountains, prairies, and endless skies. Amid the dust and the dogshit, I smell the ashes of his now. I touch it when I bend to pet the arthritic, slowly dying Allie, still miraculously alive all these years later, heaving and wheezing and snorting obesely as she stares at me through cataract-clouded eyes, not long for this world, but still taking joy in the dog park's smells and rhythms. I feel it in the hot snorts of her breath against my cheek when I kneel to meet her face.

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