I lie on the deck with Murdoch, our bodies sprawled out
together on the worn wood, my arm draped across his side, fingers playing with
the silky soft fur on his chest. I push my nose into the back of his head and
breath deeply, inhale his smell.
It is early Sunday morning; the bugs are just starting to
wake up beneath the bright overcast sky, only one or two blackfly tick against
my skin. In another hour there will be a swarm, a barrage, they will bounce off
my face in a frenzy, try to fly into my eyes, up my nose, they will form a haze
around Murdoch. So we choose our moments, like now, to just be outdoors
together, as we have spent every day over the past nine years.
Our time is limited. We found out mid-week about the bone
cancer, the reason his leg has been so sore, the reason he’s gone off his food.
It’s not his cruciate ligament after all. I had wondered why it wasn’t getting
better, why his leg seemed to be getting skinnier, bonier. Perhaps it was never
even his tooth that we thought was causing him to struggle through mealtimes,
the one we had removed, and then the other tooth too.
Morgan called me at work. My new job that kept me from being
there when the vet did full-body x-rays and told Morgan what was going on. I
stood in the stairwell, concrete and cinderblock, as the icy sliver ‘bone
cancer’ took its first stab at my heart, and I locked it away in there, the
weight of it, as I finished my day, my week.
There is a crush of time, a desperate clinging to the hours
of each day. We feed Murdoch whatever he will eat, one piece at a time held in
hand beneath his nose, pork, ham, kibble, muffin. We walk in the woods, go for
car rides. He sparks up, he is there, excited, engaged, and then he is
exhausted. There is pain medication, and that is all we can do.
We feel cheated. It is too sudden, this news. My heart
cannot catch up to my brain and my brain does not believe any of it. So I
breathe in his smell, kiss his face, stroke his silky ears.
Saturday night he lay on the deck with his head against my
leg. A warm wind ebbed and flowed through the trees, their dark shapes swaying
against the last blue ribbons of light leaving the sky to the west. The quiet
roar of wind, like water rushing in to shore, mingled with spring frogs and
their cheerful peeping voices, the sound of life and time filling the forest; a
forest in which Murdoch is intrinsically entwined, and I along with him.
in the dark with my beautiful boy and my heart aching desperately and we
listened, and breathed, and I just held on to him.
At breakfast I hold my hand flat under Murdoch’s nose with a
tiny piece of meat laid across my fingers. An offering. He sniffs it, hovers
his big black nose over its surface. For a moment it looks as though he might
lick it before turning his head away.
“What about this then?” I ask, plucking a piece of kibble
from the bowl beside him where he lies on Molly’s bed. I hold the kibble under
his nose too, he barely swivels his head towards it before turning away again.
He reminds me of a pouting child refusing to eat his vegetables.
This is how I fed him some of his dinner yesterday, a
few pieces of kibble at a time in my hand, the soft warm fur around his lips
against my fingers, as he dabbed each piece into his mouth with his tongue, crunched,
swallowed and then returned for more. Today he is uninterested.
“Okay,” I say, dropping the kibble back into his dish,
placing some meat in beside it. “I will just leave this here for you.” And I
give the dish a little shake, tuck it in beside him so he doesn’t have to get
up or stretch too far to eat if he is suddenly struck with a regular appetite.
Murdoch has never been a ‘morning dog’, always greeting the
day with a growl and a stomp, waiting in his kennel until the absolute last
moment before charging out the door for a sniff and a pee, returning to his
kennel again until it’s time to eat. He was never one for social niceties.
“Just give me my breakfast and we’ll see where the chips fall after that,” was
always more his style.
But mealtimes have changed drastically and we scramble to
explain it. He just had a second tooth removed five days ago; a crisscross of
purple suture patterns the very large space in his gum where two teeth used to
be. The x-ray at the vet revealed a shadow on his jaw beneath where those teeth
were, an infection gone deep perhaps? The vet can’t say for sure.
There is also the pain in his injured leg, the one he won’t
put weight on first thing in the morning. Not until he’s stretched anyway,
taken a few limping steps. Pain can make the simplest things more difficult. Even
eating. So, we try everything.
Morgan bought him high-end canned food, he bought him great
frozen bricks of raw dog food, he bought kielbasa, hot dogs, croissants, ground
beef, soup. Everything works at first, “Perfect,” we said after he gobbled down
his first raw-food meal. “We’ll switch his food to that.” But the next meal, he
turns up his nose at the plate of meat and instead perks up at the sound of
kibble hitting Molly’s bowl, so we put his own bowl of kibble in front of him
and he crunches through half of it with determination.
“Weird,” we say, but if that’s what he wants. Next mealtime
he gets kibble again, refuses to look at it, refuses the plate of raw food too,
so Morgan puts down a bowl of cooled split pea soup and Murdoch slurps it up.
He returns to the vet three days after his surgery, three
days of trying to get him to take his antibiotics, slipping pills in to
meatballs, specially designed pill pocket treats, hiding it in his raw food,
all to be quickly spit out again. One, two, three, and a hard stare from
knowing brown eyes up through scraggily eyebrows, “You’re kidding, right?” he
says. “I am NOT eating those.”
Finally we resort to opening the capsules, dissolve the
powder in water, shoot the medicine into his mouth with a syringe. The vet says
they can inject the antibiotics instead, so Morgan takes Murdoch back in.
And then there’s another mealtime, more bowls of food, more
options. We wonder how much of it is the pain medication he’s on upsetting his
stomach, how much of it is psychological? It has been two months now since he
ate a meal properly, like the old Murdoch, inhale first, ask questions later;
two months, I have to imagine, in which his mouth has hurt each time he’s eaten
anything. We can’t blame him for suddenly being cautious Murdoch.
We spread out his dinner on a plate, ground beef and egg
mixed with soup, put it in front of him where he lies in his kennel. I mash the
meat in to smaller and smaller pieces, spoon it towards Murdoch’s mouth and he
licks at it eagerly. He is hungry. He wants to eat. Between pauses and getting
up and walking away and then coming back again, he gets through it, most of it.
“Good boy!” I say, making a big deal about a semi-clean
plate. It is a small victory. He ate. It feels as though we cracked some kind
of code, but it is most likely temporary. Tomorrow is another day, another
meal, another mystery to solve.
Two weeks after Murdoch’s surgery he still lingers over his
meals. Eager to eat, he appears at the sound of metal bowls set clanging onto
the counter, the crinkle of the food bag, the plink of kibble hitting Molly’s
For Murdoch we spoon rice from the cooled pot, tear chicken into
chunks, peeling meat from bone. His eyes, round and alert, pierce mine from
beneath his shaggy eyebrows as I turn from the counter. He stands at the ready,
“Is it time? Just say the word.”
“Downstairs,” I say, and he spins on the spot, bolts down
the short flight to the entryway, sits in his kennel. I feed Molly in the
kitchen and carry Murdoch’s bowl downstairs, place it on the floor. He leans
forward ever so slightly, glances from his dish to my face. His eyes land on
mine and I hold them for a moment before I say, “Okay” and he charges for his
But where he used to hit his dish like a predator taking
down its prey, scooping the food into his mouth in great engulfing gulps,
chasing his bowl across the floor as he polished off his meal in seconds flat,
now he stops, tastes the food with his tongue, carefully plucks up a piece of
chicken and chews slowly with a crinkled nose.
I watch for a minute, every mealtime hoping it will be
different, hoping he will open his mouth wide, gobble down the food in two
great big gulps, but he picks at it, rice falls from his mouth to the floor as
he tries to chew around the sore spot where the tooth used to be, where the
infection was found in his gum.
His meals these days can take up to two hours for him to
finish, so I turn and leave him to his dish, close the gate at the top of the
stairs so Molly can’t barge down there and offer her ‘help’ to clean his plate.
Murdoch eats in shifts. He nibbles for a bit and then
returns to his kennel, lies down and eyes his bowl. I watch him from the
kitchen. He looks like he is trying to psyche himself up to eat more, and after
a while he does, pushing himself to his feet, approaching his bowl again, a few
more bites, more rice spread on the floor, back to his kennel. Molly paces in
the kitchen, bumps the baby gate with her head. “Molly,” I say, and she tiptoes
away, lies on the floor, grumbles under her breath.
When I talk to the vet and tell her about his eating habits
and his more than normal disgruntled attitude and how he has started snapping
at me when I try to look in his mouth, she agrees there is something else
wrong. He should have been back to normal by now after his tooth extraction and
the antibiotics for the infected gum. It could be another tooth or perhaps, she
says, the infection has gone into the bone.
So we schedule him in for another vet visit, more sedation,
an x-ray that will hopefully tell us something, something repairable. In the
meantime there is pain medication, there is more chicken and other soft foods,
and there is space, lots of it, for a cranky dog and his sore mouth. Oh yeah,
and there’s that injured leg too..
Fresh snow falls on the first day of May. Storybook fat
flakes rush to the ground, flick coldly off my face and pepper the dogs’ backs,
white on black.
Murdoch and Molly dig through the sloppy snow from the last
storm at the trunks of trees we have not visited in some time. There has been
activity here, rabbits, birds, deer, something of interest. I stand on the
trail and wait for them, watch the snow fall against the dark backdrop of trees
from a heavy grey sky that looks more like rain than snow. In fact, the snow
smells like rain and I turn from where the dogs dig, breathe in the metallic
ozone-rich scent filling up the spaces between trees with the flurry of white.
I look up the height of the trees, begin to speak, moved to
tell the dogs, tell the forest, how beautiful it is, how real it is, this world
of snow and spring and green on brown on white. But I don’t get far in my
speech; a sweep of horizontal movement in this vertical landscape stops me.
A glimpse is all I am allowed, but I inhale that fleeting
moment, revel in it, the silent glide of an owl flickering into existence and
then out again. Brown feathers blending in to the surroundings, wings
outstretched impossibly wide. How does it fit between the trees?
I have not seen the owls in some time. Not since last summer
when the dogs and I, returning to our woods after a walk, stumbled upon the
unfolding drama of a horned owl swooping down for a juvenile robin learning how
to fly, the parents squawking in a flurry of snapping wings and outstretched
claws chasing it away.
The owls have been here though, their dulcet voices, felt as
much as heard, pulse regularly through the woods at dawn and dusk. They have
chosen not to be seen, which makes this moment caught in the corner of my eye
so magical, with the tumultuous white flakes filling the grey day and the
silent passage. They move like ghosts in the forest, a trick of the light, they
are there, floating past, but they make no sound, as though an afterimage of
something that came before.
I scrutinize the trees against which the owl disappeared so
quickly after its brief appearance. I blink and scan the vertical planes, how
exactly the owl’s colouring matches the bark, how the shading on each feather
stitches the bird seamlessly into the landscape, mimicking the distances and
depths, the contours of the trunks.
I hardly breathe as I search for more movement, begin to
question if I did indeed see the owl or perhaps I imagined it.
“Guys,” I say when the dogs meet me on the path. “That was awesome.
Did you see it?”But they are
distracted by more smells. We walk on in silence, they with their noses to the
ground, I looking up into the falling snow, searching the treetops for the
silent shape I have seen in the past sitting tall and still, watching