Wednesday, December 30, 2009

For the love of dog

I tell my dogs all the time they’re lucky they’re cute. They’re lucky they have wiggling furry bodies, soft ears and pouting mouths. Lucky they have liquid brown eyes, brows that furrow and big floppy feet. If it weren’t for these things, I would have told them to hit the road long ago; especially Murdoch.

As much as they have brought to my life, they have also demanded a great deal.

When it was just Bear, it all seemed so easy. Then Quincy came and went and left the cats behind, which complicated things immensely. Max showed up next, a swaggering old dog who stunk like a junk yard after spending most of his life living outdoors and was slowly losing his ability to walk, necessitating extra care that eventually led to us buying him a wheelchair. Then there was Murdoch, the dog nobody wanted - for good reason.

We all kind of limped along together and jostled ourselves into a sort of family, complete with sibling rivalries, temper tantrums and teenage angst.

Most days my patience is on the verge of plummeting to a grisly death.

It all starts innocently enough. Kisses are planted on the tops of furry heads, ears are scratched, cheeks pinched. Then the day begins to derail. While I’m walking him, Murdoch lunges at a car, dragging me behind at the end of his leash. A dark, menacing bark emerges from somewhere deep in his chest and his muscles turn to steel, he becomes rigid and immovable. Or he dashes off to the neighbour’s house, but not before stopping at the end of the driveway to turn and thumb his nose at me, while I wave a stick in the air in a futile attempt to lure him back to the house. Or he catches a whiff of something interesting and is off like a shot into the woods, his name leaping from my mouth louder and louder, which he deflects by cleverly weaving around trees.

I eventually retrieve him and return to the house to find Max has had an accident, sat in it and smeared it across the floor. Guilt-ridden for not getting him out sooner, I lift him up by the harness he wears and begin the awkward dance with his wheelchair that involves leaning over at a strange angle to steady the two-wheeled contraption while holding the handles on Max’s harness to keep him standing and snap the clips into place on the metal frame. It is made all the more difficult while wrestling with Max, who eagerly tries to walk towards the door, and at the same time keeping an eye on the mess on the floor with the view to avoid it at all costs.

In cleaning up the mess I need to go to the kitchen where I find Bear has ripped into the garbage and strewn trash all over the floor, angry to have been left behind. I trip over Chestnut, who has thrown himself in front of me because he thinks he’s starving to death, while yelling at Cleo for scratching her claws on the wooden spindles of the banister that overlooks the entryway.

Sometimes these things happen separately, a lot of the time they happen all at once.

Yes, there are moments when I feel like I could pack a bag for each of the animals, shuffle them out the front door and send them on their way. Just a moment here or there. It always passes.

It’s that tug inside that constantly reminds me I no longer live for just myself. My dogs require me to be present when I would prefer to be miles away, physically and mentally. They require love when all I want to do is curl up in a ball of frustration or anger and pull the grey clouds close around me and shut out the world. They require that I go outside with them and really be a part of the day.

They remind me how much I love to walk in the rain or run through deep, fluffy snow before collapsing in a heap. They remind me how beautiful a forest is, how serene it can be one minute and the adventures that can be found there the next. They remind me how much fun it is to play your favourite game, how satisfying it is to be outdoors everyday, how grounding a walk in the woods can be and how wonderful it is to share all these things.

So, yes, they are lucky they’re cute, but I guess I’m lucky too.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The couch came back

Our house was beginning to look like an abandoned cabin in the woods that had been recently pillaged and the couch, which was too awkward to carry, had been dumped outside the front door, on end, leaning against a tree.

During the three weeks it sat there waiting for us to announce its fate, it had been rained on, snowed on and become a sort of a magnet for other stuff to accumulate. Around the base of the tree against which the couch leaned had materialized an industrial strength black garbage bag, growing fatter by the day, a blue plastic garbage bin filled with birdseed, a couple of shovels, a mop bucket, a metal ash bucket and a pair of boots that waited to be cleaned before entering the house.

It had all got a little out of hand and finally, beneath the weight of it all, we decided the couch would go, no discussion, no waffling, it was time. Morgan wedged the edge of a fridge cart under the arm on which the whole couch now stood. He wrestled it around the tree and the wheels of the cart were almost enveloped by the stones that sketched out a path through the trees.

The path is made up of the roundest, smoothest stones I’ve ever seen, as though they were picked from the shoreline of a turbulent lake where they tumbled together and were swirled about by the water until all the rough edges were worn away. Individually they were quite beautiful. Piled together as the foundation for a rough flagstone path, they were almost lethal. Our feet sunk into them as though we were walking on a dry sandy beach. The flagstones, that were themselves rounded and smooth as though they’d been plucked from the bed of a river, skated over the top of the small spherical stones and encouraged excellent balance on a good day.

As Morgan trundled the wheels over uneven stone, the couch bounced and swayed like a tower threatening to tumble to the ground. I ran up behind to steady the beast as Morgan navigated the path that wound through the trees to our driveway.

By the time we reached the trailer, the couch had shimmied so far to the side, it barely clung to the edge of the cart. We lowered it to the driveway and finished loading the trailer. The couch was the last thing onboard. We lifted it almost effortlessly on to the four-foot by five-foot box, flipping it from where it stood on all five legs beside the trailer to rest on the edges of the seat and back rest. The legs pointed out from the bottom of the couch at a forty five degree angle to the sky. It looked helpless, like an ant that had been flipped on its back.

We tied the couch in place and started out for the dump. It hung over the front and the back of the tiny trailer and I sat in the passenger seat craning my neck around to keep an eye on it as we drove along the dusty road beneath a turquoise blue sky. The sun shone brilliantly on our couch that day, catching the orange stripes with a shimmer and a wink and the triumphant decision to throw out the couch dimmed a bit. It suddenly seemed like a sad journey to be making.

Then, Morgan said he really didn’t want to get rid of the couch. With that spoken doubt hanging in the air between us, I looked at him and realized I didn’t want to get rid of it either.

I turned back to face the couch again, it followed us down the road like a lost puppy. We hadn’t made it half way to the landfill site before we decided we couldn’t throw the couch away. At the dump we took the couch off the trailer and set it gently on the ground while we disposed of our garbage, then replaced the couch, roped it down and drove home.

The drive home was much more jubilant as we watched the couch bounce happily along behind us on the trailer. We discussed our plan to learn how to reupholster it ourselves, maybe even cut it down to make two oversized chairs. It was going to take a lot of work and was a project that would have to wait. In the next couple of days, we decided, we would strip it down and store the wooden frame in the crawl space under our house.

Other projects soon emerged, more pressing ones, and the couch settled into its new home just off the edge of our driveway where it collected pine needles and rain. Amidst the browns and burnt yellows of autumn leaves that carpeted the forest floor, and those few that still clung to trees whose skeletal frames emerged more with each gust of wind, the couch almost became invisible. Almost.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The perfect dog

In a very short time, Bear became my constant companion. From the beginning she has always been more than a dog to me, and amongst the string of animals that have come to define the last five years of my life, Bear stands just off to the left in a special place all by herself. When asked if I have a favourite, without hesitation I can say hands down I do.

Bear is my soul mate. She is one of those creatures who fits so perfectly into my existence that I can’t remember what it was like not having her in my life, and I don’t really care to remember.

There is something calming about Bear, a warmth and comfort from her body that translates itself into mine. She is big and solid with a barrel chest and thick neck, often mistaken for a male dog, and perfectly sized for full-body hugs, best shared on the bed or a couch where she can stretch out and reveal her soft pink belly.

Silky smooth ears frame her face where tiny eyelashes curl delicately out from her gentle eyes of chocolate brown. Her feet smell like popcorn and when I take them in my hands they fill my palms completely, a reassuring weight clothed in shiny fur and tough black pads.

Her velvety coat is close cropped to her body and hugs every contour of her frame, rolling smoothly over tight, toned muscle. When the light hits her it is completely absorbed in midnight black then reflected the next minute as silver. When in full flight, chasing a ball or leaping through the air after a stick, she reminds me of a horse, muscled, strong and powerful.

Sometimes in the silence of a room when I’m sure I am alone, I can hear the rustle of her wagging tail and know she is standing nearby, looking at me with her questioning brown eyes, communicating volumes.

She’s one of those dogs who understands full sentences and looks at you like she’s really listening to every word that comes out of your mouth, then replies just as clearly as if she’d spoken in return.

One day we took Bear and Murdoch paddling. Morgan and I set the canoes down on the sandy shore where we loaded some gear and ropes and tied down important things as Bear paced nearby. She and I crossed paths on one of my trips back to the truck to get my life jacket. We stopped and looked at each other and I said, “Are you coming with me?” Her ears perked up and she turned her head to the side before setting off in a purposeful march to my canoe and jumped in, then sat there for the next ten minutes waiting patiently for us to cast off into the deep blue lake.

For me, Bear has always been the perfect dog, but I wasn’t there for the first two intense years of training. I missed the part where Morgan battled with her every day to make her realize she was not in charge, and I missed the part where they got kicked out of puppy school because Bear hadn’t got it yet.

Morgan told me he chose Bear from the litter of puppies because she seemed sweet and calm. She was asleep when he picked her up. What he didn’t realize at the time was she was so calm and relaxed and tired because she had just finished beating up on all her siblings.

Bear held on to her alpha dog tendencies and still finds it difficult to share the spotlight. Part of our decision to bring Quincy into our home was so Bear could have another dog around, someone to play with. Since then we have realized Bear prefers her space from other animals. She is not terribly social, except in small bursts, and has had to adjust her life quite a bit as more animals continued to drop in our laps.

Often we find ourselves apologizing to her. Sorry Bear that Max is so needy. Sorry that Murdoch is such a jerk. Sorry Cleo keeps peeing on your bed. Sorry Chestnut likes to grab your tail. Sorry the cats tumbled off the back of the couch onto your head again while they were wrestling.

Even though I love the animals completely and without question, some days it does seem all a little too much. Regardless, there is something energizing about them and something incredibly rewarding about being loved by a dog. Whenever I’m with one of my dogs, really with them, time stops for a while. Dogs bring me into the moment like nothing else, even when it’s not because I’m watching Murdoch hyper-vigilantly for the bad dog to unzip the good dog costume and emerge with teeth gleaming and claws drawn.

In one way or another, each animal that has become a part of my life has played a significant role in shaping my path. They have shown up at turning points or instigated turning points, for better or for worse. And though I carry something with me from each of them, Bear will always have the biggest chunk of my heart.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Two canoes and a Bear

Before Bear, I never owned a dog. We had cats growing up - two, at separate times. I suppose I was a good candidate for a dog, thinking back. I always managed to terrorize the cats. By terrorize I mean I loved them too much and wanted them to love me the same in return; which, to our cats, was the greatest insult known to feline kind.

I hugged them a lot, wrapping my arms around their round bodies, where they nestled into a chair or the couch, while resting my head on their fat-cushioned sides. I think I saw them as super-soft stuffed animals come to life and just like stuffed animals, they were made for squeezing as tight as you could and curling your body around beneath the weight of blankets pulled up to your chin at bed time.

I imagined they wanted to be picked up and dragged around the house. I kissed their heads and tried to rub their fluffy white bellies. When I was feeling particularly brave, or moved by swells of love for these haughty creatures who probably wished I would go away and drop dead somewhere, I would wrap my arms around their girth and lift them from the floor.

My attempts to have any kind of relationship with the cats past breathing the same air as them were always met by indignant glares through slitted eyes. I never took the hint though and persisted, forcing them to shed their last scrap of dignity and turn into swirling whorls of flying fur and otherworldly growls that started deep in their chests before climbing through every octave to heights of adrenaline-charged shrieks.

I would back away, still determined to touch even just a toe till the last possible moment, as they swatted violently at my hand. Their feet disappeared beneath them in an instant as though they were mounted on springs.

Still, I never thought about wanting a dog. Despite the cats’ utter dislike of me, I loved them completely and thought they were the absolute best animals in the world. But if I had imagined the perfect dog at that time, she would have been exactly like Bear.

When Bear was two-and-a-half and I started seeing her regularly, there was never any awkwardness between us, no suspicion on her part that I was trying to steal Morgan away from her. She welcomed me into their world as though she’d been expecting me for ages and was delighted I’d finally shown up.

The very first day Morgan and I decided to do something together, just the three of us, we went canoeing on a tiny pond behind a saw mill owned by one of his friends.

We each paddled our own canoe - Bear and Morgan together, I by myself - and set about exploring the winding path that meandered through a small clearing in a patch of forest. Lazy strokes in still, dark water moved us slowly around towering blonde reeds, bleached and dried in the sun.

It was spring and the brightness of the day made it feel like we were paddling through an overexposed photograph. Everything was still tinged brown after a winter slumber, but the earth was awakening, we could smell it on the air, rich golden tones with hints of fresh green. Along one bank, tiny white flowers dotted the ground at the base of an old tree whose roots clung to the edge and trailed in the water.

The sun was hot, but the air in shaded spots still held on to the last wisps of wintery breath. That didn’t stop Bear from plunging into the water every chance she had and when Morgan tucked his canoe into a nook on the shore, she wasted no time in availing herself of a swim. As Morgan put his feet up to enjoy the sun, I continued on from the spot where he stopped and disappeared around a bend, beneath a small foot bridge where I also found a place to pull into shore.

I turned around to see Bear paddling towards me, her tail swishing behind like a snake following her through the water. Her little face peered up at me in my canoe, a look of alarm in her eyes, before turning and swimming back around the bend and out of my sight.

She returned a few minutes later, then swam to the opposite bank where she stood dripping wet, her toes in the swampy shallows, and stared first at Morgan, then swung her head around to stare at me. Her midnight-black hair stood off her body in slick clumps, wet and oily-looking beneath the glare of the afternoon sun. The brightness of the day made her features fade into the outline of her body, but I could imagine the questioning look in her deep, thoughtful eyes, the furrows on her forehead as her floppy ears pulled together towards the top of her head, making them hang sideways, away from her face.

Bear skipped and ran along the bank, where she could see both of us, for the entire time we sat there. She didn’t relax until Morgan and I were once again in sight of each other and the three of us were underway, returning through the maze of golden water reeds.

We laughed at her antics, but it was our first glimpse of how Bear would later be the glue that held us all together.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The face of destiny

I never planned on having a houseful of animals. But, somewhere between living the single life in my own apartment with no attachments and buying my first house with my husband, I became one of those people who animals just happen to. I didn’t expect any of it and really didn’t want to be tied down by that kind of responsibility.

Now, it seems, I can’t leave the house without an alarm going off somewhere in the collective consciousness of dogs throughout the land, that the treat lady is about. Dogs just seem to know that I may have a goodie for them hidden on my person, or at any moment I’ll produce a ball they can chase. It could be because the pockets in almost all my sweaters and jackets are lined with a fine sprinkling of treat dust, or it could be the layer of animal hair that constantly surrounds me like a type of protective packaging, or perhaps it’s the splotches of dried dog slobber on my clothes that shimmer tellingly when the light hits them just right. Whatever the reason, I have started to feel guilty when met with a pair of pleading eyes peering up at me from a furry face and I have nothing to give but a pat on the head; although I’ve learned, sometimes that is quite enough.

My descent into a life carpeted with dog hair began the day I met Bear, which also happens to be the day I met my future husband.

I was standing in the cool damp of a farm house kitchen, the darkness just barely chased away by a bright cold spring light that squinted in through tiny windows, when the door flew open, banging against the wall and Morgan and Bear burst into the room.

Although Morgan’s personality filled the kitchen instantly, the first thing I said was “Ooh, a puppy!”. I reached down and managed to just brush my fingertips against the little black ball of energy as she galloped past me, ears flapping, and tumbled into the living room in search of the little dog who lived there. Bear was only six months old and was incapable of sitting still long enough for me to even see what she looked like. Before I could blink, she breezed by again on the heels of a tiny white mop of hair and disappeared into the bright rectangle of light that spilled in from outdoors.

It was another two years before I really got to know her. She and Morgan did everything together, so when Morgan and I started seeing each other she did everything with us. I was sucked in right away by her big brown intelligent eyes that looked right into my heart and floppy ears that were silky soft against my cheek. I loved to bury my face in the thick ruff of fur around her neck and kiss the spot between her eyes that seemed to fit my lips just perfectly.

The more time the three of us spent together, the closer Bear and I became. Morgan was born with cerebral palsy that affects one of his legs. It means he is unable to spend a lot of time on his feet doing strenuous things, like hiking or running, things I enjoy. Bear and I bonded over those things. I would sometimes show up at Morgan’s house to pick up the dog and take her for an afternoon of walking in the woods.

It wasn’t long before we were inseparable. Morgan and I joked that it was Bear and I who were supposed to be together and Morgan just happened to come with the dog. He even began to see similarities developing. He says we sigh the same way when we’re bored and hold the same worried expression in our eyes when we’re concerned about something. He gets the same disgruntled sideways glance from Bear and I whenever he fights for a spot on the couch between us.

Morgan and I clicked instantly that day we met each other in the farm house kitchen. It was as though something inside each of us cracked open and took a deep breath for the first time in a very long time - something we didn't even know was there. Our hearts knew we belonged together before our heads did and a connection formed that very instant the door flew open. Then, as we navigated our clunky human relationship, I began to see how simply in tune Bear and I were with each other and I realized, in her, I had found a soul mate.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Murdoch dethroned

It was early Fall when the couch moved outside.

The thing that forced the decision was a need to move our wood stove from where it sat - outside - back into the entryway where it belonged.

The white one-inch-square tiles that sat under the stove when we moved in, began to pop out one by one during our first winter in the house. Grey grout flaked, then crumbled, helped along by Murdoch who spent every waking minute investigating anything that looked like it might hold some importance to someone else, until it was good and broken. By the time spring rolled around, our floor in front of the wood stove resembled someone who had come out the other end of a street brawl, having taken a number of hits to the mouth. I spent many days sitting on the floor filling in gaps with the tiny white squares. Some were still attached to each other in larger groups and it was a little like putting a puzzle together over top of the brown plywood.

In order to fix the tiles properly, we needed to peel back the linoleum that covered the rest of the floor in the entryway. We’d put that project off long enough and now the temperature hovered around zero at night, which injected a bit of urgency to the job.

That is why I came home one day to find the couch propped up on end against a tree outside the front door of our house.

As I turned the corner onto our road and saw the orange stripes through the trees, I felt both a lightness of heart that a decision was on its way to being made, and a heavy weight around my neck that it was actually sitting outside, exactly where I dreaded it would end up.

My biggest concern about the couch being outside was that Murdoch would pee on it; then, of course, Max and Bear would have to do it too. One of the reasons I never wanted male dogs in the first place was because of their incessant need to mark things. Murdoch excels at it.

The line we attach him to when he goes out for bathroom breaks was long enough to reach the couch. I imagined the thoughts rolling around in his head - This wasn’t here before, I think I’ll pee on it. We hooked the line up for him a few months earlier when he decided our neighbours’ house is much more fun than ours. As soon as we opened the door to let him out he would bolt across the threshold as though he’d been shot from a cannon and morph into a black blur, streaking inches above the ground while our angry shouts followed him first down the path, then the driveway, and finally tripping through the trees and along the road after his retreating tail.

But the dogs were far less put out by the couch’s presence than I was. After a cursive sniff, they couldn’t be bothered. As far as they were concerned that was the new spot for the couch. Although, I think it did knock Murdoch down a few pegs when he had to join Max on his own pile of blankets on the floor.

The couch stayed where it was for a few days while Morgan cemented in new tile, and we luxuriated in the space. Our entryway is quite big. We have plans for it. It will be an extra sitting room someday, when Murdoch learns to reasonably co-habitate with other creatures. But even with the room’s size, the couch, paired with Murdoch’s kennel, eats away a fair chunk. When you factor in a stack of wood in the winter, it gets a little crowded.

We agreed the room was so much nicer without the hulking brute of a couch, which at one time had seemed delicate and low profile, and decided it would not be returning to it’s spot in the entryway. A trip to the dump was once again planned.

The dump is open only on Saturdays. If you miss it, you have to live with your garbage for another week. This happens to us frequently. We don’t try to go every week, so we don’t really pay attention to what day it is. We go when we’ve accumulated enough stuff to make the trip worthwhile. Needless to say, between that slight hitch and other life crises popping up unexpectedly, as they do, the couch continued to hold up that tree for a good three weeks.

I was determined not to stop seeing it there. It is ridiculously easy to no longer notice something when it stays in one spot too long - even though there is nothing particularly subtle about a striped orange couch leaning against a tree.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Lament for a couch

Like so many of the animals whose paths crossed mine in the last five years, I often wondered about the previous life of our couch. When we found it sitting amongst the other couches and chairs at the Salvation Army it almost sparkled in comparison. Where other couches drooped in spots or sported shadows of ancient stains that had been scrubbed and scrubbed so they convinced the eye to believe them a trick of the light, our couch was immaculate.

The velour fabric gave the oranges and browns and army greens a richness that begged to be touched. It could be argued its only downfall was the colour scheme. The special blend of garish hues that screams 1970 is not something that would match many decors, but with our plywood floor and renters-beige walls, it was perfect.

The couch had definitely been sat on, but not really and truly used. Not like it was about to be.

Four and a half short years later, it sat cushionless, the front valance torn away and stuffing hanging out where thin strips had been peeled from the backrest. The arms, that had made perfect scratching posts revealed glimpses of wooden frame, the fabric that still covered the seat of the couch had become a muddy gray. A Murdoch-shaped sooty black smudge highlighted one corner while the opposite end was forever dotted with various dog toys. A squeaky football, a bright orange street-hockey ball, a tennis ball and a black Kong regularly co-mingled with Max’s bone and food dish - all things Murdoch collected throughout the day. The entire couch was also strewn with torn bits of cardboard as though a parade had marched by throwing confetti and streamers in great celebration. It was a sad sight.

When we re-purposed the couch, as first a storage area for moving boxes and then a dedicated dog bed, we planned it to be for Max. Our new house had lots of stairs; each room is located on a different level. Max, who had never been able to walk without a drunken swagger the entire time I’d known him, seemed to be finding it more difficult to get his back end to cooperate with his front end and I assumed, unwilling to tackle the stairs, he would stay in our spacious entryway with the kenneled Murdoch.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. We tried to get him to crawl onto the couch, which he had done with great pushiness bordering on a sense of entitlement at our old place, but he wasn’t interested. The couch was invisible to him.

Instead, with great determination he hauled himself up the six stairs to the kitchen three or four times a day. Either he really wanted to be in the middle of the action or, even gentle Max who loves everyone, couldn’t stand to be anywhere near the new puppy.

So the couch eventually became Murdoch’s space - once he’d been freed from spending chunks of his days in lock down. It wasn’t long before he set about destroying it once and for all.

Morgan and I lived beneath a mantle of guilt over that and shuffled that particular problem to the back of our minds where it would hum away quietly, waiting for just the right stress-filled moment to resurface. Then, we would discuss it all over again, an exasperating trod down all the same roads.

I decided we should find someone who wanted a re-upholstering project, but no one was interested, just as Morgan laughingly predicted. We did get one response from an ad we posted on freecycle. A bunch of college boys wanted it to actually sit on! Sit on? I couldn’t give this couch to anyone to be used as a couch, as is, unless they were decked out in full haz-mat gear. No. The couch had to go.

So we were back to the dreaded trip to the dump. It felt like we had failed. The dump is my least favourite place in the world. I find it utterly depressing. A kick in the face kind of reminder of our irresponsibility as a species; the ease with which people shed their extra stuff and then turn around and consume some more. I didn’t want to contribute to that with such a huge item, one that really wasn’t broken, wasn’t unfixable.

But it was making our living space less than inviting. We needed to make a decision. My way of handling it was to hum and haw, present both sides of the situation, then walk away shaking my head, hoping the answer would appear in some prophetic dream. Morgan really didn’t want to get rid of it, but he really didn’t want to keep it either. At one point he suggested just moving it outside.

I had visions of a weather beaten, rotting hulk emerging in the spring from a couch-shaped mound of snow that had occupied my view for months. For Morgan, who has a junk yard side to him, moving the couch outside behind a shed until we figured out what to do with it was a legitimate solution. For me, it made my brain curl up into a tight fist and beat against the inside of my skull. We agreed this plan would not work, and so Murdoch got to keep his throne for a little while longer.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Planet Cleo

Cleo is one of those cats that make you realize why some people don’t like cats. She’s destructive, she pees in strange places when she’s mad - or if the wind blows out of the west - she’s flighty, demanding, completely self-centered and seems to enjoy hearing her name yelled so loudly it leaves an echo bouncing around in the shouter’s throat; only then will she come running.

It does sometimes seem as though she’s not from around here. And by around here, I mean Earth.

Cleo lives in an almost constant state of desperation. Everything is urgent and alarming. She’s not exactly cuddly, but she loves affection, as long as it’s on her terms. Mostly she molests people, and the dogs. Bear can hardly take one step without tripping over her voluminous body as it weaves around her legs. Cleo is static cling personified.

Her eyes point in opposite directions when she’s in a certain state of mind - or personality, if you get my meaning. She’s not walleyed per se, but her eyes sit slightly off-kilter sometimes and she kind of looks through you. It’s as though something has rattled loose in her brain. On most days her grey matter ticks along quite nicely but it cycles round in such a way the loose bit gets knocked askew and for a while she becomes someone else.

It can be traced back to the day when she was a kitten and tumbled from her perch on my shoulder. Without even thinking, my hand was beneath her as she plummeted past my knees and I caught her, splayed out on her back, perhaps causing her mild whiplash, before she had the chance to do that flippy-around-in-the-air-thing cats do. But she may have been too young even to know about that yet. She’s never been the same since.

Perhaps that was the cause of all her idiosyncracies, the most annoying of which has become her need to sink her pointy little claws into anything and everything that gets a violent reaction from us.

The couch was doomed the day Cleo gave up on the scratching post. For a few months at least Chestnut and Cleo dutifully sharpened their claws on the carpeted pedestal that sat in our living room. But one day that changed. Maybe Cleo decided she liked the feel of the taut, yet spongy fabric of the arm of the couch beneath her paws, or the particular pick and tear sound of her claws ripping through threads. Whatever it was, she was hooked.

She was at least discreet about it at first. We just noticed one day the left arm of the couch had taken on a particularly worn appearance. But after a while, as she settled into life as a rotund diva who thought everything was put there expressly for her amusement, she would stare directly at Morgan or I and massage her claws carefully into the couch then tear them out again in a slightly savage gesture. It was as though she wanted us to yell at her, get up and chase her across the living room. She delighted in our anger, dashing away at first, before slowing to a trot, then turning abruptly to quick-step back to where we stood, shaking with frustration. She would rub up against our legs, throw herself at us, purring and meowing.

It is this apparent need for destructive energy that probably attracted her to Murdoch in the first place. Murdoch - the hell hound disguised as a poor abandoned puppy sitting patiently on the side of the road.

Chestnut spent that first week after I brought the puppy home under the couch. If there had been enough room under there, Morgan, Bear, Max and I all would have joined him to get away from the swirling black vortex of shaggy hair and gleaming white teeth that was the overgrown puppy.

Cleo was the only one whose fascination got the better of her. While the rest of us tore out our hair, or curled into fetal positions in the face of his onslaughts, Cleo couldn’t get enough of him. She would lie in front of his kennel and watch him. The more excited he got, barking and shaking the metal cage, the more interested she became.

When we moved to our new house and the couch was relegated to the entryway with Murdoch, Cleo spent a lot more time underneath it. She must have fancied herself a scientist, obscured by her cleverly camouflaged blind where she could sit and make her observations.

One day I sat on the floor with my back against the couch, Murdoch sprawled at my side, his body stretched the length of my legs. He had just recently become manageable enough that I could sit with him for short periods of time without being mauled.

I tried to embody calm and spoke quietly to him while he writhed around on the floor as though trying to keep the demons from taking possession of his body again. I rubbed his chest and his ears, letting his manic energy bounce off of me and began to enjoy a few quiet moments with this problem dog. It didn’t last long.

I heard a loud scrabble under the couch. A split second later, I looked down and there was Cleo. She lay on her back, her claws sunk into the front of the couch where she had grabbed it and slid along the floor, propelling herself out from under her safe haven well past her shoulders. Everybody froze. Cleo stared at me as though she had no idea how she got there, then glanced at Murdoch whose head whipped around on his shoulders to look at her, though he still lay on his back. Not even the air particles moved around us for that moment when no one dared to breathe.

I had just a flicker of thought to get out of the way before the scene exploded. I made a hasty retreat as Murdoch dove under the couch where Cleo had just disappeared again. He was too big to fit right under it, so Cleo sat against the wall at the back of the couch and taunted him. It entertained her for hours.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The cat came back

Everybody loves orange cats. Well, it seems that everyone who has a soft spot for cats at all, fall all over themselves when faced with an orange one. Hence, Dr. Evil and Mini Me were the first of the five to find homes. A friend of mine from work wanted Mini Me because he was the runt of the litter. Dr. Evil was taken by a woman whose grandson wanted a blue cat more than anything in the world, but he would settle for an orange one.

Chestnut, though not truly orange, could have been re-homed about half a dozen times, but he was the one I wanted to keep. I was fairly non-committal when people asked about him however, because the way things were going with the two girls, it looked like we might be stuck with them so I was caught between really wanting to keep Chestnut and not wanting to have three cats.

That Christmas, Morgan and I were going away. We found a really wonderful soul who agreed to take the three four-month-old kittens (aka hooligans) for a month while we were gone. Secretly we hoped he would fall in love with them and we would come home to no cats - except Chestnut of course.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. He did however offer to keep Chestnut. Not that one, I said, but offered one of the other two. Morgan and I both quietly hoped he would choose Cleo. There was something about Broom Hilda that was just likeable and if we had to have two cats, she was our other choice. Of course, he chose Broomie. I hesitated for a minute, ready to voice my objections but had to let it go. We couldn’t very well say, here, you can have any one of these three kittens, except those two.

So we returned home with two kittens. Chestnut and Cleo seemed to love each other. They played together and slept together, annoyed Bear together. Eventually we stopped looking for a home for Cleo and settled into life as a three-animal family in our tiny house by the river.

Until one day in the early spring when we got a call from Broomie’s owner. He wanted to give her back, it seemed he had suddenly developed allergies. Was that even possible? I wondered. Reluctantly we took her.

The day she returned, Chestnut was the happiest cat I’ve ever seen. Broomie hadn’t been spayed yet and he would not stop following her around, even though she made it quite clear she was having none of it. Cleo was less than impressed to have another female in the house and growled, hissed and swatted at her any chance she had.

We made an appointment to have Broomie fixed within the next week and spent that time obsessively guarding the door against her mad-dash attempts to escape into the wild yonder. The last thing we needed was a bunch of kittens.

I awoke early one morning, the sky sporting just a hint of deep steel blue on one horizon as darkness seeped towards the other, and I had this strange feeling that someone was missing. I’m not sure how I knew, but I was compelled to get out of bed and do a quick head count.

Cleo sat up tall and owl-like in the living room, Chestnut paced in the kitchen. Broom Hilda was nowhere to be found. It wasn’t until my third pass through the kitchen that I noticed the screen on the half-open window above the sink was gone. The empty space yawned accusingly back at me and I leapt onto the counter and stuck my head out the window.

Seven feet down, the screen lay on the ground directly below at an angle, resting on the spring plants that had grown quickly against the sunny side of the house. I looked from left to right then, but after the light from the kitchen, my eyes couldn’t see very far in the dark gray of the morning.

I jumped back down to the kitchen floor, where Morgan now stood, bleary from sleep, wanting to know what happened. We grabbed flashlights and headed outside to track down the escapee.

My feet crunched on the gravel of the driveway that became a single-track road connecting all the houses in our community. I was sure I saw a white flash up ahead in the gray light. I trained my flashlight on it, but it was gone.

After searching fruitlessly, Morgan and I returned to the house with our flashlights turned off and half-heartedly calling for Broomie, knowing that even on an exceptional day cats will come only when they are good and ready.

I was just stepping through the door of our house when Morgan said, there she is. Broomie appeared at a run amidst the overgrown tangle of raspberries that grew on the hill. She tore up from the river, taking huge strides that made her seem as though she was flying across the ground. Her eyes flashed wildly and we could see hot on her tail was another cat. Broomie ran straight inside the house and we slammed the door behind her.

Within a month we found Broomie a new home and even toyed with the idea of sending Cleo with her. We tried it for two nights, giving the new owners a choice of either cat, or both. They said they would keep both, not wanting to split up sisters; except Cleo and Broomie hated each other.

Chestnut was beside himself, wandering the house meowing mournfully, and I was so wracked with guilt, we had to go and ask for Cleo back. The cat that nobody wanted became the cat I just couldn’t give away.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

And then there were six

The day Quincy disappeared, I watched him go.

The image of him slipping silently up our neighbours’ driveway until he became obscured by the pine trees that separated our lots, is forever ingrained in my mind.

Quincy spent the morning poking around outside our house, snuffling through fresh snow that covered the grass and gathered in small-mounds near the edge of the forest, the beginnings of snowbanks. I watched him turn and head with purpose towards our neighbours’ place and then begin his relaxed trot up their snow-laden driveway. It was a route he did almost every day.

That day, as he headed off, I felt an overwhelming urge to open the kitchen window where I stood washing dishes and call out his name. In my mind I saw him stop and turn his face towards our house. Past that, I wasn’t sure if he’d come back or turn away and continue on his path. Part of me really wanted to find out. It was a weird, almost unwelcome, urgency that compelled me to try it. I didn’t. We never saw him again.

At the end of that day when he didn’t return, we weren’t too worried. He’d been gone for long stretches before. But I couldn’t shake that feeling I had earlier. Would he have turned around if I called? I think I knew then that he was gone.

We spent the next few days driving around looking for him. I walked the trails, calling his name, hoping to find a sign, but there was nothing. We put up posters on the group mailboxes in our area and waited to hear.

There were sightings by our neighbours. A dog who lived a ways down the road had started coming to our community. From a distance he looked just like Quincy. I spent many days chasing him through the woods. One early snowy morning I got a call from my neighbour that he’d seen Quincy cut through the woods near their place, headed in my direction. I stumbled into my winter boots and threw my coat on over my pajamas, then ran out the door into the early pink light and a wall of cold air.

I headed up the driveway where I had last seen Quincy, and spotted the dog at the crest of a hill up ahead, bracketed on either side by forest. The early muted sun shone from behind him, outlining his silhouette in gold. I stopped and called to him. I could tell by the angle of his body he was looking at me, then he turned and sauntered off into the trees. I ran up the hill and followed his tracks as far as I could, eventually losing them amongst other tracks that criss-crossed through the woods.

Everyday we expected him to turn up. With Quincy, anything was possible. When he didn’t come home each night I went to bed thinking, maybe tomorrow. We’ll wake up and find him waiting on the deck, we told each other. I don’t think either of us really believed that.

Our hope slowly petered out, but at the same time it was replaced with a feeling of acceptance. It was Quincy’s way after all. No matter how much a part of our family he became, he remained on the fringe, always eager to do his own thing, go his own way. He left our life like he entered it, quietly and without fanfare.

We argued about what happened to him. Morgan was sure he’d met with a pack of wolves or startled someone with a gun. I refused to believe those things. To me, Quincy would always be a free spirit. Obviously it was time for him to move on and I didn’t fall to pieces because I knew in my heart that was true.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

What’s in a name?

Perhaps we sealed Joan’s fate by naming her after Joan of Arc, the doomed warrior who would die young.

Her recovery was short lived. It wasn’t long before I once again found her lying motionless and flat at the bottom of the box when the commotion and cat hair had settled. I lifted her warm, limp body from where it lay amidst folds of blanket and sat with her again, straining at first to feel if she was breathing, it was so shallow. This time, she didn’t respond. We took her to the vet that afternoon and saw the same woman who so enthusiastically and caringly treated Quincy.

I discovered then, vets play favourites. This woman who couldn’t do enough for Quincy, and gushed about what a great dog he was, looked down her nose at our kitten and advised us to have all six of them euthanized. Then added, blank-faced, we should box the lot up and take them back to the Humane Society, that’s what she would do. They were not our problem. We shook our heads, we wouldn’t do either of those things. The kittens were our problem, a problem that became bigger as she told us more.

Without trying to hide the fact she thought we were wasting her time, the vet explained the kittens most likely all had FIV - Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (similar to HIV in humans). It’s a condition many, if not all, strays have. With useless immune systems, she said, if any of them so much as caught a chill, they wouldn’t survive.

She reluctantly gave us some antibiotics for Joan and we left the office in silence. Our drive home was filled with unspoken questions and concerns, the car burst at the seams with them. A mild panic began to weave its way through me as I replayed the vet’s dire predictions in my head. The way she described it, I expected the kittens to drop dead at any minute and resolved to name them and keep them all because they couldn’t possibly live more than six months.

I reluctantly brought the idea up with Morgan, who lately had complained about the kittens wearing on his nerves. He was getting anxious to find homes for them, but he agreed with me. If they were going to live for just six months, we would make sure they had a happy life.

When we got home, I quickly named the other three. The exotic calico I called Broom Hilda, Broomie for short. Out of all the kittens, she was the only one who was fascinated by the broom; whenever I brought it out to sweep up dog hair tumbleweeds that scudded daily across our floors, her entire world shrunk to a five-foot orbit around the broom. She would run behind it with great purpose, shooting out her front paws to take swats at the yellow bristles. If I changed direction to challenge her head-on, she would stand her ground before rising up on her back legs, front paws spread wide, wriggling her body like a snake ready to strike, then launch herself at the broom full-force.

The other calico, the pretty one who distinguished herself from the group by disappearing into her own little world in her head, we called Cleo, after Cleopatra.

That left the orangey-beige boy with the white feet and stripy body, the one I had already secretly claimed as mine. He was the hardest to name. I wanted to call him something special, something meaningful. I put so much importance on it, it was impossible to come up with anything.

Eventually I settled on Chestnut Canoe, after the company that made the cedar-strip and wood and canvas canoes that Morgan idolized. I wasn’t crazy about the name, but canoes were an important part of Morgan and my relationship from the beginning. The very first day we hung out together we went canoeing. We spent the previous two summers looking for new and interesting places to paddle, a quest that eventually brought us to Thunder Bay and Lake Superior. I thought we might call him Canoe, but for whatever reason, it was Chestnut that stuck.

Over the next couple of days Joan’s condition didn’t change. Her eyes would open in little slits and she would try and push herself to her feet. But she was too weak and her head, when she picked it up, swayed around in the air as though she was drunk.

We returned with her to the vet, a tiny, purring bundle that, to me, seemed to be trying desperately to get better. The vet, a different one this time, watched her shaky attempts to stand and the way she held her head as though it was too heavy for her body and determined it was a neurological problem. There was nothing they could do. But she was purring, I kept saying, surely that was good.

Cats also purr when they are in pain or distress, I found out later.

We brought Joan home in a shoebox and found a spot beside a big boulder beneath a stand of pine trees to bury her.

I cried off and on for days and couldn’t imagine the hell that awaited us over the next six months as we had to watch each of the kittens succumb to FIV.

About a week later we found out from a friend that she knew someone who had a cat with FIV that lived to be 13 years old.


That changed everything.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Circus in a box

Within a week, they were already changing, becoming more like tiny cats rather than barely kittens. They moved faster, grew stronger, and started to climb things. It was much harder to keep track of where everyone was.

One night as I rounded them up for bed, I found only four. Dr. Evil and the exotic calico were missing. I looked under the chair, the couch and the bed. I looked in closets and I checked the cupboards under the sinks in the kitchen and the bathroom. I told myself to stay calm as I repeated my search again and again, each time a little more frenzied. Then panic gripped my heart and I knew they had escaped out the door when we opened it for Bear and Quincy.

I ran out into the darkness with a flashlight in hand and Morgan at my heels and launched myself into the trees where they clamboured at the edge of the driveway then marched straight down a steep incline towards the river. I was sure that’s where they’d headed and I could picture them at that moment tumbling down the hill, lost and confused. They’d drown, I thought, or be eaten, if they didn’t freeze to death first during the frosty Fall night.

Our neighbours came to help search and I wondered how any of us giant, awkward humans could find such tiny, shape-shifting creatures in the dark.

They couldn’t have got far, I thought, and walked past the front of the house to search in another patch of trees. As the orange glow from our living room picture window hit my face, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned to look inside and stopped in my tracks as I saw the missing calico, luxuriating in a stretch as she took long, slow strides across the living room floor. Behind her Dr. Evil emerged, yawning, from inside Morgan’s battered old chair.

As cats do, the six kittens assumed everything in our home was put there expressly for their amusement. When they weren’t disappearing inside the furniture or wrestling shoes, they were climbing things with their tiny, tearing claws.

The couch became a favourite. They could turn somersaults in the gap between its smooth back and the wall, they could hide behind the valance that hung down to the floor and leap out at anything that passed, they could play secret, tumbling games of tag in the darkened space beneath, but best of all, they could climb it. Morgan and I both cringed to hear the pick, pick of their claws in the fabric and were forever removing kittens, mid-expedition and scolding them, but it made no difference.

One day I was cleaning my teeth when I heard the unmistakable scrabble of a climbing cat. I bolted into the living room, with my toothbrush clamped between my teeth, and plucked the orangey-beige boy from mid-way up the back of the couch. I couldn’t say anything with my mouth full of water and toothpaste, so I hung him upside down, holding him by the waist. I thought it would annoy him. He casually batted at his back feet then stretched out long and thin towards the floor, like pulled taffy, and slipped gracefully from my hands.

We tried to teach them to feed themselves, mixing formula, water and soft cat food into a type of gruel. We put it in a tin pie plate in the kitchen sink and placed the kittens in beside it two at a time. They ate, but they also sat in it, crawled through it, revelled in it, and came out looking like mud-soaked rats.

We filled the other sink with water and created a new assembly line where the kittens started in the first sink where they ate, got dipped and rinsed in the second sink, then toweled off until their hair stood straight up from their skin in frazzled sharp spikes. In the bathroom I sat on the floor and used the hair dryer to turn each damp little body into a soft ball of fluff, before setting them free to scamper across the floor.

After that, we returned to feeding them with the syringe, but I was never sure we were doing it right. Then one morning my fears were confirmed.

We were up early, before the sun, with plans to go back to bed. I opened the box to check on the kittens and the pile of furry bodies sprang to life with the first slants of light. Amidst the flurry of tiny ears, busy legs and fuzzy tails, I saw one motionless body left lying at the bottom of the box.

I picked her up gently in my hands, the little black and brown calico. She was breathing, but her eyes were closed. It was strange to feel her small, warm weight in my hand, different from the usual wriggling energy, the constant motion even in stillness, that defined a kitten’s body.

I thought, in their desire to be in contact with one another, to sleep in a heap like they always did, the group didn’t notice their sister had begun to suffocate where she lay, stuck at the bottom of the pile.

The other kittens faded into the background of our living room as I curled myself into a corner of the couch, cradling her tiny body carefully in my hands. I stroked her head with the tip of my finger and whispered to her, please don’t die.

We decided she must have aspirated some of the formula we fed them. Morgan shook his head sadly, not wanting to voice the thought that I read clearly in his face, that she wasn’t going to make it.

Slowly, over the next hour, she seemed to recover. Her eyes opened to slits at first, then she held up her head, looking around as though she’d just awaken from a faint.

Later that day she announced her recovery by scaling Morgan’s brown recliner. Her barely-there needle-point claws propelled her to the top where she stood triumphantly, looking way down to where her siblings cavorted on the floor, and we named her Joan, after the warrior spirit of Joan of Arc.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Bear packs her bags

Up until that point, the couch remained relatively intact. With Quincy leaking all over the place, it was off limits, which seemed fine to him, he preferred to mope on the floor, when he wasn’t sneaking away for a wander outdoors. The couch was still mostly Bear’s domain.

Occasionally we would hear the rasp, rasp of her tongue on the couch as though she had been licking her paw when her tongue slipped from her fur and found the velour texture irresistible. She would zone out and lick and lick until someone said her name sharply. Stopping abruptly, she’d cast a quick look sideways at whoever caught her in the act, as if to say “what”, with a certain tone that thinly masked her guilt.

She always seemed to lick the fibres in an opposing direction from which they were supposed to lie and they would dry and harden like that, leaving a crispy patch with a cowlick that reflected the light in a completely different way and left a dull circle amidst the natural shine of the surrounding material.

When the kittens showed up, the couch was Bear’s safe island above the chaos. For a little while at least.

The kittens were too small to even be called kittens when we brought them home. They were more like overgrown mice. They huddled together in their box and scrabbled at its sides when we pulled open the flaps each morning, letting in the light. Just like little birds, the minute we covered their lair with a towel for the afternoon or evening they stopped their peeping and mewing, which was otherwise constant.

Our days started to revolve around feeding times. Each kitten needed to be fed from a syringe an exact amount of milk replacement, like baby formula for cats. Morgan sat on his chair while I perched on the edge of the couch scooping up kittens one at a time as though they were on an assembly line. We held their wriggling bodies in one hand and slowly depressed the plunger on the syringe with the other while each little pink tongue worked desperately to get every drop of food. The room filled with hungry high-pitched mews that left us wondering if we’d fed them enough.

As they grew, they quickly became little explorers, marching along the floor with purpose as though setting off across a vast desert, or tromping over blankets like mini-mountaineers. Outside on the lawn the kittens scrambled across the grass, taking the biggest strides their little bodies allowed, chasing my big brave black lab who leapt up and just about tripped over herself trying to get away from the tiny terrors. We teased Bear relentlessly about the kittens thinking she was their mother.

There were three boys and three girls and they all instantly had their own personalities. The runt of the litter and the largest were the first two we named. Both boys and both orange, the large one, almost twice the size of everyone else was clearly the bully, throwing his weight around from the word go. We called him Dr. Evil, which could only mean the tiniest guy would be dubbed Mini Me.

The smallest girl, a pretty little beige and grey calico - who would become the roundest cat I ever met - was the brunt of her siblings’ jokes. It was her we would find wandering around the livingroom after all the kittens had been tucked inside their fortress-like box and we imagined the others had hoisted her up and out through the cardboard flaps, a practical joke that started with them getting her excited about a covert mission.

Twice we found her with not a wisp of a whisker left on her face. I have no idea what happened, but again we pictured the others ganging up on her, holding her down and chewing them off. She seemed completely unconcerned by the whole thing, staring at us blankly as we questioned her about where her whiskers were.

The other two girls were also calicos, one beige and grey with dark-rimmed eyes that made her look exotic, the other a more traditional brown and black. Then there was the third boy, the orangey-beige one I plucked from the box that first day and accidently began to reel in tiny strands that marked the beginnings of our bond.

We didn’t plan on naming them all, once you name them it’s harder to give them away, but circumstances soon arose that made it impossible not to.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

And then there were eight

In order to clean out whatever it was that caused Quincy’s abscess, the vet explained she was going to have to perform surgery on his throat. It was complicated because of where it was. The throat isn’t like an arm or a leg.

The vet told us this, but she really needed to deal directly with the Humane Society. He was still their dog after all, we just supplied the house where he lived.

The director of the Humane Society wanted to see him. She wanted a second opinion, to check him over before a decision was made. Morgan took him in one morning while I was at work. I expected to hear from him, to find out how it went. What I didn’t expect was to see Morgan shortly after 10:00 in the morning, toting a box of kittens.

While he waited at the Humane Society, a woman came in with the kittens. They had been abandoned by their mother in a treehouse in this woman’s back yard. The Humane Society wouldn’t take them for jurisdiction reasons. Her only option was Animal Services but she didn’t want to take them there, sure they would be put down. A discussion ensued which Morgan listened to intently before finally offering to take them himself.

I’m not sure if he took leave of his senses at that moment in time, or if he didn’t think of the repercussions of such on act, but when he showed up that morning with the peeping, mewing box, I was speechless. I didn’t want a bunch of kittens. Sure, they were cute, but they were only about three weeks old. It was going to take a lot of work and care to keep them alive and then we had to find homes for all of them.

I was mad for about five minutes and then I picked up a tiny striped orangey-beige boy, who stretched up towards me from the box. What could I do? They were cute. It was at that moment I began to solidify my image as a sucker.

As for Quincy, the decision was made to do the surgery. Because it was the Humane Society the vet wouldn’t charge them full price for the operation. Partly, I think she was excited about having the opportunity to perform such a unique procedure.

In all of it though, Morgan and I were the middlemen, reduced to bystanders. We were told if things didn’t go well during the surgery, Quincy would be put down. That was a decision made between the Humane Society and the vet. We had no say in it. Of course we didn’t, he wasn’t really our dog, not on paper anyway.

It was a strange position to be in. We knew Quincy better than anyone else did and yet, if left to us, there was no way we could have afforded that type of surgery. So, we became invisible.

We felt helpless. How could they make that decision I wanted to know, when they don’t even know Quincy. They don’t know him at all, he’s just another dog to them. It was as though all the time we’d spent with him didn’t matter. We had become Quincy’s entire life but now our relationship was insignificant.

Of course, in retrospect, it was the only decision they could make, but at the time, it felt like they were stealing something from us.

We were determined to stay at the vet’s office during the surgery so we were there. Maybe we could intervene at the last minute, somehow get in the loop. We sat on a bench in the bright waiting room in front of the large windows where sun trickled in through the blinds and cast white stripes on our faces. We stared at each other and felt our world slip through our fingers. There weren’t many words exchanged, we both knew what needed to be done. If Quincy made it through this we were going to adopt him. No one would ever tell us again we had no say in what happened to our dog.

Eventually we did go home. The surgery would take a long time, they told us, and it didn’t make sense for us to stay. We left only after we were sure they understood we wanted to be called the minute anything happened, good or bad.

The day passed slowly, but we finally heard later that afternoon. Quincy made it through the surgery and was doing well. When we picked him up the next day, the vet explained to us what she had done. She spoke with a touch of pride; rightfully so. She performed laser surgery on his throat, very specific, intricate work. She was almost giddy as she showed us a diagram of a dog’s throat and how she went in and why it was not a straight-forward surgery. One wrong move and it could have been disastrous. The work she did was nothing short of amazing, however she wasn’t sure she got everything out.

We returned home with Quincy, again with instructions to keep the wounds open, though this time little rubber tubes protruded from four incisions in his skin for exactly that purpose. He couldn’t wear a cone because of where the incisions were, so we had to keep a close eye on him, make sure he didn’t rip out stitches or the tubes.

The very next day we went to the Humane Society to sign papers and make official what we already knew. Quincy was ours, holey neck and all.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Like an orange on a toothpick

The four of us settled into a happy rhythm. Bear seemed to relax as Quincy established his daily route around the neighbourhood and she realized his agenda did not include honing in on belly rubs or snuggle time. Quincy became more and more social as he found his place in our lives. He continued to wander, but he seemed to enjoy our company as well, choosing more often to stay close to home.

Even with his rough-around-the-edges persona, Quincy gave the impression of being a distinguished gentleman at times, more international spy than country bumpkin. Morgan began to address him as Quincible, accompanied by a sharp head nod when they passed each other in the house.

It was that I heard one early Fall morning when Morgan got out of bed and opened the front door. Quincy went out just before sunrise and returned for breakfast. Except, something wasn’t quite right and Morgan said I needed to get up and look at him myself.

I stumbled out from under the covers and focused my bleary eyes on Quincy’s black shape where he lay just outside the bedroom door. His head was enormous.

I stared at him panting on the floor his eyes trained on the far wall as though he knew something was wrong but was casually trying to ignore it. The word that popped into my head was frankendog when I saw his giant forehead stretching up way above where it should have ended.

At first we thought something had stung him and an allergic reaction had caused this head to swell to twice its normal size. I grabbed a bowl of water from the kitchen, placed it in front of him and watched as his pink tongue worked quickly to lap it up. He could swallow and breathe okay.

We called the vet and were about to follow their direction to give him an antihistamine and see if the swelling went down when I noticed the white fur on his chest had suddenly become pink and wet. A mucusy-pink puddle began to form on the floor just in front of him and closer inspection revealed a hole in his neck.

Another call to the vet and we were loading Quincy into the car. It seemed he had an abscess that just burst. On the plus side, his head had returned to normal size.

At the vet’s office they shaved the hair around the torn skin, leaving it bright pink and raw. We were given an iodine solution to use, with instructions to keep Quincy inside and the wound open with a warm cloth so it could drain and whatever had caused it, whatever was stuck in there, would be flushed out.

We took our leaky dog home and spent the next few days wetting down a determined scab and wiping up puddles around the house. We tried wrapping a bandana loosely around his neck to help keep the area clean and also to absorb some of the mess, but Quincy always managed to pull it off.

Sometimes the tear healed a bit too much and we had to really work at the wound to open it up again while Quincy sat still as a statue, pointedly not looking at us as if trying to imagine none of it was happening.

One afternoon I kneeled beside him with my hands on his shoulders, closely scrutinizing his sealed-up wound and the swollen skin around it. Morgan stood on the other side wielding a damp cloth. It wasn’t working, the wound stayed stubbornly closed. Eventually Morgan resorted to poking and prodding the area with his fingers to try and break through the scab.

I’m not sure if I was adjusting my position or my attention wandered for a minute, but I just moved my face to the side, away from the wound, when it erupted and a jet of pus shot from his neck across the livingroom. We both jumped back from Quincy, as though he had become suddenly too hot to touch, and we watched this perfect stream of gunk fly about six feet through the air then splatter against the TV screen, drip down the storage bin it sat on, and pool on the floor. Quincy didn’t move a muscle. Morgan and I stared at each other and shared a slightly nervous laugh and all I could think was I almost got that in the face.

Well, that must feel better, Morgan said and clapped Quincy on the shoulder.

If it did, it didn’t last long. Whatever was stuck in his skin causing the irritation, it wasn’t coming out. We flushed the area, kept it clean, allowed it to drain, but it kept swelling up. It didn’t seem to be getting any better.

The vet agreed, surmising that whatever was in there had maybe pierced through his skin from the inside, like if he got a stick stuck in his throat. She explained the only way to clean it out properly would be to go in and get it out.

Quincy needed surgery.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Quincy finds his voice

Four months went by before we heard Quincy utter a word. He slipped into life with us as I imagined he adapted to everything, quietly, with his head down, one paw out the door while sinking the rest of his body comfortably into a well-worn spot on the floor.

He had an air of quiet confidence about him, cultivated, I was sure, by a life of roaming wide open spaces and traversing dense forests. It wasn’t long before Morgan and I began to think of him as the Littlest Hobo incarnate. He was the strong, silent type who was willing to let you in, but not too far. He hated getting his picture taken.

He took up walking with Bear and I. There was an old logging road across the main road from the little cottage community where we lived. It was the aftermath of a clear cut. There were a few clusters of forested area left, but mostly it was all new growth, scraggly and rough. The new small trees that clamoured for the sky were shorter than me, and the underbrush grew thick.

Somehow I felt safer when Quincy joined us. I knew he was bush-savvy. He moved like he had spent his life running free in the wilderness. Mud puddles were his weakness. Any we found along the way, the bigger the better, he would sit in those as he did the river, then stretch out and lie there as though he had found a little slice of heaven.

Always he would leave us after a while and disappear into the trees or brush that lined the trail, appearing again a short time later, having covered the distance through the bush, where Bear and I stuck to the trail.

I found myself watching him for cues. If he stopped and listened, ears cocked towards the bush, eyes focused, I would wait and listen, wondering what he heard or smelled on the air. I trusted him implicitly.

Usually when he disappeared into the bush for about the fifth time, he wouldn’t appear again until Bear and I were almost home, then he would join us for the last leg of our walk. Occasionally we would return to find him sitting at the house waiting for us.

I often wondered where he went. I felt like we were just a tiny part of that dogs life, his days were filled with other things, other places. Sometimes he even stayed out all night. The longer he lived with us, the more the mystery deepened.

I awoke one morning to find a shoe I didn’t recognize on the deck, just outside the door. Morgan didn’t know it either. It didn’t take us long to realize Quincy had brought it home with him. The shoe was completely intact. He hadn’t picked it up as a chew toy, he’d just brought it home. We asked around our neighbours, it didn’t belong to any of them.

I wondered how far afield he travelled and why he brought home this particular shoe. I tried to picture him sneaking silently from the shadows on to someone’s back porch, checking over his options, making his selection, carefully lifting the shoe in his mouth and stealing away into the trees, then trotting all the way home with it clutched between his teeth.

Once it was deposited at our door, he completely ignored it. Was he bringing us a present? I wondered. I was at the same time flattered and mildly embarrassed that my dog stole somebody’s shoe.

Shortly after that, on another morning, I found a sandal.

During the time he lived with us, Quincy became somewhat of a neighbourhood social butterfly. All our neighbours were dog people and everyone kind of looked out for him. He quickly learned which houses had the best treats and who would give him table scraps.

When we started visiting one of our neighbours for a weekly dinner and TV night, Quincy would accompany us to the house and then loiter just off their deck until we appeared two hours later to go home. Eventually he worked up to stepping inside for brief visits to say hello, then he’d collect a treat and slip out the door to wait for us.

One night when we left their house, it was pitch black outside. The darkness hung heavily around us and seemed to stretch above to the end of time. There was no moon, no stars and I could barely see Morgan where he walked beside me only feet away. I could hear Bear’s quick steps ahead of us crunching over the gravel, but other than that we could have been completely alone in the world.

Then we heard a strange bark from close behind us. It’s funny how you can pick out the distinct barks of different dogs, we knew the sound of the voices of all five dogs that lived in our community. This was one neither of us had heard before. We stopped and I felt a flurry of soft fur and wet nose and straw-like whiskers brush my hand. Then Morgan let out a yell as he was nudged from behind.

Who was that? Was that Quincy? We asked aloud of each other and the air around us. It was the first time Quincy had ever made such deliberate contact with us. We could hear him dancing around us in the darkness with Bear and we started to laugh. For a brief moment we floated away, the four of us, and it felt as though everything up until that point had a purpose after all.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The parade begins

Our house began to stink. Somedays, when the wind blew just right, it smelled like dog pee and feet.

We somehow managed to keep the house non-animal smelly for months. But something changed. It could be Max’s inability to make it more than a foot out the door before he pees - or sometimes he doesn’t make it out the door at all. It could also be the fact that we have three dogs that had not been brushed in weeks - there is nothing quite as smelly as the undercoat of a dog - garbage truck with a hint of something rotting under the porch. The main culprit though, we decided, was the couch.

It sat in the entryway and greeted you as soon as you walked through the door, its broken down appearance assaulting the eyes while its aroma became a tangible thing that reached out and smacked you about the face. It had essentially become a giant dog bed that could not be thrown in the washing machine. We needed to get rid of it. Plus we’re pretty sure there was a giant spider living inside it, there had been sightings.

I guess the couch never stood a chance. I see that now, after throwing ten animals at it.

It started innocently enough, though, when it was just Bear and Morgan and I, and the couch was new - well, new to us anyway.

After a few snowy months gathered around our gas fireplace, sitting in lawn chairs with Bear curled up on blankets on the plywood floor, the couch was a shiny orange jewel. A focal point for our tiny living room that distracted from the battered old chocolate brown recliner we bought at the same time.

The recliner looked like a well-loved stuffed animal. The faux leather back pulled away from the frame where sharp staples poked through. I thought Morgan was kidding when he said he wanted it. The chair became his, the couch was mine and Bear’s. We spent long hours snuggled up on its cushions, me under blankets with a mug of tea and a book, Bear sprawled out with her head in my lap and all four feet straight up in the air, prepared for the possibility that at any moment someone might indulge her in a belly rub.

It never occurred to me there would be other animals.

They all kind of just happened. In the span of three short years, nine more furry bodies would traipse through our door. Not all of them stayed long, but they each left their mark in one way or another.

Quincy was the first. He was planned; a foster dog we decided to take in that first spring in Thunder Bay - much to Bear’s chagrin.

His real name was Prince. A Border Collie-Lab cross, his face was very much like Bear’s, but longer hair fanned out in a mane at his neck. He had a white chest and feet, and his ears sat higher on his head, pointing up before falling out to the side where they bounced up and down when he ran.

He was the only dog at the Humane Society not climbing the walls of his kennel. Instead, he lay motionless, chin resting on paws, staring into the distance. We took him home that afternoon and he spent the evening under our bed, where his bones rattled against the bare wood floor. Bear lay on the couch in the living room, shooting sideways glances at the bedroom as if to ask, How long is he staying? They rode home together in the back of the car, Quincy ignoring all of us and Bear trying to make herself as small as possible in one corner of the back seat so she didn’t have to touch him.

We changed his name because he didn’t look like a Prince, it didn’t suit him, but also we thought it was a good way to give him a new start. Quincy sounded similar but was just different enough.

Of all the animals we would alternately welcome and grudgingly allow into our lives Quincy was perhaps the most elusive, the most independent of the bunch. He kept his distance at first, didn’t want to know us. He spent most of his time outdoors doing his own thing, reclining in the shade of a tree or sitting in the river with the water flowing over his knees. Quincy was like a ghost, slipping silently from room to room or disappearing on one of his jaunts without a glance back.

But he always returned and slowly he became a part of our small family.

The day he made his first bid for the couch was the day we realized he felt comfortable with us and in our home. We had, however, decided earlier that the couch would remain Bear’s special place since we had imposed on her solitude with another animal. Try to explain that to a dog.

On the few days Quincy stayed inside he would inevitably find his way onto the couch. He and Bear seemed to arrive at some sort of agreement to not acknowledge each other in the house. Bear took up residence on the bed where she gazed out the bedroom door into the living room, sighing every once in a while to remind us she was there, while Quincy slunk silently onto the couch, always ready to jump up and disappear as a wisp in the air.

But that wouldn’t happen for a few more months, after the swollen head, projectile pus and the kittens.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Couch, meet dogs

This story begins with an ending.
It was the end of our couch, our first couch, all seven feet of its ‘70s orange stripyness. We’d kept it so long for sentimental reasons.
It was our first couch. My husband and I bought it together for our first home together, a ramshackle rented cottage on the edge of a river in northwestern Ontario. We discovered later, through an emailed picture, it was exactly the same kind of first couch my husband’s long-lost brother owned with his wife years earlier, before either of them knew the other one existed. But also, it was from the era of long, skinny couches made specifically for stretching out weary bones and napping in the middle of the day. They don’t make couches like that anymore.
We bought it for $50 at the Salvation Army four years earlier after spending four months furnitureless, living in our lawn chairs. The couch looked brand new, as though it had been kept in someone’s “good room”, it was barely used. Its pinstripes of oranges and browns and whites still captured the eye, its richness of colour invited you to sink into its soft velour finish that shone like a gift wrapped in Christmas paper when the light hit it just right.
Three years later it was trashed. It was home to 10 different animals during that time, 12 if you count my husband, Morgan, and I, but none was harder on it than the last, our youngest dog, Murdoch. Though the six kittens did a number on it too.
We stood in the entry way with the door of our house propped open and the couch poised to make it’s last exit and I would be lying if I said we weren’t sad to see it go, even though it had taken on a grayish hue and smelled like wet dog.
When we moved to our new house, a year earlier, the couch was relegated to the entryway as temporary storage while we decided what to do with it. I had stopped sitting on it eight months before that after adopting Max, an old German Shepherd who dragged himself on to the couch at every opportunity, while our Black Lab, Bear, slept at the other end. There was just enough room for two big dogs. Then Max pooed on it one day. It was an accident - the first of many as the degenerative condition that was stealing his ability to walk progressed. After that, even with a good cleaning, I saw it as the dog’s couch and always chose to sit on the bean bag chair.
In the entryway of our new house, Murdoch - a puppy found on the side of the road, ill-mannered with a possible violent streak - spent long hours in his kennel beside the couch that held boxes from our move. As the boxes cleared and Murdoch spent more time free from behind bars, he quickly claimed the couch as his own.
The holes he chewed in it were strategic. I never caught him with his teeth actually sunk in to the fabric, he was too smart to do it when we were around and too smart to tear off huge hunks that would be noticed right away. Instead, he worked diligently to pick small holes into the armrest and then carefully tore a thin strip off the backrest. He chewed into the seat cushions from underneath so they looked completely fine from the top but if you picked one up it hung in tatters, and that’s when you noticed half the foam was missing. He focused his attention on the pre-existing wear marks that showed on the extremities where fabric pulled tightly over edges of the wooden frame beneath. We didn’t notice his handiwork until stuffing began to creep out from behind taut fabric, and then we couldn’t remember if these were holes started by the cats or if Murdoch had found a new hobby.
The cats had already torn off the black, webby fabric underneath the couch and picked a forest of individual threads along the front where they sunk in their claws and pulled themselves along the floor on their backs as though scaling a mountain on its side. They had also tested the potential of one of the arms as a scratching post.
The couch had seen better days, and as we stopped to contemplate which angle would be best to get it out the door, our guilt fell heavily on our shoulders again. How could we have utterly destroyed a piece of furniture in such a short time? What kind of people are we? Now we will drive it to the dump where it will become yet another piece of detritus from our wasteful, throw-away society when the only thing wrong with it, really, is the fabric. The frame was in great shape, the wood carefully crafted into gentle curves and smooth straight lines. It would be a perfect couch to re-upholster, except neither of us knew how to do it and we had a list of 500 other, more pressing, projects needing done.
What if we could find someone who does want to do it? I wondered aloud. Maybe we should ask around. Morgan thought the idea was crazy, quite sure no one would want this couch, but we had found another option, even if it was a faint light on the horizon. We compromised and threw out the cushions, then shuffled the couch back into its spot in the entryway, where Murdoch tested the springs and seemed to delight in it's squeakiness.