Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Our amazing disappearing dog

I have lost count of the number of days it has rained in a row. We wake up every morning in the dark now that the days have shortened and night lingers a little longer, a little lazier and heavier so it is like crawling out from underneath a weighted blanket, warm and cozy and difficult to shift in the morning. We let the dogs out on a wet deck plastered with brown leaves glued soundly in place as though painted over with a brush-full of shellac and watch as the sky lightens grudgingly from black to indigo and then gray, a solid gray like a great sheet billowing above the woods.

The dogs come back inside, two black shapes emerging from the blackness with silvery droplets of water clinging to every piece of fur. I towel them off and follow the wet footprints up the stairs to the kitchen and breakfast.

After breakfast and her morning peanut butter stuffed in her kong, Bear is restless. She lies on her bed beneath the black windows and stares at me where I sit at the table a few feet away crunching my toast and watching the steam roll up and out through the spout of my teapot. I try to concentrate on the book I am reading, avoid eye contact. But then she stomps her foot where it stretches out in front of her and there’s a thin breathy whine. I can’t ignore her for long.

“Do you really have to go out?” I finally break down and ask her, turning my head only slightly in her direction, trying to be as non-committal as possible. She may grumble then and if I ignore her some more she will stomp both front feet on the floor at the same time and push herself forcefully into a sitting position, and in a no-nonsense sort of way, stare at me meaningfully with eyes that reach down to the very pit of her soul.

And then I give in, I usually do. She knows I will. Well, she’s Bear afterall, and she’s a good dog and doesn’t she deserve a little scandal, a little excitement, these days? So I say okay and she follows me eagerly to the door after stretching the stiffness from her legs.

I should follow her. But it’s raining and dark and I’m still in my pajamas, so I’ll stand at the screen door and watch and then call her back. She sways out around the door and moseys across the deck, stepping off the edge and outside the reach of our porch light. The blackness there is like a solid thing and it swallows her up.

I can usually hear her rustling through the leaves and the dried up weeds we didn’t cut back this year but the patter of raindrops through the trees, on the deck and the leaves sound very much the same as Bear’s feet shuffling along the edge of the forest and her sounds are lost.

“Beary,” I say, trying to give the impression I can still see her. “Don’t take off. You come right back.” I cup my hand up to my eye and against the screen of the door to block the reflecting light from the kitchen and I squint out past the pale yellow glow of the light outside the door, trying to define shapes in the darkness.

I imagine her picking her way around the pile of wood that lines one side of our path to the driveway, tiptoeing across the rounded rocks and over protruding roots, around Morgan’s tools, the makeshift workbench beneath the trees, past the old woodshed and then stepping into the thick of the forest, melting like a shadow into the darkness that still fills up the spaces between the trees. She will follow her usual path, up and around, poking through the woods, surveying her land, what has been through here in the night?

And then I imagine her winding her way up the trail to the house on the hill behind our woods where that other dog lives with his full bowl of food. She’ll eat it all while the other dog watches, polite and dejected, and then she’ll wander back to her own house, her second breakfast already sitting heavily in her stomach. Later we will watch as she breathes a little more shallowly, a little faster, and her belly expands, her new delicate system bloating with the onslaught of food that is not her “special food”. I should have followed her.

But maybe that won’t happen. It doesn’t always. Maybe today will just be a harmless wander in the woods. Maybe she will appear from the darkness any moment now, her white chin defining her face, her eyes flashing in the dim light. She will stroll casually across the deck, step back over the threshold as though I just called her and she came. She’ll be soaking wet and covered in pine needles.

I stand at the door listening to the pattering rain, the heat of the wood stove at my back while the fresh morning air, cool and damp, pushes in through the screen and I wait for Bear, the amazing disappearing dog.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A day at the beach

We pick our way down the steep trail of rocks and hardened sand, packed and dry with lack of rain. Some rocks give way under foot, skittering down the sloped parts of the trail to a cut channel that could easily be filled with a rivulet of running water. It is as though we are walking on a dried up river bed that once guided a rush of water beneath the green canopy, cutting around tree trunks, down and down, towards the lake somewhere beyond the forest.

There is a beach here we are told, a sandy beach and a bay sheltered a bit from the open waters of Lake Superior. We have been searching a long time for a sandy beach for Bear. She is a southern Ontario girl, spending her first couple of years along the soft shores of Lake Erie. The rocky beaches of the north have been a bit of a disappointment. She’s tolerated it though, because there’s water and swimming and sticks to chase, but we could always tell she missed the sand between her toes.

The dogs run ahead on the forest trail. It is quiet, we are fairly certain there is no one around, but we call to them so they don’t disappear around corners, so Murdoch doesn’t get in to trouble. I hold his leash in my hand at the ready.

It is not too far in, just a couple of twists along the descending path, a bear print or two, and then we can see it, a sapphire ribbon through the trees. The trail fans into a sandy skirt that spills out beyond the scrub at the edge of the forest onto a long strip of beach. It stretches away to the right of the trail, ending in a point where the land scoops around to form the bay. To the left, the green water of a wide river meets the dark blue of the lake. Overhead the sky is a clear, pale blue, the heat of the sun masked by cool breezes off the lake.

The beach is deserted except for the skeletal remains of sun-bleached trees washed up on shore, their branches bristling at the water's edge. Sticks as far as the eye can see.

The dogs are in heaven.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Wondering about Bear

There is no point, I tell myself, in wondering if things would be different had we started the medication like we discussed a month ago. The fact that I am stumbling around outside in the dark just before midnight in my pajamas following Bear as she cuts erratic, panicky arcs through the reaches of the dim porch light over stones and roots, across the deck and back again, ready to jump forward and catch her when she falls, does not change the way things have unfolded over the last four weeks.

And while I kneel on the cool, damp deck with Morgan’s face inches away from mine as he stands hunched over, Bear sandwiched between us in a precarious sit after her legs gave out again as though they had turned to rubber, I still think it was the right decision to make at the time.

A month ago we were given the option of starting Bear on a different medication for her seizures, one that would overlap the current medication she is taking. The idea being that smaller doses of two different medications could result in diminished side effects that Bear was experiencing from taking a larger dose of just one medication. It sounds like a great idea.

We hesitated at first because by the time we got the prescription filled, Bear seemed to be doing better on her increased dose of the original medication. We worried the double dose would put her right back where she started. It didn’t seem fair. So we held off, talked to the vet, discussed options. We decided to wait.

The discussion continued, off and on over the last few weeks until we were convinced Bear could handle the change. On Sunday evening, as the dogs ate their supper, Morgan and I considered starting the new medication right then. But we decided again to wait, just one more day, because we didn’t know how she would react and wouldn’t it be better to give her the medication when we could keep a close eye on her instead of pumping her full of a strange new drug and shuffling off to bed?

Five hours later just as I was slipping in to sleep, I was nudged back by thumping noises coming from the living room below, cushioned bone against wood; the cats wrestling across the floor. I heard a low, rumbling yowl and then a hiss and I knew Chestnut was picking on Cleo again. I considered getting up and chasing him away, but I knew they would stop soon anyway. Then I heard the squeak of the couch and a thumping tail and I couldn’t make sense of what was happening. Were the cats on the couch now, bugging Bear?

And then I heard Bear’s great thick claws scratching at her blanket on the couch like she does when she’s mad or uncomfortable and tries to make a nest for herself. When the loud roaring sounds started I knew something was wrong. I threw back the covers, turned on the light and bolted down the stairs.

“What’s going on?” asked Morgan. I didn’t completely know until I was part way down the stairs and could just see in the pale edge of light that poured down from the bedroom behind me Bear’s dark figure convulsing against the white blanket.

“Bear’s having a seizure.”

We sat with her until it was done. And then Morgan carried her downstairs because she was desperate to move and walk but she could barely stand. I followed with my stomach turned inside out, my hand over my mouth as I watched his feet, which can get tangled at the best of times, shuffle carefully but heavily on to each step, Bear’s close-to-90-pound frame in his arms, a bewildered expression on her face. They are not going to fall, they are not going to fall, I told myself, unable to voice a protest.

And then we are outside in the cold night air watching Bear bobble around on rubbery legs, fall over, look stunned. We tell her to stay down but she won’t, so we help her up again, she paces anxiously away, falls over again. None of us really knows what to do.

It is surreal in some ways because most of the time it is easy to imagine there is nothing wrong with Bear. Lately she gambols about like a three year old, stomping through the bush, skipping after Murdoch up the trail, throwing sticks enthusiastically at my feet and then jumping up to snatch them out of the air. She even leapt over a downed tree the other day to grab a stick I was preparing to throw gently in her direction.

I forget the medicine is just a bandaid, it is not really fixing anything.

When we finally get Bear back inside, half lifting her up the stairs to the kitchen, she nosedives onto her bed, and we decide now is a good time to start the new medication.

“I don’t think we should give it to her on an empty stomach,” I say and give her a handful of her food, which she devours as if she hasn’t eaten in weeks. The medication is a clear liquid and I stand with it in a syringe poised apprehensively to inject into her mouth. “How do I do this?” I ask, hoping Morgan will know more than I. He suggests we use some bread to soak up the medicine and let her eat it.

Morgan cuts a slice from the loaf and Bear is at the counter, suddenly very steady on her feet, focused, alert. She snatches the slice of bread from Morgan’s hand. “What else you got there?” her brown eyes ask.

The food seems to have helped, given her something to focus on, settled her. We sit with Bear on her bed in the yellow glow of the kitchen light, her eyelids drooping, exhausted now. Would she have been spared this latest seizure had she been on the other medication? Would things have been different? Perhaps. But perhaps not. It’s impossible to know and there’s no point, we tell ourselves, in wondering.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

It’s the little things

I sit on the warm wood of the deck in a small patch of sunlight. The air is cool in the dappled shade and smells of warm autumn leaves. Each day I can see the sun moving a little bit lower across the sky than the day before, hiding behind the trees and losing power as we slide towards winter.

I talk on the phone to my sister, sit cross legged on the weather worn planks, about a foot from the edge of the deck that floats just inches above the ground at the base of a huge poplar tree. It seems like not that long ago the sun moved across the very middle of the gap in the trees overhead, blasting the deck full-on with heat during the afternoon so you couldn’t sit here for more than a few minutes without beginning to melt. But now it flits along behind the tips of reaching branches, skimming the yellowed treetops, its white light filtering down through shimmying leaves, light and shadow and darker shadow playing across the forest floor, across the deck where I sit, as though I am on the bottom of the ocean, sunlight wavering through water, changing shapes and strips of light playing across rippled sand.

Bear and Murdoch sit on either side of me. Bear’s presence on the deck usually means she is ready to go inside, otherwise she would be lying just off to the right in the clipped weeds and brush, chewing on a stick or staring up into the trees, sniffing the air. I think she just wants to sit beside me instead, but soon gets up and stands at the door. When I glance over my shoulder she gives me a meaningful look.

I hold the phone between my shoulder and my ear; unhook Murdoch from his line because he wants to go in too now. I hold open the door, usher the dogs inside. The wooden screen door closes with a creak and a soft bang and I return to the sunny spot on the deck to feel the last of its warmth on my face and shoulders.

And then there is whining.

I half turn and look at the door. I can just make out Bear staring back, the glint of her eyes, the white of her chin barely visible against the shadowed inside of the house. I return to the door, let her out again. Murdoch has settled into his kennel and does not make a move, which means I will not have to worry about being strangled by his line as he bolts across the deck at the sight of a vehicle trundling down our road. Bear and I can relax then.

I sit back down in my diminishing patch of sun, which has shifted closer to the edge of the deck, but Bear does not sit. She stands beside me and then walks around me. She stands in front of me and looks me in the eye. The tiny stamp of a foot, serious expression in her brown eyes, forehead wrinkled just so. I gesture, “What?” with my empty hand turned up, a shrug of my shoulders. She returns to the door, glances back at me and I realize what she wants.

It is less a patch of sun now than a patch of mottled shadow anyway I think as I get up again and open the door. I follow Bear inside, encourage her up the stairs to the kitchen with a flap of my hand “yes, I’m coming too.” I sit at the kitchen table, the phone still against my ear and watch Bear settle down on her yellow plaid blanket beneath the row of windows; she curls up with her head on her paws, eyes closed tight, and falls asleep. I smile then, involuntarily, and my heart glows a little and I think how wonderful it is to needed like that, wanted in no other way than just to be there. It is simple and perfect and so very Bear.

Monday, October 1, 2012

How to ruin a perfectly good walk

The air smells like autumn leaves and sunshine, wet earth and swamp grass. We are on the trail that weaves its way from the end of our road through new growth forest of mostly poplar, past more mature stands of cool green spruce trees, along the edge of swamp land and eventually up the side of a small mountain.

Murdoch has fallen behind, which is weird. Usually he is more of a “me first” kind of dog, charging ahead, barely looking back. I am suspicious but keep walking because it feels good and free on this warm fall day in the sunshine with the leaves bright yellow like lemon candies wrapped in clear cellophane and stark white tree branches looking polished and new against a sapphire blue sky, unblemished by even the slightest wisp of a cloud.

It is perfect and I want to keep moving over the flattened grass along this part of the trail I haven’t been on in months. It has opened up again after the swamp receded enough for the ATVs to skirt and flatten and ravage their way past the deep pools gathered in the middle of the trail. I took advantage of this mild devastation and picked my way around the muck, sticking to the long grasses that are flattened down like mats and painted sickly gray with dried mud. On the other side of the swamp the trail narrows considerably, hemmed in on both sides by battalions of ten-foot tall new-growth trees standing shoulder to shoulder, lining the path to the mountain. Today, I think, I could walk the whole trail.

Jack trots along beside me, which is also weird. He is the one who usually disappears amongst the trees on this trail and from whom I have to keep Murdoch distracted so he won’t follow and then not return, which has happened more than once. But for the moment we walk together, Jack and I, with the joint purpose of exploration, his collar jingling companionably, and I shuffle Murdoch’s absence to the back of my mind.

I can’t help but throw the odd glance over my shoulder though, wondering. He’s probably found something gross to eat I think as I take in the empty trail behind me that curves gently to the left and is swallowed up by the clamouring new growth trees whose mantle of leaves fills the trail with a yellow glow.

My pace slows as I consider turning back and then I hear him coming, his feet thundering over the ground, claws tearing at the grass, I can almost feel the vibrations as he pounds up behind me. I love this part, I think, as he whips past in a black blur and keeps running, his feet flying in all directions, sunlight flashing off his shiny black coat. Murdoch runs for the pure joy of it.

Jack leaps after him, his ears bouncing up and down with his round gait and I laugh at how different they are and how much fun they have in the simple things and I think how lucky I am to be here with them on this glowing trail beneath an endless blue sky on this warm sunny day. And then I get a whiff of something sour and rotten and pungently wild and I think there must be something dead just off the trail. But I know before I really know and I stop abruptly and watch my spirits collapse around my feet.

A picture flashes in my head of Murdoch alone on the trail after Jack and I have marched away, stumbling upon this rotten thing that could only smell good to a dog and throwing himself into it, writhing with glee.

“Murdoch!” I shout. “Why do you do that? That’s disgusting!” He looks back at me from where he’d been skipping ahead with Jack and I spin around on my heel, start walking back down the trail. “Walk’s over,” I yell. “We’re going back.”

Murdoch charges towards me and I step to the very edge of the trail as he bounds to a stop. “Don’t touch me!” I say, imagining him sidling up to my side, bumping my leg good-naturedly. The hair on the top of his head is slicked up into a cowlick and the soft fur behind his right ear is matted and greasy and his shoulder looks a bit suspect as well. “Just go!” I point savagely back the way we came.

I storm down the trail herding Murdoch ahead of me, thwarting his attempts to get me to throw sticks for him, enticing him onward with the word “swim” snapped repeatedly from my mouth. It keeps him focused and moving forward because Murdoch loves the water and at the spot where the trail leaves the road, a great culvert ushers a creek into a depression in the land where it gathers in a pool that Murdoch cannot resist. My plan is to make him leap into that water again and again until all the stink is washed off. It has worked before.

Today, however, after a good dousing I still detect a hint of odour beneath the cold, earthy smell of the water as I lean in precariously for a sniff. He is soaked through and I can already hear water sloshing about in his stomach. It doesn’t seem right to make him go in again, even though he would do it in a heartbeat. But I don’t want to give him a bath either.

Murdoch has never officially had a bath because the one time I tried to bathe him in a little blue kiddie pool out the front of our house, he eyed the water suspiciously and refused to go in. When I scooped up water in a tiny bucket and sloshed it over his head, he went crazy, running in circles like his tail was on fire and despite a tremendous feat of self-control on his part he did eventually jump up on me, raking his claws across my arm and leaving some lovely red scratches that lasted a good week.

So no bath, but I could spot-wash him, I think. At home I make him wait outside while I get a basin of warm water, a towel and some soap. I wring water from the towel over him and rub a dab of lavender and tea tree dish soap into the fur on his head, behind his ear, over his neck and shoulders. It goes surprisingly well. There is no jumping or scratching or running in circles. In fact I think he almost enjoys it. And when I finish toweling off the excess water, he stands frazzled and clean in the dappled sun on the deck with just the slightest air of lavender about him. But mostly he smells like wet dog, which is pretty much perfect.