Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Long Goodbye

Her hearing was the first to go. A piercing whistle no longer gets her attention the way it used to. Now it takes a loud hand clap to garner a reaction. My daily words, "Let's go to work, Consuela," are now accompanied by the nudge of a toe. Otherwise, my move to the office downstairs would go unnoticed. Same thing with "Let's go to lunch, Consuela." She sleeps deeper than she ever has before. Back in the day, the first footstep on the floor in the morning would send her shooting out of bed, but now she must be roused.

Her steps, once so spry and lively, are slower and sometimes pained. She rises from a deep sleep and takes a full minute to work off the stiffness. Then she shakes and skips along her merry way. Unlike our great friend Roscoe, whose decline was swift and sickly, Consuela, at nearly 17 years of age, is drifting slowly but surely into old age. I am pained every day watching it unfold before me.

As she declines, I grow sentimental. I remember the first time I ever saw her—emaciated, brown, most of her tail missing, in a police kennel on the Navy base in Spain where she was on day seven of a seven-day stay that wasn't going to end well for her. Newly married, we went in on a whim, before we owned a second car or a sofa, for that matter. I had no intention of coming out with a dog. Hell, we hadn't even been there long enough to know that's not where you went to find a pet. No, there was an animal welfare league that turned out perfectly lovely pets, and they later added Roscoe to our family. So I locked eyes with this delightful, emaciated dog with the big smile. The connection was deep and instantaneous. "Take me," she all but said. "Take me and you'll never be sorry." I took her, and I've never been sorry.

At home, I bathed her and discovered she was yellow not brown. I found that she was skinny enough to fit through the Gypsy bars over our back door. That exit strategy lasted about two weeks of better eating before a shriek beckoned me, and we found out she no longer fit through the bars. Those early days in a foreign country, in a new marriage, away from home for the first time ever, were made easier and more joyful by the presence of a little yellow being who loved me so passionately that if I came to a stop anywhere in the house, she crashed into me.

I can't help but think back to our earliest days with "Air Dog" as we called her, for her back legs seemed spring loaded with enough power to bring her eye to eye with her six-foot-two-inch "Dad." I remember the dog who could run five or six miles with Dad in the tropical heat of southern Spain without missing a beat, who could be hit by a moped and come out of it laughing while her parents melted down, certain they'd lost their right to parent future human children forever. I remember the dog who once fell 30 feet while chasing her beloved blue racketball, and then got up, shook it off, and went back to work. We, on the other hand, required a moment of silence and a group hug with our friends over what could have happened right in front of us on our first anniversary no less...

I remember the dog who drank lustfully, paws holding her up while I pressed the button, from the water fountains in the Spanish park, much to the dismay of Dad who told Mom she was going to get us kicked out of the country for letting her baby drink right from the fountain while our appalled Spanish hosts looked on. I remember my dynamic duo, Roscoe and Consuela, otherwise known as Bark and Lick—and for good reason. While Roscoe barked himself senseless, Consuela has never met a surface that didn't need a good licking. I remember the dogs who knew, somehow—both times—that Mom had cesarian sections and that jumping on her to say hello and welcome home would be unwise. I remember two dogs embracing those babies, who, let's face it, bumped them quite a few links down the food chain, with love and devotion that had previously been reserved just for us. I remember the two fools running—inside the tent that was supposed to contain them—through a campsite in hot pursuit of a vile cat.

Here's my favorite photo of the two of them in their prime:

For the last six years, Consuela's day has been made by the school bus that stops twice a day in front of the house and the monitor who has a biscuit for her each time. I often wonder if most of Bernice's salary doesn't go toward the primo biscuits she brings to Consuela twice a day. "Let's get the bus, Consuela."

I work at home. I have for ten years. Every day of those years, my little buddy has been my companion, my friend, my love. Around the time she turned 12, people would say, "Wow, she's getting along, isn't she?" At 16, their eyes just get wide and they tend not to state the obvious. That we're on borrowed time. I know it, Dan knows it, and lately, it seems, Consuela knows it, too. We've been told that this is the time to get another dog, so there'll be no "void." After. As if there won't be a void no matter what we do to prepare. I've thought about getting another dog, but I can't do it right now. I want to give Consuela all the time and attention I can for as long as we have her in our lives. Besides, I've learned I'm not so much a dog person as I am a Consuela person.

For now, I'm grateful for every minute with the little yellow "person" who has been my very best pal since the day we first locked eyes more than 16 years ago. We joke that she has been the third person in our marriage—the other woman, if you will—from the very beginning, and I can't imagine our life or our home without her in it.

I recently saw "Marley and Me," and commented here that it wasn't the best movie for the mother of a soon-to-be 17-year-old dog to see. One scene in particular stood out for me. Owen Wilson's character, John Grogan, took Marley for a walk at sunset. Sitting together in a grassy field, John looped his arm around Marley's neck and said, "You'll let me know when it's time, won't you, boy? You'll let me know." When Roscoe was sick, we probably waited too long as we were unable to confront the painful truth after 14 happy, fun years together. I don't want to make that mistake again, so I've decided that when Consuela no longer cares about what's being cooked in the kitchen, when she no longer rests her head on my leg during dinner to let me know she's ready for a treat, when she no longer fights back against a strong hug, when she lets us touch her front paws and doesn't get mad, when she doesn't freak out when the suitcases come out of the attic and when the arrival of the school bus no longer gets her attention, then we'll know it's time.

We're not there yet. But we're much closer than we'd like to be.


Cheryl Brooks said...

I feel your pain, Marie. My dog, Chewbacca was perfect, and since he died in September, I haven't felt the need to find another one. Maybe getting a puppy before he went would have been a better idea, but it's very hard to replace one like that.

Marie Force said...

Yes, you are right, Cheryl. My buddy still makes me laugh every day, so I feel very lucky. Not looking forward to the reality of life without her.