The Last Dog

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Of all my writing, I think this essay, which I wrote some years ago as a kind of catharsis, has the most impact on readers. Whenever I include it at readings, there are a few in the audience in tears at the end, and when it was published I received telephone calls from across the country. It’s one of those rare pieces which I ‘just wrote’, without my usual struggle and over-and-over-again rewriting.

Every now and then I receive requests for a copy, or I give it to friends because it seems apposite at particular sad times, so I’m putting it here as a convenient and easy way of sharing. It appeared in the Globe and Mail as Doggone Memories, but I think I prefer my title, which is …

The Last Dog.

We measure out our lives in many ways, in cars, houses, friendships, wives, breathtaking summers, brutal winters, Christmases, illnesses, deaths.

And in dogs.

The first dog marking my life’s progress, although I know him only through fond anecdote, was Jock, my father’s boyhood companion.

Nominally, Jock, a terrier of unconventional ancestry, belonged to both my father and his sister, but the male ties of boy and dog, according to family legend, were the stronger. This was demonstrated by the trick of telling Jock to ‘stay’ in the middle of the narrow, house-lined Cambridge street where they grew up while brother and sister walked away, one to each end of the street, as if for a duel. Then, simultaneously, they turned and called, whereupon Jock would demonstrate his true allegiance, after minimal diplomatic hesitation, by running to my father, who related the story to his children – to me – with admonitions that it was not a fair thing to do to a dog, but with guilty pride, nevertheless.

My primary and junior school days were marked by Flossy, the Airedale, and Sandy, the golden retriever. Flossy is little more now than a vague memory of square face and funny moustache, and of Sandy I also remember almost nothing – except his death under the wheels of the London-Cambridge express during a walk with my brother, a friend, and me. I remember the train passing in an intoxicating surge of clatter and wind as we watched it from the meadow adjoining the track. I remember waiting for Sandy to return from whatever adventure he was on. (He always did return eventually, and there was plenty to interest him and the three small boys accompanying him in the meadows, the rabbits, the pheasants, the river.)

I still see the forlorn little group, knee-deep in grass in the sun-soaked meadow, awed by the gradually dawning realisation that this time Sandy was not returning as he should, and that catastrophe was afoot. I relive the cautious and unbelieving sortie onto the railway line, and the discovery. We didn’t know what to do, so we left him there, lying in the afternoon sun.

We went home and played cricket in the garden until my father returned from work and took control of the tragedy. I blush even now for our callousness in leaving Sandy lying there (but what else could three small boys do?), and I still feel the oppression of disbelief and guilt justly clouding our play.

Next came Roger, an English setter (the first of two in my life), of such impeccable temperament that the only time we knew him to growl was when his sleep by the back door was peremptorily interrupted by a guest tripping over a bucket and falling on him. He apologised for the growl, of course, with frantic and solicitous licking. Roger had an astonishing drool response, the mere crackle of a biscuit wrapper producing Pavlovian torrents. (We called him Slobber.)

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His patience with the demands and indignities of growing up with six youngsters – including being dressed up by my sisters – was the same patience with which he waited out his end when kidney disease had wasted him. A teenager by then, I’d come home late at night and in the dark kitchen encounter no longer the rambunctious greeting of his youth, when he’d fling himself ecstatically at us as we trooped off the bus from school. Now there was the barest, painstaking twitch of his tail, as he lay by the stove, patient and bewildered and dying.

Maxim, my red setter, accompanied me from adolescence to adulthood, gracing my life with his ineffable charm and unforgettable elegance. Having moved with me across the Atlantic, he began to suffer increasingly frequent epileptic fits that left him dazed and disorientated. On a stormy winter night, during his pre-sleep perambulation around the garden, he must have been struck by one, and in his disorientation wandered off into a Newfoundland blizzard. We never found him.   

I didn’t begrudge his passing after nearly thirteen years of devotion given and returned. From his exuberantly lunatic puppyhood by the river and in the meadows around our East Anglian home, to a stately and dignified maturity in a Newfoundland outport, he lived a rich and varied life on two continents. But, instead of that alien, snowy wilderness, I wish Maxim, my flame in the sunshine, could have died in an English meadow, on a warm spring day with the bewitching sounds of imminent birds and the tantalising smells of lurking hares rioting in his brain.

Now my Maxim has become my father’s Jock, and tales of Maxim’s antics, fondly and often related, are tolerantly received by my children, although I suspect they are as foreign and distant to them as Jock’s demonstration of allegiance was to me, part of another, fading lifetime.

The dog who led me into my middle years, and indeed modelled them for me, was Bilbo, the second English setter, who, after a year or two of puppyish antics, devoted his life to being a gentleman of courtly manners, deep affection, and profound trust. His courtliness made his puzzlement at his late-life inability to control his rear legs and bowels the more heart-wrenching. Waking to find himself lying in encrusted faeces, he’d mutely beg for an unnecessary forgiveness for such appalling breach of manners.    

And the trust compounded by his affection made the day we took a final stroll, and a few stumbles, through some familiar smells the more unbearably poignant. We sat in a warm spring sun that so gently soothed his dear, faltering joints (and held such hopeless and ironic promise of rebirth and regeneration), and went to the vet’s, where with my old friend’s trusting compliance, I laid him on a table and watched an injection sever his devotion.  

I believed Bilbo would be the last canine marker of my life, but now, just when I think my dog days are done, another retriever, Jesse, is battering and cavorting his way into my life against my better judgement. Against my better judgement, Jesse, because at the same time as you wheedle confidently into my affections, I fear you.

I fear the gradual misting of your liquid eyes, the dulling of your gloss, the crippling of your energy, because they’ll parallel my own decay. Whatever good night we stumble toward, you and I, we stumble together, the only difference being that you won’t understand, as I will, the significance of your encroaching decrepitude, and I envy you the exuberance with which you’ll canter into oblivion, while I shuffle, laden with memory and despair, beside you.   

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