Monday, August 20, 2007

Cam Ramsay: 2000-2007

Our cat, Cam, is sick. It came on suddenly, and by the time we took her to the vet's office for a diagnosis, she couldn't even stand up on her own. They give her IV fluids and take her blood. They suspect kidney failure, but tell us we won't know for certain until the tests are returned.

The next day, Cam's vet--Dr. Townsend--calls. It's worse than he thought. At best, she'll live another day or two. And they will be painful days. Just after eleven that morning, Greg and I agree: it's time to intervene. We wrap Cam in her favorite fleece blanket and take her to the truck. On the ride over, she curls herself around my leg and rests her chin on my foot. She wants me to protect her. She feels safe with me. I want her to be angry with me. To fight and resist. But it’s too late for that. For the first time in her short life, she is feeble resignation.

Greg and I sit in the parking lot with Cam for several minutes before entering the clinic. I resist the urge to run away. To wrap this little striped cat in her blanket and take her somewhere else where she can spend the rest of her life in peace. But that, too, seems cruel. There will be no more peace in her life. We walk inside.

They’re expecting us, and quickly usher us past the waiting area and into a private room. Cam burrows into my arm. I cry, telling her it will be okay. The lie makes me weep harder.

Matt Townsend enters the office and introduces himself to Greg. He is considerate and polite. He tells us he is very sorry. I know he means it. He explains what will happen and asks us to sign a consent form, then leaves to prepare the drugs that will end Cam’s life. First, he administers the same sedative she received the night before. This time, though, she resists its effects, raising her head jerkily each time she hears a noise. She does not want to go to sleep. I think she knows it’s forever this time. Dr. Townsend leaves us for a few minutes, then returns with a young, pretty vet tech, who nods her head shyly at us. This is hard for them too.

They shave Cam’s front forearm and swab it with alcohol. The drugs will be administered intravenously and will be instantaneous. Even with the saline infusion last night, she is dehydrated and it takes them several tries to find her vein. “Come on, sweetheart,” Matt whispers. “Don’t make this hard for us.” She consents. A minute later, she is gone.

The four of us stand awkwardly, looking at the floor.

“This is your room,” Matt tells me and Greg. “No one else will use it for the rest of the day. Take as much time as you need.”

He leaves with the technician. They have dozens of patients to see today. Behind the door, I can hear them greeting a new dog or cat. The sound is very far away and yet uncomfortably close. I want the world to shut down—just for a minute.

Cam’s beauty has returned in her death. Her eyes are clear and moist, no longer dilated with discomfort. I stroke her head and ears, then run my finger along her paws. It is inconceivable to me that she is gone. Greg cries behind me. Cam is his cat, too, and he has not seen her worsen over the past two days. Her death must feel even more jarring to him.

After some time, we wrap her limp body in the fleece blanket and take it to the truck. It feels heavy on my lap. Popular wisdom has it that the human body loses 21 grams in death. But Cam feels heavier, as if her life has been replaced by lead. Throughout the long ride home, her body sinks deeper into my lap until I wonder if I will be able to lift it. I remember the weight of that small doe. Cam feels at least that heavy now. Maybe more.

Back home, we leave her in the truck and take shovels into the woods. There is room enough near Kinch’s grave, dug almost exactly one year earlier. We are surprisingly familiar with the routine. I set to collecting stones while Greg struggles to break tree roots and heavy earth. This grave will be smaller and shallower than the beagle’s. Perhaps because of that, or because we are becoming adept at the process, we dig Cam’s in a faction of the time. I walk slowly to the truck and collect her swaddled body, taking it back into the woods. But kneeling before the opened earth, I cannot release it. I cannot place her in the ground, where she will decompose in the dark and the cold.

“Take your time,” Greg says, placing his hand upon my shoulder. “We don’t have to rush.”

I clasp her body to my chest. Even in the weightiness of death, it feels familiar. I will never hold it again, and this thought slays me. I rock back and forth, cradling her as if this will somehow bring her back. For a moment, I think that we don’t have to bury her—that there must be some way to keep her with us. But then I think about the fish and the doe and all of the other dead animals we’ve watched decay. I can’t see Cam endure a similar process.

Tibetan Buddhists have a class of individuals known as bone breakers. Called “domdens,” their jobs are to grind bodies into meal so that they might be consumed by vultures and, thus, transported high into the sky. I want to give Cam the same feeling of liberation. But I am no domden. I cannot break this little body. Instead, I lower the blanket into the jagged hole, smoothing her swaddled form and making sure she is tucked in tight. We spread the dirt upon her—a carnal sweep that cakes our hands and sweat-soaked arms. There is power in this process of burial. I don’t think I ever understood it before this moment. When Kinch died, I was more concerned over the poignancy of Greg’s grief than I was my own sadness. But this time is utterly selfish. I know only the heartbreak I am feeling and the shred of comfort I find from balling my fists deeply in the cool dirt then packing Cam’s body in that same solidity.

We pile stones on top of the earth, building them into a smaller version of Kinch’s warrior cairn. Then we return, briefly, to the sunlight of our yard, where we pick bouquets of daisies and black-eyed susans. One for the new small grave; another for the larger one that has settled over four seasons.

As we walk back towards the house, I spy a triangular face peering out from the kitchen window. Tall, black-tipped ears; thick tawny fur; blue eyes and a grin. She barks a greeting and whines impatiently. We are still excluding her, and she’s had enough.

I do not want to see this young dog, so exuberant and curious. I do not want to feel the thickness of her life, or be reminded of her endless pursuit of my now-dead cat. I resent both: the former because it reminds me of what Cam no longer has; the latter because I worry it hastened her death. I walk away from her when she greets me at the door, then retreat upstairs and fall asleep.

Greg takes Ari on her evening walk and wakes me to ask if I want dinner. I do not. I want Cam—that’s all.

Later that night, I curl into a cat-sized ball on the futon in my office. The T.V. is on, but I do not notice. Instead, I stare straight ahead, watching my own grief. I have always believed in euthanasia—for all creatures. Greg and I swore we would use it as a way to end terminal illness when discomfort outweighed vitality in any of our pets. We’ve even wished for the same in our own demise. But sitting here in the shadow of Cam’s death, I find myself burdened by responsibility and guilt. Who am I to say that, given the choice, she would have preferred a hastened death to another few days of mitigated existence? I worry that I have done the wrong thing. I fret that I have taken a life not mine to take. I beg forgiveness from anyone able to give it, then try contenting myself that I made the right choice. But did I? I don’t know. I return to the original questions.

I had no idea the after-effects of this decisions would be so hard. The circularity of my reasoning continues for hours as I hop wildly through the various stages of grief. When I finally stir, I notice for the first time that I am not alone in the room. Ari has been with me, too—curled up under the desk and observing me nervously. She is uneasy and seems timid, folded tightly in the back reaches of the desk well, where she might be safe.

From what? Me, I suppose.

I look down at her warily. My emotions are raw and short-circuiting right She curls into a tighter ball, as if willing herself to disappear entirely. But she does not leave; nor does she turn her face away. Instead, she stares at me from beneath the desk. She looks hopeful. She is watching my face carefully, as if to anticipate what I am going to do. As far as she is concerned, I am highly unstable right now—just shy of a crazy person, really. Whether or not she knows Cam is gone, she knows that I am—at least the version of me she has encountered for the past six months. Still, we have pledged to live as a pack. She looks as if she might be reminding me of as much. She cannot understand why I am withholding my affection. Has she done something wrong?

I have no way of knowing, of course, if this even resembles her actual thought process at this moment. But the faintest suggestion that she might be entertaining these ideas is enough to stir me from the depths of my grief. I am mourning an animal dead and buried, while a living creature cowers near me. This is not grief; this is cruelty.

I look at Ari again. She raises her head and tilts it just ever so slightly. It’s enough though—I’ve been studying her body language, too. She’s asking if it’s all right—if she has permission to come over and say hello. How could I say anything other than ‘yes, yes, oh please, yes!’ And so that’s what I do. She asks again. Are you sure it’s all right? Are you okay?

I’m not okay—not yet. But I love this dog, all the more because she is here to love. I pat my thigh, and whisper quietly to her. She unfolds her limbs and rises from the desk. For once, she does not resist when I wrap my arms tightly around her. I need to do this. She knows that.

And it’s okay.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Koi Dog Pondering

A posting in the local newspaper advertises a general interest meeting for a new dog park in our neighboring town. The notice reads: “Picture dogs gamboling off-leash, playing joyously in open, public space. For many dog owners, this would be a dream come true. For those who are afraid or resentful of dogs, it would be a nightmare. In a well-functioning dog park, it is a safe and responsible reality every day of the week.” I’m hooked at once. Ari and I both want this to be our reality, so I plan to attend the meeting.

Donning shoes and sunglasses, I meet the expectant look of a young dog now accustomed to daily trips in the car. She cocks her head in the direction of the front door as if to say, good idea! Let’s take a trip. I shake my head no, which causes her to slouch across the length of the doorway—a furry roadblock. I’m not wooed and leave her in the care of Greg and our friend Scott. Dogs gamboling in coastal town halls are not mentioned in the ad. I worry the fearful and resentful crowd mentioned in the notice might also be at this hearing. Even if they’re not, my adolescent pup is no practitioner of parliamentary procedure.

When I arrive at the meeting, I’m both surprised and delighted to see how many other humans in the area have similar fantasies about canines in public spaces. Like their dog friends, they tend to move around and group up in corners, so it’s hard to keep an accurate count. I estimate, though, that at least 30 people have turned out on this gorgeous summer day. The meeting is informal and has a kind of a support-group feel about it. Hi, my name is Kathryn and I want my dog to run free. Hi, I’m Dale. It’s been two months since my dog played outside with other dogs.

Hi, Dale.

The stories I overhear throughout the evening are both gloriously familiar and sometimes tragic: tales of dog antics and escape artists even Ari would admire, coupled with a few horrible stories of dogs hit by traffic or kidnapped. It’s a sober reminder of love and loss. Everyone present seems to agree about the importance of safe spaces for our four-legged friends. I volunteer to help with construction and canvassing, then spend the rest of the meeting fantasizing about safe dog saturnalia by the time the first maple leaves begin to fall. I can’t wait to tell the folks back home.

But when I arrive, Greg and Scott are too busy chasing Ari around and through the house to notice I’ve returned. As far as the pup is concerned, everything is a dog park—particularly this place right now. She’s in no mood to stop and learn about easement permits and new designs in water fountains. She’s in sheer ecstasy—cavorting about and beaming at the two grown men stumbling behind her. Park, schmark.

If asked, I suspect Greg and Scott would have other choice words right now—most likely ending in the same letter, but of the less printable variety.

Both athletic, the two men are physical complements to one another: Scott is long and lean, a dancer turned soccer player and coach. Greg is broad and muscular from years of football and far more diligence at the gym than his wife can muster. They embody wellness. That, of course, is of little consequence when trying to catch a juvenile dog.

Their expressions tell me that they have no time or patience for this game. The two are about to embark upon the last kayaking trip of the season. Scott has flown from his home in Colorado especially for the trip, and the plan is to spend a few days catching up before the two paddlers depart. Scott is an easy going kind of guy. A kindergarten teacher by day, he is well accustomed to the sights and smells of young mammals and can tell you stories about the bodily functions of six year olds that would make even a registered nurse pause. I’ve often joked that Scott’s school district ought to import him into health classes at the high school: a few anecdotes from him, and abstinence may very well become a viable form of birth control for teenagers.

This is all a long way of saying that Scott is not easily put off by anything, particularly anything of the olfactory variety. I can’t understand, then, why he would be exclaiming in loud peals of disgust every time he comes within 10 yards of Ari.

“MAN,” he shouts each time he approaches the gallivanting dog. “I MEAN, MMMAAANNNN! THAT IS WICKED BAD STINK!!” This is followed by one of a series of guttural noises—mostly unique combinations of vowels like “eeeoooooffff” or “uuuuuaaaaaggg.”

Greg, meanwhile, looks as if he is trying to lasso Ari rodeo-style with one of his kayak straps. As a college professor, he is accustomed to considerably fewer bathroom messes than those seen in a kindergarten classroom (though probably more than you’d expect). Regardless, he isn’t about to get as close to the pup as Scott.

I stand next to my car, frozen in amazement. I’m too far away to understand what about Ari is so rank, but the scene before me is so vividly Chaplin-esque, so absurd in its exaggerated chase and theatrics, I find myself looking around for confirmation that this is in fact my home, my husband and friend, my spiraling dog. As I do, the threesome completes yet another lap through the house, then across and over the front porch. While Ari and Scott dart past, Greg stops near the bumper of my car.

“You’re not going to believe this,” he said.
I fight the urge to admit I already don’t.
“Ari’s been fishing,” Greg says, struggling to catch his breath. “For dead things.”

Before I can ask him to clarify, Scott limps back up the edge of our yard and towards the car.
“That dog is PUN-GENT!,” he shouts—drawing out the last word as if he were at a pig call in the deep south. “I’m talking RIPE!!”

The two men have both resigned from their pursuit. It is more profitable to alternately reflect and commiserate on their failed attempts than to continue. As they recount Ari’s new adventures in aquatic necromancy, Greg casts me the occasional look, which says—as vividly as Scott’s use of all capital letters—your dog, your problem.

Point taken.

I go inside for Ari’s leash and tin of biscuits, then set out through the yard and into the woods. I clamor over the rock wall, past the yellow “No Trespassing” signs and onto our neighbor Risto’s property. Several hundred yards later, I finally spy my dog. Or what looks like my dog. It’s hard to tell, since all I can see is an inverted quadruped whirling its paws in the air as it flops from side to side. I creep closer, hiding behind a large birch tree.

From my surveillance station, I can see that the object of Ari’s current infatuation is a giant—and once bloated—dead carp from Risto’s pond. As I watch Ari smear its now-oozing decay into her thick fur, flashbacks from the past two weeks came rushing to the surface: Greg mentioning that he had seen something bright and large floating in the center of Risto’s pond; Ari returning from unsupervised woodland jaunts with wet feet and matted fur, smelling of pond water and something slightly fishy; her increasing attempts to bolt from the front door. This has clearly been a project of some planning and initiative on her part.

I can’t say I entirely blame the pup. Before it was mashed by her writhing, the fish was a lovely mix of oranges and reds, and it probably measured about 12 inches in length. Even from her vantage on the edge of the pond, Ari would have seen the appeal of its limp form floating atop the water. She must have worked for days, nudging it towards the shore, before gingerly carrying it to this prime rolling spot, right in the middle of the trail, where it could explode in a pageantry of unthinkable decay.

If Greg’s memory is correct, this fish has been dead for at least a week. That’s a lot of time for it to become disgusting. As a child, I once stepped on a two-day dead sunfish on our beach. Still firm, it yielded under my bare foot with the kind of “pfffllltttt” that has made whoopie cushions famous. The sensation and resulting smell were enough to make me wear flip flops on that same beach ever since.

What’s happening in front of me now makes that childhood memory seem as rosy as a Disney movie. Other than its skin, the entire fish had turned into a thick, greenish-black paste, which my dog is now insinuating throughout her coat. From 15 feet away, I can smell the process as vividly as if I were actively taking part. Ari grunts with orgasmic pleasure as she flops this way and that, coating every inch of fur on her thick back. She is so deliriously happy, in fact, that she forgets to consider escape when I approach. Instead, she rolls her eyes halfway up into her head and shudders with pleasure. I’m shuddering, too, though for very different reasons.

It takes no small amount of effort to right this writhing dog, and she seems dazed as I pull her away from the fish. Forget airplane glue, these fumes are truly far out. I try some of Scott’s guttural exclamations. They seem more than appropriate in this setting.
Koi means love. I try telling myself this as I drag our coydog back to the house. With one hand wrapped around her leash and the other senselessly plugging my nose (as if such a feeble act could combat the stink), I repeat the statement like my own Shinto chant. Koi means love. Koi means love. It doesn’t help.

Scott refuses to enter the house once we force Ari inside. Cam scuttles into the basement. How can we blame either one of them? This smell is so powerful it has mass—a thick coppery cloud that hangs low and thick everywhere the pup has been.

We wash her. Once, twice, three times. The copper cloud in the bathroom begins to dissipate slightly, and we can once again see across the bathroom. Still, the stench is overwhelming. Greg gags violently. I begin to yearn for the common aroma of rotten snakes. That at least had an earthy bouquet to it. This stink, on the other hand, is preternatural. After two hours thumbing through a thesaurus, I still can’t find a phrase in the English language vivid enough to do it justice. Frustrated, I rise from the table and make my way upstairs just in time to see a flailing dog burying her stinking back into my side of the bed, wriggling her way across my pillow. It makes me want to cry, but all I can muster is a feeble “ppffflllttt.”

Wednesday, August 1, 2007


Just back from our first agility training session, where we had a real ball. The class is taught by Sumac Grant-Johnson at the Wagit Training Center: she's very nice, very fun, and has an easy-going, bright way about her that is very affable. Her intro to agility class didn’t make, so Ari and I are actually in an intermediate class. The meant we literally just leapt into the whole agility course/time trials concept without a lot of warm-up. The rest of the class members were very nice about these scruffy, novice interlopers invading their class.

A lot of the agility process reminds me of being back in the showjumping ring; in fact, Sumac told me she trained in equitation for quite some time before starting agility work. That makes a lot of sense to me, and I was happy to see that at least the basic concepts translate. Basically, there’s an enclosed ring (remember that detail; it’s important later) with any where between 10-20 elements like jumps, hoops, seesaws, and big a-frames. The humans get to walk the course and see the order of the elements, then their task is to call the dog through the standards as quickly as possible.

We started warming up on each of the elements. 20 minutes into the session, Sumac had pronounced Ari a real natural. She seemed legitimately impressed with the Wub, who really did take to each of the elements like she had done them before. As Ari ran over the seesaws and serpentined through hoops, Sumac kept saying things like “wow, she’s really smart.” After one or two tries, the pup was even running up and over the steep A-frame (about six feet tall with a very steep pitch), though Sumac had warned us it would take several sessions before the pup would become comfortable with it. I was so impressed and proud of our little blue-eyed dog.

45 minutes into the session; however, everything became a very different (and far more familiar) story. Each dog got the chance to run the course from beginning to end alone in the ring. Sumac was so impressed with Ari she suggested we do it off leash like in a real competition. The pup did a great job and raced through everything. And then, in classic Ari fashion, she turned into a raging coyote. She tore around the ring in those tight, crazy circles she does, and then she found the only hole in the fence and slid right through it. We (and when I say we, I mean me, Sumac, the four other people in the class along with their high-priced pure bred dogs) spent the rest of the session trying to get coydog within striking distance of us. The ring isn’t far from Route 90, and I was scared to death she was going to bolt into the road.

Mostly, though, she just kept racing around like she was on fire, occasionally coming just close enough to make you think you might have a chance to catch her. Sumac, the Ari novice, tried toys and treats—naively thinking the pup could be persuaded by such paltries. Meanwhile, she just kept repeating (and now in a VERY DIFFERENT tone of voice), “wow. . . she’s really smart.” It took nearly 15 very scary minutes to get Ari back on leash. On the way home, I kept glancing at that angular, self-aware profile next to me and I couldn’t help but laugh. Where in the world did we find this wily creature?