Dog Days

Duncan drinks my coffee. Nigel ingested reams of paper. Miranda chewed fabric. And yet we loved them despite their proclivity to destroy items of value and create enormous inconveniences.  No, these were not annoying weekend houseguests; these were our dogs.

Nigel was our first dog and when he matured, he distinguished himself by his utter arrogance. He was a mighty hunter through and through, a registered Brittany spaniel we obtained from an acquaintance who bred them. We had an opportunity to select from among several in that litter and, of course, we chose the orange and white male pup that captured our hearts when he made a game of untying the leather laces of my husband’s deck shoes.

Upon returning weeks later to pick up the dog we had christened “Nigel, ” I rode with him in the backseat of our two-door Toyota Corolla on the journey home. He seemed edgy and nervous in the car, not at all the spunky pup who had engaged us.  My maternal instincts were apparently already in place and I told my husband what I knew, that I was sure this wasn’t Nigel.  It looked like him but in no way acted like him.  We turned the car around and headed back to the house where we’d picked him up.  Sure enough, we had taken the wrong dog.

Six months later my husband took Nigel to field trials where bird dogs are evaluated on their hunting prowess.  Frankly, it seemed a great opportunity to let the dog run off some of the excess energy with which he was so generously endowed.  His 100-mile per hour laps around our freestanding couch helped me understand how cartoonists dreamed up the Roadrunner character. 

In fact, his running form was so impressive, a judge at the competition approached my husband and coached him a bit on handling Nigel and taking the trial seriously because Nigel was displaying enormous promise, especially in his pointing.  Nigel took second place and brought home a trophy as big as he was.  His hunting instincts and his perfectly shaped head and symmetrical markings suggested he was the dog folks breed for and I later suspected we had quite inadvertently gotten the pick of that litter.

Nigel had the markings and the carriage and the lineage: his registered name was Lord Nigel de Britt.  What he also had was a less than aristocratic penchant to eat paper and gnaw wood.  I didn’t so much mind him turning our kitchen floor into a sea of paper towels or shredded trash or even his chomping of the corners of an antique baking center.  It was when he devoured the leather binding off my senior high school yearbook, previously in pristine condition, that I realized he and I had serious issues.

This destruction would have been understandable had I left the book sitting out on a coffee table or tossed it on the floor; I was, after all, in the throes of helping plan my 10-year class reunion.  What is remarkable about this incident is that he pulled the yearbook from the middle of a very tightly-packed bookshelf which was chock-full of my husband’s high school and college yearbooks, all of which remained unscathed and neatly packed on the shelf! 

We chose a female companion for him three years later when his parents were bred again.  She was slighter in build and exuded all the bubbly personality he lacked.  In naming her, I strived for a British name with the same elan as “Nigel.”  As I was teaching a literature course on drama that summer, it came to me in a daydream that I should name her after a female character in the Shakespeare play we were reading: The Tempest.  

I was ecstatic to have come up with such an ideal equivalent to Nigel’s name and excitedly shared the news with my husband who, at that time, was employed in the field of law enforcement.  I announced to him my nomination for the perfect pet name: Miranda.  He looked at me quizzically and asked tentatively, “As in the warning?”  I did a decent doubletake and earnestly replied, “No, as in Shakespeare’s The Tempest!”  He shrugged and remained somewhat puzzled but ultimately agreed to this moniker.

The two dogs were great companions to each other and to us.  Nigel loved nothing more than time alone with my husband, the alpha male, and couldn’t get enough of their myriad hunting ventures.  Miranda clearly eschewed those tiresome trips and preferred the comfort of home and hearth to coming home exhausted and muddy with burr-snarled fur.

They were good family dogs overall, though Nigel was nearly existential in his desire to be left alone.  When our son was a toddler and tried to pet him, Nigel would simply stand up, walk away, heaving a loud, sonorous sigh as he dramatically plopped down elsewhere in the room.

Miranda, on the other hand, couldn’t get enough love from any and all givers.  Though she weighed about thirty pounds, she secretly envisioned herself a lap dog, jumping into your open lap with one elegant leap and curling her slender body into a circle.  She did exhibit some measure of frustration and chagrin when my lap completely disintegrated during my pregnancies. 

Both dogs were approaching their elder years when my daughter was born, so they both tolerated well her dressing them like dolls and covering them with baby blankets.  One of my fondest memories is that of the two aged dogs passed out on the family room floor in front of the back door and my two-year-old daughter  thinking she was putting them down for a nap, copiously covering them and setting a stuffed animal (dogs, of course) beside each.

Both dogs lived much longer than the average Brittany, Nigel nearly 16 years and Miranda about 15.  Their deaths were difficult for us because they both succumbed in their final year to a horrific respiratory ailment for which there was no real cure or much relief.  Though extremely painful for us to contemplate, in both cases my husband and I decided that putting them down would be a humane response to their terminal condition.

Their passings marked us in profound ways.  My husband finally determined a day he felt he could take Nigel in for this after much discussion with our longtime vet.  I can see Nigel making that last run around our yard, hobbled though he was by his incapacitated lungs, and my husband calling him.  It was fitting that his passing was a private moment between the two of them.  He was, ultimately, very much my husband’s dog, though we know he loved the rest of us in his own aloof way. 

Several years later, when that time came for her, Miranda took things into her own hands.  It was glaringly apparent that her health was failing in July of a brutally hot summer, but my husband simply could not bring himself to bear the pain of putting down another dog.  He struggled to discuss it and postponed taking her numerous times, so I prepared myself to handle it. 

One steamy afternoon with soaring temps, I had just returned home from dropping my husband and daughter at the bus which was transporting them to Brownie daycamp. I asked my son where the dog was and he explained that he had just let her outside.  I went out to look for her but couldn’t find her anywhere in the yard.  I enlisted my son to help and our frantic search gave way to an image now seared into memory and one that conjures tears every time I call it up: my then 11-year-old son walking up the steps of the deck, his young arms outstretched, carrying Miranda’s limp body.  We layed her down in the family room and stroked her as she took her final breaths. 

Shaking, I called the vet who suggested I move her to a cool place and wrap her in a blanket.  We carried her to the laundry room, which has a tile floor, and carefully swaddled her in a blanket.  I stood there for a moment, silently sobbing, trying to grasp the enormity of what had just transpired when my son slipped out and came right back with some of her little play toys and a framed photograph of our family he had peeled off a living room table.  He looked up at me and said, “I don’t think she should be alone,”  as he knelt down to set the picture next to her head.  We huddled and wept over her blanketed body.

Miranda had cleverly outsmarted us by arranging death on her own terms.  I believe she sensed how conflicted we were by our competing desires to ease her pain and yet hold onto her forever. She saw her window of opportunity when we departed for the bus.  Later that summer we placed a statue of St. Francis of Assissi at the spot in the yard where Miranda laid down to die as our way of remembering both she and Nigel. 

What struck me about these experiences was not only how quiet the house became when each dog passed away, but how I felt a piece of myself going with each of them.  They had known us when.  Before we had children, when I began graduate school and started teaching, when our marriage was still young, when my husband changed careers, when we came home with babies in our arms.

It wasn’t but six months later that we learned quite by accident that our acquaintances from whom we’d obtained both dogs had another pregnant  Brittany from the same line about to give birth.  And that is how we came to know our present dog, Duncan, a liver-colored Brittany. 

Duncan is as different in countenance from the other two as he is in looks, though he tends to favor Nigel a bit.  He was chosen for us as he was deemed by the owners the most family-friendly of the pups, and, well, most of the others were already spoken for.  He was definitely the heavyweight of  his litter and had to be fed after the other pups so they could get a decent shot at the food. 

By now an experienced mom and dog owner, I spent that spring break walking the family room floor, rocking the dog back to sleep in my arms when his whimpers awakened me in the night.  It had been a while since I was called to such duty, but my heart swiftly found its muscle memory.  When my son now wonders aloud if he could take Duncan to college with him, I smile and say no, telling him that he is most welcome to raise his own dog.


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