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October 10, 2005

My old dog

Becky and Zeke, Gooseberry Falls State Park, Minnesota, 1996 Photo: Becky and Zeke, Gooseberry Falls State Park, Minnesota, July 1996. Zeke went for the last of his weekly Adequan injections Saturday. Sunday he stayed in all day. I asked him if he wanted a walk: he looked at me from his spot in the sunshine, then groaned and turned, and his head just hit the pillow.

This morning we went out before the sun. Heavy construction equipment rumbled back and forth through the park. A snowy egret watched from the bridge over the creek. Zeke ambled back and forth across the lawn. The dew stuck wet pine needles and sand to my toes, to the bed of my sandals.

Squirrel ran six feet to the tree, regarded me from eye height on the trunk as if to ask "is that thing still alive?" She grasped the trunk with all four feet, acorn crammed in her mouth. This time of year they gorge and hoard, though few of them sleep all winter. Zeke saw none of them today.

We headed back up the hill. Zeke tromped through fallen leaves of oak, of buckeye. There was something surer in his pace, a greater confidence to each footfall. Or was I imagining it? He leapt the curb to the street, stumbled just a bit. Perhaps I was being optimistic.

But no, he kept at it up the hill. Not trotting, even, but walking with a measured cadence, without panting.

The Pinole United Methodist Church sits atop our hill, its parking lot a handy shortcut from the park to our house. It's the kind of shortcut that actually takes more time. Directly behind our house, there's a steep, wooded hillside that Zeke absolutely loves to walk along. He hikes up along the crest of the tiny hill, ten feet above where I stand in the Church's front driveway, and grins big at me. Even when he's hurting, he smiles. And then he heads down the side of the hill, hops through a hole in our neighbor Naomi's fence, and heads through her side yard to meet me at the street. Naomi likes this arrangement, and had her gardeners cut back the bougainvillea in her side yard to give Zeke a clear path.

This morning we turned into the back church driveway, as usual, and I slowed for the daily slog up the steepest part of our hill. Our neighbor Steven opened the door, let his dog out. This dog is a placid black poodle, mid-sized, unaggressive and friendly. He ambled over to us. Zeke finished his important business at the base of a feral apple and trotted over to say hello.

And then he exploded in play. This is a good sign, I thought. The second time in two weeks I've seen play with another dog like this. It always tires him, and he aches for a day or two after two minutes of jumping around, but what point is there to living if you don't overdo the good stuff? I smiled, ready to help him the rest of the way to the house once he'd had enough.

But he kept on playing. He spun in tight circles, then ran a long loop around the apple, and then the other apple fifteen feet away. A few more loops, and then he would stop to sniff the poodle, and I'd think "Ah, he's gotten it now," but then would come the play bow, and he'd slap the ground with his paws twice, three times. After three minutes or so of this, tired, the poodle walked away. Zeke frisked up to me at the top of the hill.

"Well, you're certainly feeling good this morning" I said, knowing full well he couldn't hear me. He rubbed against my pant leg and trotted on over to his favorite part of the walk, in that wooded hillside he loves.

There almost seemed a clarity to his eyes this morning, the steam coming out of him in great bursts. He was jubilant.

Still, he stumbled just a bit heading for Naomi's fence. A week ago he fell here and could not get up. I watched him, nervous he'd pushed things too far. But he hopped over the six-inch fence frame and disappeared into Naomi's yard.

And then did not meet me at the street. A minute passed, then another.

I walked up Naomi's driveway to find him, afraid his rear legs might finally have given out. He wasn't in her back yard.

Nor in the side yard.

I headed back out to the driveway, and there he was. He saw me.

He danced up that driveway toward me. That joyous canter I hadn't seen in two years, slapping the ground with one front foot and then the other, covering the fifty feet between us in five seconds.

And then we played. He ran circles around me, then around himself. He mock-charged, brought his fangs nearly to my face as I bent double, my arms and fingers splayed stupid wide. He ran to the far end of the yard. Sniffed the iris by the fence, caught my eye. A look passed between us. And then he pranced back harder, and we played again.

After another minute I stopped. One of us had to think of his later pain, and it clearly wasn't going to be him. "Let's go inside," I said, and he grinned and leapt up to Naomi's driveway, an 18-inch leap for a dog who has trouble these days getting into a Camry. He ran up our front stairs - another oddity - and then slept all day.

This was a typical morning for us four years ago, and for nine before that. It was such a commonplace thing that I don't remember the last time it happpened. Discomfort creeps in little by little, a calcification of daggers in the spine, and who is to say how much of that film over the old dog's eyes is cataract, and how much the dulling of the senses that comes with constant pain? They endure so well, these furry sparks. They don't know how not to, and with each new day life's perimeter tightens a notch. One day we realize that he has not stood on the couch, watching for us out the window, for dozens of afternoons. A life that ranged from the Mojave to the Adirondacks to the north shore of Lake Superior contracts to the dog bed, the bowl, three blocks downhill each day and back, and we grow to fear each new ratchet inward.

Through it all I have cherished the subtle love of an elderly dog, the gentle glances and the hours of staring, his eyes bound so tightly to my heart that he can wake me at four in the morning just by watching me from across the room. I would not trade these days for anything. His sweetness is solace.

But I have mourned the loss of the puppy, the dog who could spend three hours wound like a happy spring at the base of the utility pole where he'd treed a desperate squirrel, the dog who could follow me through seven miles of broken desert cliffside and plunge into the freezing spring until his shivering rattled his teeth. I have missed that dog with an ache.

This morning as he stood along Naomi's fence and smelled the iris, I wondered how long it had been since we had played that way, and could not remember, and then he turned to me. That look passed between us. His eyes grew fire. His ears hard. "I can still do this, Chris, look. I can still do this. I am still here," and my heart fairly soared as he lunged for my face once again.

Posted by Chris Clarke at October 10, 2005 09:01 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:
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Comments

well crap. I've already been missing zekey a lot lately and now you just made me wish I could jump on the next plane to visit him.

Posted by: craig at October 11, 2005 01:08 AM
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I'm lucky. My elderly dog still displays his inner puppy a couple of times a day. He can't see much anymore, and ignores squirrels and bunnies, but he'll happily challenge (and vanquish) the big white cat that hunts in our yard, and loves to race in figure-8s in the back yard as long as I jump or stamp as he races past me. I hope it lasts; the snow will soon restrict his running room. When you're only a foot tall anyway, eight inches of snow can be quite an impediment to dashing, although his bound is still pretty spry.

Love to Zeke.

Posted by: Vicki at October 11, 2005 06:36 AM
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That's gorgeous, Chris. I can really feel what you're going through, the sadness and the love, and yes, the intense sweetness of it all, maybe because this kind of experience is so familiar to me, but also because of the beautiful care you seem to have taken crafting this particular entry.

Whatever the reason, I feel privileged to have met Zeke through your writing.

Cheers!

Posted by: Sara at October 11, 2005 06:38 AM
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You really need to get Zeke a puppy while he still has time to school the young'un.

Posted by: Miguel Alondra at October 11, 2005 06:51 AM
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How wonderful it is to read of the joy in Zeke's step again. When that dog prances with a heart full of eagerness and life, our hearts go with him.
Give Zeke an extra hug from his pals in the northwest.

Posted by: Rexroths Daughter at October 11, 2005 07:36 AM
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Another gorgeous piece.

Posted by: nina at October 11, 2005 07:46 AM
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What a gift you received from your old faithful dog. I thought this morning about our old faithful dog Tober. Without realizing it, I even said his name out loud. Then I looked at the two shepherd dogs we have bounding about our house today, how one just survived back surgery that pushed back the perimeter, and thought about how each moment with these beings is precious. Thank you for sharing your gift with us.

Posted by: Charles at October 11, 2005 07:50 AM
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That's a boy, Zeke!

I loved reading this. Thanks!

Posted by: SneakySnu at October 11, 2005 07:53 AM
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Chris,
Thanks for sharing a wonderful story. As a dog lover, I understand it deeply.

Another blogging friend wrote an excellent piece when her beloved "Toby" died. Mary Lee is a terrific writer who lives in Maine. She now has a new canine friend. Doesn't fill the void, but another furry housemate was just the ticket.

http://mlcoe.typepad.com/full_fathom_five/2005/07/gone.html

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie at October 11, 2005 08:11 AM
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Beautiful post. Zeke is privileged to have a companion like you! Give him a hug from me. Togo sends his regards as well!

Posted by: Deb at October 11, 2005 08:38 AM
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Between you and Christie, you're breaking my heart. But don't stop.

Posted by: KathyF at October 11, 2005 09:14 AM
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Oh beautiful.

Makes me want to do a play bow and leap in the air for Zeke as he runs past.

Posted by: Rana at October 11, 2005 09:18 AM
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But Enquiring minds want to know: What was Zeke's horoscope today?

Posted by: jg at October 11, 2005 09:53 AM
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What a fuckin asshole you are. I hope your stupid dog dies. Maybe some dog head on a pike will shut your fucking leftist mouth.

Posted by: AmericaPatriot at October 11, 2005 11:58 AM
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gosh, americapatriot, you seem to be lost. this doesn't seem a place you are comfortable.

chris -- excellent post! give zeke a scirtch from his would-be canine pals buddy and cora.

Posted by: kathy a at October 11, 2005 12:28 PM
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Cleanup on aisle AmericaPatriot! As give Zeke my love.

Posted by: Space Kitty at October 11, 2005 12:43 PM
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Sigh. 'And' give Zeke my love.

Posted by: Space Kitty at October 11, 2005 12:44 PM
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his eyes bound so tightly to my heart that he can wake me at four in the morning just by watching me from across the room. I would not trade these days for anything.

Thank you for sharing this with unknown #s of people... for sharing the love between you and Zeke. We also have an old dog - a flatcoated retriever who is 16 going on 17 this year. Sam. The way you describe Zeke being able to wake you just by watching you -- that's exactly how Sam wakes me in the middle of the night when he needs to go outside. I love your writing style. Thanks for writing publically.
Maureen ( http://ravengrrl.blogspot.com/ )

Posted by: maureen at October 11, 2005 01:09 PM
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Thanks for writing publically.

I'll admit that's harder to justify some days than others.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at October 11, 2005 02:18 PM
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Zeke lovers everywhere need to beat up on AmericaPatriot.

Posted by: Rita Xavier at October 11, 2005 03:47 PM
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I think Zeke would appreciate his grandma getting angry in his defense, but he doesn't like it when anyone gets beaten up.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at October 11, 2005 04:32 PM
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What a lovely, bittersweet post.

And, hey, no sense holding a grudge. Zeke doesn't. In fact, it looks like he left AmericaPatriot a present out in the yard. I think it's a cigar.

Well, it's shaped like a cigar, anyway.

Posted by: JoAnne at October 11, 2005 05:37 PM
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Thank you for writing that, it was a gift to my heart tonight. May each of us have at least one dog in a lifetime like Zeke.

Posted by: Barbara at October 11, 2005 06:36 PM
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Well, I can thank AmericaPatriot for one thing: I was about to cry, and now I'm growling. The canine living over here thinks that AP might actually be a postal worker, because he just growled, too.

Gus (aforementioned canine) has a very eldery dog friend who can only see Gus when he's a foot or so away, and can't hear him at all. They're happy to get together, though, and enjoy a minute or two of greeting, sniffing, and romping before the elder dog is done and on his way for the evening. Gus is very gentle with the old boy, and they seem to have an understanding.

Posted by: Erin at October 11, 2005 06:50 PM
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But Enquiring minds want to know: What was Zeke's horoscope today?

"A love connection can be made if you get involved in volunteer work."

Posted by: Chris Clarke at October 11, 2005 09:19 PM
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ok. zeke's doing his part.

Posted by: kathy a at October 11, 2005 09:22 PM
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you said people come to read about zeke.
but people come to read your writing about zeke.

there is a difference you know.

Posted by: susurra at October 11, 2005 09:54 PM
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If only Zeke knew how popular he is.

Posted by: craig at October 12, 2005 01:58 AM
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This morning as he stood along Naomi's fence and smelled the iris, I wondered how long it had been since we had played that way, and could not remember, and then he turned to me. That look passed between us. His eyes grew fire. His ears hard. "I can still do this, Chris, look. I can still do this. I am still here," and my heart fairly soared as he lunged for my face once again.

He's such a good boy. That's such a beautiful paragraph.

Posted by: eRobin at October 12, 2005 08:02 AM
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(Why am I thinking of Toto all of a sudden?)

Susurra has the right of it. We love Zeke, but it's the writing that makes him come alive.

Posted by: Rana at October 12, 2005 10:35 AM
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Why am I thinking of Toto all of a sudden?

You felt the wind down in Africa?

Posted by: Chris Clarke at October 12, 2005 11:06 AM
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Lovely entry. I read it on the ferry home tonight. This is, so exactly, what I wish I could have said to Fitz -- this joy at the sweetness of his age, the ache from missing the puppy.

Posted by: marnie webb at October 12, 2005 08:19 PM
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Oh, Chris. Your writing is off the charts. I wish I could romp w/ Zeke! He's so lucky to have you, and vice versa.

P.S. Marnie, I sat at your table at the Sat. night dinner at BlogHer! (Next to Nancy.) Hi. =)

Posted by: ae at October 12, 2005 11:31 PM
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I haven't read comment one on my way down here to the box.

THAT'S what I'm talking about. THAT'S writing.

Great piece, Chris. And a great (albeit somewhat misty) way for me to round out the workday.

I'm done, people.

Posted by: thingfish23 at October 14, 2005 01:42 PM
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Okay. So I'm NOT done.

I just read through the comments and I got to the AmericaPatriot entry.

What?!

What was the point of that?

So, curious, I went over to the linked weblog under AmericaPatriot's name, and it was really boring. I mean boring boring boring. I mean I'm going to have to brew some coffee for the drive home just so I don't go to sleep behind the wheel of the Jeep.

You, Chris, are not boring.

AmericaPatriot, you've been found guilty of the worst of all blogging and literary crimes.

You're boring.

Boring, boring, boring. And no amount of lame trolling will make you more interesting, you boring-ass writer, you.

So go be boring somewheres else, or I'll call you boring again.

Posted by: thingfish23 at October 14, 2005 01:57 PM
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your dog is stupid. he died because he wanted to get away from you. it was you're fault. whatever facial tics the dog displayed which you may have confused with "love", you were undeserving of. if you ever have chilren, they will be the same: they will stick around only as long as you feed them. they will never love you. how can someone or something love you?

if i ever saw a dog like yours, i'd kick it till it was retarded. you, i wouldn't dirty my boots on.

Posted by: randomdeflator at November 22, 2005 02:26 PM
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Yawn.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at November 22, 2005 04:02 PM
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