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I read somewhere that it’s a hard-wired memory from the days when wild dogs tamped down the grass before they slept. Every year he wilts a little more in the summer, and every year he perks up in the fall. We had a big storm at the old house one day, and he dove in and out of the snow like a dolphin. We had our vet check more than once for a splinter or an infection. He spins around six or eight or 10 times before he lies down.
He was seven years old by then—a middle-aged dog—but he high-stepped down the beach, his ears thrown back like he was a puppy. He never was well-trained but he’s a skilled communicator. Sometimes Alix and I will be in bed, talking through something important, and all of a sudden from the corner of the room comes this long and deliberate exhale of profound boredom.
If you’re good to a dog, pretty much every day for the dog is a great day. We rubbed off as much sand as we could and piled him in the back seat, and he slept all the way home. No matter how serious our conversation is, it makes us laugh. Alix’s folks are not especially dog people, and my mama has been scared of dogs since she got bitten as a child. My mama even started tossing him little bits of bacon in the kitchen. When he started getting really old, it didn’t register with me right away.
He used to lick the pad of his back left paw constantly, like a baby sucking its thumb.
But I need to say a few words about our old dog, Fred. Not that it matters to Fred—I’m pretty sure he can’t read this, although he has fooled us on many things over the years. A dog can love you in a way that caves in your heart. Our new house had a little yard and a front porch and lots of people walking around. It probably didn’t help, at least in that regard, that we neutered him. I always figured he was watering the spot, hoping they would grow back. He won’t go near the AC vents in the floor—I’m pretty sure he thinks the air coming out of there is monster breath.
I’ll take him outside on a beautiful night and he’ll just stand in the yard and look around. They make you deal with death and loss before you’re ready.
It got me really frustrated until I realized the problem: I was mad at him for dying on us. Alix and I are having a hard time imagining a life without Fred, but we’re going to have to live it.We hope to remember what he has taught us: *** THREE WEEKS after I wrote the words above, Fred passed peacefully as the sun went down on an autumn Thursday.Alix and I were by his side, along with the amazing Dr. I’ve been meaning to write this for months, with the idea that you should celebrate the things you love while they’re still around. They could do surgery, but they can’t promise they’ll get the whole tumor, much less whatever else might be in there. The arthritis in his hips is so bad that our neighbor calls him the Little Soldier because he sort of goose-steps down the street. He has random seizures no treatment has been able to fix. After a while he’d prop his front paws on the console between our seats and lay his chin on my shoulder. Our old place had big yards and houses set back from the road. Alix and I are introverts, too, and we’ve always wondered if we raised Fred to be a loner. He might have a few weeks, might not have tomorrow. I went out to get the paper and there was a white ball wriggling at the end of the drive. He’d stick his head out the back window, jowls blown back in the breeze, nostrils pumping with all the smells he was taking in. I stood there in the park and cried, partly because I knew how he felt. I picked him up and took him in the bedroom, where my wife, Alix Felsing, was sleeping. (He has one big spot in the middle of his forehead, like an Indian bindi dot.) Whatever’s in there, he’s a scent hound to the core, plowing his snout into bushes and down holes, checking out the crotches of every creature he meets. We kept him in the garage while we made arrangements to build a fence. Instead we ran him to the closest vet we could find that was open on a Sunday morning. She hit the garage door opener and Fred took off outside. Alix chased him around the yard, hollering at him to drop it. After a minute or two, Alix ran back in the garage and grabbed a dog treat. It was almost as deep as a football field, and he’d go way back there and sniff around the edges of the brush. Years later, on his good days, sometimes his tail still spins like that when he sees us. Nobody ever put up signs in our neighborhood looking for him. When we first started to walk him on a leash, he’d turn around every 20 feet and beg for a snack. He’s got some hunting dog in him—besides the Lab part, we think he’s part German shorthaired pointer, because of his thin back end and the tan speckles on his cream coat. His favorite snack was poop from the Canada geese who hung out at our little pond. We’d steer him away from the droppings, but he’d always find one we missed. Years later, when we were renovating our bathroom, we took our shampoo and toothpaste and stuff and put it in a box. We Googled “dog ate bar of soap,” and the Internet told us everything from “he’ll be fine” to “OH GOD HE’S GONNA DIE.” We were getting ready for church. The vet said that sometimes, dogs that eat soap end up farting bubbles. One morning Alix saw them gathered outside the garage and decided a dose of Fred might scare them off. At the old house, I used to let him out every morning to roam the backyard. He cowered at the sight and sound of trucks and, for some reason, white vans. He was about two months old when he showed up at our house, and we always wondered what happened to him in those two months.It happened like this: After a walk in the park with a friend, I saw a young woman sitting in a car talking to a dog.Even from a distance, beneath the hard glass of the windshield, we could tell this was an exceptional animal.Make sure he knows how lucky we are that he showed up in our life one day.My other hope is that up there, we’re all young and strong again.