Heather Lende shares some of the challenges and joys of living with a long cherished pet.
My mother’s last words were “Take good care of the garden and the dogs,” and so, of course, I am doing my best. I have three dogs, and my husband says our house has become an “old dogs’ home.”
Forte is the most challenging. A big black Flat-Coated Retriever, he is almost 12 and we suspect he has bone cancer. A visiting vet gave us some painkillers, suggested he lose a few pounds, and noted that even if he does have cancer there’s not much anyone can do for him. Besides, the nearest veterinary hospital is a plane or ferry ride away from our tiny Alaska town and from his beloved partner of 8 years, Merry, a smaller husky-Lab mix. At 15, she is no puppy herself, but she has weathered the assaults of age more gracefully, thanks in large part to her healthier habits.
In his youth, Forte could steal a stick of butter off a table set for a holiday dinner without spilling a water glass. That’s a neat trick when you weigh about 100 pounds soaking wet (which he often is, thanks to the beach in our backyard). He also was very fond of my neighbor’s garbage and survived such known canine toxins as chicken bones (raw and cooked) and chocolate (in birthday cakes, Halloween bags and Easter baskets), although the gas he expelled afterward nearly killed us.
He does eat the occasional vegetable or fruit. When the greenhouse door is open on warm summer days, he thinks I don’t notice when he yanks up a whole tomato plant and drags it into the yard to snack on, or that he sucks raspberries off the canes and swallows strawberries whole. But he has never chased one of my chickens, even just for fun. I had an old hen that napped snuggled up against him on the porch. That may have been as close as I will come to witnessing the peaceable kingdom. I have seen Forte growl only once, when a stray dog attacked Merry and he charged in to protect her.
Forte came to live with us when he was 4. He belonged to a friend who said he paid a fortune for him in the lower 48, as a gift for his wife. Then they had a baby, and decided the dog would do better with a more active family. I took one look at Forte and said if he didn’t chase chickens and got along with the other dogs, he could stay with us. Turns out even our snappy terrier, Phoebe, liked him, and she doesn’t like anyone. (My daughter J.J. picked Phoebe out of a box of puppies at the grocery store 11 years ago. J.J.’s in college; Phoebe is still here.) Forte had the bouncy energy of Pooh Bear’s pal Tigger, and I tired him out on lots of runs and walks. My husband said he didn’t understand how a dog so good-looking could be so badly behaved.
What my husband didn’t know then is that Forte would spare him from hearing all my drafts and revises. That dog has helped me write two books. He sleeps under my desk, and whenever I have a sentence I’m struggling with, I read it out loud to him. Forte never tires of the sound of my voice and, like the best editors, he lets me hear from myself what’s wrong.
Our youngest daughter, Stoli, spent the first eight years of her life in a Bulgarian orphanage and was terribly afraid of dogs when she joined our household. She later told us she had been taught that dogs would bite her if she misbehaved. Stoli fell hard for Forte, and he for her. Soon he was sleeping on her bed. She taught him manners, and how to roll over, lie down, and sit still while she combed and blow-dried his fur after a bath.
After a recent break from college, Stoli made me promise that Forte will still be here when she comes home from school. I’m doing my best, but I’m afraid Forte’s big heartbeats are running out. The last time I took him hiking was over a year ago. We were halfway up our regular trek to an overlook above town when he sat down—he couldn’t go any farther. That day, I thought about all the miles he’d traveled with me, and all the times he’d waited while I struggled, especially after I was recovering from a broken pelvis. Then, I didn’t want to hike with sturdier friends or even my husband. I didn’t want them to see me fail. But Forte never minded those short, slow walks. When I slowed down, he’d lope back to check on me. When I turned around before reaching the end of the trail, he’d stroll cheerfully by my side. Which is why as much as I wanted my exercise the day he couldn’t walk another step, I said “Let’s go home.” His soft brown eyes said thank you.
I used to mind that my mother didn’t share more wisdom with me before she died than “Take good care of the garden and the dogs.” I was hoping she’d tell me more about how to live the second half of my life without her. Now, I realize she did. A woman could do worse on a cold gray afternoon than share the couch with a friend who likes it when she reads out loud to him. I’ve long since forgiven Forte about the butter and the tomatoes. I wouldn’t trade any of that for the way he looks at me these days. I think I’ve glimpsed a preview of heaven, and it’s in an old dog’s eyes.
Heather Lende is a monthly columnist for Woman’s Day, where this piece originally ran. She blogs at heatherlende.com and is the author of If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name. Her book Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs: Family, Friendships, and Faith in Small-Town Alaska is currently available in hardcover, and will be available in paperback in May 2011.