This morning I looked out the kitchen window and saw our dogs, Holly and E.J., lying on the deck in a patch of sunlight. Sprawled out alongside each other, the curve of their backs fit together like puzzle pieces. I tapped on the glass, and their sleepy heads jerked up as I opened the window. They scrambled toward me, knowing that if the kitchen window opened then surely a leftover was about to come flying out. I tossed them the leftover crusts of toast that 3-year-old Jack refused to eat at breakfast.
Holly jumped up to catch the airborne bread, landing with a thud and a grunt. E.J. let his piece bounce off his nose and then shuffled toward it, wondering if a dry piece of toast was really worth this much effort. Watching them move slowly and stiffly in the cool morning air made me silently admit something no dog lover wants to think about. They are getting older, slower, greyer. And no matter how much or how well we love them, dogs don’t live forever.
I walked outside to give them a long overdue scratch behind the ears. They welcomed me warmly and seemed to hold no grudge that I hadn’t had as much time for visits these past few years while I’ve been busy raising kids. They bumped against my legs, licked my hands and fidgeted excitedly at the sound of my voice. In dog years, Holly and E.J. are in their seventies – not ancient by any means but they definitely qualify for the senior citizen discount. A stray and a shelter adoptee, they’re both the most popular breed of dog there is, which is part Labrador, part who-knows. What they lack in pedigree they make up for in personality.
I stroked the thick golden hair on Holly’s back and came away holding a few tufts of it that seem to shed every time I look at her. She smiled her wide, toothy smile and wriggled into me, asking for more. Despite her age, she still has a puppy’s heart. Eleven years ago, just days after adopting her from a shelter, Tom and I watched in horror when, while sprinting playfully around our living room, she would suddenly fall to the floor, close her eyes and her plump little body would rapidly heave up and down while she caught her breath. After a minute or two on the floor, she’d pop back up and continue her romp as if nothing had happened. Five or 10 minutes later, she’d collapse again. We were afraid she had some weird seizure disorder, but she was fine. Her only problem was that she loved playing so much she would do it until she literally dropped.
Eager for his turn, E.J. scooched Holly aside. He put his black head in my hands, and I brought my nose to his. I noticed all the silver hairs that have begun to frame his eyes, making him look like a distinguished old man. It’s a nice addition because E.J. has always been what I call “cosmetically challenged.” A stray found roaming on a golf course, E.J. had what must have been a terrible puppyhood. When we brought him home, he had only one ear (hence the name Earless Joe, or E.J. for short.) The other ear had been cruelly cut off by someone who will one day have a special spot in hell, if you ask me. The skin around his eyes was damaged, and, for the first six months we knew him, his tail stayed tucked firmly between his legs. With time and love, his tail found the courage to rise and eventually even wag.
But he still battles the demons of his past. When a repairman came to the house last week, E.J. glued himself to my legs and hid his scarred face behind my knees. I could feel him trembling, as this unfamiliar man stirred up memories of abuse. Even in his seventies, E.J. is still shy, vulnerable and afraid. And I indulge him because he deserves a mama who will protect him.
I felt guilty sitting there with the dogs, knowing I owe them an apology. I swore nothing would change when we had kids and that the dogs would get just as much attention as before. But the past six years have seen the addition of one, two and now three kids into the house. And with each child, the dogs have accepted a number of downgrades – from sleeping in our bed to sleeping on an old blanket in the garage, from special doggie treats to scraps of toast and chicken nuggets left behind by the kids. And time – well, there’s just never enough of it. Yet they love us as much as they ever did – even more. They don’t even expect the apology.
So I gave them an extra belly rub and they trotted off to intimidate squirrels and patrol the yard’s perimeter. And I went inside, hoping they’ll continue to be blessed with good health so we can continue to be blessed by them.
This column was originally published January 28, 2008, in the Northwest Arkansas Times.