When toddlers attack

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Loving a Mortal

The goddess Eos fell in love with a mortal, Tithonus.  Desperate to stay with him forever, she implored Zeus to grant him the immortality of the gods - forgetting to also secure for him their eternal youth.  Tithonus indeed lived forever, but grew so old and frail that out of pity Eos turned him into a grasshopper.  I'm not sure why turning him into a bug was an act of mercy; maybe she didn´t want to spend eternity changing Depends.  But I understand how she felt falling in love with a mortal; after all, isn't that what it's like to love a dog?

Argos died Thursday morning.  He didn't have time to get old and frail, for his eyes to grow hazy, to settle into a favorite cushion in a corner and get up only to eat or drink. He was about the same age as our relationship, nine and a half years, give or take six months or so, and still strong and energetic enough to orbit us on a lunge line, barking like an idiot and attracting stares as we walked around our neighborhood.
We had just bought our first house, a questionable venture on many levels - only a year together, in a marginal section of Sacramento, and just as it was obvious even to me that the housing bubble was preparing to burst.  Our first two weeks there were punctuated by an offer of a blowjob from a prostitute as we walked onto our front porch laden with groceries, and a late-night staccato burst of gunfire on Broadway a block away.  "TIROS!  HAY TIROS EN LA CALLE!" shouted Adrián, jolted into a panic from a sound sleep - "Shots!  There are shots in the street!"  
 I didn't share his panic.  I was working as a TV reporter at the time, had been around gunfire, and felt that as long as they weren't firing at me, I was in good shape.  Still, it seemed like a dog might be a good addition to our family.  A large one.  With a big, masculine bark.

I grew up with Dobermans, and quickly began searching for puppies.  I discovered that they were out of our price range.  Adrián had always considered me a doggie racist for my preferences, and I finally gave in to his pressure to do the humane thing and adopt a mixed-breed from the SPCA. 
We headed over one morning the week of Thanksgiving.  While I may be a doggie racist, I've always found animal shelters depressing places because I want to take every dog home.  So as we walked down the rows of kennels, I was doing my best to fall immediately and hopelessly in love with something squat or shaggy, brown or white, something definitely not a Doberman.  That's when we turned a corner and I stopped in my tracks.
A lone dobie sat in a kennel, staring into space.  He barely turned his head to acknowledge us as we walked up to his chain-link door, where a placard said "HOLD." 
"Is the dobie already adopted?" I asked the adoption agent accompanying us.
A second passed.  I followed her eyes as she studied both of us from head to toe.  "Noooo..." she answered, with a sly smile. 
It turned out they often fixed the "HOLD" sign on dogs of high-testosterone breeds to provide an easy out to turn away high-testosterone would-be owners adopting for the wrong reasons.  I suppose the gay couple in front of her was low-testosterone enough to leave with the Doberman.
His name, we learned, was Samurai.  He had been dumped at the SPCA by a trucker from Wisconsin, who had inherited the dog from another trucker who bought him to guard the cab while he was off paying hookers in strip clubs or something.  They estimated he was a year and a half old, though from his adolescent gangliness, we put him at about a year.  The one thing that was clear was that the name had to go.  We named him "Argos," for Odysseus' faithful companion.

Dobermans are not low maintenance dogs as a whole.  They're whip-smart and do naughty things if you don't entertain them constantly.  They're neurotic and want to be by your side constantly.  Argos ended up being high maintenance even for a Doberman.
We learned that while he had little interest in his own food, he was an expert at stealing ours.  He stole chicken breasts sizzling in a skillet on the stove.  He opened a kitchen cabinet and stole bread sealed in a plastic bag that he surely couldn't smell from outside.  And at Christmas, he broke into an 80-dollar crate of turrón, almond-based Spanish Christmas sweets lovingly sent by our sister-in-law in Alicante, and left sticky paw prints all over our hardwood floors.  He left little piles of almonds - okay, large piles of almonds - scattered throughout our backyard for the next two days.

He was also an expert at thwarting whatever barrier we devised to keep him in or out of a given area.  After trampling the newly-laid turf in our side yard, we constructed a barrier of lawn chairs, saw horses and trash barrels.  The muddy track next to the house grew deeper.  We added items.  Somehow, but only when we weren't watching, he found his way past to chase squirrels as they ran along the fence.  Until one day, Adrián witnessed it:  "He didn't jump.  He flew." Finally, I saw it too:  Argos would go to the farthest corner of the yard, run full-tilt towards our makeshift barrier and leap, feet tucked underneath like a jumping deer, a good ten feet from lift-off to touchdown.  We were annoyed, but amazed.
And he barked.  Granted, we got him to help protect the house, but he never stopped.  He barked out the front window at the children who gathered on the sidewalk to taunt him.  He barked from behind the high, narrow side window, eight feet off the ground if you looked from outside, punching a hole in the fabric of the sofa as he balanced on its back.  He barked through the new Persian blinds, leaving them bent and cockeyed.  He barked during phone calls, during dinner parties, at squirrels, at crows, at two-year-olds on the sidewalk.  We enrolled him in weekly obedience classes at a local park, and he was nearly expelled for barking maniacally at squirrels in the trees overhead.
But he also curled up next to us on the sofa as we watched TV or read, moaning contentedly as we scratched his ear.  He jumped in bed with us every morning for a half-hour snuggle before the alarm sounded.  He offered endless affection, the comfort of his warm head or sleek back after arguments or bad news, radiated infectious joy during our long walks by the American River.  He made us laugh as he spontaneously barked at cows during our cross-state drives.  On the move to L.A., our Ford Focus was stuffed to within eight inches of its roof, but he somehow managed to squeeze himself from the hatch compartment to the passenger seat for the six hour drive while I was filling the gas tank. 
When we brought our twin newborns home from India, he seemed frightened of them and kept his distance, but gradually became comfortable around them.  As they've become more mobile over the past few months, he allowed them to pat him and climb on him without twitching a muscle.  And while his tolerance hadn't yet turned to love, except possibly during mealtimes when he learned it rained pasta and peas around their high chairs,  it was obvious from the beginning that Clara was entranced.  She weighed three and a half pounds at birth, and seemed overwhelmed by her entrance into the world, eyes darting constantly around the room without fixing on anything in particular.  That changed when she first saw Argos - while Olivia paid no attention, Clara stared.  As she began to smile, Argos’ appearance was always greeted by an ear-to-ear grin and a squeal.   It only seems appropriate that her first recognizable words, about a month ago, were in response to one of Argos' barking fits: a squeaky  "arf arf arf” to accompany his loud baritone.

Argos entered his tenth year with much of his energy intact, only a little arthritis to elicit a slight groan as he rose or lay down on the floor, like the canine equivalent of a drawn out "oy."  Last Tuesday (or maybe Monday - the days this week aren't all that clear to me), in his last act of thievery, he ate three quarters of a coffee cake forgotten on the table.  Maybe that touched it off.  Maybe it was something else.  It started as what appeared to be a run-of-the-mill upset stomach. 
I rushed him to the vet when his abdomen began to swell.  His gums had gone pale.  An x-ray confirmed what I already knew - Argos had a twisted stomach.  The surgeon told me we had two choices - surgery, at four- to six-thousand dollars - or euthanasia.  I called Adrián.

"What do we do?"
"My god," he said.  "I don't know."  We were already in the middle of a remodel of our house and I had no job.

Neither one of us said anything of much consequence for a few minutes.  Then I said "why are we even pretending we have a choice?  We have a responsibility to care for him."  He agreed.
They opened him up at midnight.  His stomach had already begun to necrotize, but the vet thought he had a good chance at recovery.  He spent the next day in the hospital and we took him home that evening.
For two days, everything seemed fine.  He drank.  Argos ate home-cooked chicken and rice from our hands.  We moved his bed in the living room and he snuggled with us as we caught up with "Mad Men."   But the morning of the Fourth, his breathing became rapid.  He leaned up against Adrián as he stood in the kitchen, the way he did when he needed comforting during thunder or windstorms.  He started to collapse.  I scooped him in my arms and loaded him in the car.  Adrián leaned across the back seat to hold him in the cargo area of our Escape as we hurried to the vet. 

Argos died on the examining table a few minutes after we arrived.  Technically, he was euthanized, but his breathing had already stopped.  They gave us a box of tissues, but we were in shock and no tears came.  We headed home alone.
It's what we sign up for, isn't it?  We know that the bouncy puppy in our lap will get old and weak long before we ever do, but that doesn't stop us from taking them in, loving them and taking responsibility for their lives.  How many years would Argos have had if a freak case of bloat hadn't killed him?  Two?  Five?  It doesn't matter.  While I felt a little sadness and guilt as photos of the girls took Argos' place in my iPhone, and feel a little remorse that we let his nails grow a little longer or his teeth collect a little more tartar since their arrival, I don't regret going back into debt trying to save him.
 "Dogs are gay children," goes the joke, and you know what?  They continue being your children even once real children arrive.  The only thing that keeps us from loving a dog like we love a person is the knowledge that compared to us, they are mortal - that the relationship is temporary and that soon, we'll have to lose them.  But of course that's essentially true of any relationship, even one that lasts the duration of a human lifespan.  And in that sense, it's the ability to make ourselves vulnerable - to love a mortal - that makes us most human.