Had a bit of a scare here, yesterday. This is going to be a dog story.
If you look over to the right (you may need to scroll down a bit), you’ll see a brief statement about me and this site. You’ll also see a little photo that is my avatar. It appears not only here but also wherever I leave comments on Google-based sites. To the extent anyone online knows me, they probably know me by that picture.
The dog in the photo is named Napoleon, and he is the older of the two bulldogs with whom I now live. (The other is Homer, but he is still a very young dog and doesn’t rate much more than a mention in this story). Napoleon is a hell of a guy, and it is only the result of sheer dumb chance that I’ve been lucky enough to spend so many years with him.
Years and years ago I lived in Miami with my best friend. At one point, during a very drunken night, Trevor convinced me we should get a dog. That in itself is a story, but the bottom line is that I got an English Bulldog and named him Virgil, after my grandfather. Virgil ostensibly belonged to both Trevor and me, but I had paid for him and, besides, he mostly spent his time with me anyway. A coupla years later, when I bought a house and my roommate ways ended, Virgil naturally went with me.
Which kind of sucked for Trevor, who told me that he missed coming home to a dog. And, of course, the kind of dog he missed was a bulldog. I don’t know whether you’ve ever experienced this, but sometimes some people just find their breed. Virgil was such a great dog that both Trevor and I had ended up finding our breed, and the breed was bulldog.
And, as it turned out, Trevor got lucky.
About a year after I got my home, my firm was able to snag a very good attorney by hiring him away from a different law firm. His former partners despised him for abandoning them, but he still maintained his friendship with their staff. When his former receptionist mentioned to him that she and her boyfriend were breaking up and that neither one wanted to keep their bulldog – Napoleon – he told her he knew someone who would be happy to take the dog off of their hands: me.
So he introduced us and she and her ex-boyfriend brought Napoleon to my place to meet me and Virgil and to make sure that they were not delivering their dog to some attorney equivalent of Michael Vick. Virgil and I satisfied them, I suppose, I told them that I would love to have Napoleon to keep Virgil company, and they drove away never to see their 1-year old dog again.
Of course, I had lied to their faces. I had no intention of keeping Napoleon, I didn’t want Napoleon. Virgil was already about 6 years old and had never had another dog in the house . . . let alone another younger, stronger dog. I thought it would be cruel to bring a challenger into Virgil’s home, but I knew that Trevor wanted a dog. So I gave Napoleon away to Trevor.
And Trevor kept him for about 9 months. But then Trevor decided that he had had enough of being an adult, and decided to take a year off to go surfing in Costa Rica.
“I can’t handle the dog,” he told me, “you gotta take him back.”
But I still didn’t want Napoleon, and I still thought it was unfair to bring him into Virgil’s home. And yet . . . he was the greatest, sweetest, biggest damned bulldog I ever had seen, and I couldn’t just get rid of him. After myriad calls to friends and family members – none of whom would agree to take him – I realized I was stuck with Napoleon.
* * *
Virgil grudgingly accepted Napoleon into our household, although Napoleon’s youthful exuberance would often get in the way of Virgil’s elder statesman dignity. But Virgil passed way about five years ago.
It was in March, and it was cold. I had gone to bed and, as always, I spent the first 15 minutes or so reading. Napoleon had followed me in, jumped up on the bed, and gone to sleep by my feet. Virgil followed more slowly and just rested his head on the mattress where I was reading.
"Hey, buddy, hey," I told him, "ya wanna get up here?" He jumped and, because there was not much room between the wall and the bed, jumping was difficult. I helped him up. He slumped up next to me and I read for a few minutes more, then turned out the light and went to sleep.
I woke from a dream at about a quarter to three in the morning. Lying in bed, with my eyes closed, I wondered how early it was. Maybe it was time to get up and have coffee, and watch the cartoons recorded during the night, and then head back to the gym again. And then, eyes still closed, I realized that I could only hear one dog snoring.
(Oh yeah. They snore.)
In the dark, my eyes still closed, I stretched out a hand to touch Virgil. "Hey, buddy, how are ya?" Nothing. I actually thought to myself, I could be sleeping next to a corpse. I got up and turned on the light. Napoleon was still sleeping, and snoring, on the bed next to Virgil.
"Virgil, Virgil," I said, and started patting his head. And so I knew. "Shit." Napoleon was waking up. He stretched and yawned. And all I could do was sit there. After a while I pulled on some socks and my sneakers. Napoleon knew I was heading out, and he jumped up to come with me.
"Ya wanna come, boy, ya wanna come? Come on, then." And I packed Napoleon up into the truck and started the drive to Morehead City, because I knew the Wal-Mart there would still be open.
I cannot begin to describe how incredibly depressing it is to be in a Wal-Mart at 3:30 in the morning, hunting for a shovel so that you can bury your dog. The dog you've had since he was a puppy, the dog who's been with you for ten years. That's a special ring of Hell. It should be a Country/Western song.
And the people there must be zombies. Three thirty in the morning, and the woman at the checkout line was incredibly upbeat.
"And how are you doing today?" she chirped.
For half a second, I entertained the fantasy: "Well, I'm buying a shovel and a sheet. How the hell do you think I'm doing? I've had better days."
But I didn't say anything like that. I paid for the shovel and the sheet, and walked back to the truck.
At home I pulled off my sweats and got dressed. Virgil looked like he was sleeping still. I spread the sheet out on a corner of the bed, and lifted him onto it. Kissing him, I rolled him up in the cloth and then carried him out and placed him on the couch. Then I poured myself a really big whiskey and watched some cartoons.
Occasionally, I patted him.
When the whiskey was gone I got up and opened the tool box on the front porch, to find the hatchet. Then I took my new shovel and started digging into the hill in the front yard, in a space made of three trees. It was a hard job, going through the soil and chopping through the roots I found there, but after about forty-five minutes I had dug a fairly deep grave. I moved Virgil onto the front porch couch.
Napoleon seemed to have figured out that something was wrong. He kept sniffing at Virgil and his sheet, and circling. Eventually I brought him back inside and closed the door. The poor bastard settled on the floor, nose pointed at the door, and started to moan.
I poured another big whiskey and waited for the shops to open. When they did I bought a bunch of eggs, a side of bacon, a bottle of champagne, a bottle of orange juice, and a hunk of cheese. Also, a lot of quality beer. I took Napoleon with me.
(Because, quite simply, it was important to have a dog with me.)
Then, when I got home, I showered and shaved, put on a change of clothes. Then I fried up the side of bacon. When that was done, I had run out of things to do.
I went out to the porch and lifted Virgil in my hands for the last time. I kissed him through his sheet and walked to the grave I had dug. I sank to my knees, and then dropped his body into the earth.
Standing now, tears running down my face. Breath hitching. After a while: "You were a good boy, Virgil." I imagine, for dogs, there's nothing other you can say that means as much.
Then I grabbed the shovel and started filling in the grave. It seemed harder than digging it. I stopped to get my breath back a couple of times. When it was over I nailed Virgil's collar, with a huge spike of a nail, to the tree standing over him.
And then I went inside to eat a huge breakfast and to drown myself in champagne and beer.
Because that’s what you do at a wake.
* * *
And now years have passed, and I realize how fortunate I was to have Napoleon with me when Virgil passed away. I do not think that I would care to lose a dog and to be alone.
But as the years have gone by, I have had to realize that Napoleon is getting old too. This thought terrifies me. For more than 15 years I have been coming home and always there has been a bulldog waiting to greet me. When I realized how old Napoleon has gotten I panicked a little bit. I thought back to what it was like when Virgil died and imagined how I would have felt had I not had Napoleon around, and I realized that it was time to get a back-up bulldog.
That is where Homer came in. He is about one and a half years old, and he’s been with us for just over a year. There is a slight difference in the way it plays out this time – Homer was a little younger than was Napoleon when I got him, Napoleon is a good deal older than Virgil was when Napoleon came to live with us – but there is a sense of continuity as well. I’ll admit to feeling a bit like a ghoul for thinking of this, but Homer is around because Napoleon could pass away at any time and I don’t want to have to face a dogless home.
* * *
I took both dogs out early yesterday morning, and then I came back inside and started working on the computer. Around about 10:00 or so Napoleon walked over to the outside door, squatted down, and peed.
“Goddammit, Napoleon,” I said, not really upset, “are you getting so old now you need Depends? Is that it?” But then I got close enough to see the mess I’d have to clean up and it wasn’t piss – my dog was peeing blood. Shit. (Later, trying to get him into the car, he would squat and pee even more blood. Shit! Shit! Shit!)
So I got Homer in his crate, cleaned up the blood, called the emergency vet, and got the dog down there immediately. And the entire drive south, I’m bouncing the options off in my head.
Napoleon is 12 years old now; most bulldogs don’t live past 10. He is blind, and has a hard time moving. He isn’t in any pain, but he doesn’t do much either, except sleep. He could go at any moment. Maybe . . . it is time for him to move on.
While I was bouncing these options around in my head, Napoleon climbed out of the leg-well and into the passenger seat, and rested his blind, trusting head on my arm. Because he loves and trusts me. Goddammit.
* * *
I got to the vet’s and got signed in. Whilst waiting to be seen, my phone rang. It was Trevor. I had called him, of course, and left a message that the dog might be in trouble. I left Napoleon sleeping on the tiled floor, took the call outside, and brought Trevor up to speed.
“So . . . . what’re you thinking?” he asked me.
“Well, man, it doesn’t look good. You know he had that surgery for his bladder stones a year and a half ago, and it took him nearly two weeks to recover enough from that before he could even go home. Bulldogs aren’t supposed to live past 10 and he’s already 12. If they tell me surgery is the only thing to do . . . I don’t know that Napoleon is getting out of here.”
“Jesus. That sucks.” And then Trevor started trying to make me feel better about the whole thing. “Well, you know, he’s had a long life, a good life. Maybe this is just what happens now, maybe this is for the best.”
“Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, look man, I gotta go. I don’t even know what’s happening with him right now, I’m just outside talking to you and already just talking about this has got me tearing up. I can’t talk to you anymore, I gotta get myself together and go in there and find out what’s happening. I’ll call you later.”
And I wiped my eyes and went in to deal with the news.
Which after two hours, X-rays, urinalysis and blood work . . . . wasn’t that bad. Turns out that Napoleon has an infection of the prostate, which is making him bleed blood but is actually treatable with a dose of antibiotics. The vet wants to see him again next week, but it shouldn’t prove to be anything particularly serious. I get to hold on to Napoleon for a little while longer.
* * *
I think, for me, the revealing thing about this little scare was how I reacted to it. I try – I really, really try – to be a responsible pet owner. I know, going in to the relationship, that I am going to outlive my pets. You get a puppy, you get to watch that puppy grow old and die: that’s the deal. The bargain is all the joy that animal brings you while they are with you. The bargain is worth it. I believe that. But the better the bargain, the higher the cost. ‘Cause when they leave you . . . well, you can tell yourself that this is the price you agreed to pay, but that price is always higher than you thought it would be.
Driving to the vet’s yesterday, playing the options around in my head, I had fairly well convinced myself that Napoleon wasn’t coming back. He was pissing blood. That just sounds like something that can’t be fixed without surgery . . . . and Napoleon is way too old for surgery. I figured that unless what he was suffering was something that could be fixed with a pill, this could be the end for the dog that has been at my constant side since way before 9/11. And I was thinking that I might be forced to say good-bye to just about the sweetest soul I know.
And then – it turned out – it was something that could be fixed with a pill. It was a lot of tears and grief for nothing.
But I really, really don’t mind. I know that I’ll lose him sometime, maybe even sometime soon, but the thing about Love is that you don’t let little things like Rationality get in the way.
I’ve got him for a little while longer, and that is what counts.