How do you know when to say good-bye?
Rosie is no longer the dog she used to be. We rarely play knee hockey now. After the first or second block with my knees, her passion for hard contact starts to ebb. But if I condescend to her and let her win, she gets bored and drifts off. Because of her arthritis, she no longer bows in one of those impossibly limber dog stretches before her run, no longer monkey-walks backward in front of me, trying to see the ball before I throw it. In her abbreviated four- or five-minute run, she no longer stretches out powerfully in sheer bodily pleasure, a figure of nearly savage elegance. Her stride is now an ugly, windmilling bunny hop.
Our games often used to end with a bout of wrestling on the floor. I don't know how many times she's whipped her head backward into my nose and knocked me on my back, almost unconscious with pain. Twice she's broken my glasses. Once she gave my wife, Erin, a black eye. We soon realized that if we were going to live in the same house with this powerful dog, we'd have to run her every day, run her until she literally fell over. Literally. Otherwise she'd twitch out of her skin with unburned energy. We called it 'exploding the dog.'
'You're so beautiful,' I say to her still, though she is not in fact beautiful anymore, except in Erin's eyes and mine. When I look at her now with a cold eye, I can see that her coat is not as shiny as it was, that her magnificent deep chest has shrunk, that her once-elegant legs are so knobby and crooked that they can only be called deformed. Does her old beauty somehow still live inside a new beauty, a beauty that includes age and memory? It is our memory we are addressing, and not the present dog, I think.
The answer is simple and obvious: Our love renders her beautiful to us -- that and the long habit of seeing her as beautiful. But the habit is getting hard to sustain. How I wish Wallace Stevens were right: 'Beauty is momentary in the mind -- / The fitful trading of a portal; / But in the flesh it is immortal. / The body dies, the body's beauty lives.' I've never truly understood those lines, but when I consider Rosie, my mind almost rises to accept the romantic mysteries of the poet. We rationalists, Stevens insists, are wrong in thinking beauty persists only in the mind. If I write these sentences well enough, Rosie lives forever. Your imagination joins her in her runs, and your body, spurred to a sensual response by the imagination, joins her too. Is that all Stevens means? Surely he implies that beauty's permanence defies death in some more satisfying way that I cannot quite comprehend.
But then I look at Rosie again, my grizzled old dog rising creakily from one of her beds, and I lose my half-grip on whatever it is that Stevens means. Dogs' lives are microcosms of our own, held inside ours. Erin and I have watched Rosie progress from an earnest puppy to an excitable adolescent to a dignified, if high-strung, adult. But now she has moved on again, has become an aching geriatric who spends the better part of each day on her electric bed with her arthritic elbows pressed into the heat. In less than a decade, she has changed from one of the most vibrant life forces I've ever seen into a shrunken old lady: Erin and I monitor her closely, discussing how stiff she was when she got up, how much of her breakfast food she ate, how her bowel movements were, how long her run lasted.
Every time she slips going up the stairs, staggers up from her bed in the morning, stumbles when she's chasing the ball, we feel God's hand clenching our hearts. We are watching Rosie, my wife and I, with a calculating eye. Now that she can't walk up the stairs, how much longer will it be until she can't hop up them? What does it mean that last night she missed the bottom step going down and flopped face first on the floor, before righting herself awkwardly and looking around, hoping no one had seen her undignified fall? What did it mean when I pulled on her leg to clip her nails and the arthritis made her yelp as if I'd stuck a needle into the meat of her shoulder? How close is she to having to go? At what point do we have to say, 'Her life is no longer worth the pain she is suffering'?
This morning she ran for three minutes.
Excerpted from a longer essay in The American Scholar (Autumn 2003). Subscriptions: $30/yr. (4 issues) from 1606 New Hampshire Ave., Washington, DC 20009; www.pbk.org/pubs/amscholar.htm