About a Dog

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

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