I’m about to lose another pet—my fifth as an adult. Their pictures, two cats and two dogs, sit together on the fireplace mantel; the shot of Cleopatra sits at the other end, waiting to join the group. Cleo is snoring on the dog bed next to my desk. Her eyes are open, but she’s asleep. She is deaf but feels my footsteps on the floor beside her and looks at me with one eye, the other still rolled back. She’s fifteen. Her hair mats in painful lumps behind her ears and back legs, and she’s too fragile to brush, so we sometimes cut the pieces out. A pink skin tag peeks above the black fur between her eyes, which have a blotch of black in each. She’s stiff from arthritis, and a bad disc in her neck makes her walk on her toes. Sometimes her back legs slide out from under her, and sometimes she stands as if gathering strength to lie back down.
I didn’t think she’d make it through the summer. Last week, she didn’t go to the park two days in a row, but on the third, she had a bounce in her step. She hasn’t moved all day today until Marty’s voice boomed, “Cleo, want to go for a walk?” and she bolted upright. She took baby steps to the back door and followed him and Chance outside, went to the park, and walked up a hill.
Cleo wandered into our yard in March of 1996, fell instantly in love with Beowulf, and had five of his babies in August of 1997, while I was pregnant with Serena. (Buddha, the first born, stayed with us. He was hit by a car when Serena was five; before that, hardly a photo of her exists without all or part of Buddha in it.) Wulf, a.k.a. Dogfaceboy, died, shortly after the puppies were born, in Marty’s lap while Serena was a new-born infant.
We all like to think our pets are the smartest, most soulful beasts, but Cleo has always been spectacular, in that border-collie-meets-black-lab way. She chortled and purred and engaged us in incessant rounds of fetch; she caught flying discs and balls high in the air and from a long distance. She played tug of war with sticks, tricking other dogs into letting go of their toys and stealing them. If she wasn’t finished with your affections, she would paw you for continued rubbing or push the ball toward you with her nose, barking until you caved in and threw it. She was always our protector, too. When we went for walks, she wouldn’t follow until the last person had caught up. She liked to bring up the rear, to herd us. This is the last trait to go, though I can’t tell if she’s waiting or just too tired to go on.
Every night, Cleo has to be carried up the stairs, and every morning, she must be carried down. She has twice fallen down the stairs at four a.m. in an attempt to relieve herself on the beautiful rug. Now we have a makeshift gate made of a cork bulletin board, so she pees on the bathroom tile or the hall carpet. Sometimes she poops on my bedroom floor—several hard lumps scattered here and there, and I can’t avoid the late-night landmines as I drag my groggy self to the bathroom.
Cleo pants, but she doesn’t whine. She snores when she sleeps, but she grunts when you rub her right. It’s been ages since she’s wagged her tail or barked, even at the mailman. But she eats. She eats like a crazy old lady with Alzheimers, like Marty’s grandma Ginny, who would sit at the table and finish a large breakfast at 8:30, then come back and yell, “Well, golly, it’s almost 9:00! Isn’t anybody going to feed me?!” Every time I open the refrigerator, she stands in the way, looking and smelling.
Our vet, the one who put Beowulf to sleep when he was moaning and unable to move because of kidney failure, took the last and second best of Cleo’s puppies, named him Timber. I’m sure he would come to us to spare his doggy mommy the frightening drive. But how will I know when she is ready? Every time I think she’s done with the world, she walks up a hill; every time I think she’s improving, she falls down it.
Beowulf’s health declined during my pregnancy, and I sat with him every day, begging him to hang in there until the baby was born. He did it for me, but he didn’t last long after Serena was born. Wulf had never been too sick to snarl at the mailman until one cold February day. His body was limp, and he moaned in pain, so Marty took him outside to the picnic table and stroked his fur and comforted him until Dr. Andrew arrived—on the heels of close friends who loved our dog. The dog lay in Marty’s lap. Andrew took out the needle, and Wulf let out a howl—a long, piercing, pitiful lament. I don't know if that howl said I love you or goodbye or thank you. I don't know if it said take care of the little one. I just pray, whenever I think about it, that it didn't say no, please don't, I'm not ready to go.
I can’t make this decision for Cleopatra, Queen of Denial, no matter how sad she seems to me. Each night, I lie with her on the floor and tell her that we will all miss her so very much, but that it’s OK to stay asleep if she is ready to be done with this world. We will understand.
I whisper into her deaf, matted ear that she doesn’t have to wait for us to catch up anymore.