Several years ago, even before my parents were diagnosed with dueling, terminal illnesses, my sister and I discussed the options, as if we might somehow be given a choice. It was preferable, we agreed, for our father to go first. He was difficult, grumpy, and, more than that, he was so dependent on our mother it was impossible to imagine how he might function without her. My mother, we hoped, would grieve the loss and then move on to another phase in her life, free to do the things that she'd given up because our father didn't share her interests.
Of course, that's not how things happened. Our mother went first, on the eve of their 49th wedding anniversary, and our father, lost without her, followed a year later.
During this same period of time, I suffered a head injury during a mugging, underwent reconstructive surgery on my ear, and subsequently discarded most of my friends as I struggled (sometimes literally) to regain some balance in the world. It felt as if I was living in a separate but parallel reality, and it was impossible to explain that where I lived, nothing was stable; at any moment, the bottom could drop out unexpectedly, so nothing could be trusted.
When a moving truck arrived from Pennsylvania with furniture and other items from my parents' house, Brando walked up and down the hall sniffing and inspecting every piece while whining audibly as he identified their scent. The safest place for me seemed to be at home with the dogs, and my greatest fear was losing them. Brando was 10 years old — a senior citizen for a dog his size. He had been with me through 9/11 in New York and Katrina in New Orleans; he knew things about me that no one else could. Zephyr, a Rottweiler/shepherd mix, had been a Valentine's gift to him when he was two, and she kept him out of trouble. Their relationship echoed that of my parents, and as with my parents, I began to anticipate what would happen when one of them went before the other. Without her, I feared Brando would be lost, but if Brando preceded her, I imagined she would lead a new life, free from the obligation of entertaining him.
But, as with my parents, the endings were reversed. One morning, I noticed Zephyr's rear legs sliding briefly out from under as she walked. And as it grew worse, a blood test confirmed the worst: she had degenerative myelopathy, the canine version of multiple sclerosis. I was told that there was no cure, so the best we could do was to try to slow the speed with which paralysis took over her body. We were given a year, a year and a half at most.
I stopped counting the expense when it reached $6,000, paid not by my own income but with money I'd received after my parents' deaths. We tried aqua therapy with an underwater treadmill but had to stop when she developed an infection in her foot. We tried acupuncture. We drove across Lake Pontchartrain to consult with specialists. Our vet lent us a doggie wheelchair, which she never took to, although she did enjoy using it to stand completely still in the middle of the yard and watch the birds she once chased. She lost her independent streak and started to stick close to my side. I began to hope for a book contract, so I could forget about teaching and just spend a year at home with the dogs.
At the vet, the conversation inevitably turned to the unfairness of it all. She was a good dog. She had a unique understanding of what she could do to help the others around her. Once, when she was boarding overnight at a kennel, the staff decided to have her share her space with another dog who was shaking with fear; they spent the night snuggled together. As she struggled with her failing body, I imagined what my own response would be: I'd be paralyzed with self-pity. Zephyr continued moving forward, without question, as best as she could.
You can tell yourself, even in the midst of these things, that there's another possible ending. Eventually, Zephyr couldn't get around without me carrying her, couldn't go to the bathroom even with my help. One weekend she began crawling under the house and not wanting to come back out. I called a friend to come take our picture, hoping for one last portrait before she was gone. Even with a guest in the yard, I had to slide myself under the house to retrieve her. This had begun to seem normal to me. When I took her to the vet the next morning, they called to ask, "So what are you thinking?" and I knew we were at the end.
I brought her home for a few more days, so I could try to be ready. On the morning I took her in, Brando spent 10 minutes kissing her good-bye. They had candles in the examination room and a mat on the floor, just as they had during our acupuncture sessions. I thought, This is going to be difficult for the staff. I didn't want to make it worse for them. Zephyr went to the mat and when I sat next to her, she put her head in my lap and closed her eyes. Afterward, the doctor, vet tech, and I took turns hugging her. Eventually I realized that I was going to have to be the first one to go. I walked out to the waiting room and then to the restroom, where a wail rose up in me and escaped. I don't know if anyone could hear it outside.
During the last weeks of her life, I woke up in the middle of the night sometimes to find that Zephyr had gone outside on her own. She would drag herself to the middle of the deck, where she could look out on everything. She looked beautiful in the moonlight, and she raised her head toward the star-filled sky, not looking for answers but confirming that she knew exactly where she was positioned in this world. She didn't question it.
That was her final lesson for me.