The Empty Nest Dog

by Mary Gordon
Photograph: Illustration by Ben Kruisdijk

In every doctor’s office there is a book called the Physician’s Desk Reference, or PDR, a guide to all the maladies to which we humans are vulnerable. In this heavy volume there is nothing called dog dependency. But if there were, I would be one of its victims. My symptom: I cannot be happy unless I am living with a dog. But why am I using words like symptom, malady, victim? One of the joys of my life is that I have always had a dog.

It’s one of those things everyone knows, like “Thirty days hath September, April, June and November” and “I before e except after c”: One year in a dog’s life is equivalent to seven years in a human’s. Considering the mathematics, it has occurred to me that I can track the seasons of my life by my dogs.

I am about to celebrate the big six-O with Rhoda, who is dog number five and a half or six, depending on whether you count my grandmother’s dog, Skippy—not properly mine, but one with whom I spent many days from the time I was born. My real first dog was given to me when I was seven and deeply grieving over my father’s sudden death. When the world seemed empty and unfriendly, Zippy reassured me that I wasn’t alone, and if I needed a good cry, he wouldn’t tell me to toughen up; I could just wipe my eyes on his long, floppy ears.

Zippy left me just as I was finishing college, and when I started graduate school, I bought a darling puppy on the street for $5. She saw a lot in the way of boyfriends and parties consisting of spaghetti and $2 wine, but not much in the way of training. While I was resisting bourgeois conventions (underarm shaving, monogamy), Maxine was saying no to boring commands (sit, stay). Alas, she developed stomach cancer and died at four.

Her death coincided with the end of my first marriage, which was brief, unhappy and fortunately childless. Next came a brighter period when I published my first book and moved in with my present husband. This called for a glamorous dog, a high-strung German shorthaired pointer named Frances, whom I had to get rid of when I had my first baby. We needed a calm hound, so we got Roz, a placid field spaniel, followed by Peggy, a phlegmatic Lab. She died in my arms at the age of 12, and I was devastated.

The sadness was more acute because her death came at the same time as the emptying of my nest. My daughter had left for college and my son was a senior in high school; he dropped by to sleep and procure food and clean laundry, but his home was out in the world. I had loved having a house full of children. I liked making meals; I liked walks leading nowhere and rainy days snuggling on the couch. No day was really empty if it had lively creatures at its center.

Meanwhile, the mirror was not bringing good news. What had happened to my radiant complexion? What were those blotches? Whose upper arms were those? I couldn’t shake my sense that life was going steadily downhill, a prospect that, when I contemplated it, brought to my mind the word dread.

Then on the day when I went to pay the vet and thank her for making Peggy’s end a dignified and painless one, I saw a card on the bulletin board: “Free Lab mix pups.”

I phoned the owner.

“There’s one left, you might like her,” she said. “She’s half Lab, half chow, 90 percent Lab.”

I told myself that there was no connection between the owner’s math skills and the puppy’s qualities.

“You better get here soon,” she said, “because she’s the only one left.”

My husband was away on business, but I got his approval, and an old friend and I made a trip to the country to see the puppy. As we approached the owner’s house, my heart sank. The lawn was covered with cars whose engines spilled out on the grass beside them, refrigerators with no doors, washing machines on their sides. But the gardens were magnificent: Cosmos and marigolds and sunflowers and black-eyed susans bloomed effulgently. I understood that these people knew what was important: animals and flowers, not tidy lawns.

The woman answered the door. Her husband stood beside her. They didn’t seem that glad to see me.

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