"In the cosmic dichotomy of dog people and cat people, I'm a dog person leading a cat person life. I like dogs a lot but my life's been too transient, too busy, too confined or too self-centered to own a dog. Possibly all of the above."
I wrote those words maybe a dozen and a half years ago. I was living a negotiated co-existence with Vince the Cat, the last in a long line of cats with whom I shared living space. Vince tolerated me in that oh, so familiar way cats do, which is to say as long as life unfolded in exactly the way he wanted, everything was okay. I gave him shelter, food and the other necessaries of life; he in turn gave me allergies and no end of grief.
I tolerated Vince as long as I had a charged inhaler and an epi-pen at the ready.
In the literary world, the words I wrote foreshadowed events to come. That's the way foreshadowing works, a seemingly random, innocuous event or comment signals or explains some plot development that happens later, causing viewers or readers who were paying attention to say, "Oh... so now I understand," or words to that effect. Some refer to this trick of the trade as Chekov's Gun since Anton Chekov may or may not have said, "If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired."
What this uncharacteristically confessional moment foreshadowed was coming home with a double handful of brown fluff 14 years ago and springing Zippy the Dog on both unsuspecting readers and anyone who lived within walking distance — a several mile radius as it turned out — of Alpine.
A few weeks later, in the throes of losing the battle to socialize the dog, I wrote "Call it the curse of Whistler or an unfortunate by-product of aging or simply a desperate attempt to finally catch a passing fad. However you care to characterize it, I've become part of the problem. A dog owner. A sleep-deprived, housetraining, doting, pleading, exasperated, twice-a-day-walking, tennis ball throwing, poop-scooping, treat-bribing, damn near giving up, 'ain't he cute'-saying, doggyhead.
"Zippy is a brown Labrador retriever. Lab folks call his strain chocolate. I revere chocolate too much to feel completely comfortable with that. They don't call black Labs licorice or tan/yellow Labs vanilla, after all. Brown's brown and Zippy's brown with a wagging otter tail, big floppy ears and eyes changing from grey to gold. He's like lightning: a bundle of unharnessed, unfocused energy that comes out of nowhere and is followed by calm, or in his case, sleep."
Being new to the dog game, I could be excused for using the words, "dog owner." In point of fact, Zippy was notionally the property of my Perfect Partner. In truth, he owned us. Fortunately for us, his innate dog sense never let that fact go to his head, filled as it was with an overriding quest for the only thing worth anything in a Lab's life — food.
I read books about how to train a dog. I took Zippy to dog obedience class, a grossly misnamed exercise. I wanted only a modicum of obedience and certainly didn't want to train the wilfulness out of him. I needn't have worried. As it turned out, without ever having read a book or even given it a thought, Zippy trained me from the moment he arrived.
He trained me not to leave bread cooling where he could reach it. During that lesson he developed a lifelong love of freshly baked bread. He trained me to be careful about what I composted, lest I toss something in the bucket he rightfully believed he deserved. He trained me to tithe a not insignificant percentage of my meal/snack to him. And he trained me to understand it was far easier to cover the couch with a blanket than it was to keep him from sneaking up onto it after I'd gone to bed. I never was sure whether I was a quick learner or he was a good teacher. Didn't matter; we co-existed.
He did not hold a grudge against me when I had the vet remove his testicles though I surely would have had the tables been turned. We were sitting in the vet's office, I was trying to explain to him how unimportant testicles were to a dog such as himself and showing him the brochure touting how Neuticles™ could make him feel like a 'real' dog. I left the decision up to him; he decided fake testicles would never fly on the mean streets of Whistler. Perhaps when I couched their cost in terms of bags of dog food....
A sad looking man and a sadder looking dog came into the waiting area and joined us. The dog looked like hell. It was shaking uncontrollably, its fur had fallen out in patches all over its body, its eyes and nose oozed mucus and, frankly, it smelled bad... even for a dog. Without asking I knew why they were visiting the vet.
I looked down at Zippy, felt my eyes get moist and thought to myself: foreshadowing. Someday that sad looking man will be me and that sadder looking dog will be you and it breaks my heart to even think about it.
Last Saturday was that day.
Zippy wasn't as sad looking as that little black and grey dog was 14 years ago. He didn't shake although he was having more and more trouble getting and keeping his back end up and suffered a laundry list of age-related ailments. He walked like an old man, a random shuffle more stop than go. Some days he didn't want to walk at all, other than to his food dish. Some days he still liked to fetch the ball as long as I didn't throw it more than a couple of feet away, further than that he'd just look at me as if to say, "You threw it; you get it."
He shuffled off to that always-full food bowl peacefully; me, not so much. I'm thankful for the 14 years we had together, thankful for all the days he dragged me away from the computer, all the walks, runs, ball games we shared. I'm having trouble imagining a Zippyless future and hoping my heart mends soon.
I don't believe in reincarnation but always said if it existed I'd want to come back as Zippy. Whistler is a perfect dog town and his was a perfect life. His people mostly worked from home and that meant they were always there when he wanted them to do something with him.
Now that he's not here, I realize, sadly, that was pretty much all the time.