Dog Days of Grief

Someone asked me last night how our dog, MacDuff, was doing. It was at an event promoting Nina’s bookwhich features a whole chapter on his adoption. So he’s kinda famous. The question got me thinking that I tend to view the events in our lives as a specifically human drama, but – as Nina recognized – MacDuff played his own significant role. So I’m dedicating this post to him. DodesMacDodo. Duffers. Duffy. MacScruff
Somehow, in the Fall of 2015, I became obsessed with the idea of adopting a new dog. Nina thought I was crazy for wanting to drop a new complication into the middle of our extant chaos. Her mom had just died, Nina was dealing with chemo and radiation, Freddy was still getting his feet as a type 1 diabetic. But I had a vision of a different kind of dog from the ones we’d had, who had both been lovable and wonderful, but also refugees from the Island of Misfit Toys. This dog would be sleek, athletic, dexterous, trainable, and most of all: fetching. Literally: I wanted a dog who could fetch. Sticks, balls, Frisbees, whatever. I throw it; the dog brings it back. Man’s Best Friend. Call central casting. 
So of course we wound up with MacDuff, a real life Muppet who doesn’t fetch and likes nothing better than to recline with people, preferable ON people. Fortunately, thisfit Nina’s vision perfectly. She said I was crazy, but by the time we stumbled upon MacDodes, Nina’s heart was deeply into the dog search, even if she let me beat the drum. 
I should have known. In 2002, when we adopted our first dog, it was because Nina had twice seen what she called “The Perfect Dog.” He first appeared in a dream, in whichNina also acquired The Perfect Dog’s name: Zilch. Then she saw Him (it was always a boy dog) in real life in a grocery store in Paris, leashless and infinitely well trained, patiently awaiting its owner by the exit. It was a miracle Nina didn’t dognap Him. She took only Zilch’s requisite identifying characteristics: he was long and low, some mix of corgi and hound, and tricolored – black-white-brown. After seeing the oneiric version and the one that waited with so much poise at Monoprix, we walked into the Guilford County Animal Shelter and saw The Perfect Dog waiting for us.  

Zilch was constructed from spare parts taken from several different dogs. 
And Zilch was nearly everything Nina had dreamed of: he was quirky, lovable, adoring, affectionate, and loyal. He looked like he was made of spare parts. His back end was higher than his front and when he ran, his rear would outpace his front end and his backside would swing out to one side a little. 

Whatever his foibles (violence towards children chief among them), Zilch ADORED Nina and was more or less her Platonic ideal of a dog. 
Sadly, he wasn’t The Perfect Dog to everyone, nor as well trained as Monoprix Zilch. For one thing he leaked. Literally: he had bladder control issues. He’d be cuddling with us in bed, get up and to in the other room, and leave a big wet spot on the duvet (typical man). Then he nipped a few guests in our apartment, plus bit our across the street neighbor’s pant leg. And then the kids were born, and he started to bare his teeth at them after Benny arrived and Freddy got ambulatory. Finally, not long after Benny came home from the hospital, he broke free in the back yard and bit a passer-by. So we had to put him down. 
Another vision emerged when it was time to adopt Zilch’s sister-wife, Ellie. Nina read that black dogs have the hardest time being adopted from shelters because they’re so common. This tugged hard at the same instinct for loveable misfits that led to Zilch, but in this case Nina insisted that She (it had to be a girl) be a plain black lab mix. It wasn’t an exotic order, and sure enough we went to the shelter and saw poor, underfed, nearly feral Ellie, who acted like she’d never slept indoors before and very much fit the image of a desperate, unwanted black dog urchin. She made fast friends with Zilch, but never totally bonded with Nina. NER loved Ellie, but she was too high strung to be a cuddly dogNina used to say that Zilch was her dog, and Ellie was Zilch’s dog

Zilch playing with his new dog the day we brought her home from the shelter. 
This last time Nina had a different vision. What she wanted above all else was a nuzzly mutt, in the parlance of our times (parlance as coined by our then six year old son Benny). A dog who would cuddle, with a massive capacity for affection, not too high energy, who could pass the long days of treatments, side effects, and shortened futures with her. 
It turns outshe wanted a MacDuffSeemingly sui generis, he immediately became her bosom companion. He would get on the couch or the bed with her and gradually arrange himself so that as much of his body was on top of as much of her as possible. If she let him he would sit facing her with his front paws on her shoulders and his face buried in her neck. MacDuff was like a if your favorite stuffed animal came to life but still let you treat it like a stuffed animal. Nina used to say that MacDuff was a tiny man trapped inside a dog suit and the reason he climbed up on her is that he wanted her to find the seams and let him out.
Couch sitting as avocation helped make MacDuff the perfect cancer companion. 

And Dodes was wonderful with the kids and Ellie, too. Poor, quaking Ellie, who pants so hard during thunderstorms it leaves a sizable puddle at my bedside (where she comes to quake and breathe loudly). She’d just been traumatized by our attempted adoption of another dog who bullied and harassed her for a long weekend before we gave up. MacDuff drew her out of her shell. Ellie showed all of her 11+ years, getting long in the few remaining teeth she had, but his presence seemed to revivify her. He inveigled her into playing around the house, ran in circles around her in the backyard, and more or less brought her back to life. 

Ready for his MacCloseup. 

MacDuff’s timely arrival was quite a turn of events. But it was also not that long before Nina died and, by that time, he was not only a member of the family but Nina’s emotional service dog. Nina’s death hit him hard. First, the dogs just plain got ignored a fair amount after she died. But also, suddenly and with no explanation, MacDuff’s person was just gonezo. I don’t even really grasp human grief, so I can’t imagine how it feels on the canine end of things. But I would guess it’s a total gut job. Dogs literally live for their people, and MacDuff could not have been more dedicated or attached than he was to Nina. 

I don’t want to pluck too hard on the heartstrings, but the fact is he hasn’t been the same since Nina died. He is still himself, just flatter. Literally – he lies flat on the floor much of the day, as though trying to make himself invisible, or as much a part of the carpet as possible. He sometimes refuses to eat, or to go outside for no reason. He still gets excited when Nina’s dad comes over, and he still gets worked up every day when I come home, but it’s almost like he’s just bursting with anxiety, not romping with joy. 

MacDuff just trying to cope. 
It’s not like he’s not still a sweet dog. He’s gentle, affectionatewell behaved, and cuddly as can be. And I try to pay him extra attention. And every once in a while I let him sleep in my bed, just so he can have someone to cozy up to. He seems to enjoy it, but it never makes him glad. Just services his insecurity. As soon as I fall asleep he ambles back down to the floor, or retires to his dog bed, flat as before. 
I don’t know. We all anthropomorphize our pets. Maybe when I’m describing MacDuff I’m just writing about myself, about the feelings of desolation that flow from a loss like Nina dying. But I swear, the Dodes just isn’t the same dog who shared so much joy with Nina in that last phase of her life. So that’s how MacDuff is doing. And whether it’s me projecting or not, he really does seem about the same, he just lays a little bit lower, bounds into your lap with a little less unalloyed joy, and wears his dog suit a little more heavily. I feel ya, Dodes. 

2 thoughts on “Dog Days of Grief

  1. I was among those who got to hear you share at the library last night and love that a fellow listener asked about your dog. Thanks for sharing more here! Also, I showed my 8 and 10 year old sons your boys' first day of school pics and they loved your son's green hair!


  2. Dear John: I love your blog! You write from the heart. It's deep but at the same time hilarious. I shared this particular blog entry with my Facebook friends, many of whom love those adorable mutts as much as your family does!


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