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A Dog's Life
By TOM SOTER
Charlie was the family dog. But he was widely considered my dog. He joined our family in the spring of 1972,when I was still living at home. And long after I had moved out, I still came by and took him for walks in the park. He always was ecstatic to see me, jumping up and down, his tongue hanging out of his mouth, his eyes glowing with happiness.
Or so I always liked to think. If I looked at it objectively, Charlie got excited when most people came by to call, and he usually seemed excited, much in the same way. But logic was never part of my relationship with Charlie. How could it be? He was a sweet, neurotic kind of dog, a golden-haired, perfectly proportioned cocker spaniel, big enough to be manageable but not small enough to be crushed underfoot or regarded as a toy.
He was not our family's first dog – although he seemed a distant cousin to him. That honor went to Eustie (or Eustice, whom my father may have named after Eustice Tilley, the fop on the cover of The New Yorker, a magazine he loved). Eustie was a cocker spaniel, too, and he looked a lot like Charlie. He had joined the family in the late '50s in Chicago, and even though he moved to New York with us in 1956, I was too young to actually have any memory of him. But I do remember the family story, often told, about how Eustie came to an end. Apparently, my maternal grandmother never liked Eustie, and thought having a dog around the house was unsanitary for children. Coming from Greece, where dogs often roamed free and were not often kept as pets in the city, she decided one day to let Eustie go. She let him loose at the door of our apartment building, and a few minutes later was sitting with my older brother, Nick, by the window. Before her (presumably) horrified eyes, she and Nick, aged about three or four years old, watched as Eustie attempted to cross the street in the park and was run over by a car. "Look, Yaya," Nick reportedly said (using the Greek word for grandmother), "That looks like Eustie!" Our dogs – except for Charlie – were never very lucky.
Our next one, a dachshund named Gretchen, lived with us for three weeks before she swallowed something that literally stuck in her craw and choked her. Sybil, a Kerry Blue terrier, lasted a lot longer, four or five years, before she was stolen by someone in the park. (At least we thought she was stolen; the romantic in me still likes to think that the dog – who liked to wander far afield and out of sight from us on her walks, just decided to keep on going on an adventure of her own.) Charlie was a gift from my mother to my father, a purebred, as my mom liked to say, but one who was so pure that he was very highly strung. As a puppy, he liked to chew on our bare feet as we sat at the kitchen table over breakfast, and as an adult, he had a strange obsession with my father's feet, often licking them – for the salt, my father used to explain, although I think it was because Charlie knew who was the boss in our family and was simply trying to toady up to him.
My father and I would often have disputes about Charlie. Not about his care and feeding but about more esoteric things. "He's having a bad dream," I would often say, when my father and I noticed him on his favorite couch in the kitchen, sleeping but growling at something going on in his dreamworld. "Dogs don't dream," my father would say, time and again. "Dogs don't think." It became a running gag with us, a kind of programmed mantra, in which I would argue for Charlie's thought process, and my father would take a Skinnerian position that dogs were just reactive. (It got to the point where I sent my dad a letter once, with a clipping for a book that postulated that cats had the ability to think. "Proof!" I wrote. "For cats maybe," was my father's reply, "but it doesn't say dogs.")
Certainly if Charlie could think, he would have thought twice about the present my father decided to give him one Christmas: all the food he could eat. Charlie loved to chow down, and he always ate his breakfast or dinner in the same way: fast. He could finish his half-a-can of horse meat in 30 seconds flat (we timed him once) and was usually still hungry after that (until we used a cast-iron bowl, he would kick his empty plastic supper dish around the kitchen with his nose to indicate that he was hungry – more proof to my mind that he could think). On Christmas day, sometime in the late '70s, my father said, "Charlie, we'll give you all you can eat." The dog eagerly downed his first half-can; then, with surprise and apparent joy, he went on to his second half-can, but by the time he had reached two-and-a-half cans, the formerly svelte dog was bloated and moving much slower. My mother said it was cruel, that he would eat until he exploded and even my dad had to concede that the gift had gone too far: that it had become too much of a good thing. We stopped the eating then. And Charlie was pretty miserable afterwards: because he was now so heavy, he could no longer jump onto couches the way he used to; he would try and then sit on the ground growling. We suffered, as well: usually taken for a walk three times a day, we probably had to take him out at least six or seven times because he had urgent business in the park.
Charlie loved the park. In those pre-leash law days, he liked to roam free – and would always wait to do his business until he had been out for a while since – no fool he – he must have recognized, through thought or instinct, that as soon as he finished what he was there to do, he would be taken home (this was especially true on shorter walks in the little park in front of our building, where we had to take him for quick pit stops before going to school). He loved the park because he loved the smells – and also the discarded food he would find. I would often rush up to him when I noticed he was hurriedly swallowing something, and I'd reach into his moth and pull a chicken bone from his mouth.
Charlie was often the cause of argument in our house, especially between my cousin Niko and me. Niko was staying with us while going to college and he was usually home in the afternoons. The dog needed to be walked three times a day and with my brother Peter available, nothing could be simpler: I took the morning shift, Niko had the afternoon run, and Peter took Charlie at night. But it rarely worked out that way. Although Peter was reliable, Niko often blew off his responsibility, which ticked me off no end. That was mostly because of the cruelty to the dog, but also because of the unsavory problems it created for us. When Charlie wasn't walked, he didn't seem to mind: he would just go to the long hallway in my parents' ten-room apartment and pee on the built-in cabinetry. (My father once joked that we should build a replica of the hallway out in the park, just to make Charlie pee more quickly out there.)
My brother, Peter, and I sometimes had disputes about the dog as well. One night, I was coming home and I noticed Charlie tied up outside The West End, a bar. In a self-righteous mood that does me no credit but was typical of the cruelty of teen-aged older brothers, I unleashed the dog and took him home.
"That'll teach Peter a lesson," I thought smugly. It was a lesson in sadism, I think. For my brother, who had just stopped into the bar briefly looking for someone, was shocked to come out and find that Charlie had been dog-napped. He searched the neighborhood frantically, most of the time in tears, before coming home to discover the dog safe and sound.
"I hope this teaches you a lesson," I said, sounding a little like Miss Gulch, the spinster schoolteacher in The Wizard of Oz. Peter started yelling at me and we both were soon shouting loud enough to bring my father out of bed. "What's going on here?" he shouted. We explained and my dad, in true Solomon-like fashion, scolded us both. "Peter, you shouldn't have gone into the bar and left the dog tied up. That was irresponsible. And Tom, you shouldn't have taken the dog. That was cruel." Peter sat in silence, accepting the verdict. But I tried to have the last word, "In my heart, I know that I was right," I said. "Who are you, Barry Goldwater?" my father asked.
Charlie lived with us for ten years, from 1972 to 1982. He started to show signs of being unwell – not eating his food for one thing – and Peter took him to the vet, calling me up to say, "It doesn't look good for Charlie."'[[wysiwyg_imageupload:684:]] The dog stayed with the vet for a week and seemed to show positive signs from the treatment – his kidneys were malfunctioning and the vet had to insert a tube in the dog's paw to flush him out twice a day – but we were told that the dog was miserable sitting in a cage all day. Better to let him go home and die.
I went and fetched him, and the doctor warned me: "He should be alright for a while, just don't take him for long walks that might tire him out." I brought him home, and then left for work. Peter arrived soon after and he was so ecstatic to see the dog that he took him for the longest of long walks, running him up and down hills with joyous abandon. Until the dog collapsed. Peter thought he had killed him, but Charlie had just fainted. He would faint often after that – seemingly normal, and then passed out on his side.
The doctors had given him a week to live Charlie outlasted their predictions by six months. My mother would take to introducing him to our guests as "Charlie, our dog who is officially dead." The vet saw him frequently, my dad reporting, "Some days the dog feels good, other days not so good. Just like the rest of us." But the poor little dog – who it turned out also had a heart murmur – couldn't outrun his fate for long. One day he just stopped eating, and then didn't even want to go out. Listless and quite unlike himself, he sat curled up in a ball, unwilling to move or speak. Sadly, my father and I took him in a cab to the vet.
"What if we have to put him to sleep?" I asked my father. "He trusts us. And we're taking him to die."
"He trusts us to do what's right for him," said my father gently, no longer arguing about whether Charlie could think or not. "He trusts us not to let him suffer."
A few days after that, I talked with the vet who said that we should put the dog to death. "He is suffering, I think. But we can talk about it when you get here." I agonized about the decision on the way over, but ultimately I didn't have to make it. For Charlie, just moments before I arrived, had stood up straight and tall, let out one yelp, and then collapsed in a heap, dead. He apparently didn't suffer much – and I always think he didn't want me to suffer much, either. For after a lifetime of my taking care of him, Charlie had done his best to give me one final gift, and he took care of me.
July 12, 2009