This is Gemma. And she’s ours.
“Free book! Get a free book for World Book Night!”
The Hubs and I were standing at the entrance of the train station, the Beast tied to a nearby bench. As the commuters exited the underground, they were greeted by Hubs’s friendly smile.
“Want a free book for World Book Night?” I called out, my face looking down on my smartphone as I tweeted our coordinates. (hashtag–WorldBookNight).
The crowd did what almost everyone in the city does: avoid eye contact with the crazy, shouting lady.
Far be it from me to become a food blogger. I leave that heavy lifting to my good friend, The Domestic Badass, who launched her official website last week. Still, I love food. I wish I’d
been one of those fashionistas who instead posts pictures of her latest ensembles—I’d be much more chic and thin. Yet, while I can’t bring myself to spend $100 on a new pair of shoes, I’ll go broke for a good meal.
Hence, much of my hot summer has been standing at my hot grill, smoking out the neighbors with everything from chicken and ribs to burgers and dogs to skirt steaks and a London Broil marinated in Coca-cola (yeah, you read that right). Maybe it’s overkill, but when you’ve been without a grill and backyard for as long as we have, you’ll grill romaine lettuce just for the hell of it (try it with a little lemon, it’s really good!).
Four months ago, I was looking at the Beast, plotting how I could keep him with me for as long as possible. (Raw food? Supplements? Swimming lesson?) I hate discussing the lifespan of a French Mastiff—for some reason, well-meaning people insist on asking me (please, stop)—but I was hoping for a good twelve years, if forever is not an option. I could even settle for ten, maybe, I told myself.
Two and a half months ago, I was hoping for one more day with our Beast. When the vet handed me a month’s-worth of medication, I was ecstatic at her optimism. Still, every moment felt fraught. I tried to notice my energy—positive or negative—and decided that the Beast needed calm. I don’t do calm, I told myself. But the Beast needs me to be, I replied. So I started meditating. Affirmation tapes were my daily thing. Snark gave way to sincerity and I worried I wasn’t funny anymore. Yet, between moving woes, health crises, plus a few unexpected bumps in the road, finding peace became more important than being funny, though I’m still trying to reconcile the two.
Seven weeks ago, I prayed the Beast could hold out for another five weeks of walking up and down four flights of stairs until our new place—a first floor in New Jersey with a back patio—was ready. By then, the cardiologist had taught me to listen to his heart rate with my new drugstore stethoscope. We started saying our goodbyes to longtime neighbors, calling it “The Beast’s Farewell Tour,” letting people know that we were moving, that it would be good for everyone’s hearts. Some shook their heads as we announced that we were moving for our dog. Then we said “fifth floor walkup,” and their heads nodded instead. [Side note: No one gives you a medal for living in a fifth floor walkup.]
Two weeks ago, the Beast stayed with the 24-hour vet, who monitored his heart, while the movers hauled all our possessions to our new place. Simply put, we have a lot of shit. Anyone who passed the truck said, “You guys sure have a lot of stuff!”, widening their eyes for emphasis. Even the movers felt the need to chime in. The next person to comment on my crap, I decided, would get hit on the head with the toaster—if only I could ever remember in which box I packed it. After the longest day in recent memory, we brought the Beast—who’d had a spa day compared to us—to our new home, which now looked like an episode of A&E’s Box Hoarders. He sniffed around for all of five minutes, then fell asleep without a care, only to wake up to the sound of chirping birds the next day.
This morning, the Beast turns FIVE! And my heart is so happy, especially after worrying if this day would ever come. I hope his heart is happy too—a staff of amazing veterinarians and a cocktail of medications have done their best to see to it that it is. While I use to fear his aging, wanting instead to keep him a precocious little puppy for life, every day he grows older now feels like a kind of victory. Some days are better than others, but we continue to be grateful for every moment. And we feel the immense and amazing healing energy everyone has sent us since (keep it coming!). Every time we come home from work or wake up in the morning, it’s like a wonderful surprise party as we’re greeted by his gorgeous, sweet face. Today, the party is for him.
This won’t be the hardest post to write, just the second hardest. The Beast has been diagnosed with heart disease—cardiomyopathy to be exact—something that is common in larger breeds. It’s treatable—he takes so many pills now, it’s like he’s turned into my parents—but science has yet to find a cure in dogs. If only diet and exercise and a triple bypass were enough.
We always knew our time with the Beast was finite. George Carlin said that, when you get a dog, “you’re purchasing a small tragedy.” But now time has become that much more precious. Tragedy aside, we’ve been awfully lucky to have our Beast. He, along with the Kid, has been our source of joy, our comfort, and even our social planner. He’s connected us to so many wonderful people, and I’m not exaggerating when I say he has more friends than I do. As expected, the Hubs and I are each dealing with the news in our own different ways—I’m crying on the phone with my best girl friends this time, rather than taking up a new instrument, and he’s listening to an awful lot of Tom Waits.
I’m wary of people who view dogs (and cats) as just “pets.” It’s likely those folks never had a dog. Pets, in my eyes, are family. Heck, my dogs have loved and appreciated me more than some family members . . . and vice versa. My animals have brought as much joy, maybe more, into our lives, and their absence is just as palpable and painful. I still think of and miss my other dogs, Thor and Grady, every day.
It’s too easy to become maudlin and sound like the voice of Doom here. It’s not right, either. The Beast still lives—he’s feeling even better than before—but life will be different, lived moment to moment. The Hubs and I agreed to just enjoy our time with him, and we have: as of this writing, we’re spoiling the Beast rotten with better food, slower walks, and even letting him sleep in the bed. This sudden turn of events is also giving me a new perspective on what really matters, of who really matters, and just how much we can endure. I’ve never been a person who enjoys the journey, I’m eager to get to the destination. But now that I know what the destination holds, the journey is all I got—I better start liking it. A friend of mine whose two Huskies have been diagnosed with cancer reminded me to just enjoy and love the Beast as much as I can because “we’ll have time to be sad later.” Besides, look at that face! How can you stay sad in the presence of that face?
Several friends have asked, “What can I do?” To that, I say, send good thoughts and positive healing energy to his heart to make it stronger. I won’t turn away miracles. Go ahead and send that energy out into the (capital “U”) Universe to help anyone, any being, who might need an extra thought or two—I know the huskies could use your good vibes, as well as a friend whose father has kidney cancer. Or maybe you know someone who needs a miracle. Call it prayer, call it meditation, call it intention—it only takes a moment and can be more fulfilling than any smartphone app.
So that’s the story, minus a few technical details. At this point, I’m done talking about it. I’m done giving it power. Of course, that doesn’t mean I won’t jump up in a panic if he wakes me in the middle of the night. It doesn’t mean you won’t catch me with swollen eyes at the end of a crying jag. It just means that if you ask, “How the Beast?,” my answer will be the same: So very loved.
What’s big and drooly and stinky all over? NOT Finn! The Beast got a bath last night. And not a moment too soon. (Remember the procrastination post?)
I may sound biased, but I’m sure you would agree with me when I say that my dog is beautiful. At least once a day, a stranger will tell him as much. I think it’s because he looks unique. The wrinkles that dominate his face give him character—at any given moment his eyebrows alone can read sad, confused, pensive, innocent, or wizened.
We call him “the mayor” around here since most folks in the neighborhood know him; even folks I’ve never met approach him like an old friend. If he doesn’t care for you all that much, he’ll act aloof and look away—he’d hate to hurt your feelings. If he likes you, he’ll extend a paw on your arm. If he loves you, he’ll give a full body wag and maybe jump up on you. A handful of souls get that honor. Only a few times have I seem him totally steer clear of a person. I trust his judgment, so I back away, too.
His red, carpet-like fur attracts a blend of city grime and smells—the sidewalks, the grass in the park, the pungently-perfumed ladies who bend down to kiss him on the head. But it’s a chore to simply toss 130 pounds into the shower and rinse him off. My chore this time, too, since I lost a stupid bet with my husband. (Babe, Bat Out of Hell is on my Zune, “Paradise By the Dashboard Light” isn’t. So sue me!) And no amount of eyelash-batting and pretty please’s will turn this into a two-person job. Most of the time, I just jump in the shower with him because I know I’ll be soaked anyway.
A dog this big gets washed in sections, something akin to a butcher’s map of meat cuts. We usually drop a toy in the tub to trick him into thinking it’s play time, or I’ll make up a goofy song as I scrub-a-dub him. But he’s onto us and simply endures it. Once it’s all over, once we’ve squeegied out his paws, towel-dried his head, chamois’d his belly, he seems to appreciate how fresh and soft he is. At least the rest of us do.
This fresh-faced Finn will last a few days at most. He’ll go back to being a drooling stink monster. But for now, to paraphrase the creaky clairvoyant from “Poltergeist,” this dog is clean.