When my husband Ed was dying of cancer, our dog Buddy was 13 years old. These three events occurred during the last month of Ed’s life:
1. Ed was napping on a pulled-out futon in a room at the back of the house, with Buddy lying on the rug beside him. When our primary hospice nurse, Marcella, arrived, I was washing dishes in the kitchen—I told her to go on back to see Ed. Buddy knew Marcella—she had been coming to our house once or twice a week for two months. But when she stepped into the room he rose partway up and voiced a deep and ominous growl I could hear from the kitchen. He was ordinarily such a mild-mannered dog that in thirteen years I had never heard him growl except the play-growl he brought out for tug-of-war games. Marcella of course was startled and backed out of the room—it was clear this dog wouldn’t allow her anywhere near Ed. It wasn’t until I came into the room and said, “Buddy, it’s all right, it’s just Marcella,” that his anxious expression relaxed and he lowered himself down again. Ed had been worsening in recent days and I can only imagine Buddy was on guard duty—that he didn’t trust anyone outside the family, not even Marcella, unless I was there too, and could give the okay.
2. In the last two weeks of Ed’s life we had friends coming every day to bring meals and take Buddy for his walks. He never objected to these various strangers taking hold of the end of his leash—he went out twice a day happily. One day the designated dog walker was Joy, who was not only our friend but also a hospice nurse herself. And my sister Pat was with me that day. This was February but the weather was unexpectedly mild and sunny. I hadn’t been out of the house for more than a month, so it occurred to all of us that, with both Joy and Pat at the house to keep an eye on Ed, I might get outside for half an hour and walk the dog myself. Buddy was reluctant to leave the house, though, and when we got to the sidewalk he simply stopped and sat down. I spoke to him, encouraged him, and finally pulled hard on the leash, but he stiffened his neck and wouldn’t budge. And again, that anxious look. So I took him back into the house. And when Joy took his leash he went happily out for his walk. It was clear: He and I were sharing guard duties. Both of us could not be gone at the same time.
3. In the last week of Ed’s life my sister stayed at our house to help me with care-giving. At night we spelled each other in three hour shifts. Ed by then had fallen into a coma but we had not yet seen the signs of imminent death that Marcella had prepared us for. On this morning Pat and I were putting together something for breakfast—I had checked on Ed not more than a minute earlier—when suddenly Buddy began to bark and race through the house, from the back door to the front door and then back again, barking in a high, anguished way, a strange bark I had never heard from him. I went to the back door, checking for someone there, thinking someone must have rung the door bell, when my sister called to me from the living room, “Oh, Molly, I think Ed is gone.” Marcella’s belief in the science of medicine and her belief in pain-relieving drugs was equally matched by her belief in the spiritual and the unknowable. It was Ed’s angel arriving, or his soul departing: this is what she told me Buddy had seen or sensed. I only wish I knew.
[This piece was originally a guest post on Karen Joy Fowler's blog, part of a series of guest posts about human and animal encounters.]
When dogs learn to speak our language—
when one of them masters the art of curling her long
tongue high against the bony roof of her mouth
bringing it sharply down behind her lower teeth
expelling her breath at exactly the right moment,
then cones her mouth around the trailing vowel
and the first word is spoken—perhaps No or Toy—
when that one dog, having learned to speak, tells the others
how it’s done and the knowledge spreads among them
(messages on fence posts, stumps of trees, the soft leaves of mallow),
when they discover how to flick ells off the tips of their tongues,
to hiss esses through their teeth, to click their kyus,
when they hit upon a way to say why with their lipless mouths,
when they unriddle the problem of the kay, the jay,
master not only words but syntactic structure, idiom, conjugation—
when we then ask our own dogs or the first
dogs we come to what they remember of their dreams,
what they see when their eyes look into the flames of our fires,
what they hear outside the door in the wild cold night,
how it is, when a man dies they know it,
and at that exact moment in another room they begin to wail—
when we ask them these things, I wonder:
Will they answer, or lower their eyes, say nothing?
–Molly Gloss, 2002