What is required to fill the spot left by your displacement? A friend’s parents bought a dog and a piano. My parents only got the dog.
“You’re sure you don’t want a piano, too?” I kept asking. “What did I do wrong? Was I not even a dog-and-tractor-level child? Don’t you want a minivan, or something?”
But the dog was more than enough.
I have never been a dog person. I realize that for many people this statement is tantamount to announcing that I am Josef Fritzl and Pol Pot wrapped into one, that my dearest hobby is strapping women to train tracks and twirling my moustache, followed closely by leaving misspelled, racist comments on YouTube videos. “What can you have against dogs?” they foam and shout. “Dogs are furry barrels of pure affection. They are proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”
I cannot tell you what my trouble is. Maybe it was exposure at an early age to Garfield, a comic strip that amounts to little more than anti-dog, anti-Monday, pro-coffee propaganda. Dogs have always gravitated toward me with the uncanny instinct that animals have for the one person who is made uncomfortable by their company. This only sealed my perception that they were hell-hounds sent to bedevil me. All I wanted was to be left alone in the company of animals who did not drip or bark. Was this too much to ask?
The other trouble with his position as an empty-nest dog was that he arrived my junior year of high school, before I had — well — left the nest.
When I finished taking the SAT, I got into the car, and there was a dog in it. He was a small rambunctious ball of fur. Immediately on arriving home he began devouring all the furniture. His other hobby was standing at the door barking with great urgency in the middle of rainstorms, and then taking half an hour to inspect the bushes in a leisurely manner and do no business.
“How much can you love anything that drools?” high school me liked to remark, snidely. “Bulldogs are unnatural creatures who have to be born by Caesarean section, and they are so poorly constructed that they wheeze constantly and drip, like asthmatic air conditioners.”
“Awww,” said everyone else. (It is difficult to convince people to adopt a disdainful attitude toward a dog.)
“You haven’t stood in the yard remonstrating with him in the middle of a light rain,” I tried to tell them. “Until you’ve stood in the middle of the yard yelling ‘POOP POOP FOR PETE’S SAKE YOU MORON DON’T YOU NOTICE IT’S RAINING! YOU’VE PICKED THE WRONG TIME TO SIT THERE PLACIDLY ADMIRING THOSE BUSHES!’ and alarming the neighbors, you are in no position to compliment this hell-hound.”
“Remonstrating?” someone would timidly point out, “I don’t think he speaks English, let alone weird Victorian-euphemism English.”
We took him to obedience school, where he got a certificate for showing up and taking nothing in. His entire obedience repertoire consisted of sitting (sometimes), rolling over (occasionally) and demolishing furniture (never on command). Sometimes, if you held a treat just over his head you could coax him into a sort of spinning motion. He would shake hands with my mother, but no one else.
Whatever concerns I had about leaving home for college, I could not wait to get away from the dog to a place where I could put my shoes down without watching them disappear into a slobbering maw.
I’m not sure when we began to grow on each other, when he went from being something I adamantly did not miss to being a part of the household. The relationship between the nest-emptier and the empty-nest dog is a little uneasy. I wish I had some story about how he had saved me from a fire or barked until a creepy visitor went away, but I don’t. The best I can offer are some stories of how we went on long car rides and he farted and looked mortified. This wasn’t much, but it brought us closer. Soon I was giving him his elaborate concatenation of pills – fish oil, bone-health supplements, the works — and volunteering to take him on walks.
(Well, “walk” would be a stretch. The dog would perform a sit-down strike and refuse to go anywhere, and you would drag him several blocks. He would stop and eat anything on the ground that resembled pizza. Then he would insist on marking every tree in a one-block radius. You could have long conversations while you waited for him to make his way from one tree box to the next.
One of the upsides of walking a dog is supposed to be that you can meet people who come up to you to say how cute your dog is, but all those people were scared off by my habit of maintaining a running commentary to the dog about how much I disagreed with his lifestyle choices. “Oh,” I would say, “you’re going to smell a bush now. Great. Wonderful. Don’t eat that. I don’t know what that is. But it looks like chocolate and I think chocolate is fatal to dogs. How do any of you survive in the wild? Oh another bush oh wonderful it’s great your interests are so varied. I’m sorry, buddy. I don’t mean to be so hard on you. Oh who am I kidding you don’t speak English.”)
But no matter what, he was always my mom’s dog. I’ve never seen my mother prouder of someone who had just humped your leg and shredded the sofa.
When you leave the nest, your parents don’t stop wanting to make certain that someone is eating correctly and getting the right amount of sleep and taking exercise and generally drinking life to the lees. But you don’t answer your phone. So instead they sit scrying into the dog, and the dog obliges by developing a few involved neuroses.
The empty-nest dog is as indulged as you weren’t. He gets dressed up in little patriotic outfits, has vast hoards of toys, is brought out at parties to perform tricks. “He just graduated obedience school,” they boast. “Here are pictures.” You didn’t realize that your family offered this level of indulgence as an option.
“If you had treated me like this,” I said, “I would never have accomplished anything. I would be sprawled on your living room floor, chewing my way through your favorite shoes.”
The dog, with the dim sense that he was being discussed, looked up from where he was sprawled on the living room floor, chewing his way through my mother’s favorite shoes.
“Well,” my mother said, “we held you to a higher standard.”
Perhaps from nature, perhaps from nurture, anyone who met him would have been hard-pressed to call him a “good dog.” Good dogs actually sit on command. Good dogs don’t immediately try to make love to the knees of your dinner guests. Good dogs are easy to come by. Great dogs, on the other hand — well, they don’t obey, but they do so with great affection. They befriend even the pamphlet-bearing strangers you hoped they might bark at. Wherever they go, strangers offer them treats and lavish them with love. They know how to light up a room. Ketcham was a great dog.
When he went, he went fast. The gap between sick dogs and well dogs is vast and astounding. One day he is bounding across the lawn in pursuit of a soccer ball, the next day he is padding slowly around the house staring wistfully at his surroundings. From tearing up several flights of stairs and devouring all your prized possessions, he went to lazing around the first floor. You could have smeared the steps in cream cheese and he wouldn’t have tried them. You took your shoes off and left them on the floor and he would barely touch them. “Ketcham,” you would say, “these are real leather!” He gave you an unmoved stare. Eight is the expected lifespan for a bulldog. Still, you always hope for more.
We lost him Tuesday. We had known something was wrong but we didn’t know what. Living with a pet is a constant act of imprecise translation. Cats bristle when you get it wrong. But dogs offer the forgiveness of the slant rhyme. They are the too-accommodating dinner guests, the experts who concede the point. Dogs love you anyway. And they accept your love so much more graciously than your idiot of a teenager with her treatises, Bulldogs: An Evolutionary Dead End? and Principled Objections To These Slobbering Idiots.
The illusion of the empty-nest dog is that you fill a hole but in reality you are only digging another hole. And that hole is much harder to fill. You never notice how empty a house can be until there’s been a dog. When you don’t own a pet there is nothing remarkable in the fact that no one is barking when you open the door or trying to scarf up food when you drop it. Dogs are where you put the abundance of love. Empty-nest dogs most of all. Hell is the absence of god, but, for my money, you can switch the letters of the last word around and that works just as well.
Ketcham would wait up for you. He’d stare longingly at the door until you came home and greet you with a symphony of barks. He was there when you didn’t need someone to be anything but there.
Now he’s the one leaving a hole for me to fill. But what person can live up to a dog? I won’t drag anyone out into the rain to stare at the bushes. But beyond that, I’ve got a lot to learn.