(Following is the second installment of Hankies in My Pocket: Tender Thoughts from the Keweenaw, a quarterly column of Carrot Ranch Literary Community.)
Growing up I had a blueprint in mind, a family ideal loosely based on a 70s television show. It consisted of a white-collar husband, responsible and kind. And exactly two children, a girl and a boy. I envisioned meals around the table, Sundays in church, sleepover Saturdays, and a collage of my children’s artwork magnetized to our fridge. What I hadn’t envisioned was what came to be. Yes, I had the kind husband, two children, the artistic fridge door. But it was a late addition that altered the plan: our third child—an Olde English Bulldogge named London.
She appeared to us all paw and leg. Adventure in her blood. Endless pup. Though she was the last remaining of the litter, her coat was first class, striped gold and black, a stark white stop and snout with boots and chest to match. Her tail had been cropped to prevent it from drawing up like a fiddlehead fern, and her fudge-like eyes—sweet and dewy as they were—possessed a hue of curiosity, a dab of mischief. She was both awkward and adorable, three months old and filling in fast, except for the wrinkles. Those would always remain.
When first we met, she clasped a bird in her jaw, a corpse she’d discovered beneath the spirea, or perhaps it was a viburnum. The farmer scooped her up, pried two fingers between her teeth, tossed the bird off to the side. “Eck,” he said.
What were we getting ourselves into?
We tried to hold her that muggy July evening, to cuddle her like an infant. She flailed about, ears flopping, bum wiggling, head hung over our forearms. Her body was too busy. I grimaced. “She’s got an awful lot of energy,” I said. But I could see both son and husband were smitten with her, taken in by her fierce independence, her fearlessness. They set her down in the grass, her home turf, and interacted there on her terms. Hesitancy niggled. Did we really want to own a dog? But the look on Noah’s face told me my feelings were moot. The plot had shifted. This dog now owned us.
In her first days in our home, London, as she came to be called, was more interested in sniffing than snuggling. Her nose was ever to the ground. She was under the chairs, under the tables, beneath the beds and the sofa (from which she needed help getting out). She even found her way inside our dishwasher. But when she had finally learned the lay of the land, she settled in to learning more about us. One day, as I reclined on the sofa for my afternoon nap, she didn’t want to be left out. She perched at the cushion’s edge, nuzzled, grunted. Moist eyes pleaded. I had set a rule that she would not be permitted on the furniture. We had just redecorated, and I was bound and determined that ‘the dog’ should remain on the floor. I hung my hand over the edge, caressed her brindled fur. “Lay down, London,” I said. “Go sleepy.” But she persisted, as was her way, working from one end of the couch to the other, trying to make the leap, her legs a hair too short. “Alright,” I said, and gave in, hoisted her up. “Just this once.” She rooted about my neck like an infant, let out a big sigh, then she was out. “Baby girl,” I whispered, then drifted off too, warm puffs of puppy breath upon my skin. Our afternoon naps became the norm. Another plot shift.
As months passed, many pet no-nos fell by the wayside despite earlier learned philosophies. I had descended from a line of old-school dog keepers. My childhood home had supported ‘free-range’ pups, Skippy and Poopsie, who were more like traveling salesmen than household pets. Noah, on the other hand, never had a dog in his childhood. His first experience with one was after he’d moved out on his own. He’d adopted a male pup almost immediately and raised it as a backyard pet before we met. Together we’d adopted a female in our early years of marriage, one you might call a hybrid model who spent her days in the backyard and her nights asleep at the hearth. London was something altogether different. She wasn’t a breed for roaming the great outdoors, even though, given another body, that may have been her preference. A brachycephaly, she couldn’t tolerate temperature extremes. Heat and humidity were especially hard on her with her compressed snout. She couldn’t cool herself, so we had to be watchful of her. As it turned out, that wasn’t the only thing we had to be watchful of.
A recreation of an extinct breed, the Olde English Bulldogge was said to have better health outcomes than the more well known English Bulldog. That was the primary reason we chose it. Unfortunately, for London, this didn’t hold true. From puppy vaginitis to skin allergies to pododermatitis to gingival hyperplasia, London experienced it all. Our closet overflowed with limited ingredient food and treats, medicated shampoo, antihistamines, ear medications, creams and salves, and antifungal wipes and solutions. Because of her skin allergies, we took to showering her at home rather than taking her to the groomer’s. I learned to trim nails, flush ears, soak inflamed paws, and treat yeast infections. Mama’s good girl, I’d say after I cleansed her facial folds with a foul-smelling wipe, an activity she would only tolerate because it was followed up with a treat. She’s always good for Mom-Dog, Noah would say, though I wasn’t sure how I felt about that moniker.
It was the combination of it all that made London more like our child than our pet. Through the cuddles and the playtime and the ailments and the treatments, a deep bond developed. She wasn’t ‘the dog’ anymore—she was our Baby Girl. We’d take her for car rides when she was bored. I’d surprise her with toys when I returned from the store, for which she would wait at my feet at the sight of a bag. She even took possession of Noah’s club chair, something I never dreamed he’d allow. We’d line it daily with fresh bedding, to protect the upholstery we said, but really it was to make her more comfortable.
When we moved to a new home, London’s needs came first. The home lacked a fence, so she couldn’t be off-leash. There were a lot of other things the home lacked too, but the first thing Noah built was a pretty wooden fence for London. She loved to lie in the yard, to watch the neighbors through the pickets, to duel the chipmunks, to hear the buzz of the hummingbirds. It was within this fence that she experienced those joys. And it was within this fence where she first showed signs of what was to come.
We were sitting on the patio swing when Noah noticed it, a slight drag of a rear paw, the scrape of nail on pavement. “Something’s going on with her,” he said. There was gravity in his voice, a shadow uncommon to him.
“It’s just her lazy walk,” I assured him. But that was just the beginning.
She began slipping on the floor of the new home. “This floor just isn’t her thing,” I said, and added some rugs. Soon she began slipping outside too, losing her balance when she ran, tumbling in her turns. While grooming her one day, I noticed the nail of one toe worn away to the quick, a result of the dragging. She began struggling to jump into her chair, climb the stairs, leap into the truck. “Are you getting too old for climbing?” I asked as I hoisted her hips. She turned to me, gave me a sloppy kiss. Translation: Thanks, Mom.
We brought our observations about the dragging foot and growing lack of strength and stability to her veterinarian. Concerned about a spinal injury, we tried laser therapy. Her condition didn’t improve. An MRI was recommended. We travelled six hours to a southern Wisconsin clinic. They coaxed her down the hall. She looked back at us. Our hearts ached. “We’ll be waiting,” I called. Baby girl, I thought.
The vet met with us afterward. “There’s no evidence of spinal injury,” she said. What they saw instead were symptoms of a condition called degenerative myelopathy, a disease affecting the spinal cord. She wanted to run a test on spinal fluid they had drawn to see if she carried the DM genes. “That will take a few days,” she said, “but we’ll call you when we get the results.”
The test returned positive; both genes were present. Other conditions ruled out, London was diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease of the spinal cord, a fatal condition. It began in the hind quarters and would ruthlessly work its way through her body until all was gone: the wag of her tail, her legs, her bark, her ability to swallow, and eventually her ability to breathe. London was dying, and we couldn’t help her.
“She may have a year or so,” the vet said. “I’m so sorry to have to deliver this news.”
In the months that followed, we managed to provide for our girl as best we could. We ordered special booties with bands to help with foot placement and grip and to protect her skin from abrasion. We exercised her, created resistance on her rear paws to promote muscle tone. Walking became more and more difficult. We ordered a cart, and though she learned to use it, she wasn’t happy. Noah took to walking her in a sling instead. He bore the weight she couldn’t. She was thrilled to be out of the cart again, tooling across the open field, just like the old days. Now, it wasn’t her feet dragging behind her—it was Noah. I would watch from the window as he scooted along at her hip, struggling to keep up with her momentum, holding the straps with his right arm, using his left as ballast. She’s doing great! the neighbors would say.
Though we did all we could for London, we couldn’t stem the tide of her disease. We couldn’t change its outcome.
It was mid-January when our vet made a house call. The pandemic was among us, so she couldn’t come inside, but she was willing to meet outdoors. Fortunately, the mild winter showed mercy. We dressed London in her jacket, lined the frozen ground with a thick pad, covered it with her favorite bedding, and placed a sprig of sage in the center. Noah helped her outside where she met the vet with a kiss-filled lunge and a tumble. We gathered close around her, held her, whispered endearments to her. I told her how much I loved her, what a very special girl she was, how much she meant to us. I heard the murmurs of Noah and Sam. We were all together there, suffocating in a stew of grief. I saw out the corner of my eye the syringe that delivered London’s departure, wished I could have reversed it. She let out a big sigh, just as she had as a puppy when first she laid on my chest for our nap, rested her head on her front paws, closed her eyes. “My baby,” I whispered into the thick folds of her neck. “My baby.”
* * *
Throughout the winter, I often looked for signs of London in our yard. At first, there were sink holes in the snow where her feet had been, but fresh precipitation soon erased them from view. In the spring, I waited for the snow to melt, anxious, hopeful. Surely there would be signs of her left over from the fall, a chew toy, a ball, some droppings here and there. But when the snow receded, I found nothing. No sign of London. No sign of her life.
It wasn’t until the temperature warmed and the grass began to thrive that London’s former presence at last made itself known. It appeared as crop art, burn spots in the lawn, traces of her urine in unusual shapes. A comma here. A figure eight there. “Sweet baby,” I said. “Thank you.”
I know one day these spots will green again. They’ll fade away, erase what is left of our girl from the lawn. But not from the heart. Never from the heart. For now, I’ll cherish them, cling to them. For as long as they last, I’ll treasure these precious works of art, just as I do the ones on my fridge.
London “Lundy Lu” McAlister
April 2011 – January 2021
Carrot Ranch. Making literary art accessible 99 words at a time.