Along the shore of Lake Michigan last weekend, a young woman on a park bench bent down to talk to her dog. Rubbing his furry, mottled ears, she murmured reassurances that the green- and purple-haired teenage girls in black lipstick and camo pants passing by meant no harm and didn't deserve his bark-alarm.
I'm sorry I eavesdropped on this conversation for two reasons. One, I'm always embarrassed when strangers catch me talking to my dog that way. Secondly, it reminded me that at home in Chapel Hill, Lacey was dying.
Days later, I'm home from my conference at Northwestern, and she still is.
You wouldn't know it to look at her, happily slurping "Frosty Paws" doggie ice cream out of the plastic cup between her front feet, her faded-denim eyes narrowed on her treat, one ear cocked for anyone daring to threaten her total-pleasure immersion.
On Sept. 9, Lacey and I celebrated her 10th birthday. I fed her a can of Mighty Dog, the chunks of faux beef in gravy such a remarkable change from her lifelong kibble diet that she looked at me like I was nuts, her quizzical face asking, what'd I do right?
It's your birthday, baby, I said, kissing the top of her head.
In the nine years and 10 months since I brought her home from a Maryland pound, I've explained an awful lot of things to my dog. I started with why she had to leave her mother and littermates to live with me. This first speech I delivered around 2 a.m. on night number one of our co-habitation, offering all my arguments for her to please stop whimpering and fall asleep. In what should have been a lesson in the power she would quickly assert over my life, she resisted my rationale utterly until I relented on my no-dogs-on-the-bed vow.
When we left our first home in Maryland, and with it all our friends and family, I choked out promises that we'd be OK, just the two of us alone in a new place down South.
When she proved miserable by herself while I worked, we adopted another dog. Torie was a seamless addition to our human-canine duo, so compatible and close to Lacey in physical features that people assume they are related.
Eventually, the two of them delivered a message that they'd had enough of our tiny one-bedroom apartment, via shredding my mattress and box springs. So I bought all three of us a house with a big fenced yard.
Soon after that, a man came into our lives. He brought my dogs a please-love-me bribe of previously forbidden table scraps and a very small boy to love, who followed Lacey around, singing silly songs and fitting the headphones of his toy walkie-talkies over her velvety ears.
With great affection, we call her our idiot savant. We also call her a variety of nicknames, including FooFoo, from the rhyme about the field mice. Simultaneously part wizard and dumb as a box of rocks, the Foo serves as our family's personal entertainment system. She knows the names of each individual toy and will fetch them on command. Her accuracy usually proves dead-on, but it often takes her three full minutes of staring, her face contorted with the effort of thought, like the computers of a decade ago that displayed the maddening message "processing . . . processing . . . please wait." She stands out in the rain, miserably getting soaked, without it occurring to her that it's within her power, and possibly a good idea, to walk through the dog door onto the porch. Eight summers ago, she figured out how to snag the ripe blackberries off our bushes with her teeth, avoiding both the thorns and the sour green fruit--a trick she repeats every August while we gather bucketfuls for jam. And yet, those same eight summers, she stood helpless in the sandy grass of Ocracoke dozens of times, vicious sand burrs digging into her pads. Paw in the air, unable to discern the source of her discomfort, she waited for rescue.
I have saved her life many times, starting with whisking her off death row at eight weeks. She's been bitten by a copperhead snake (on the leg) and a brown recluse spider (on the nose) and happily devoured a large bar of rat poison she discovered under my desk at work one Saturday morning. She got lost in Duke Forest and at our place in the mountains more times than I care to remember. Once, losing her to an interesting smell halfway through a six-hour hike, I ranted all the way back about how I'd kept her safe since she was a tiny puppy and now it was all my fault she would die a slow, horrible death of starvation in the wilderness. Arriving home, I disturbed her, peacefully napping on the back porch.
Two days after Lacey's 10th birthday, I huddled over an examining table, lips against her ears. This wasn't going to hurt, I promised, we're just looking, trying to figure out why all of the sudden she's so tired all the time and why I can feel her vertebrae when I run my hand down her back.
"I'm not going to have any good news for you today, I'm afraid," says the kind man dragging the ultrasound wand across her belly.
Next week, or if I'm lucky, next month, a swift and silent cancer will take Lacey away.
It's a deal every dog-lover makes--trading unconditional love and companionship for the knowledge the relationship will someday end in sorrow. It's a bargain I made freely, with the optimism of a 25-year-old, thinking she'd be with me until I was almost 40, and my god, that seemed like forever. Since she came into my life, I've driven three cars and lived in four homes. I've expanded my family: found my lifelong partner; become a stepmom; made comfortable, happy lives for two cats, two rabbits and an assortment of birds and hamsters who joined Lacey and Torie; fostered many rescue dogs on their way to new families of their own. The world is a different place now than it was in 1993. The day of Lacey's ultrasound was the second anniversary of a new national grief. Hurricanes and ice storms have changed our landscape, crushing the treehouse where Lacey would bound up the stair-ladder after the boy singing silly songs. He's not so little any more, and listens mostly to Eminem, now, though he still makes time for dog love.
Whenever Lacey's time comes, it will be too soon. I've promised her she won't suffer out of my selfishness, wanting her company one more day. In the meantime, I've told the folks who run the canine heaven to stock up on squeaky toys and Frosty Paws, set the blackberries to ripening and clear out the snakes, the spiders and the burrs. My Lacey's coming, and I won't be there to explain things.
Editor's Note: Lacey romped through her last adventures sniffing the winds of Hurricane Isabel and crossed the Rainbow Bridge on Sept. 20.