I've had a lot of dogs of many different physical types, but each has come loaded with the same daunting reminder: the countdown clock I can’t help but hear ticking away inside of them. I suppose I come with one of those, too, if I care to confront reality. Denial may be easier on the nerves, but the actuaries don’t lie. Your average American these days lasts 78.8 years. My average large purebred lasts about 8. Meaning over the course of a lifetime, I’ll bid farewell many more times than they will.
Recently, I had to say goodbye to Moses, 145 lbs of beautiful Bernese mountain dog, the closest I’ve ever come to sharing my house with a black bear. We acquired him as a rescue—the family who’d owned him couldn’t handle his ursine qualities. And I doubted my own capabilities at first, when he jumped on the couch, snapping menacingly if we tried to remove him. Or when he treed my son up a magnolia after ripping off his shirt. Forced to lay down the law, I smacked Moses in the face with a magazine—nothing thick that would hurt him, just a harmless Weekly Standard. But he never tried to eat my children again, and we were brothers ever after.
The most affectionate dog I’ve ever known, he’d swat me with his paw when I hadn’t sufficiently reciprocated. He’d greet me by nudging his cinder-block head under my crotch, lifting me off the ground, and tunneling through my legs as though going through a canine car wash. He’d fish by my side, standing in water up to his undercarriage, licking largemouth and bluegill for good luck before I returned them to tell confused tales to their fish kin. The end came without warning. One day we were walking routinely along a bank of the Chesapeake Bay. Four days later, a secret cancer had crippled him. As the doc loaded his needle with the final solution, there were distrustful eyes and growls and miserable yelps. The dog didn’t seem to care for it much, either.
I kissed Moses’ snout, promising I’d come find him on the other side. Then went home and held some flies that a good friend had tied from his fur—long-forgotten Maine streamers and Royal Wulffs and Grey Ghosts fashioned from his tricolor clippings. Even opening the care package some months earlier, I was gnawed by how quickly our present becomes our past, knowing I’d be holding these flies long after I could hold the dog that they came from.
I did what I always do after losing a dog—I got a new one as quickly as possible. My wife sometimes looks askance at this practice, as I so ruthlessly try to replace the irreplaceable. I assure her that if she goes before I do, there’ll be a tasteful mourning period before I hit christianmingle.com. But as the vet’s hollow sympathy card read, “It takes a long time to grow an old friend.” So I figure I’d better get moving. Or as the writer Sydney Lea framed it when recounting each of his gun dogs, “I also recognize that if one of those adored dogs had in fact lived as long as I have, there’d be only the one to adore. Death is the mother of beauty, as poet Wallace Stevens put it.”
Now I have Solomon, a regal Great Pyrenees with melancholy elephant-eyes. The rescue service found him abandoned in the rain in a Dollar Store parking lot, burrs caking his polar-bear coat, as he tried to enter the car of whoever would have him. (And we pretend dogs are the animals.) They don’t know how old he is, which might be a blessing. If I can’t determine when his clock started, maybe I won’t worry so much about when it’ll stop.
On our second outing, I let Solomon off the leash on a boardwalk at a riverside park. He looked back at me with you-don’t-own-me-white-man defiance, then jumped off the boardwalk, taking me on a mile-long chase through sucking mud and dead cattails, until he swam a creek and disappeared. Hours later, after vainly calling him, I slogged back through the marsh to my car, cursing God that I was down two dogs in one month. Until, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Solomon reappear like a stealthy, mud-splattered ghost, nonchalantly sniffing a stalk of chickweed, as if to say, “Relax, I’ll be here for a while.”
Re-leashing him, I tried to play as cool as he was. But I’ve never been happier to see a creature. For Solomon wasn’t the only one in need of rescue.