When Dina, my black Labrador mix, was fourteen years old, she started to lose her hair. The clumps of hair were like little bushels of hay, black at one end and white, with flakes of grayish skin attached, at the other. I relished pulling out clumps of hair and dropping them into the growing pile on the floor.
Dina had been with me since I was sixteen years old and we accepted each other. She accepted that I was afraid of loud noises and strangers and telephone calls. And I accepted that she was afraid of children, other dogs, thunderstorms, and walking across wooden slats.
Dina never had Cancer or Diabetes or Parvo or heart disease, but by the time she was fifteen years old, she was dying. First it was her kidneys. Then there was the arthritis. She began to trip over her feet, and then her hips dropped. Defecating was too hard of a job to do while standing. Her legs shook and she fell and squashed the pile of feces under her folded tail. Her legs splayed in splits on floors that had never before seemed slippery to her.
She paced from room to room, up the stairs and back down, endlessly, as if she didn’t know where she was or that she’d already done the route ten times in a row. She peed indoors, mostly, by the end. She couldn’t remember what the need to pee felt like, and even if she could, her urinary tract was completely befuddled. When I asked her if she wanted to go out to pee, she would lift her head, consider, and more often than not, go back to sleep. I didn’t know that dog. My Dina heard the word pee, or walk, or go, or leash, and ran down the stairs panting in desperation.
When she was younger, Dina could walk for an hour, to the point of utter exhaustion, and still want more. And the drool! Long strings of white, bubbling drool would hang from her mouth and she’d shake her head and the strings would paste themselves to her neck or her chin and her tongue would be heavy with sweat and her eyes shining. And she would sing. Whenever we sang high enough notes, she’d warble along and howl like a wolf. But now I had to inch her food dish closer to her feet because she couldn’t eat standing up or even squatting. She sat like a child with her useless legs splayed around the bowl.
The doctor kept offering us medications to cover her symptoms: an expensive drug to make her less senile, antibiotics for the endless urinary tract infections, Pepto Bismal for the diarrhea. I wanted the doctor to be compassionate and tell me that it would be okay to put Dina to sleep, but he didn’t. And my mother wasn’t ready to let go. Or, rather, she wanted Dina to decide the day; to walk off into a field and choose the moment to die.
And then Dina’s hair stopped clumping. Her body was covered with a fog of loose hair at all times, no matter how often she was brushed.
Dina died on a fuzzy blue blanket on the floor in the vet’s office when she was sixteen years old. I sat against the wall, petting her back. My mother sat under the examining table, petting her head. And we stayed with her through both shots, knowing it was time to let go, but still not ready.
I imagined Dina running into a field of roasted chicken growing like wheat from the ground as far as she could see with her eyesight fully returned. I saw her galloping, unable to decide where to start, unable to believe the joy ahead of her, that she could eat a whole chicken and never worry about the bones sticking in her throat, and splintering through her esophagus like a broken needle. She could eat without end and without rice as filler!
But she’d never learned how to make friends. She depended on her people for company and communication. What would she do in heaven without us? Who would laugh with her and at her and scratch her belly and pull on her ears in that way she hated so much?
Would all of that chicken really make up for being alone?
When we got home, we packed up her left over pee pads and pee absorbing powder and anti pee spray. We packed her food and water bowls and her collar and her leash and her brush. But we couldn’t throw any of it away.
I had to put away the scarlet bathmat she used to sleep on. She liked the ray of sunlight from the bathroom window and the softness of the mat. The bathroom was her favorite place and I had to fight with her constantly to get her to leave so I could pee in private. As she aged, it only got worse. The slow aching rise of her elderly body onto shaky feet, one long stretch where she tilted and threatened to fall, and then the drippy-eyed stare as she stood two feet from the door asking why this horrible exodus had come upon her and who was I, what fresh evil was I, that I would make her flee her home, however slowly.
Dina took up so much space and sound that her absence was profound. I felt the silence deep in my body; it reverberated. No jangly collar, no tap tap of uncut toenails on hardwood floors, no scrape of food bowls against kitchen tile.
Her hair was everywhere in the apartment, cropping up under chairs, in furniture crevices, trapped in corners of the floorboards.
I cleaned every surface in the apartment, scrubbed the walls and the floors until my hands were raw and my knees ached, but her hair still lingered.
When Cricket came home, Dina had been gone for nearly eight months, but the smell of her was still in the apartment, especially on the small rug in my room where Dina did a lot of her napping. Cricket could smell her big sister in the floors and behind the furniture, and I think they had talks about how to handle Dina’s people. Sometimes I could even see Dina, like a mirage, sleeping on the floor, opening her eyes for a second to check on me, and then falling back to sleep.