NEW YORK — More and more often, it seems there’s not much left to him. Lifting his body you want to use two hands, to be careful; but it’s like holding a water balloon the size of a big sub sandwich. Gravity bends him. You can feel his ribs. You know that if he leapt off the big bed in the master bedroom, the way he used to at the slightest hint of breakfast in the kitchen, he’d surely break a foreleg. Now we have “DoggySteps” beside the beds and couches.
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Used to be he’d lock his gaze on you for an hour, not even blinking, while you were driving or eating supper or working at your desk. Now he looks at you for just a few seconds before his lids get heavy and his head settles on his paws, sleeping.
For the first time in our years with him, sometimes he doesn’t even pad into the bedroom to join us when we’re ready to call it a night. He just stays where he is. For days on end he’s listless, in a swoon. He’s not eating much.
I got him 13 years ago, long before the “Men In Black” movies featured “Frank the Pug,” and well before the odd-looking breed seemed to have invaded Manhattan. I called mine “Scoop” since that seemed like a good name for a reporter’s dog and was easy to remember.
My previous dog, an English Springer Spaniel, had died a few months before at 16 years of age and, as a lifetime dog guy recently divorced and suddenly without a weekend home, I looked for a quiet undemanding breed that would be happy in an apartment or on a boat. From the beginning Scoop was just that.
Never an athlete, never an explorer, except to find a few hiding places on the boat…in a footwell...behind a toolbox…and make them his. He ate what I fed him. Almost never barked.
Three walks a day were just fine and sometimes when it was unavoidable, just two. The only dog I’ve ever known or known about who, on a daily basis, preferred to stay in bed rather than go for a morning walk. He was not a dog who scratched at the door.Slideshow: Animal Tracks: A biker pup, bears and more
Early on, I trained him the way I’d trained all my dogs. The five basic things: Sit. Speak. Heel. Stay. Come here. One morning, after a couple months of training, he did all five things. He’s never done any of them since. People explained, it’s the breed. Stubborn...and not that bright. Didn’t bother me. I liked the dog.
A few years into his life with me, it was life with Siobhan, too. My wife isIrish and the way the two of them hit it off suggested there was something in her lilting Limerick accent the dog actually understood. Or wanted to.
In the meat of his lifetime he was a strange dog to have — for a dog guy. He didn’t enjoy walking the beaches, and didn’t enjoy walking at all if it was colder than 30 degrees or warmer than 60, or more than an hour, or longer than a half mile. Or if it was raining, or if there was slush or snow on the ground.
‘A modest canine presence’
I took to calling Scoop a “modest canine presence” when I was looking for colleagues or friends to mind him when both Siobhan and I were traveling. She’s executive director of the relief organization “Concern Worldwide” and spends much time in Africa and elsewhere overseas. I spend a lot of time in war zones and other out-of-town assignments.
Whoever met Scoop liked him. A lot. In fact, no human, or other dog, had ever done anything to hurt him and, as a result, he projected neither fear nor animus toward any other living thing. The ultimate in a trusting and trustworthy animal. In the city, a junkyard Rottweiler would snarl at him and he’d wag his curlicue tail while silently communicating the message that he posed no threat, and the big dog would all but smile.
He’s never had to spend a night in a kennel. When we bought a house in North Haven on Long Island, he found the place he liked best of all, grass and trees — his grass and trees — and birds and deer. There was so much to look at.
Because, it turns out, looking at the world around him has always been his shining talent and purest joy.
When sitting in his usual spot on the boat (outboard of the coamings by the helm), if he’s not looking at me, he’s looking at other boats and the people on them. At the cormorants on the water. At the clouds in the sky. Who knows? I concluded at one point that he was the canine equivalent of a mentally challengedchild who couldn’t survive without constant supervision and caring, whose enjoyments were primitive, whose prognosis was always going to be more of the same. But the truth is, of all the dogs I’ve had, he’s the one who’s won my deepest affection. And who, in his odd ways, has returned that affection.
When I got back from Iraq after the start of the war — I had been gone 13 weeks — he lifted his head in the rocker where he’d been snoozing and put it right back down to resume his nap, only to awake a moment later in a frenzy of delayed recognition, the happiest dog imaginable, unable for hours to be more than a few inches from where I was.
Friends of ours from North Haven — who long ago fell in love with the old boy and say he was romping up and down the stairs the last time he stayed with them a couple of months ago —insist he’s not done yet, that as far as they can see, he still thoroughly enjoys his dog’s life. They say he needs more time in the country, less in the city. That despite his swoons and occasional seizures these days, his heart is strong and he could hang on for years.
Of course, I hope they’re right. But I think they’re not. He’s fading away. Siobhan and I sense it. And fear the inevitable.
Boy and his dog stuff
This past Memorial Dayweekend Scoop and I went “up the river” again, as we always do when the boat’s finally at the mooring.
Scoop assumed his usual position standing on the bow of our inflatable dinghy, like a hood ornament watching everything, his flat crusty nose angled to the breeze.
Alert with his tail coiled tight, clearly plugged in to what must have seemed in his slim memory box like the most familiar and wondrous ritual, another “Wind in the Willows” day of messing about in boats. One of Scoop’s human friends once theorized that his brain was like a bowl of milk with four Cheerios in it, and that every now and then when two Cheerios touched he’d have a thought… but just for a second!
In the dinghy they kept touching, he kept thinking, "hoo boy!"His most contented and alive moments of the long weekend, 45 minutes of the way it used to be.
It doesn’t seem possible that he and I will take the post-Labor Day cruise we often took in the past. We’d sail down east, to the Vineyard and Nantucket, or Buzzards Bay and Newport, or Block Island, and then back via Stonington or Essex, then home.
The crowds would all be gone then, we’d pick up a mooring or drop anchor easy as pie, and I’d grill steaks or chops and he’d sit beside me on the settee berth, getting a bite for every two of mine, beneath the oil lamps when the sun went down. Later he’d grab a favorite stuffed toy and jump into the stateroom berth with it and with me.
And then, sometime around Thanksgiving and with a fleece blanket around him for warmth, we’d take a dinghy ride down the river to the boatyard, another season ending.
Boy and his dog stuff.
Siobhan worries most of all about his eating. His not eating, actually. Over the long weekend she tried all of his favorites and nothing really worked. “He’s not right,” she kept saying. “He’s just not right.” Girl and her dog stuff, too.
On the dawn car ride back to the city, the two of them slept the entire way in, sharing the front seat and the light jacket she’d used for a blanket. Once one of them shifted in the seat and the jacket slipped away. I glanced over, the dog’s face was at rest against her hip.
The morning sun slanted in and I saw his eyelids shudder, his sleep not yet so deep he was unaware we were all on the move.
I could see him breathing.
Mike Taibbi is an NBC News correspondent.