Christmas morning was different when the children were young. They were up early, panting next to our bed, rushing down the stairs, shrieking like the wolves of yore coming down on the fold. It was helpful to have more than one child, both little and committed to Christmas. That way, we could stay under cover for a bit longer while the children worked noisily to decrypt the arrangement of gifts, until their patience gave out.
Now that the children are grown and living far away, Diesel the mastiff has a version of the Christmas morning wake-up routine that he practices on me. We no longer let Diesel sleep in our bedroom. He’s too big, too smelly, too drooly, and in his dreams, which apparently involve running ferociously after poachers, he whacks the bed and makes it tremble. In the morning, not every morning but many, he tromps in panting excitedly, his huge black face inches away from mine. I don’t fault him for it, but his breath is like the exhalation from an ancient tomb, opened after centuries. I wonder if he knows that no one can sleep through the fetid hurricane of his breath. He would be stricken with regret if he knew. But nevermind such niceties, on mornings like this, he’s on a mission.
Years ago, the child panting in my face was fresh, eager, unblemished. Two days ago, opening my eyes and wincing at Diesel’s exhaust fumes, all I saw were the visible marks of a deterioration that Diesel and I share.
Diesel has several expressions — chagrin when he has been scolded for flopping his dripping jowls on the dining table in pursuit of a bit of dinner; profound sadness when I approach him with a towel to dry his foot long, streaming drool; or ears pricked, riveted attention when he hears a cat meow (he is obsessed with cats and badly wants one of his own); or penetration, to encourage a compliant response from me when he wants breakfast and to go out. It is the latter expression that he turns on me as I squeeze the covers around my nose to ward off the smell. To the extent that I can think clearly in the corrosive environment he creates, I am reminded of how fond of him I’ve become. He is not the lanky pup he was nine years ago, his whiskers have whitened, and grey fur is expanding north between his wide set eyes to the top of his anvil of a head. We’ve gotten old together. He has a bad right hind (the left one’s not so hot either), I’ve got a sore left knee. He has to take Carprofen to make himself comfortable. For me, it’s Aleve. By the way, the Carprofen works magically. Often these days, in a sign of remembered youth, he grabs a dish towel and follows me around the house begging for a tussle, digging his huge claws into the floor for purchase, and delighting at the sound of the shredded cloth. Aleve has not ignited that same spark in me. Diesel likes to frisk around with other dogs he meets, but he doesn’t frisk the way he used to, and the younger dogs run circles around him, until he seems to say to me, to hell with that, old man, let’s resume our stately pace and walk on.
Diesel does not take the stairs two at a time the way the children did. He is uninterested in Christmas gifts, unless they are bones, or cookies. He does love Christmas dinner, but that’s because he knows that if you gather people at the table in greater numbers than just Molly and me, there will be scraps. It also happens that guests may turn out to be sappy about dogs, and if so, he can use his best questing expression so that they’ll pet him and slip him treats at the table, and they won’t jump up horrified at the drool he’s left on their smart black slacks. He is also shrewdly knowing that he’s escaped the worst sort of punishment, because there are guests, after all. (Moll and I have thought that we should offer guests Tyvek overalls when they arrive, to defend themselves against his amiability.)
Unsurprisingly, despite all the time gone by, Christmas morning is not what it was. When the kids were kids, after the morning flurry had exhausted us, it often happened that as I stood admiring the tree, with all those familiar ornaments that we use year after year, a child’s hand would infiltrate my own. These days, it’s Diesel’s soft, graying muzzle that nudges my hand, asking for nothing but a scratch and a pat, and maybe forgiveness for the way he awakened me.