Chilmark: Going to the Dogs

Tarot deck creator MJ Cullinane made Zero "the ambassador for the Three of Wands.” — MJ Cullinane

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned Alison Ostreicher losing her beloved canine bestie Sen. Sen just happened to be born on the same day and in the same year as my 14-plus-year-old Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Zero. Zero’s canine Cavalier companion, now 11-plus — or is she already 12? — is Gracie. Having two senior dogs has changed my life, although it is not something I can say I noticed in a big-picture way until now. We are creatures of accommodation. When it became too stressful on my dogs to run with me cross-country skiing, I chose to walk with them, and made sure to bring them somewhere they could enjoy an easier walk than battling with the elements. So it’s been two winters since my skis have touched snow, and I could say last year was the weather’s fault. Taking 90-minute or more walks have been shaved down to 30 to 40 minutes max. Where only a year ago we covered three or four miles easily, we’re down to a sniffer’s pace of one to one and a half miles, tops.
Zero has always been a happy and proud Blenheim (orange and white) with a heart on the top of his head. In fact, that heart is how I met “Vineyard Sea Dogs” calendar creator and photographer Lisa Vanderhoop, who used her photos of Zero as a February inset for two years. Cavaliers are the largest of small dogs, and that never stopped Zero from being able to easily jump onto a kitchen counter or the back seat of an SUV. It took three months for him to acquiesce and let me pick him up to put him on the back seat of my Forester. I watched him accept he no longer had the gumption to get him to the heights he’d easily aspired to. Though Gracie is younger, she’s always had bad knees, and preferred being lifted in, but is always happy to exit on her own.
Cavaliers are known to have heart conditions, and both of my dogs do, but Zero had a six-year hiatus from the canine cardiologist before beginning daily medication a year or so ago. Now Gracie too is taking Vetmedin. Zero has lost much of his hearing, but that doesn’t stop anyone in my family from calling out his name, though we now must actually search for him in his favorite places. He can hear a whistle and feel the vibration of a foot stomp through the floorboards. But it takes a good five minutes from beginning the search and rousing him to get him to the front door.
He sleeps more, and is in a much deeper state of sleep most of the time. If I don’t hear his wheezy breathing I search him out, even jumping out of bed at night. Their heart medication is so popular it is often out of stock. I wasn’t sure Zero was going to make it during the three weeks he suffered without it this year. I felt heartsick for all the people who can’t afford the medications they need, and how fortunate my animals are, even though it was one of the longest three weeks of the year. I couldn’t sleep unless that gentle wheeze floated through the air.
My life has become quieter, slower, and more sedentary as my dogs have slowed down. I still feel it is an honor to provide the best care I can, and know they have it better than most people with two meals a day, necessary medications, walks on the beach and in the woods, a roof over their heads, and two adoring humans at their beck and bark. Our dogs brought healing to everyone in my family. Most of the time I just feel like the handler, since they stop traffic wherever they go, from Basin Road to Main Street down-Island. Years ago they were regularly welcomed into the old Edgartown Library (now the Carnegie), Shirley’s Hardware, SBS, and so many other places. Yes, they can still count on treats at the M.V. Bank, or accompany me when I pick up fresh fish at Menemsha Seafood, but each outing has become shorter, and our time together that much more precious. As far as treats go, they have graduated to soft chews, and lament not getting their fair share of free bones.
I have watched a number of friends lose their longtime animal companions this year, while other friends have brought new animal members into their lives. I jumped at a chance to have Zero memorialized in M.J. Cullinan’s Wise Dog Tarot (due before the holidays), and then felt awful that I had not included Gracie. Maybe it’s that I didn’t feel I was losing her as fast as Zero. I am not counting the days, just trying to thoroughly enjoy my canine companions while accepting their lives are shorter, but make mine and my family’s so much richer.