I have had dogs in my life for almost my entire life. Chico was allegedly a pure-bred Chihuahua (we think he had more than a little terrier in him) that we got in 1975, when I was seven. My sister named him after the character played by Freddie Prinze* on the TV show Chico and the Man
Ten years later we found Kitty, a stray "black dog"** mix estimated to be two years old who was wandering the neighborhood, sleeping on people's porches and walking up and down the busiest street in Nanticoke. Chico took a while to warm up to Kitty, who was infinitely patient and infinitely gentle.
In 1991 (April, I think) Chico died at the age of 16 - old enough to drive a car***, I joked. I was deeply saddened by his death, and what made it worse was that I wasn't there to be with him or my family. I was in Delaware, working at a solar cell manufacturing facility
, doing penance for having dropped out of graduate school.
I rode my bike back to my apartment and ran into one of the neighborhood urchins. I lived in a housing development, a place of townhouses and cul-de-sacs that looked like what was considered "low-income housing" in Pennsylvania, but everyone assured me that this was high-class - for Delaware, I suppose. The neighborhood was mostly white-trashy, full of families with thirtysomething parents who would walk around barefoot and bare-chested (the men, at least) while swilling beer and working on their cars and boats and ignoring their kids. This resulted in the formation of a street society of children which would have been normal in 1951 but was a little scary in 1991.
One of the street urchins was a four-year-old named Nicole, who regarded me as something of a friendly giant and had once managed to kidnap me and lock me in her yard. (She had grabbed my hand and implored "Come with me! Come with me!" I followed, worried there might be something wrong, and she led me through the open gate of the fence of her yard and then ran back out, slammed it, threw the latch, and said "Now you have to stay!") Another was Tabitha, another four-year-old who would ride her bicycle up and down the sidewalk in front of our townhouses and had a dog named Dog.
Tabitha was there with her bicycle and Dog when I came back from work the day I had heard that Chico died. She knew something was wrong as I played with Dog, and I told her about Chico. I suddenly found myself having a discussion of the concept of death with a four-year-old. "Everything dies," I said at one point. "Dogs, trees, people. It's a part of life."
She thought for a minute, and then she said, "Houses don't die."
I thought about this for a little while, and I said, "Even houses die. They get old and droopy and people stop living in them and then they get torn down. Sometimes they burn down. But, yeah, even houses die."
We had had Kitty for nine years when my sister found Haley
in 1994, living in a drainage ditch and covered with ticks and fleas. Like Kitty, she was about two years old and showed evidence of having once been somebody's pet, and then being abandoned. After getting cleaned up, Haley came to live with us. She and Kitty quickly became friends.
In 1997 Kitty developed a tumor on her side that kept growing and growing. We feared the worst. Her health was not the best; she was by that time about 14 years old, was diabetic, and was prone to seizures and night terrors. Despite all these things, she still looked remarkably young, and this may have been her undoing. The "biopsy" that the vet performed turned out to be less a biopsy and more a total removal of the entire tumor, which had run horizontally along her left side for nearly half her length. This left her with a wound that, despite our best efforts, would not heal. She developed complications and died a little more than three weeks after the surgery. (The biopsy revealed that the tumor was a benign fatty tumor. Had it not been for the biopsy, she might have lived several more years. Because of the biopsy, she went through nearly a month of suffering and died a painful death.)
Haley has been our sole dog these past eight years, sharing the house with four cats (although for a week we had five cats; then the oldest one died, but that's a story for another time.)
Now Haley has developed a tumor which the doctors at Cornell say will probably prove fatal to her in a very short period of time.
I think I'll restart our walking program soon, while we still can. While she's still able. While she's still here.
Everything dies.*Way back then, who would suspect that Freddie Prinze's namesake son would grow up into a celebrity in his own right?
**I've never been able to pin down exactly what type of dog Kitty was; I don't think she was a particular breed, but rather a common expression of dominant genes from mixed canine parents. The characteristics of the "black dog" tend to be: medium-small build, very streamlined and graceful; short black hair (naturally) with an almost oily gleam to it, with the exception of a small white patch on the chest below the throat; pointed snout and floppy ears; and very high levels of intelligence and empathy. I have seen dogs that look exactly like her in commercials (one in particular was a commercial for bathroom tissue), on the streets, in SPCA ads, and even once on a TV feature story about a man who loved his black dog so much he rechristened his tavern"The Black Dog Inn." His description of his black dog was exact to Kitty in almost every way. Here is a picture of a very similar dog.
***In 1991 sixteen was the legal driving age in Pennsylvania. I have no idea what it is now, or what it is in other states or countries.