Saturday, April 11, 2009

Miss Molly

Who knows what or why or when with these things, but I miss Molly these days.

Just wanted to get her picture up here.

I got her in 1994, from the shelter in Newburgh. I’d driven around all day, visiting every shelter in Orange County. This was the last one.

There she was, a handsome young black-and-white dog, a female. She sat in the back of the cage and would not meet my eyes. To my surprise, that would take about four months. It had never occurred to me that a relationship with an animal could grow and change.

The people at the shelter told me there’d been a thunderstorm one night and the dog had showed up on the doorstep of an Italian lady. That lady cooked Molly a big plate of spaghetti, put her in the garage for the night, and then brought her in.

“She’s a clean dog,” the shelter worker said. “She won’t make a mess in her cage.”

I had to wait a week to make sure no one claimed her before I could pick her up.

Looking back through my notebooks, I can see that a lot of things were changing at the time that I got her. I had recently moved. I was learning to drive a stick. My father was probably on the verge of his decline.

I’d gotten upset after an emotional phone call a few weeks before, and it turned out that after hitting my couch I had actually broken my hand. It became impossible to type, which meant I couldn’t work, so I decided to drive around and camp in New Mexico, a first.

I'd booked my flights without ever considering what the timing might be with a dog.

As a result, I had to collect Molly from the shelter, drive her to a vet for shots, and then drop her off at a kennel—the last one she would ever visit in her life. I see from my notes that she shied away from the male vet. “Oh, you come from an all-female household, don’t you?” the dog warden remarked.

“About a year old,” the vet said, pulling back her gums. “Not spayed," he said, feeling her belly. What is she? “She’s probably got about 50 breeds in her. Maybe some springer spaniel.”

Springer spaniel or not, Molly looked like a border collie to me, and to everyone else. When that charming movie about the herding dogs and the pig came out, kids used to stop dead at the sight of Molly in the street, calling, “Look, it’s the Babe dog!”

The people at the kennel asked me what her name was. I said I had no idea.

I went off on my trip. At Bandelier National Monument, I was standing on a cliff looking at down at the ruins of an ancient Anasazi settlement when for the first time in my life I saw a person using a cell phone. It seemed so strange and moving, this man’s desire to connect, that I tried to write a poem about it. (“Funny, he said, scanning the big sky/There’s no reception here.”)

When I returned, the people at the kennel said they’d at first been calling her Dice, but then switched to Fate.

Here’s what I discovered when I looked back at my journals: in the hours after I got Molly and before I took her to the kennel, I drove her to my parents’ place. They weren’t home, but their dog Rufus attacked my new dog the moment we got out of the car. That was terrible. I was distraught. I had failed her immediately.

I came home from New Mexico on July 4. On July 5, I drove to the shelter with my sister and picked her up. On the following weekend, I think, I took her upstate to spend time with my family.

Molly recoiled from my father, which made me feel awful and sad, and I mentioned the possibility of the all-female household. “Perfect for you," my mother said.

Rufus spent the whole weekend following Molly around growling or trying to hump her. My mother kept saying that it was because the female was acting like a “bitch.” This may have been true, but it was an aspect of my mother's worldview that had always upset me.

My father grew increasingly angry and maudlin. His sister, who was in a nursing home three hours away, had been ill. I suspect he was consumed with grief and guilt, but he didn’t talk about things like that. He sat in his lawn chair and stared out the dogs. He had lowered his head like a bull, I noted—or rather scrawled, with my splinted hand—and he was exhaling like a teakettle.

For the first time in my life, I felt the urge to mock him.

Around the cocktail hour, my father began to declaim about the Declaration of Independence.

“We’re not like other countries. We wrote that down,” he said, in a voice full of anguish. “And I have to believe that we’ll come out all right in the end. Because lots of people believe in it. And every Fourth of July, in the New York Times—“

He didn’t finish. He stood there, his hands raised before him, his face red, tears streaming down his face.

ddly, I don’t remember any of that in connection with Molly.

I’d almost forgotten that Rufus attacked her.

I sometimes I called her the Independence Day dog. She was likely to get an extra piece of steak around July 4, which I thought of as her birthday.

I never forgot my father’s weeping about the Declaration of Independence, but I would never have known that it was at about the same time that I’d gotten the dog.

Everything I remembered about Molly was good.

I remembered that I wanted to show my parents the new dog before I took her to the kennel. When I didn’t find them at the house, I drove into town to look for them. They were at the Grand Union.

It was a rare moment: I wanted them to meet the dog, and they were excited to meet her. My mother actually left her cart and rushed out front. She was sometimes so sweet, especially about animals. Molly shrank to the pavement, cowering. My mother knelt to the sidewalk beside her.

My mother believed that dogs should have two-syllable names, because it made for a nice singsong when you called them.

It was she who suggested Molly. I resisted at first—at the time, I wasn’t sure that dogs should have people names, and this one seemed almost too homey and nice.

But Anne Raver in the Times had written a wonderful column in memory of her beloved dog Molly, and I was willing to let my Molly carry that torch.

Moreover, ever since college I’d owned a collection of three Samuel Beckett novels: Molloy Malone Dies The Unnamable. So Molly was secretly Molloy, too. I’d never read the book, but I was sure there was something darker and tougher in that.

My father liked Beckett. He had the last lines of Waiting for Godot tacked up in the closet where he sometimes worked (“Well, shall we go?” “Yes, let’s go.” They do not move.)

In retrospect, I think I named my dog in honor of both of my parents.

I took her back to the city, and I called L. Our breakup wasn't exactly new, but it would take me years go get over it, and she was the first of my friends to meet Molly.

We brought Molly to Prospect Park and L. persuaded me to let her off the leash.

Molly ran in huge circles.

“She’s a runner,” L. said, and I always remembered how happy I felt to imagine she approved. I felt some hope for us in that moment—hope that, over many years, proved justified, as somehow, against great obstacles, the friendship survived.

I took Molly to Maine just a few weeks after I met her. We were walking in the forest near Freeport, and I gradually realized she’d disappeared.

I stood in the woods and howled her name, and eventually she came bounding back, reeking of cow manure.

I wonder if she’d made a decision. I don’t recall that I ever thought she’d left me again.

Within a year or so, I met G., and we spent many hours together with our dogs. She had a boxer, O., whom she loved dearly. She was devoted and attentive and playful. She loved him completely and openly, but there wasn’t anything infantilizing in her delight, for either of them.

I once had a friend who said her dog taught her how to love. I didn’t think that was true for Molly and me. I may not love well but I have always loved deeply. What I learned from G., I think, was how not to be ashamed of this one love, at least—the love for Molly.

It was okay to love her, okay to devote my time to her, okay to care.

Over the years, Molly would bring life to so many of my relationships.

My friendship with J., for example, was solidified in all the back and forth of dog care, and all the trust that that implies.

There was another J. in my life. For many years I’d thought she didn’t like dogs at all, but then she got two shih-tzus. I made fun of them, since they were tiny and had long hair and didn’t seem like dogs at all, and I hurt her feelings.

We didn’t speak for some years, but when we met again, she grew fond of Molly, and I developed a great affection for the lively, expressive pups, who’d gotten short haircuts and now had easily recognizable tails and legs. They walked all over Molly in the back seat, and she didn’t seem to mind.

There was some parallel, in think, with the ways that J. and I were coming to understand each other again. We were seeing each other fresh, learning to communicate in ways that seemed deeper than ever before.

I spent a whole lot of time talking nonsense to Molly. When I first got her, I used to sing as we walked. “A-B-C, it’s easy as D-O-G, baby you and me, dog,” or “My dog is red hot, your dog ain’t doodly-squat.”

I used to call her “Queen-dog-girl-dog-Molly-dog.” My friends all developed nicknames for her, too—idiosyncratic things that seemed to reflect something about them. She was “Mollski Kowalski” to A. and “Molly by Golly” to C. and “Mollypup oh Molly pup” to my sister.

Molly liked to sleep in the bathroom. At 6:30 in the morning, she got up and leapt onto the foot of my bed.

She loved to eat. As G. declared, “When Molly comes, there are no crumbs.”

I used to say I got her so that I could be walked. For many years we spent an hour or even two in Prospect Park every morning. We wandered the back trails.

She wasn’t a runner as much as a swimmer. I threw big sticks and she fetched them tirelessly from the water. She brought them in panting and then she’d shake. Every time I hear the worrying call of the robins this spring, I think of that shake.

I knew the seasons then. I sat by the lakeshore with my newspapers and we looked out at the winter ducks. I’d see the first red-wings return well before the calendar said spring. In the summers we’d stay out until the light faded from the sky. On the rare occasions when it really snowed we’d go out in the moonlight to ski.

From time to time, I dreamed about Molly. Often she was bleeding or drowning and there was nothing I could do. I always imagined that she was somehow a stand-in for me, for my own vulnerability—for what they might, in new age parlance, refer to as my heart.

She got old before I knew it. She stopped to rest a lot more frequently. Sometimes she just plain sat down. The marker for me came when she was diagnosed with arthritis, and the vet put her on Rimadyl. The first weekend she was on the medication, she ran a mile down a Maine peninsula after friends on bicycles, looking just like a young dog again.

We spent many years getting older together, almost as long as when I thought of her as young.

My mother used to say that dogs only loved you because you fed them, and she said that in a way that seemed to apply to relationships of all kinds. I brought that in to therapy, and B. said, “Yes, but you are the one who feeds her.”

When Molly was about 13, she developed a huge and fast-growing tumor on her leg. It wasn’t malignant, but it threatened her ability to walk. The Animal Medical Center advised that it be treated with radiation.

I agreed. I felt a resurgence of some ancient doubt—she was just a dog, was this going overboard? But they told me she might be able to live comfortably for several more years.

Did we really have a bond? Did she care if I came to the hospital or not? I wasn’t sure, but I was afraid to be wrong. For weeks I came to the hospital every day during visiting hours. The attendants would lead her slowly into a visiting room, where she would sag to the floor.

I lay beside her, crooning, stroking, murmuring, “A-B-C, it’s easy as D-O-G, baby you and me, girl.” After a while, I thought I was driving her nuts.

And eventually she came home, and she was better. The lost black fur on her haunch grew back in, this time as white. She didn’t look the same, but we were back in business for another two years.

I was worried about the steps to my apartment building. When my parents died, I bought a new house and installed a handicapped ramp on Molly’s behalf. I bought a ramp for the car.

In the last months, it took us half an hour to get around the block. And that was okay. I changed my pace. We talked to lots of passers-by, people who I knew meant well when they said, “I had one like that. I had to put her to sleep,” or “Will you get a new one when she’s gone?”

Our days in the park ended. I don’t remember the last time. Even the most important things just fade away.

There was no question she wasn’t fun anymore, not in any classic dog way. There were all sorts of things I began to realize I wasn’t doing. I hardly ever went hiking. It felt so lonely without her.

I waited for my feelings to change, for myself to wish the old lady away, as my mother might have predicted. But it didn’t happen.

I couldn’t rationally explain it, my sense that our intimacy was growing. It seemed I loved her more intensely every day. I watched her fall, and I watched her get up. She stopped snapping at me when I tried to help.

I remind myself of my father now, typing and weeping.

My Maine friend J. brought me an article, by Gene Weingarten of The Washington Post, who probably says this better than I can:

“Old dogs can be cloudy-eyed and grouchy, gray of muzzle, graceless of gait, odd of habit, hard of hearing, pimply, wheezy, lazy, and lumpy. But to anyone who has ever known an old dog, these flaws are of little consequence. Old dogs are vulnerable. They show exorbitant gratitude and limitless trust. They are without artifice. They are funny in new and unexpected ways. But, above all, they seem at peace.”

It wasn’t easy in these years, and I needed help. That help came, again and again, from my friends, but especially from my sister and her husband. I began to realize what it means to have family, and how they could be there for you.

Molly’s mouth, always red, got redder. And there came a time when she wasn’t eating. That was excruciating. I thought of how frantic my mother had been as my father’s appetite failed. I tried five different foods a day. In the end, the most reliable option was an Alpo stew.

When the vets put her on steroids, she was ravenous.

I kept saying Molly was 17. I wanted her to have lived longer than she did. But she was probably only 16. I took her back to the AMC, and she was diagnosed with two kinds of cancer around her mouth. I was about to try chemotherapy, which the vet said had hardly any side effects in dogs.

With some sort of intuition, my sister and B. came over to visit with Molly before they went on their Thanksgiving trip.

Molly died, of course, over that weekend. I say of course because one of my best friends and my mother had died over Thanksgiving weekends in the past. As my friend’s husband said, “I happen to know it is a very good day to die.”

I’d gone off to park the car, leaving Molly in the house. She had lost control of her bowels and then fallen. She had writhed, smearing the excrement all over the wall and the floor and herself.

There was no place to clean her inside, and I guided her down the ramp and tried the hose. It was a huge misjudgment on my part, and I should have known better, but I didn’t think. She went into terrible seizures.

My neighbor K. took us to the medical center, and they said if it happened again the brain damage would probably be permanent.

I brought her home for a full day, and on the last morning I cooked her a grilled chicken breast and we walked around the block and she lunged at a squirrel.

And then it happened again.

K. drove us back to the medical center. I lay in the hatch with Molly and called my sister on my cell phone, and I relayed her farewells.

Molly got rushed into the hospital on a gurney, and then they brought us into one of the visiting rooms, where two wonderful staff members let me hold her and whisper as they injected her.

They said she was pretty out of it. I watched my tears drip on to her fur, and that was the end.

It was such a shock to be without her. It had been 15 years. I’d never been in the new house without her. The silence was deeper than anything I’d known. I could hear all the clocks tick. I could hear my own breathing.

It began to dawn on me that in all the years I had thought I lived alone, I had not. How foolish of me. Molly had wagged her tail when I came home. I always had a source of happiness. I always had someplace to direct my love.

No matter what I did, there was always an audience. There was another being who thought it wise to pay some attention to what I was up to.

I had never thought of myself as her mother. I had responsibility and control, but she was an adult—a dog, and a mystery to me, but still her own creature.

After a while, I felt some relief. I had embarked on a relationship with this dog, and whatever my failings—maybe I’d stayed out too late too often, or maybe I should have turned on the air conditioning in the car more often, or maybe not kept her out for so long in the winter cold, or definitely not turned on that hose—we had succeeded. She had lived a long life.

There’s not much to say now. I’ve got her pictures, her ashes, even a print of her paw.

And it’s raining, which she hated, but I wish we could go for a walk.


Joan said...

That's a wonderful photo of you and M at the end of this post. Wouldn't mind if you emailed it to me.

My mom said that she named me and my sister one-syllable names because they were easier to yell. So YOUR mom was on to something.

I have always thought of Molly running thru a thunderstorm to reach you -- somehow that part of how you met always stuck with me.

Anonymous said...

Molly pup, Molly pup, oooh Molly, Molly pup.

Joan said...

Weird... I had posted to this thread already, but it never posted. Maybe I forgot to type in the word verification? Doesn't Blogger tell me about things i forget to do? Sigh. went something like this: Wonderful post, and great photo to end it, I'd love a copy of that. And, I have always thought of Molly as running thru a thunderstorm in upstate hoping to get to you, and succeeding, and living a wonderful life for it.