My dog does not chase deer anymore.
She used to, as futile as it was. She bounded after them, not to catch them, but simply to bark, hoping to get them away from the fenced-in square of land that she considered her territory. As good as she is at escaping when she wants to (and she is very good), she never rushed to the gate to see if someone had mistakenly left it unlocked. Instead she would rush to the furthest corner of the fence and stand her ground there, barking until the intruders were gone, and then pissing in the most determined way a dog can piss before coming inside.
We used to goad her into doing it, as much as it probably annoyed our neighbors. Seated at the kitchen table, we can easily see when the deer emerge from the shade of the woods and meander towards the small vegetable garden in the corner of the yard. If the dog was under the table, where she nearly always is whenever people are in the kitchen, we could simply say “Sunshine, deer!” and she would jump up and scramble towards the door, nails scratching without traction on the laminate flooring. She can open the door herself if there’s a crack for her to shove her nose into. If not she would scratch at the same part of the door where she had already scraped off most of the paint, and we would open it so that she could burst through the broken storm door and out into the yard. We would watch from the window as she took off, laughing when the deer saw her and startled back into the brush.
She still knows the words, but she doesn’t act on them now. She perks up her ears, when we say the words, like when we say “walk,” or “treat,” or a number of other terms she’s learned, but she stays under the kitchen table, going back to sleep with her head resting on her crossed paws as soon as we curb our own excitement. The space beneath the table is warm from the heating vent, and sometimes Mom spills a scrap of food that Sunshine can snatch. Outside there is only uncatchable prey. It’s a reasonable choice to make, so why does it make me so sad?
It seems like she’s simply grown too old to care, twelve years of wisdom telling her that she doesn’t need to waste her energy. The deer will be there tomorrow whether she chases them or not. She’s grown bored of them, just like she’s grown bored of the game she used to play where she would find a way out of the fence and let us chase her around the neighborhood for hours, keeping just out of reach until she felt like coming home. Now even when we leave the gate open (rather than held closed with a bungee cord so that she can’t break free even when she flips the latch up with her nose) she just flops down and naps in the sun on the driveway, or in our neighbor’s yard, where the grass is somehow different. She knows that she could leave. She knows that she could spend hours chasing the deer, or darting just out of our grasps. She just doesn’t see the point.
Or it could be that it’s not wisdom, but a simple lack of energy. She’s always dozed for hours at a time, but now she does it because she’s tired, not because she’s bored, or because it’s in her nature. I see how the energy drains out of her like water from a leaky bottle when she lies down in the middle of a formerly easy walk, unwilling to go any further. Sometimes I sit with her, hunch down on the curb and run my hand down her back while she catches her breath. Sometimes I call my sister to bring the car around and pick us up. I dread the day I have to carry her, because when her legs no longer move, I will not have the strength to move my own.
Every trip home from school is a confrontation of that inevitable future. When I pull into the driveway, the sun low or hidden entirely behind the ridge after my long drive, I am not greeted by barking. If someone comes to help me with my bags, Sunshine will follow, but after a sniff or two she loses interest and lies down on the pavement to soak up the last bits of heat that the sun left behind. She grumbles and grunts when we go inside, but she always follows, still eager to see what’s going on.
It is strange to live on a different timescale than something you care about. In twelve years my dog has lived most of her life. In that time I have barely escaped childhood. I was eight years old when we first met; she was six months old. If all goes well, I’m expected to live to eighty, give or take a decade. If Sunshine makes it to fifteen, I’ll be surprised. It’s hard to estimate the lifespan of mutts, especially in ones whose genetics are a mystery, but she’s a old dog already. Sometimes I still feel like a child, though I’m older than she will ever be. I wonder if she still sees me as a child, or if I’m as old as she is in her mind. Are we siblings from a different species, grown up together, or will I always be as young to her as I was on the day we met, a day when the sun shone through the clouds for the first time in weeks, when we took her from her concrete cell into our home. Oh, wouldn’t we all like to know what our dogs think of us, and don’t we all hope that it’s something good.
It’s the smallest details that build the most. A sudden death holds the pain of a bandage being ripped off, but a slow one is a bandage being pulled, adhesive tugging at skin and hair, neither one wanting to let go.
I noticed the white hair on her chin years ago, standing opposite to fur the color of autumn leaves. The liver spots came later but they weren’t surprising. No one told me that old dogs grow lumpy with fat until I panicked about a tiny thing I thought was a tumor. Now the signs seem to be everywhere: bare patches of skin where the fur just fell away, clouds in her eyes and a wheeze to her breath. I can’t ignore them. That would be unfair to both of us. Instead I try to treat her aches as best as I can when I see her, enforcing the diet that the vet said would reduce stress on her joints, doing all the grooming that my parents don’t feel like keeping up. Some days it feels like a penance, like somehow I did something wrong when she was young to make her grow old and tired and weak. Some days it feels like I’m trying to erase the years that have already taken their toll, brushing her fur back to something more vibrant. Some days it feels like the clawing anxiety I felt visiting my grandmother in hospice during the last years of her life, knowing that at some point she loved me, but only seeing the husk of something she once was.
Sometimes it feels like a goodbye.
And that’s the thing about constantly leaving and coming back. Every time I say goodbye, there’s a thought that burrows deep into my heart, reminding me again and again that this might be the last time I see her. Or the next time. The next. The next. Every visit brings me closer to the inevitable, like the graph of a logarithm drawing exponentially closer to some invisible end. But the graph will never reach its limit. I will.
But it feels wrong to think about the time she has left in any kind of numbers. I hate thinking about it at all, but I have to think about it, because not thinking about it, not being prepared, would only make things worse.
Some part of me says that it’s already worse, that there’s no good way to approach this. It’s the same part of me that wants to hide away when things get hard, burrow down into my blankets until I can’t feel anything. But that part of me has never done me any favors.
It’s still an open wound though, no matter how much as I try to be brave about it. My mother broached the subject on my last trip home, while my sister and I were teasing Sunshine in her sleep, trying to build a pillow fort around her in revenge for her commandeering the couch.
“You know,” my mother started, unprompted by any of the rest of us, “I worry sometimes that one morning I’m going to come downstairs and find her dead, or Emily will come back from school to find her body.”
When I stared, unable to come up with a response, she continued.
“If it happens during finals week, should I even tell you, or should I wait until you’re done with your work?”
She said it casually, as if she hadn’t just poured acid onto a still-bleeding cut. It took a quiet “what the fuck” from my sister for her to even consider that we might not agree to the proposal. Yes, learning about the death of my dog would cause chaos that would distract me from studying and writing papers, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t deserve to know. No matter what bullshit the world has taught my mother, doing well on an exam is not more important than knowing, than being able to mourn, than the truth.
Is she callous, or am I too sensitive? Is the life of a dog really not that important a thing? It’s a question I’ve had to confront more and more over the years and in an increasingly uncomfortable way as Sunshine’s health deteriorates. My dad is fond of using the phrase “she’s just a dog” as an excuse for not brushing her teeth or bathing her or doing any kind of “unnecessary” task. Mom’s feelings towards her tend to ebb and flow, changing from love to annoyance without warning. Maybe they’re right. Maybe I’m too young to understand the futility of pampering a dog. Maybe I do baby her, but I don’t know how else to care. So I cut her nails and brush her teeth. I corral her into the bath and I scrub the caked-in tick repellant from her collar until the water turns gray. I clean her ears and wipe the gunk from the corners of her eyes and try to laugh instead of yell when she farts so badly that it clears the room. I care for her even when doing so is a chore, even when she frustrates me to no end. I care about her when it’s inconvenient, and that’s why I don’t want to let her go.
One night last summer I came home to a yard full of deer, not an uncommon sight, especially at dusk and dawn, when they decide that the dim light illuminates the roads beautifully. A day of working in the heat and sun and chlorine fumes of the local pool had drained me to the point of exhaustion, but when my headlights caught those black eyes a petty sort of anger pulled me to my feet. I opened the gate and called for Sunshine so that she could come with me. Then I sprinted towards the deer, yelling and laughing as they scattered into the trees, their tails flashing white before they disappeared completely.
When I turned back, Sunshine was sitting where the grass eats away at the edge of the driveway, just watching me as I made a fool of myself. As I approached her, she tilted her head and nosed at my hand as if to say, Look at you go, you dummy. Don’t you know you won’t catch them?
I laughed as I knelt down to pet her and tried not to think too hard about the fact that I had once watched her run in the same way she now watched me.
R. Baxter-Green is a student of English and Environmental Studies at Allegheny College and an editor of The Allegheny Review. Their work has appeared recently in Pennsylvania's Best Emerging Poets (though they're originally from New Jersey).