For the past few years my dog Chloe and I have been going south for the winter, staying in various rentals ranging from cottages at artists' colonies in Florida to cabins at spiritual retreat centers in South Carolina. I don't pack lightly for these annual trips. Thus, I always have to hire someone to help me load up my van for the long drive south.
"Just how many dogs do you have?" asked my most recent moving man as he maneuvered yet another large dog bed into the already overstuffed van.
"Just one," I said.
"And how many dog beds do you have?" the man asked.
He took off his hat and scratched his head-as though my answer made his mind itch.
"Creature comforts," I said.
Yes, it's true that my dog-to-dog-bed ratio is quite high. But my girl is getting old. I don't know her age for certain, but nine years have passed since I adopted her. Which means she's at least ten. Ten! Only recently has started showing signs of old age: greying fur, stiffening limbs. The clearest sign of her age is that her new favorite thing in the world is sleep. And I believe that an old, arthritic dog who spent her early days lying on a concrete floor in a shelter deserves a comfortable place to sleep. The more the merrier.
Thus, six dog beds. Most of Chloe's little beds were freebies, by the way. One was a gift from a friend in the city who can't resist buying things in bulk at Cosco ("A twelve-dollar dog-bed, can you believe it?" she exclaimed). Two were hand-me-downs from another friend whose beloved Vizsla had recently passed. The enormous thermopedic mattress came via Freecyle.com, from a woman couldn't bear to throw it away. And the final two were thrift store scores. It's easy to find a good dog bed if you know where to look.
At our New York house, I keep one bed in the master bedroom; one in the main living area; one on the deck (for optimal deer-viewing); two in the van (I took out all the seats, so it's like a studio apartment in there); one in the office (where I spend the majority of my time); and one at our friend Rainbow's house (where Chloe frequently stays). Rainbow is an English Setter, by the way, but in Woodstock NY there are lots of people named Rainbow too. Just for the record.
When Chloe and I head South for the winter, I bring along four of these beds, stacking them on top of one another next to the back passenger door, creating a rather precarious travel throne. Chloe has to take a running leap to climb aboard. Perched up there, she looks like the princess from the "Princess and the Pea" fairytale.
I should point out that I actually don't mind dogs on the furniture or in beds, in case you were wondering. In fact, I welcome it. There's something about seeing sleepy dogs curled up on furniture that makes the house feel more cozy. More down-to-earth. ("That's because you have actual earth on your furniture," my stepmother used to say.)
I do, however, like to keep some pieces of furniture dirt-free, so when I first adopted Chloe, I simply taught her (using clicker training methods) which pieces of furniture were available for her use and which were forbidden. Because the clicker training method is so easy, quick and brilliant, Chloe quickly learned that one corner of a certain sofa was "hers" and that she was/is also welcome to sleep on my bed at any time. I remember how much trouble my neighbor went to trying to train her dog to stay off her bed, whereas I was training my dog to jump onto mine.
Anyway, it turned out that the only time Chloe wanted to sleep on my bed when I wasn't in it. Chloe, it turned out, was and is not a snuggler. This saddened me to a certain extent when I first adopted Chloe-I personally love to snuggle and I had never met a dog who didn't. But I knew I had to accept my dog's needs. I don't know what happened to Chloe in her previous life that led her to keep her distance from humans; I don't know what private sorrows she holds, or how her trust was violated. But I do know that sleep, in its purest form, requires full trust. So if she prefers to sleep on the sofa in the living room, that's fine.
The point of sleeping in my bed is moot now anyway, because Chloe is now too arthritic to be jumping onto furniture. I'll see her approaching "her" sofa, looking up longingly at those comfy cushions. I'll watch the way she seems to ponder the situation, as if analyzing the amount of strength it would take to leap up there and whether her current level of stiffness would allow this. More often than not, she'll turn away and opt for one of her beds.
Yes, my girl is slowing down.
In the past, Chloe would always be the first to wake in the morning. She'd trot into my bedroom and proceed to stare at me, tense with anticipation, waiting for me to wake up, too. The moment I opened my eyes she'd start her "happy dance," running around in circles, leaping in joy, and trying to herd me toward the front door so that we could take our morning walk (as if somehow, during the night, I had forgotten my way). There, she'd press her nose to the crack, wag her tail and wriggle her whole body in uncontained excitement, as if saying "Seize the day, seize the day!" It was like this for nine years. In her feisty-dog opinion, I slept too much.
Things are different these days. First of all, Chloe now sleeps in the bedroom on that glorious thermopedic mattress she loves so much. We call it the Master Bed. I like having another being in the room-another beating heart asserting the continuity of life. Secondly, I'm now the first to rise in the morning. What surprises me is that Chloe no longer leaps to her feet when I rise from bed, instead, she remains on her Master Bed stretching a little and wagging her tail, waiting for me to come to her to say good morning and give her a quick belly rub. It surprises me further that she will remain on her bed even as I head into the bathroom or walk downstairs to the kitchen. Chloe used to follow me everywhere in the mornings -- from the bathroom to the kitchen to the refrigerator (for the French roast) to the coffeemaker back to the refrigerator (for the cream) back to the kitchen drawer (for the spoon); not relenting until I finally finished my morning routine and followed her out the door. Now, instead of trying to herd me in the morning, she lays in bed and observes me-watching, listening, sniffing--alert but still. It's as if she has concluded she is not going to walk all the way down those stairs until it's worth her while.
After nine years of cohabitation, Chloe has figured out my morning routine. She knows I can be slow to get out the door. She has come to expect that first there will be the sound of the refrigerator being opened, then the sound of a kettle being placed on the stove, then a bubbling of boiling water, followed by the smell of coffee and the slight hiss of the French press. Then this liquid gets poured into a travel mug, etc. With her keen ears and sensitive nose, she can predict things down to the minute. Once she hears the lid being sealed on the travel mug, she knows what will come next: the sound once again of an opening refrigerator door, that Pandora's box of cold food smells, the scraping sound of a stew-pot being removed from the top shelf, and then me calling her name and saying that most special of words: "Breakfast!"
Only then will she rise from her bed, showing signs of the formerly spry Chloe as she scrambles-panting with excitement--down the stairs. While she gobbles down her homemade food, I finish my pre-walk tasks: pulling on the boots or sneakers, grabbing my sun hat, searching for my keys, opening the front door. Once she hears that sound, Chloe-with another burst of youthful enthusiasm-launches through the door.
But our morning walks are different these days. Chloe used to charge down to the river, or to the beach (depending where we are), and I would follow along briskly, trying to keep pace. Now, because of Chloe's arthritic pace,we walk more slowly. We amble, meander, mosey. There is a whole new set of verbs for what we do. I miss the aerobic factor of our previous morning walks; but on the other hand, these slow ambles allow me to focus more on the journey than on the destination. On the intricate beauty of a new day. Or the way the birds sound their individual sunrise calls. Or the way the mists rise off the river: as if all the elements of water, sun and air were conspiring to whisper ancient secrets, which one might come to understand if one listens. When one walks slowly, even the distant hum of morning traffic sounds peaceful and hopeful: the sound of the human race trying once again to redeem itself through daily tasks.
Chloe, being a water dog, used to be able to spend hours in the water: chasing fish, harassing frogs, observing the ducks and herons in the distance. Now she might wade around for about twenty minutes or so-sometimes less-before coming to sit next to me on the shore. I like to meditate or write or do chi gung while she plays in the water. Now we meditate together: two silent companions harmonizing ourselves with the natural rhythms of nature and breathing in the water-scented air. It's nice. It's peaceful.
Recently, however, Chloe seems to have decided that this shoreline was not comfortable enough for her stiff old body. She actually started to head home by herself. I honestly wasn't thrilled about having to cut short my morning meditation, but still. No matter how safe it is (the trails lead straight to the house) I can't let her walk home unaccompanied.
As soon as we return home from our morning walk, Chloe goes straight to her bed. This is another new pattern I'm not accustomed to. I'm accustomed to a dog who runs circles around the house, sustaining the sensations of a body in motion. I'm accustomed to a dog who would grab the nearest toy and toss it into the air, clinging to those final joys of having been outside. I'm used to a dog who would then scramble into the kitchen, to see if any food has materialized since her last investigation. So this new going-straight-to-bed thing is almost alarming. Especially when I haven't even had the opportunity to give her her "thanks-for-coming-home" treat. Chloe's former favorite-thing-in-the-world used to be food. Then swimming. Then her boyfriend Rainbow. Then me. Then sleep. It's still hard to believe she would choose her bed over food.
The bed Chloe chooses post-morning walk is the Office Bed, because she knows this is where I'll be spending the remainder of the day. This bed is one of those "Snuggle Nests" plush with big bumpers, so that I don't accidentally roll into her with my office chair.
In Chloe's younger days, my writing seemed to bore her-something she had to endure until our next walk. Sure, she would nap while I wrote, but it was a vigilant sort of sleep. If I so much as moved-i.e. stretched or yawned or shifted my position in my chair--she would spring to her feet in one swift, athletic motion and rush to the door, smiling at me with joy, ready for our next great adventure. In her mind, I was always on the verge of doing something fascinating. (This sort of belief is a dog's approach to life. We could stand well to remember it.) She seemed convinced that, at any minute now, my life would explode with joy. Or that we would at least take a walk. Most of my daily office gestures, however, remained mundane. I might rise to make another cup of tea. I might pause from my writing to send an email. I might moan out load, saying something to the effect of, "I should just give up on this novel and become a street busker."
Eventually Chloe figured out the signals. Rising from the office chair with a mug in hand meant tea, not walk. Moaning about the uselessness of writing meant I was going to stop and check Facebook, not walk. The real moment-the true and absolute sign of an impending walk-was, and still is the moment at which I shut down the computer, snap the lid shut, and click off the wireless mouse. That one tiny click was like a starting gun for her: she'd push herself up and hurry toward the door.
Now, Chloe sleeps so soundly that sometimes she doesn't even hear the click. This concerns me, but it's hard not to smile. A dog in repose conjures up everything sleep should be: restful, peaceful, soothing, safe, warm, comfy. She sleeps so deeply that she snores-a soft, regulated snore that sounds like contentment. She'll often dream as well. I like to pause from my work and watch the way her eyelids twitch and her paws flex. I like to hear that sweet muffled woof, which are always sounded in patterns of three. Like a metered poem.
I often wonder what she dreams. Most people assume that dogs dream of chasing rabbits, of leaping over streams, of flushing grouse. But perhaps dog dreams go beyond these mundane visions we humans ascribe to them. Perhaps Chloe, in her dreams, visits other realms, alternate universes where all beings exist in harmony, where there is no violence, no suffering, no animal abuse. Perhaps this is the paradise is running toward in her dreams. Not just a rabbit. But something far greater.
And perhaps this is why she does that happy-dance in the mornings. She's trying to convey to me that these worlds exist.
I hate to have to wake her. But soon it is time for our afternoon walk. I'll lean over and whisper her name. She'll open her eyes slowly, unfocused. Then she'll look at me as if surprised to find herself once again back inside a dog's body. Surprised, but not disappointed. This has been a good lifetime for her.
Our mid-afternoon walks used to be long, but now-by Chloe's choice-they are short.
Especially if the weather is not to her liking. Sometimes walk a few yards onto the grass, make a quick pee, then immediate return to the house, heading straight back to her bed. She'll circle a few times, then settle down into the foam with a satisfied "oof." Mission accomplished.
I, however, require more of a head-clearing walk at this time of day, so I find myself going back out without her. I'll grab my iPod and my running shoes and take a brisk, power-walk along the beach or through the dunes. And it's glorious. Spectacular. Rejuvenating. Refreshing. And yet it feels so strange to walk without my dog. It feels wrong. But if I do bring her along on these long walks, she'll start to limp. So I simply have to adapt to this new phase in my life with an aging dog.
Another new phase: It used to be that when I came home, Chloe was always there to greet me at the door. We all know the drill: the happy dance, the joyful barks, the whines of relief. Chloe's specialty was to grab a toy or a shoe and carry it around in her mouth, enticing me to chase her. These days, Chloe isn't always there to greet me. She sleeps so soundly she doesn't hear me come home.
I must confess I have moments of panic when this happens. As in: is something wrong? I'll rush through the house, searching for her (because I never know which bed she'll choose). Seconds might go by, minutes, in which my heart starts to beat more rapidly and I imagine the worst, but then I'll hear her footsteps and the clicking toenails and there she will be at the top of the steps, wagging her tail slowly, her lips askew and her face all puffy from sleep, too lazy to come downstairs to say hello.
I'll rush up the steps to hug her. Her body is warm with safety and trust and comfort; mine is flush with relief. She'll lick my face and wag her tail, and I get the sense that she is trying to reassure me somehow. Don't worry so much, she says to me with her telepathic mind.
But I do worry. My dog is aging. That's a fact. Her health might very well decline. Maybe someday she won't be able to walk at all. And I won't be able to lift her.
But you are here with me, now, Chloe says. And we are together. That's all that matters. And when the time comes you will still be with me. And I will be with you.
Then she goes back to sleep. And I go back to my work. Each is its own cure.
One of my favorite parts of my day is the end of it. (I don't mean for that to sound sarcastic, despite my fluency in sarcasm.) What I mean is: I love to read in bed and I love my thermopedic mattress. Chloe, as we know, loves hers, too. Late in the evening, after our final short pee-walk, I'll say to Chloe: "Time to go up to the Master Bed!" At that, she'll leap up from her living room bed and run up the stairs with the same enthusiasm with which she used to splash through rivers and tide pools. She'll go straight to her bed, circling a few times and settling herself down with a contented sigh.
Before I get into bed myself, I'll lie on the floor next to her to say goodnight. I place my face right in front of hers, nose to nose, and whisper some endearment about how pretty she is and how cute she is. She sighs, not really liking such close face proximity but tolerating it for my sake. As she breathes through her nostrils, I breathe in through mine, like a plug and a socket. It's as if we are sharing the same prana, the same breath. Sometimes she'll thump her tail a few times, the sound muffled by the bed. Sometimes she'll hook one paw over my arm and just hold it there. It feels like reassurance. And solidarity. We'll stay like that for a long while, until I feel her pulse and she feels mine. Until the two of us are aligned.
Thank you, I say. Even though my life is chaotic and rushed and very often unsatisfying; even though life sometimes feels to me like a puzzle I can't quite solve, I look at Chloe and know that here is something I am doing right. Something about me gives this dog comfort. "If you want to feel safe," the Dalai Lama once said, "help another being feel safe."
She falls asleep within minutes.
I personally don't know any humans who sleep so well. Dogs do not agonize about what they have or have not accomplished on any given day; they do not worry about what additional tasks, hopes or goals they will not accomplish tomorrow. No, they simply sleep, breathing in the oneness, breathing it out. On my floor lays a great teacher, I realize.
Chloe starts to dream, woofing and flexing her paws. I'll watch her with such love and tenderness I feel I might burst. There she is, snoring lightly, with her chest rising and falling and her brown snout smooshed against a pillow. There she is, smelling faintly of sunshine and earth, with a mind uncomplicated by thoughts. She looks like an allegorical painting for safety and trust.
I cannot help but smile. Sometimes I wonder if she remembers her life at the shelter; all those nights she spent sleeping on a concrete floor. I wonder if those memories help her appreciate the marvelous fact that she now has six beds. But maybe it's not about remembering or forgetting. We can forget and move on or we can remember and move on. The trick is to not let those things plague us. We need only keep leaping through the meadows, running forever forward toward the next great thing.
Yes, my old girl is slowing down, so I will just try to slow down with her.
=================================================================================== AUTHOR'S NOTE: This essay was published in Bark magazine, December 2013 and now appears online here: http://thebark.com/content/chloe-chronicles-part-x.
Sadly, Chloe died very suddenly and unexpectedly on September 26, 2013-four weeks after I submitted this piece for print publication. I miss her enormously. In her honor, I have not changed the tense of this essay to past tense. And never will.