Friends Like Harry

I had a look at Saturday’s ‘SA Weekend’ liftout from the Advertiser in the bus, and had to fight myself not to get too teary-eyed when I read this article. I thought I’d share it with you:

Friends like Harry


February 06, 2009 11:30pm

HARRY wasn’t just a dog; he was part of the family, and watching him grow old taught many lessons about life and death

NOT LONG BEFORE his death, Harry and I headed out for a walk that proved eventful. He was nearly 13, old for a big dog. Walks were no longer the slap-happy Iditarods of his youth, frenzies of purposeless pulling in which we would cast madly off in all directions, fighting for command. Nor were they the exuberant archeological expeditions of his middle years, when every other tree or hydrant or blade of grass held tantalising secrets about his neighbours. In his old age, Harry had transformed his walk into a simple process of elimination – a dutiful, utilitarian, head-down trudge. When finished, he would shuffle home to his ratty old bed, which graced our living room because Harry could no longer ascend the stairs.

On these walks, Harry seemed oblivious to his surroundings, absorbed in the arduous responsibility of placing paw before paw before paw before paw. But this time, on the edge of a small urban park, he stopped to watch something. A man was throwing a Frisbee to his dog. The dog, about Harry’s size, was tracking the flight expertly, as Harry had once done, anticipating hooks and slices by watching the pitch and roll and yaw of the disc, as Harry had done, then catching it with a joyful, punctuating leap, as Harry had once done, too. Harry sat. For 10 minutes he watched the fling and catch, fling and catch, his face contented, his eyes alight, his tail a-twitch. Our walk home was almost jaunty.

It’s no big deal to love a dog; they make it so easy for you. They find you brilliant, even if you are a witling. You fascinate them, even if you are as dull as a butter knife.

Puppies are incomparably cute and incomparably entertaining and, best of all, they smell exactly like puppies. At middle age, a dog has settled into the knuckleheaded matrix of behaviour we find so appealing – his unquestioning loyalty, his irrepressible willingness to please, his infectious happiness. His unequivocal love. But it is not until a dog gets old that his most important virtues ripen and coalesce. Old dogs can be cloudy-eyed and grouchy, grey 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.

Kafka wrote that the meaning of life is that it ends. He meant that our lives are shaped and shaded by the existential terror of knowing that all is finite. Kafka was talking, of course, about people. Among animals, only humans are said to be self-aware enough to comprehend the passage of time and the grim truth of mortality.

How then, to explain old Harry at the edge of that park, grey and lame, just days from the end, experiencing what can only be called wistfulness and nostalgia? I have lived with eight dogs, watched six of them grow old and infirm with grace and dignity, and die with what seemed to be acceptance. I have seen old dogs grieve at the loss of their friends. I have come to believe that as they age, dogs comprehend the passage of time and, if not the inevitability of death, certainly the relentlessness of the onset of their frailties. They understand that what’s gone is gone.

What dogs do not have is an abstract sense of fear or a feeling of injustice or entitlement. They do not see themselves, as we do, as tragic heroes, battling ceaselessly against the merciless onslaught of time. Unlike us, old dogs lack the audacity to mythologise their lives. You’ve got to love them for that.

At the pet store, we chose Harry over two other puppies because, when wrestling with my children in the get-acquainted enclosure, Harry drew the most blood. We wanted a feisty pup, and we got one.

The product of a Kansas puppy mill, son of a bitch named Taffy Sioux, Harry had been sold to us as a yellow labrador retriever. I suppose it was technically true, but only in the sense that Tic Tacs are technically “food”. Harry’s lineage was suspect. He wasn’t the square-headed, shiny, elegant type of labrador you can envision in the wilds of Canada hunting for ducks. He was the shape of a baked potato, with the colour and lustre of an inter-office envelope. You could envision him in the wilds of suburban Toledo, hunting for nuggets of dried food in a carpet.

His full name was Harry S. Truman, and once he’d reached middle age he had indeed developed the unassuming soul of a haberdasher. We sometimes called him Tru, which fitted his loyalty but was in other ways a misnomer: Harry was a bit of an eccentric, a few bubbles off plumb. Though he had never experienced an electrical shock, whenever he encountered a wire on the floor – say, a power cord leading from a laptop to a wall socket – Harry would stop and refuse to proceed. To him, this barrier was as impassable as the Himalayas. He’d stand there, waiting for someone to move it. Also, he was afraid of wind.

While Harry lacked the wiliness and cunning of some dogs, I did watch one day as he figured out a basic principle of physics. He was playing with a plastic 20-litre water bottle in our back yard. At one point, it rolled down a hill, which surprised and delighted him. He retrieved it, brought it back up and tried to make it go down again. It wouldn’t. I watched him nudge it around until he discovered that for the bottle to roll, its long axis had to be perpendicular to the slope of the hill. You could see the understanding dawn on his face; it was Archimedes in his bath, Helen Keller at the water spigot.

That was probably the intellectual achievement of Harry’s life, tarnished only slightly by spending the next two hours insipidly entranced, rolling the bottle down and hauling it back up. He did not come inside until it grew too dark for him to see.

I believe I know exactly when Harry became an old dog. He was about nine years old. It happened at 10.15 in the evening of June 21, 2001, the day my family moved from the suburbs to the city. The move took longer than we’d anticipated. Inexcusably, Harry had been left alone in the vacated house – eerie, echoing, empty of furniture and of all belongings except Harry and his bed – for eight hours. When I arrived to pick him up, he was beyond frantic.

He met me at the door and embraced me around the waist in a way that is not immediately reconcilable with the musculature and skeleton of a dog’s front legs.

I could not extricate myself from his grasp. We walked out of that house like a slow-dancing couple, and Harry did not let go until I opened the car door. That night, Harry was simply scared and vulnerable, impossibly sweet and needy and grateful. He had lost something of himself, but he had gained something more touching and more valuable. He had entered old age.

Some people who seem unmoved by the deaths of tens of thousands through war or natural disaster will nonetheless summon outrage over the mistreatment of animals, and they will grieve inconsolably over the loss of the family dog. People who find this behaviour distasteful are often the ones without pets. It is hard to understand, in the abstract, the degree to which a companion animal, particularly after a long life, becomes a part of you. I believe I’ve figured out what this is all about. It is not as noble as I’d like it to be, but it is not anything of which to be ashamed, either.

In our dogs, we see ourselves. Dogs exhibit almost all of our emotions; if you think a dog cannot register envy or pity or pride or melancholia you have never lived with one for any length of time. What dogs lack is our ability to dissimulate. They wear their emotions nakedly and so, in watching them, we see ourselves as we would be if we were stripped of posture and pretence. Their innocence is enormously appealing. When we watch a dog progress from puppyhood to old age, we are watching our own lives in microcosm. Our dogs become old, frail, crotchety and vulnerable, just as grandma did, just as we surely will, come the day. When we grieve for them, we grieve for ourselves.

The meaning of life is that it ends.

In the year after our move, Harry began to age visibly, and he did it the way most dogs do. First his muzzle began to whiten and then the white slowly crept backward to swallow his entire head. Pink nose, white head, tan flanks – he looked like a stubby kitchen match. As he became more sedentary, he thickened a bit, too. He became a calmer dog, if a far more eccentric one.

On walks, he would no longer bother to scout and circle for a place to relieve himself. He would simply do it in mid-plod, like a horse, leaving the difficult logistics of drive-by clean-up to me. Sometimes, while crossing a busy street, with cars whizzing by, he would plop down to scratch his ear. Sometimes, he would forget where he was and why he was there. To the amusement of passers-by, I would have to hunker down beside him and say, “Harry, we’re on a walk, and we’re going home now. Home is this way, OK?”

I work mostly at home, which means that during the weekdays Harry and I shared an otherwise empty house. Mostly he slept; mostly I wrote and paced, and my pacing often took me past his lump on the floor. I would always mutter, almost unconsciously, “Hey, Harry,” and he would always respond in the same fashion. His body would move not at all, but his tail would thud, exactly once, against the floor.

I didn’t really know how important that ritual was until there was no thud any more.

One night at 3am, a smoke detector in our house began to bleep in that water-torture way, signalling that it needed a new battery. It was mildly annoying, but to Harry it appeared to be a sign of the Apocalypse. He began pacing and panting, and actually tried climbing our stairwell to hide under our bed. His rheumy legs buckled; we caught him before he fell.

So I mounted a ladder, disconnected the bleeping thing, and took out the spent battery. Then my wife spent two hours talking Harry down into a semi-sane condition. She slept on the floor by his side.

It turned out to be Harry’s final eccentricity. When he awoke the next morning, he could no longer use his hind legs, and we trundled him off to the vet. Harry had timed his departure thoughtfully. Had he waited a few more hours, my daughter would have been unable to hug him and tell him what a good boy he had been. She had known and loved Harry more than half of her life, and I believe this was not incidental to her choice of career. She was leaving, that next morning, for her first day of veterinary school.

For nearly a week after Harry’s death, my wife and I shared a knowledge that we left unspoken, even to each other. It was simply too heart-wrenching to say out loud.

As he lay on the gurney and the doctor began to push the poison into his vein, Harry had lifted up his head and kissed us goodbye.

Extracted from Old Dogs are the Best Dogs, by Gene Weingarten. Photographs by Michael S. Williamson.

Simon & Schuster, $24.95.

Published by fuzz

I've finally relented to the lures of blogging - and for those who care, well, I'm a self-confessed geek who's a wanderer at heart, who thinks and analyses too much, and who's trying hard to hold on to his 7-year old inner persona.

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