Last December, The Uncertaintist wrote about Clea, an elderly Akita, remembering her late brother, Alexei (link). This fall, I had the privilege of attending Clea on Tuesdays, filling a hole in the weekly schedule of her human housemates.
Clea’s world was contracting around her. She did not walk outside as frequently, or stay out as long, or venture as far as she had done only months before. And yet, when she did walk down the street, before turning for home, she pointed her nose and ears in the direction she was abandoning. With her head held high, she tested the air. She wasn’t going to go there, but she knew what she would have found there if she had gone. And sometimes she didn’t turn back after she tested the air and you thought she was going to turn. There were even times when you had to remind her to turn back, not to overdo it. But those times became rarer as the fall progressed.
Inside the house, she avoided stairs, because of her arthritis, and because she feared falling. Thus, she was living only on the main floor, not joining her family for movies downstairs in the basement, or ever venturing onto the upper floor.
But on that one floor left to her, she had her window, across from her bed and overlooking her back yard, through which the smells and sounds of a larger world reached her even when she stayed inside. Many of her indoor walks included a stop to stick her head outside through that window. Opening and closing Clea’s window, on demand, was part of an attendant’s duties.
In the late mornings or early afternoons on Tuesdays, Clea and I would just sit, as she used to just sit with her brother Alexei. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, in her book The Hidden Life of Dogs, discusses her discovery that dogs just sit together, not grooming, not playing, not doing anything except just sitting, quietly together, completely and easily together, alert and calm. Years ago, Clea and Alexei sometimes allowed me to just sit with them. They were much better at it than I was, but they were good teachers. And now years later, while I couldn’t be the just-sitting companion for Clea that Alexei was, I would just sit with her, as best I was able.
Some Tuesdays were better days for Clea than others, as her appetite and activity level varied from one week to the next. Clea never had been one to pace herself, and when she felt up to it, she would overdo being active. When she overdid things on the weekend, she was apt to be still paying for it when I joined her on Tuesday.
So it went, week after week, for the eleven Tuesdays that I would share with Clea. I brought work with me, and I got a lot of it done, but never as much as I planned. It took attention to attend to Clea. Her body no longer did what she wanted when she wanted it to. Her bedding needed changing several times during the day. Wherever she walked, indoors or outdoors, she needed an escort, because her fear of falling was well-founded.
Saturday after Thanksgiving, I picked up a few small things for Clea, thinking to see her that coming Tuesday, as I had every other Tuesday this fall, but on Monday, Clea died.
Dogs are gray wolves who tolerate people, with all their rude human noises and smells, but dogs are no less wolves for being patient and gracious. The occupation of wolves is death. Their loyalty to one another, once chosen, is bottomless, but there is no sentimentality in it. The loyal infirm leave the wild pack, and the wild pack leaves them, with no evident hard feelings on either side
Clea lived tame, as an honored guest of a different species, but she died as a wolf. She ate well that morning. She walked outside, slowly but on her own feet, circling the house that had been hers and her brother Alexei’s. Some of us followed her. Whenever anyone walked with Clea, they followed her. She was an alpha; she led. There would be no exception now, and so, no exception ever.
When she finished her walk, Clea returned to the warmth inside the house, waiting for the veterinarian, who came late, but soon enough. Clea’s death was crisp, clinical and anticlimactic. One hypodermic shot into the once-glorious mane across her shoulders, and Clea left us. A second shot ensured that she wouldn’t come back.
Shots be damned. Weeks have passed, and the essential Clea hasn’t begun to leave. We just can’t find her anymore, which makes no sense, because we see her everywhere she has ever been.