Following a bereavement late in life I underwent a prolonged struggle to regain my sense of purpose. Everyone said a pet would be a good idea, that it would help me steady myself, give me a focus, cheer me up. The timing was perfect, they said. I determined I would adopt a dog.

We had a series of dogs at home when I was a child. Most were strays dumped on the side of the country roads where we lived. As one of four siblings close to the same age, I shared each pet’s attention with my brother and sisters. In the tender years of childhood, the interactions felt exclusively intended for me. The strays enjoyed love from each of us; I never saw any evidence they had their favorites. When my youngest brother came along as the fifth child the rest of us were in our teenage years. The new strays were more his pets than ours, but they still benefitted from a generous group affection.

Pets inculcate a sense of responsibility in a child. They serve to amuse on inclement days when everyone is housebound. They provide inevitable, unscripted life lessons in the exigencies of sex, illness and death. But regardless of a child’s attachment – or what the child learns about proper care and feeding – the monitoring of an animal’s place in the proper scheme of things is the purview of adults. For a child, a dog is entertainment. But a pet dog is reliant on at least one adult for most everything. I was at the age in which such reliance weighs heavily.

I decided on a bitch; I lived in the country and knew females roamed less far afield than males. She would be a house dog, so nothing too large. I searched the random lean-to huts of the local animal shelter, half-deafened by the yelping and barking. I spotted a champagne-colored pup, a short-haired mix of collie and lurcher, but she had already been spoken for. She was penned with a littermate, black with a shiny coat and a small, white “cravat” at her throat. The lady in attendance didn’t know their story, but she reckoned they had been whelped four or five months earlier. I reached into the pen to see how the black pup reacted. Instead of covering my face with desperate licking as I lifted her up, she averted her face. I could see she kept me within the periphery her eyesight, nevertheless. As if mildly interested. As if in appraisal. Just the kind of detachment I was looking for.

“I think this might be the one.”

 

We agreed I’d come back in a week to claim her, after the inoculation series they were administering. I hadn’t kept a dog for 40 years. I needed dog food, bowls, bedding, a leash, and, more than anything, time to reflect on what I was doing. I could always phone back with my regrets.

Mel was the name that appeared on her paperwork. Mel didn’t strike me as a feminine name. I renamed her Mercy. I also considered Grace, but ultimately decided that mercy was the quality I was seeking. The day I brought her home she stood trembling on the spot on which I placed her, looking down at the carpet. In her struggle to adjust, Mercy seemed fearful, afraid to displease. She trembled at sudden moves, signaling with an unwilling flinch she feared a pat on the head might lead to something worse. Within a few days, assured she knew where the water was, that she would be fed, that I would emerge the next morning from my bedroom, she seemed game for interaction. She took to teething on my hand in an irrepressible expression of her dependence on me and her need to test and retest our bond. She stood on her hind legs, unselfconscious in her pursuit of caresses, tail wagging frenetically, a forepaw slapping my knee, begging to be stroked. Her dark eyes locked on mine, demanding I ignore the television and look at her, acknowledge her. I was unnerved by the constant monitoring, by her staring for hours, primed for instruction, wary of any display of ill temper.

There was one rash display of ill temper, the first time I found the soiled carpet in front of the fireplace. I was just up and dressed, just entering the room. She gave herself away by hiding behind the armchair as an acrid methane rose from the still-warm turd. I grabbed her by the nape, put her nose to the mess and sternly repeated “bad dog.” It took hours that day for harmony to be restored. Since then, there had been the rare accidents to be foreborn: a small pool of vomit from an upset tummy delivered as if in offering into my outstretched hand; absent-minded gnawing on a chair-leg as if it were a bone. I resolved not to lose my temper with her again, and she adeptly learned from her few mistakes.

Since my retirement I had developed the indolent habit of sleeping late. That had to change. I needed to get up and dressed to walk her, let her squat and spray the plant life at the edge of the lane as soon as she could get to it. I dawdled in winter; my head didn’t clear as fast as on summer mornings when daylight comes early. I fumbled into whatever clothing I took off the night before. Clean clothes could wait; the dog needed relief. For her part, Mercy sniffed up my shirt-sleeve at the pulse-place where older ladies used to dab their perfume, and bowed in a “dog” asana, her tail a wagging invitation to pat her raised rump. She never minded when rain or sleet spattered the windows. She showed no disappointment dashing out into foul weather. It was the mixture of her joy and the always fresh Atlantic air – cold, wet and highly oxygenated – that revived both of us. We came to trust it would do so each morning.

We went for leisurely adventures up the lane, for beach walks or along the path through the Mill Run. She inventoried each significant smell along the route. So many scents, yet I had no way to partake in her efforts. I hadn’t her olfactory powers. She took ad hoc, random samples of bushes and brambles, washed up shells, or eddy pools. I knew they revealed some story – a night badger’s route or a fox’s trail – but I was a nose-blind observer. When she was satisfied, we moved on.

We never spoke about what she learned. We never spoke of anything. I made comments to her, which she puzzled over unless my meaning was clear and present. She barked irritation at the postman’s car and cattle being driven past the house, but was otherwise a largely silent dog. In the evenings, with the curtains drawn against the cool, she came to me with a mute but insistent stare, waiting for me to suss out what she wanted. Once, leaving the garage, I shut the door behind me, accidently closing her in. When I realized she was gone I called her repeatedly and searched frantically up the lane, down to the road. A half-hour passed before it occurred to me she might still be in the garage. I went in there to find her standing there, looking intently at me, silent throughout all the shouting.

Ultimately, we learned each other’s limitations. We taught each other through patient repetition, forgiving each other often, profoundly content in each other’s company. “She’s good for you,” my friends would say on overseas phone calls, friends who had never met her. They were pleased that she existed, comforted by what they thought I took from her company. For me the great joy was not her attention but the love she and I permitted ourselves to give to each other.

Just before the Christmas of her eleventh year Mercy started losing her appetite. The vet urged me to switch to another type of food. The new formula seemed to rekindle hunger for almost a week, but she stopped eating that soon enough. Other signs appeared. She became intermittently incontinent, reprising our earlier days of shame and reassurance. She was losing weight. Neighbors noticed it and assured me her trim look suited her. She no longer sat by me in the evenings but shuffled off under my desk in the unlit study to sleep. She slept most of the day now, no longer monitoring my whereabouts. I had grown fond of her constant surveillance. I wanted to ask her what ailed her, how I could help. All she could give in answer was the dark-eyed stare she always gave, the look that admonished me that I was the adult, that she was reliant on me. She had no words. She had no one else to turn to.

The vet diagnosed tumors on her liver and gall bladder. She and I struggled with Mercy to shave her leg to draw the blood, to shave her belly to perform a sonogram. Blood samples showed serious anomalies. Surgery would be useless; there was no reasonable hope for treatment. We came home that day in mute awareness that our time together was ending. For the next several days Mercy pretended to be pleased when I put a bit of food in her bowl. She gave it a lick as if in gratitude before walking away. She labored across the carpet to take a treat from me, then dropped it in the hallway on her way back to my study. With no appetite, the only joy left in the exchange was in my giving, her taking.

On what I knew would be her last night, she slept outside my bedroom door. When I rose, as I always did to turn off the lights and lock up the house, she was waiting there wordlessly for one last treat.

The time had come to do the adult thing. I took her back to the vet, who ended Mercy’s misery with an injection as I held her.

I am once again bereaved, seeking mercy.

Buy Waltzing a Two-Step

Dan Juday’s Waltzing A Two-Step: Reckoning Family, Faith, and Self is a coming-of-age memoir that is a must-read. A compassionate journey of self-acceptance that follows Dan Juday from the rural communities of Indiana, across Europe, and among the East Coast searching for a life well-lived.”
—Chanticleer Book Reviews

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