Many years ago, we were on our way to take the kids caving. (Caving is the exploration of tight, dark spaces where bats live. What’s not to love?) As we drove through another long stretch of uninhabited desert, I saw an animal running near the side of the road. A deer? No, too small. I made a u-turn and went back to look.
A puppy, alone in the desert. There were no houses nearby so she wasn’t lost. Dumped, most likely, and bound to become coyote food if she lived until sundown. She was terrified but she didn’t bolt, so my son offered up his ham sandwich as incentive. Pretty soon, she was in the van. We already had three kids, three cats, one dog, and a rabbit. What’s one more? We named her Lily.
She’s a Whippet, a breed I’d never heard of until Lily arrived. A Whippet looks like a 30-pound version of a Greyhound, with the same lean build and affinity for speed. I have never owned a running breed before but with this dog, the feet are everything. In her prime, Lily was incredibly fast. It was a joy to watch her zoom around in circles, outrunning every other dog at the park and doing what she was made to do.
The joy wore off as soon as it was time to take care of her
talons nails. Long nails make for good traction, but they also have to be clipped more often, and this dog said No. She only weighed 25 pounds, but two adult humans could not hold her still for a nail trim. I resorted to sedating her for each nail trimming and after several months, she finally gave in to letting me handle her feet. She still loathes it, but when she sees the clippers she drops her head and trudges resignedly toward me, as if on her way to the Inquisition. It’s just like that, you know — terrible torture, followed by treats.
Because of her foot fixation, Lily is highly suspicious of slippery surfaces. Glazed tile floors are evil. The linoleum at the hardware store is not to be trusted, so she drags behind me through the aisles, stepping gingerly like the floor might burst into flame. Foreign objects in her feet are also traumatic. We live in a desert and stickery things abound. Goat heads, tiny burrs that lodge between the pads of a dog’s feet, are the worst. I always know when Lily steps on one because our walk comes to an abrupt halt while she frantically bites at her paw until she loosens the offender and eats it. It is not enough to remove the thing. It must be destroyed.
Of all our dogs, Lily is the most sensitive and high-strung. A little weird, even. She dashes out of the room if I raise my voice, even if it’s not at her. Unlike most dogs, she hates riding in the car and will refuse to eat for a day or two if subjected to a road trip. She will also skip meals if we go away and leave her with the house sitter. Then there are the “babies.” Over the years, she has developed strange attachments to a string of stuffed animals stolen from the children. She will carry the “baby” around in her mouth, drop it at our feet, then pick it up and take it outside. Her current favorite is a stuffed dog nearly as big as she is, missing an eye and part of its nose. Every night, for reasons that only she understands, she takes it for a walk around the yard before putting it to bed.
Now she is old.
Next month Lily will be 14. She’s given up running circles in the park and long hikes leave her limping, but she still takes a 40-minute walk every day with lots of stops for sniffing. Her eyes are a little cloudy and when I call her, she doesn’t always hear — or maybe she’s just ignoring me. Her fur is more gray than black, and she’s a little hunchbacked from arthritis. Every evening, in a kind of demented doggy ritual, she stands in the yard and barks incessantly at nothing until our nerves are shot and we bring her inside. In the springtime, while the younger dogs are losing their minds over the baby bunnies hopping across our walking route, Lily shrugs. Like, I’ve already had my bunnies. They’re not that big a deal.
Old age is not pretty, and it is filled with daily affronts to her dignity. Her eyes are constantly runny, her coat is greasy, and she sheds like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, so she ends up getting twice as many baths as the other two dogs. Once or twice a day, a human stuffs half a Tramadol down her throat for pain relief from the arthritis. And then there’s the halitosis. We love her, but as one of the boys says, her breath smells like butt. So now, in her golden years, she must endure toothbrushing in addition to the hated baths, pill-stuffing, and eye-wiping. And did I mention the sweatshirt? Because she is skinny and arthritic, I have overcome my disdain for animals in clothing and put a doggy sweatshirt on her when the weather is cold. It is so embarrassing. It is also warmer and makes her a little more comfortable.
As compensation, there are no rules for Lily. Like a 500-pound gorilla, she can have anything she wants. The other dogs have to sit and wait before coming into the house. Lily just walks inside. The others are expected to sit or lie down before getting meals or a treat. Not Lily. She gets treats for being alive. Yay, you woke up this morning! Good job! Dogs here do not beg at the table, yet tonight I ate my dinner with one hand while petting Lily with the other as she rested her head on my leg. According to a BBC calculator, she is about 88 years old in human age. She’s in pretty good shape, but we’re on borrowed time. She doesn’t know it, but I do. Anyway, there ought to be some perks for getting to be that old.