Cabela and Ziva stand by the door of the vet’s exam room. Tired, they sway on their feet like a couple of soldiers who’ve just returned from a lengthy skirmish at the front. Cabela has been through more, and she struggles to keep her butt in the air and her back paws planted on the smooth, slick floor. They look at me, their superior officer, and wait to be told, “At ease, girls, dismissed.” I look at the vet, this is her briefing, so my dogs and I wait.
They haven’t really come from a battle, but from having their teeth cleaned. They were anesthetized and x-rayed. Neither of them had to have teeth pulled.
My dogs watch me watching the vet. We all seem to know the drill. Be quiet, listen, nod. The more efficiently we can do this, the quicker we can go home, Cabela and Ziva because they’re worn out, me because I want to cry. My dogs are 14 and 11½ years old. These days the sand trickles faster through the hourglass.
Cabela had a benign cyst, the size of a small rubber ball, removed from her left hindquarter. She has a two-and-a-half-inch incision and a dozen stitches. The vet says Cabela shouldn’t lick her incision. I head off any discussion of her having to wear a cone: “I have a pair of shorts she can wear.” Medical treatment with dignity.
I wonder if I’ll have Cabela, the oldest one, put under anesthesia for a nonemergency surgery again, or perhaps any surgery. The older she gets, the riskier surgical procedures become. Today I worried—more than in the past—that one of my dogs might not wake up. I chose the option to have the vet call after each dog’s teeth cleaning was done instead of waiting until they were both done.
The vet explains Ziva has bone loss in her jaw, but she still has enough bone to avoid having teeth pulled. This time. Cabela has bone loss too, but less than Ziva’s.
The vet relays all this to me and shows me x-rays from this year and last year.
I trust the vet—I don’t need to see the pictures. But I don’t say this. I stand at attention, and pull myself up as tall as I can, perhaps to make up for my dogs who sag under the lingering effects of anesthesia.
The vet clicks an icon, and ghostly black-and-white images of Ziva’s teeth parade across the computer screen. I feign deep interest, but I want to go home. My dogs’ noses are nearly touching the exam room door, willing it to open.
The vet wants to explain the medical stuff—like a fourth root on one of Ziva’s molars that she hadn’t seen before. She sent the x-rays to a veterinary dentist for a consultation. I tell her that’s fine. I knew her before she was a vet, and she’s been our vet for over twenty years. She’s doing her job, taking time with us, treating us with respect.
She asks if I have any other questions, and I don’t. She can’t tell me how long Cabela and Ziva will live. She can’t tell me how long I have before I sit in front of doctors who explain age-related medical stuff to me.
This morning Cabela pranced around the yard. Perhaps she was inviting her sister, Ziva, to play. Perhaps she was inviting me to throw a ball. The midsummer morning felt like a beautiful autumn day—cool, breezy, and invigorating, but warm enough to avoid an extra layer of clothes. At fourteen years old, Cabela is headed into her winter, but this morning she was a lovely autumn day, enjoying a frolic before her winter arrives. Something in the cool, breezy weather tapped into her memory of younger days. I wonder how many frolics she has left.
Ziva didn’t want to play, and it’s too risky for Cabela to play fetch. If she didn’t have four legs, she would need a walker, so I took them for a stroll. Cabela meandered from one blade of grass to another. A couple of years ago, she stopped strutting in front of me on our walks and looking over her shoulder as if to ask, “What’s taking you so long?” Now she dawdles behind me and moves when she’s good and ready as if to say, “What’s your hurry?”
I’m headed into the autumn of my years. The cool, breezy weather made me feel like prancing too, so I wore my blue jeans with holes in the knees. Perhaps at sixty-three, I shouldn’t because young people wear ripped jeans. But I feel like a summer day from my youth when I wear them. Since my twenties I’ve always had a pair of jeans with torn knees. I’ve never bought them that way. My jeans had to earn their holes by hanging in there with me day after day, year after year.
I hope Cabela walks with me through another winter and into another fall. I hope, if I need to live in a nursing home one day, I’ll have a pair of holey jeans to take with me.
Today is Cabela’s birthday. She’s 14 years old. In dog years that’s about 83—if I calculate it based on the new formula. When I was young, I would’ve multiplied her age by 7, and she would’ve been 98. But today Cabela’s age is calculated using new math. She likes that.
Her full name is Cabela Grace. She was named after Cabela’s, the outdoor and sporting goods store, because we bought her near the store. Once, when she was a puppy— and having the crazies—she ran into the wall instead of down the hall. I added Grace to her name. She has many nicknames: Snickerdoodle, Range Rover, Ichabod, Sneaky Pete, Kadiddlehopper, and Our Bell or Bell, but never Bella.
When my son comes to visit, she likes to have a silent moment with him. He puts his face near hers, and she looks at him intently. Sometimes my son speaks to her, and sometimes it’s just a wordless exchange. He was the one who picked her up out of a small pen and held her. She nuzzled under his chin. He asked us to take her home. So, we did because who can resist an eighteen-year-old boy who adores a chocolate standard poodle puppy. I believe Cabela remembers her first snuggle with him. I will argue with any animal psychologist who says this couldn’t be possible.
Cabela was born on a farm an hour west of the Twin Cities in Minnesota. The couple who owned the farm raised dogs. Emmet raised Labradors, and Ruth raised standard poodles. They did not raise labradoodles. Hunters often bought Emmet’s Labradors. But sometimes a hunter bought one of Ruth’s poodles. Some hunters are smarter than others. Cabela would’ve made a good hunting dog. As a puppy she pointed at birds, had a soft mouth, and loved being outside in any kind of weather.
If Cabela were a literary character, she would be Bartleby the Scrivener. She’s stubborn and if she could speak, her catch phrase would be “I would prefer not to.” She prefers not to enter the vet’s examination room, but she does and she’s good and the vet loves her. She prefers not to stop eating her sister’s dog food, but she’ll stop if I take the dish away. She prefers not to move if she’s settled into a spot, but if I pick her up, she’ll go along with it.
The vet once told me that Cabela had the heart rate of an athlete. “That’s because she is an athlete,” I said. Cabela used to do hot laps around the house when she got excited about a dog, a car, or a delivery truck that passed by. She’d run like a greyhound, circling the house four or five times. Or she would approach our pine tree and launch herself six feet into the air along the tree’s trunk. When she played fetch, we had to lob the ball up into the air, so it would bounce off the ground because she liked to leap up and catch it in her mouth. But like all athletes, the laps became fewer and slower and the leaps up the side of the tree become shorter and shorter. And last summer my husband and I decided we had to toss the ball low to the ground. Her old hips have sidelined her. She likes her walks short and her naps long.
Cabela has a signature look. She’ll give us the puppiest puppy eyes, raising one eyebrow, then the other, alternating them up and down, slowly, melting our hearts. This is how she asks to go outside or for a walk or a ride or for supper or a treat.
She’s a daddy’s girl. She’s a loving girl. She kind to her sister, Ziva, and she loves our grandchildren. She’s a good dog. And that’s what we should all hope to be at our best.
Cabela’s nose is to the ground. I stand at the bottom of the deck. Our rabbit-in-residence streaks at warp speed across our backyard into the neighbor’s yard. Lately, I’ve been going outside with Cabela in the morning, and the rabbit is usually eating breakfast, nibbling at vegetation visible through a thin layer of snow.
Each morning I wonder if this time Cabela will spot the rabbit and give chase. (She hasn’t yet.) This morning she doesn’t see it because she’s sniffing the ground. She doesn’t hear it because she’s nearly deaf. But after it has kicked up snow, she smells it, points her nose to the sky, and inhales short snorts of frigid air. Even if she saw it, she’d have no hope of catching it—the rabbit possesses afterburners for hind legs and Cabela possesses thirteen-and-a-half-year-old hindquarters. We also have an electric dog fence.
It’s 6:30 a.m. and dark. First light will come shortly after 7:00, followed by sunrise just before 8:00. It’s 11 degrees, the wind is 9 m.p.h., and the feels-like temperature is 0 degrees. I don’t want to be outside. I’m sleepy, and I haven’t had any coffee. But the rabbit is entertaining.
Because of the electric fence, I should be able to put Cabela’s collar on her, let her outside, and wait at the door for her to return. But Cabela has taken to barking at things that I can’t see, and perhaps she can’t see. She’s eighty-five in human years. In a skewed aging process, Cabela entered our home as a puppy but is now twenty-three years older than me. Routines have changed, and allowances have been made. But at 6:30 in the morning, I don’t expect my neighbors to give Cabela a pass if she decides to bark at nothing.
I wear a mid-calf-length coat and a knit hat with a gold pom-pom. My feet shilly-shally in a pair of oversized, old sneakers my husband keeps by the back door. My hands are shoved in my pockets. Under the coat, I wear an ankle-length flannel nightgown, which, unfortunately, isn’t completely covered by the coat. I think about my nana who would walk outside in her nightgown and housecoat in the morning if she needed something. She lived on a city block in Milwaukee and, as a little girl, I thought she shouldn’t go outside in nightclothes where the neighbors could see her. Nana believed in ladylike behavior and good manners, so I concluded that old people, like babies, must be allowed outside in their pajamas.
Cabela saunters to the side of the house, scheming to enter the front yard. I block her path and point toward the back door. She still understands hand signals. She turns and canters to the deck and climbs the stairs.
One day last week every time she went outside, she stationed herself in the front corner of our yard and looked across the street. She barked then paused, barked then paused, again and again, as if to say, “Hey, is anyone there?” or “Hey, I’m over here!” Each time I had to go outside, walk up to her, and touch her to get her attention. I couldn’t see anything, but each time I went to get her, I stared across the street longer and longer, looking for a person or an animal. Once I looked to see if smoke was coming out of the house or garage across the street. I wondered if she was hallucinating.
Sometimes Cabela is in her own world. She awakes from a nap and stands, head bowed, as if she’s trying to remember why she got up. She’ll stand, motionless. Sometimes I bend down, rest my cheek against hers, and murmur, “Do you want to go outside? Do you need a drink of water? Are you okay?” She doesn’t respond to my questions. She moves only after she has made a decision about something that I’m not privy to.
To keep Cabela from barking, I’ve started going outside with her in the early morning hours. I shamelessly throw my coat on over my nightgown. She’s already waited for me to pee so she can go outside to pee. She makes it clear that she doesn’t want to wait for me to get dressed. I’m not being unladylike; I’m channeling my nana.
Once outside I stay close to Cabela. We’re two senior citizens starting our day, grateful to be together, and happy to be alive. But only one of us is thankful that it’s too dark for the neighbors to see her outfit.
[“Puppy by Impulse” was published in June 2021 by Itasca Community College, Grand Rapids, Minnesota, in their annual magazine Spring Thaw.]
“Standard poodles, black, males and females, eight weeks, available January 2, $300.” My husband started reading these ads to me after a vacation to Tucson where he’d met my father’s three standard poodles, Tyrone, Lady and Gabby. After a second visit to Tucson and meeting Daisy, my father’s newest poodle, my husband’s reading of the ads intensified. The colors and prices varied, but not his need to inform me that somewhere nearby, someone was selling poodles. My husband, who loves dogs, wanted one.
I ignored him.
“That’s cheap,” he said, “a real bargain.”
“We have Buffy. I don’t want two dogs.”
“Buffy would have a buddy,” he said. In the past at this point, my husband had always said: I’m not saying we should get one right now. I’m just reading the ad. He was off script.
“Ha,” I said. “You mean our dog who wags her tail when she meets another dog, then tries to bite it when it gets close?”
“I’m sure she’d be nice to a puppy,” he said.
“Buffy is almost fourteen. She doesn’t want a puppy.”
I left the room and thought about canceling the newspaper.
We stayed home New Year’s Eve because our youngest son played hockey, and we were on a budget. My husband moped.
“I’m probably the only one stuck at home,” he said.
“I ran into John and his son at the video store. He and his wife aren’t going out either.” John’s son played hockey with our son.
“There’s nothing on TV.” The remote was getting a workout.
“Do you want to watch the movie I rented?” I asked. “It’s an action flick.”
“No,” he answered, “I’m going to bed.” It was before midnight.
On New Year’s Day, he was still moping—disconcerting to me because moping wasn’t his style. He’s a wake-up-cheery kind of guy. Heck, he’s a cheery-all-the-time kind of guy. I wondered if not getting a puppy was more upsetting than spending New Year’s Eve at home.
“Where’s the ad about the $300 poodles?” I asked. Did I just say that?
My forty-seven-year-old husband leapt out of his funk and found the ad. Yup, I’d said it.
His sudden mini-midlife crisis, which addled my reasoning, seemed like it could be cured by buying a puppy. Better a puppy than an expensive red sports car. Besides, I knew he’d never settle for a sports car, not if he could have a poodle.
“If you call now,” he said, “maybe you can see the puppies tomorrow and get first pick.”
I backpedaled. “I’m just going to ask the breeder some questions.”
That statement swiftly morphed into We’re getting a puppy! by my husband and sons. Even I caught puppy fever, but my excitement burned bright like a shooting star then fizzled into a blackhole. But after raising their hopes, I couldn’t bring myself to tell my husband and sons I had second thoughts about a puppy. I forgot our anniversary once—wasn’t a problem. But if I changed my mind about the puppy—that was possibly husband-gets-a-new truck territory in order to get myself out of the doghouse. Despite having an English degree, I still had enough financial savvy to understand a puppy was the cheaper option.
My teenage sons, Josh and Tim, had never asked for a dog, as we’d always had one, but they’d never had a puppy. Jelly Bean, a coal-black German shepherd-Labrador retriever, was two when our first child was born. And Buffy, a small terrier-poodle mix, was two when we adopted her. I imagined my sons giving me the stink eye at future family gatherings as they reminisced about the puppy they were promised but never got. I pictured the day each son would bring home his future wife who’d look at me as if saying, So, you’re the reason my fiancé has trust issues. I kept my puppy misgivings to myself and called the breeder.
“We can see the puppies tomorrow,” I said, after getting off the phone. “They have five females and five males. They’re all black.” We decided to get a female.
“What are we going to name it?” Josh asked.
“Pearl,” I said. I was the sponsor of the okay-we’ll-get-a-puppy crazies, and I knew I’d be the primary caregiver, so I claimed naming rights.
“No way,” Josh said.
“Black pearls are lustrous and beautiful,” I said. “And no matter which dog we pick, it’s going to be black.”
“That’s a dumb name,” Tim said.
“I’m not going to stand outside and yell Pearl,” my husband said. “You have to think about what it’s going to sound like to yell the name out loud.”
I had. “It’s a strong one-syllable word, the kind of name dog trainers recommend.”
“Pearl is an old-lady name,” Tim argued.
“Poodles are sophisticated,” I countered. “I can picture one wearing pearls.”
Every name my husband and sons suggested, I rejected, and they refused to call the puppy Pearl.
“How about Bailey?” I asked. I prepared for another round of rejections, but they liked it. Now, we had a name for the puppy, which I still didn’t want.
The next day my sons and I went to look at the poodles that were priced at three times the amount my husband and I would’ve spent going out on New Year’s Eve. My teenage sons were we are willing to get in a car and drive 180 miles with our mom excited. My husband was it isn’t fair I have to work and can’t go with disappointed. I was why did I open my big mouth remorseful.
With the prudence of a settler heading west in a covered wagon, I packed the SUV with a borrowed crate, old towels, a couple of blankets, a roll of paper toweling, a garbage bag, a dish, and some water.
“Now remember,” I told my sons, “we’re going to look. If things don’t seem right, we aren’t just getting a puppy anyway.”
“Okay,” they said.
“I mean it,” I said. “The place could be a dump. We can’t get a dog from a bad home. Who knows what kind of problems we’d have?”
“Okay,” they said. It was the okay spoken by a child who isn’t listening, a child who knows whatever is being said will have no bearing on what’s going to happen.
“The dogs could be mangy and unfriendly, even vicious,” I said.
“Okay,” they said, dragging out each syllable.
Yeah, right. Too late. I’d set the act of buying a puppy in motion, and like a runaway train hurtling down a mountain, I couldn’t stop it. No one goes to look at a litter of puppies and walks away empty-handed. It’s Einstein’s lesser-known theory of puppy relativity. Still, I hoped to avoid getting a puppy. The 90-mile trip to northern Minnesota gave me time to stew in a pot of regret. Potty training. Accidents. Chewing. Walks in all kinds of weather. Grooming. Vet bills. Obedience training.
Ninety miles later, we arrived at the breeder’s home. It wasn’t looking good. As I pulled into the driveway, a picturesque family farm materialized before me. The fields draped with fresh white snow evoked visions of horse-drawn sleighs filled with laughing people and proud poodles out for a jaunt on a crisp winter’s day. I could even hear the darn bells jingling. A cheerful clapboard farmhouse sat on the western edge of the field. The only part missing was an artist with an easel capturing all that scenic beauty on a canvas, for which some wealthy city dweller would gladly pay top dollar and hang on the wall of an ostentatious, 4,000-square-foot, seldom-used “cabin.”
I hoped the inside of the house could save me. Nope. No improvement there. Three big, affectionate dogs greeted us, not a whisper of a growl or a moan of discontentment among them. A regal silver standard poodle, who turned out to be the proud father, gently placed his paws on Josh’s shoulders and licked his face. The dogs were clean and neatly groomed. The breeder said, “Sit,” and three furry butts hit the floor.
I surveyed the room and realized it belonged to the dogs. Outdated but clean, well-preserved linoleum covered the floor. Big double-hung windows lined the walls, giving the dogs panoramic views of the farm. Cozy, plump dog beds bordered the wall opposite the door. And, a short breezeway led to the main house where the dogs spent time with their people. The dogs were cared for and loved.
An ample, sturdy-built kennel occupied the corner of the room. Mother poodle, happy to have a reason to escape her ten busy pups, hopped over a short barrier and came to greet us. Her puppies, each a jet-black ball of wiggles, jumped against the barrier. “Hey, Mom, where you going?” they squealed.
My last hope rested with the puppies. Perhaps they would cower in fear or show signs of hostility. The puppies let me down. Turned loose for our inspection, they ran to us with wagging tails. Both boys crouched down to play with the yipping, wriggling, nipping puppies. The only problem was choosing one. Our soon-to-be puppy solved the problem—she picked Josh. She scrambled into his arms and licked his face. “This one,” he said.
I paid the breeder, and Josh strode out of the house holding our new puppy like a trophy. After letting her piddle, we put her in the crate in the back of the SUV and started for home.
“Something stinks like crap,” Tim said. We were just twenty miles down the road.
I stopped. Our puppy had pooped in the crate. While I cleaned it, the boys walked her, and she dutifully piddled. I put her back in the crate and drove on.
“It stinks like crap again,” Tim said. We’d only gone another twenty miles, but our puppy had pooped again.
“Nerves,” we said.
Once more, I cleaned the crate and the boys walked our puppy, who piddled. I started to put her in the crate.
“I’ll hold her,” Tim said.
Another twenty miles and I heard retching.
“Mom, she threw up,” Tim said.
I pulled over and looked at my son, who was wearing his hockey warm-up suit. Vomit covered his lap. He tried to keep it from dripping on the floor. I braced for the snarky words I knew were coming and heard him say, “Poor little girl. You’re just a little baby, aren’t you?” He continued to coo at our puppy.
I wanted to ask, Who are you and what have you done with my fifteen-year-old son? But I didn’t. At that moment I knew my reserved, grumpy teenager still had his soft heart. Trying to keep the tears in my eyes, I grabbed some paper towel and silently cleaned puppy vomit off my son and the seat. Josh walked our puppy, who piddled again.
“Maybe we should put her back in the kennel,” I said, thinking she couldn’t have much left in her to excrete.
“I’ll hold her,” Tim said. I grabbed the blanket, folded it, placed it in his lap, and put our puppy on it.
We made it home without any more messes. Josh carried our puppy into the house and put her on the kitchen floor. She did a circle dance, squatted, and piddled. Tail wagging, she pranced over to greet my husband, who bent down and scratched the ears of his little bargain.
And what a bargain she was. Our next trip was to the pet store for all the necessities: puppy food, treats, a stylish collar and leash, a dog bed, cuddly toys, and teething bones. Trips to the vet, puppy-socialization class, and obedience training followed. But rather than an expensive bargain, I soon began to think of Bailey as an investment in love, paying unlimited dividends.
[Bailey became ill in February 2011 and passed away. Cabela looked for her for days. In April 2011, we bought Ziva, a blue standard poodle. Ziva and Cabela became friends.]
Last year COVID canceled the city-sponsored fireworks. Many people in our neighborhood bought fireworks and staged their own shows on the Fourth of July. In the twenty-four years I’ve lived here, the amateur firework shows have never been louder or lasted longer.
Boom, snap, crackle, and bang reverberated from after sunset until sometime after midnight. My twelve-year-old poodle, Cabela, distraught at the noise that wouldn’t end, trembled. I took her to the basement, her comfort spot when a thunderstorm or a few pre- or post-Fourth-of-July fireworks explode.
But she didn’t crawl into her kennel and curl up like she normally does. She slunk into the back of the basement next to my husband’s workbench, sat on his cushioned floor mat, and stared at the wall, waiting for the noise to stop. She had the demeanor of a shell-shocked soldier.
I stayed in the basement with her. I sat on the stool in front of the workbench. Eventually, she lay down, keeping her nose to the wall. I wondered, Does she think if she stays in the corner long enough the punishment will end?
It’s the middle of June, and the firework warmups have begun, a few pops here and there, mostly off in the distance. Cabela is a bit hard of hearing, so she doesn’t hear all of these early fireworks, and mercifully their duration is short. But the Fourth of July is coming. The booms will become closer, louder, and last longer. I wonder if this year’s Fourth will be a repeat of last year’s Fourth because even with her diminished hearing, she will hear them. My sweet, tender, stoic dog will be frightened and confused.
Neither one of us likes the Fourth of July anymore.