When Susan Lilley asked me if I had anything to post on Mother’s Day, I thought about pieces I’ve written about having a miscarriage, having and being a stepmother, parenting my own daughter, and being parented by my daughter in funny, humbling role-reversal moments. Yet I kept returning to this little piece I wrote about “mothering” my dog, Mick, who nearly died several times from undiagnosed Imerslund-Grasbeck Syndrome. I’m surprised by how breezily dog people call themselves “parents” or refer to me as “Mick’s mom.” Yet no one calls him my “son.” Isn’t that interesting?
About two years ago, when I looked down, this is who looked up.
That is, that’s who looked up when he’d had his head in a yogurt container. Mick was sweet and sleepy and gentle. And I worried about that. He was a Border Collie. He wasn’t made to cuddle for three hours or to give up after three ball tosses.
Of course, Mick was a sick puppy, something we know now that vets couldn’t see then, although I worried constantly that something was dangerously wrong and I would lose my puppy. Were his ears rising, were his testicles dropping, were his puppy teeth falling out? Was he getting taller, was he gaining weight, was he herding the cat? Was he growing coat, blowing coat, losing coat, going bald? Was he eating too little, was he peeing too much, was he breathing in the middle of the night?
His testicles were like two lentil beans. When he stood up, they came down. When he rolled over, they slipped back inside his body. That’s normal at a certain stage, but that’s how they were even as he approached one year old. He was undersized and underdeveloped, and I wondered if he’d ever develop normally–or if he’d even live to do so.
I checked Mick’s package a few times a week, but my husband couldn’t keep his hands off it. It worried him. If the dog’s balls were big and strong, Mick would be big and strong.
And they weren’t. And he wasn’t.
When I asked the vet when we should neuter him, she said, “No, no, no, Mick needs all the help he can get.” Testosterone would boost his bones and muscles. She ruffled his ears, and he wiggled. She adopted that baby-talk falsetto some use with animals, “One day you’re going to herd sheep and win agility titles. You’re gonna need big, strong joints so you don’t get injured, right, buddy?” She slipped him a yummy treat. He spat it out.
He couldn’t eat. He was slowly starving himself to death. After two one-week stints in Intensive Care and a freak accident, we finally got a diagnosis: Imerslund-Grasbeck Syndrome, a rare, inherited B-12 deficiency. That’s all it was. A vitamin. He just needs a B-12 shot once a month. Such a simple fix, and yet most puppies with I-GS died before diagnosis.
Within a month he caught up to his litter mates. Mick, who barely ate enough to survive, would now eat anything under his nose. And in that short time span, his lentils became peanuts–then pistachios–macadamias–walnuts–Brazils! The dog had stones!
Suddenly Mick was a man-beast twice as strong, ten times as fast, and twenty times as stinky as he was a month before. Gone were the days when I was training him and he locked eyes with me and hung on my smile. People used to say we were a joy to watch. People said our bond was rare and strong. Of course, I heard that with a pang. I knew it was true, and I treasured it–but Mick and I were close the way you’re close when you weep together in the middle of the night, covered in shit and blood. That’s how it goes when one of you is dying.
Yes, our bond was rare and strong. Because I feared it would be brief.
Within weeks of a cure, we were already taking each other for granted. Once he had balls, he got cocky. In every way. After finally tipped the scale at a respectable 35 pounds, he celebrated by humping the first 230-pound English Mastiff he ran into. He was an adolescent trying out bold new attitudes. Sometimes, he tried to see if he can get away with being a jerk. He’d fart, mark, and mount anything in his path. He left dirty socks all over the house and when I asked him how his day was, he just said, “Fine.”
Exasperating, invigorating, normal. I knew the canine adolescent storm could last about a year, and we just needed to weather it. I needed to set strict rules and pay swift consequences. It was counter-intuitive, but when I wanted nothing to do with that scrappy brat was when I needed to give him the most praise and attention. The same was true when I had a human adolescent in the house. That’s pretty much how I dealt with ornery students, and it works. But it’s hard.
So I was thinking along such lines, one Saturday morning as I took a shower alone, musing about those things and more, a whole range of things, from “It’s time to get him neutered” to “It’s time to turn him over to a sheepdog handler who can use his oomph.” Then I remembered he was invited to my friend’s party, so he’d better get a shower too–and some Axe Body Spray.
So I pulled him into the shower with me. He hates it, but he entered without a fight because I told him to. It reminded me that no matter how contrary he gets, he might always be a good boy at heart. I told myself to keep trying to be good for him.
So I sat down smack on the tile and used the shower hose to soak the dense coat of this healthy man-dog Mick, a dog I felt I no longer knew. As I drove the warm water through the fur, down to the skin, he smelled strange, and he looked stranger, with an oversized head. Emboldened because the dog was trapped in the shower, the cat sauntered in and leapt on the vanity. Mick ignored me, staring at the cat like a man staring at the TV on football Sunday. My puppy had lived. And, I’d lost him anyway.
Still Mick sat, patient and trusting and miserably wet. I scrubbed his ears, his belly, his backside, between his toes. Every once in awhile, he’d lick my arm or cheek, as if moved to return the tenderness.
Sitting on the shower floor with him, lathering his fabulous ruff and skirts, I remembered the first time I bathed him, many months before.
How basic and tender it is to bathe someone!
I remembered everything.
I remembered my new puppy studying the water rivulets, licking soap suds, shivering, and when toweled-off and set free, running and rolling and bouncing around the carpet.
I remembered bathing my young dog several times a day because he was leaking blood and shit from his shaved and raw backside. I remembered pinching and lifting his feverish skin to give him subcutaneous antibiotic injections because he had septicimia. I remembered how he suffered. And so I suffered. We were so afraid, the two of us, down on the shower floor, drenched to the skin, down on the bedroom floor, grateful we were still alive together in the night, down on the hospital tile, bewildered by smells and glare and the whimpering of strange dogs and the brisk white-sneakered staff squeaking past.
Suddenly I hugged him and a sob escaped me. He gave my cheek one quick lick and endured me for about three heartbeats, then struggled free, as if to say, “Damn it, woman! I’m on cat-watch.” He’s a grown Border Collie. He’s not the cuddling kind.
I rinsed the fur off my skin, gave him a good towel-rub, and set him free. Toweling myself, I watched him blast through the house, skating his nose on the carpet. I wondered if he remembered too.