Saturday, September 01, 2007

Termite

I don't think I've ever mentioned Termite out here. She was our dog when I was growing up. A mutt, plain and simple, Termite was some terrier mix, just a tiny black thing when she came into our family. I can't even remember exactly how she came to us -- probably through a friend of my sister, Nurse Rachet, who was also responsible for our adoption of Tuptim, the Siamese kitten she saw get thrashed in a hit and run. (One broken leg and $200 later, we had a cat that ran the roost for nearly 22 years before her time came.)

Termite was the runt of her litter, abandoned by her mother, and raised, at least for a few weeks, by a somewhat tame raccoon kept by our puppy's original owner. The raccoon impressed its behaviors on wee Termite, who, all her life, would dip her paws in her water bowl, mimicking raccoon eating behavior. Her tail was broken when she came to our care -- a result of raccoon discipline, we'd been told. A trip to the vet ended with a bobbed tail rather than the curvy one her siblings had.

Man, I miss that dog.

She liked to gnaw on wood, including the legs of my mother's old upright piano, hence her moniker "Termite." That habit faded as she grew out of her puppy days, but the name stuck. (For the record, the chewing in general remained as a bad lifelong habit -- I'll never forget that dog taking my sister's retainer from the edge of the bathtub one night and gnawing it into a lump of plastic and wire. She managed to get it stuck in her own small mouth, wire wrapped around her teeth. Once Mom got over being furious with my sister for leaving the pricey thing in reach of the dog, she had to laugh at how well it fit in Termite's mouth. "Your mouth is the same size as the dog's, dear." I can hear Mom chuckling at my sister. Somewhere, there is a great photo of the dog wearing my sister's retainer before we managed to extract it.)

Termite had one white paw, and, I'm sorry to say, I was responsible for that. As a little kid, I put her in the basket on the front of my bike and took her for rides around the neighborhood. (She was a sucker for a bike ride -- when my mom was older and had one of those 3-wheeled bikes with the big basket, Termite was always in the back, nose up in the breeze.) But on one of our rides, I hit a huge bump, tossing Termite from the basket and, in a moment forever frozen in my memory, I ran over her tiny paw, full force.

Oh, how that poor dog cried. I remember not being able to breathe, for having caused so much pain.

It brought back the one of the earliest, darkest memory of my life -- another moment I can see with absolute clarity despite having been no more than 4 years of age when it happened. That was back in New Jersey. I remember standing at the edge of my yard, by the street with my mother, as the neighbor across the road showed us her new beagle puppy, all floppy legs and oversized ears. It hopped all over the yard and yipped with excitement. I remember the neighbor laughing as the beagle continued to gambol in the grass. And then, suddenly, the puppy wasn't in the grass.

The car is a blur in my mind. It came down the street so fast, and that puppy had just barely put paws in the street.

Bounding, bounding, full of energy and raw joy...

And, just like that, it was gone.

The car never stopped.

All that was left was a streak of red. And a horrified owner, her hands up over her mouth, standing, unmoving. And a strange mix of fear and shock and embarrassment and shame -- I figured the puppy was trying to cross the street to see me. In truth, I have no idea.

All I know is, one moment the puppy was there, and then, it was gone. For years, I had flashbacks to that sudden, senseless death.

And then, they faded.

But, in that second when I crushed my dog's paw beneath my bike - so fast - first the front tire, then the back, dear god, it all came back. I shook like a leaf as I fell off my bike, my legs wobbling under me. I swept Termite up into my arms and cradled her shrieking form, running all the way home. I'm not sure how my bike got back to the house. Probably a neighbor walked it home for me.

Her paw was swollen, tiny bones broken and flesh so bruised, but there was little a vet could do. She limped and yipped in pain for days, and, as her fur grew, her paw turned to snow white, a permanent reminder of what I had accidentally done to her. For her part, bless her small but loyal brain, Termite seemed to not remember how it had happened and that I was the culprit. Either that, or she simply did not blame me for her injury. Even as she limped those first weeks, she still followed me to the garage and wagged her little stub, waiting for me to put her in the basket for another go. But I just couldn't do it. We took long walks and she ran next to my bike, but I never took her for another ride. Mom's big "trike" would fulfill all her bike-riding needs.

She was a good dog. If you howled, you could get her to sing. It drove my mom nuts, but it was hilarious to watch her tilt her head to the sky and answer some call deep in her canine DNA. She put up with kids dressing her up and me trying to teach her tricks. She slept at the foot of my bed and would wake me up with prods, pokes, loud panting, and the occasional polite yip of reminder that she really, really needed to go outside now, thank you.

She was a faithful companion for many years, patient and affectionate, and very mellow, except when the phrase "wanna go out?!?" was tossed her way. Then she became a bouncing, barking spring on furry feet. I would miss her so when I left for Mac in 1984.

I remember each time I came home from college. I could hear her cry as I approached the front door, and through the screen, I would always see that frantically wiggling tail stump before anything else. She was always so happy to see her family come home. Sometimes so happy she'd pee on your feet on the front steps as she talked out out her warbling welcome.

By the time I was a sophomore in college, Termite was an old dog. Grey and white had crept over her form, she was slow and clearly in arthritic pain. Her eyes had grown cloudy, and her personality altered. She was tired. The year my father died, she had started to become incontinent and snappy. Hers was a rapid decline. The week after my father died, Mom had colon cancer surgery. When she came home, weak and sick, Termite was snapping at her, blindly getting under Mom's uncertain feet, and leaving messes that Mom slipped in. The happy dog with the wiggly tail had been replaced by this one, angry, confused, and ill.

It was time.

I remember the day we put her down so clearly. My mother was having post-surgery problems and she was restless, sleeping in her freshly empty bed only for minutes at a time and then waking in distress. Mom wanted to sit in her recliner in the living room, and, en route, she slipped and fell in another mess poor Termite had left behind in our dark hallway. When I went to find Termite and take her outside, she snapped at me and bit my hand, her face curled into a snarl that had become more common in those late days.

My brother was called up from his basement room to take our dog away. Mom sobbed -- it was the first time I'd really seen her break. She was always so strong, but between my father's death, the cancer, and now, the failing of a faithful friend, she was weak. "I can't do it anymore!" She cried, her whole body shaking. "She can't do it anymore!" When I heard Mom say this, gasping through her tears, I wept like a baby, losing all composure.

My brother was furious that he was being dispatched as the executioner. He was an angry man in general back then, and his emotions had a hair trigger. He yelled that it should be my job to do, as I had grown up with Termite. Maybe he was right. And, had Mom not needed my help with her surgical wounds, I probably would have gone in his place. But Ed did not have any aptitude to attend to a fresh colostomy on an traumatized older woman.

Ed was still swearing at me and Mom as he left the house. Termite did not snap at my brother when he picked her up to take her to the car. Her stump of a tail wiggled in anticipation of the ride -- it was as if, for one final moment, our happy dog had returned.

Ed was back in an hour. Termite was gone. My brother didn't speak to us for days, and I was left with such guilt and anger for so long. Had we done the right thing? Should we have kept struggling with her declining health? Our cat, Tuptim, ruler of the roost, looked for her dog day after day after day. She would sit at the top of the stairs to our basement, calling in this wailing yowl for hours at a time, coming as close to weeping as I think a cat can, waiting for Termite to answer.

She missed her dog.

We all did.

It took me a long time to set aside my feelings of guilt. In the end, our little friends depend upon us to make the right decisions for them. And for us. And, in the cold equations of life, an infirm, angry, elderly dog around a infirm, aging, blind woman with poor balance presents little choice.

Awww, crap. Made myself cry. Dang it!

Poor dog. Little friend. You with your tiny stump frantically wagging at the door whenever I came home. So loyal and so true. You were robbed by age and infirmity, and someone else had to choose for you.

Man, I still miss you.

I'll leave you, dear reader, with this song -- a tribute to another four-legged friend. And if I've made you sad, the last couple of seconds of this video will make you smile.

5 comments:

spencer said...

So ironic - as I was reading this post, I was thinking of this song and then there it is ate that end of your post.. Great song and a great post.

I too had a dog that was killed by a car. I remember I was about 12, the only dog I ever owned, Snowball (I was twelve!). Anyway, I was at a boy scout meeting and when I came home my father told me snowball had gotten out of the house, dad saw him across the street, called out to him, snowball dashed, and was hit by a car. By the time I returned home Snowball was gone - body and otherwise - I cried forever and haven't had a dog since.

One of these days I'll have another dog - when it can roam on our property instead on in the urban landscape.

Anonymous said...

When my cat pal Tommy G.B.K. (Giant Black Kitty) fell ill last Feb & in spite of our best efforts continued to go downhill, we finally had to say enough... we had him almost 10 yrs & man was he loaded with personality... I felt so bad about having to put him down (I petted him as the vet did his thing) until a friend of mine told me I not only "did the right thing", but he added "It's the last great act of kindness we can give them for all they give us"

you were being kind to Termite in the last way that you could...

Sj

Heather Meadows said...

This was a beautiful story.

I had to take my dog to be put down a couple years ago. 2005 was not a particularly good year for me ;P It's never an easy choice, even when it's the best one.

Our childhood dog, Misho, died while my mom and brothers and I were on vacation, and it was surreal. We never saw his body, so it was like he was just gone somewhere. I'd grown up with him and the transition to not having him there was rough.

We had two dogs between Misho and the three siblings that included Gaila. Both of them were hit and killed by cars. I think we were just used to having smart dogs who knew better than to go in the street, so we weren't as mindful. When we eventually got Hairy, Mac and Gaila, they were indoor dogs, and we fenced off the backyard for when they had to go or when we took them out to play.

Now they're pretty old...Gaila was the first to go, but it doesn't seem like the other two have much longer.

A friend of mine sent me the sappiest email in the world yesterday. Basically it was about a family whose dog had to be put down, and they were talking about why pets' lives have to be so short. The six-year-old son said, "People live a long time because they have to learn how to be good and love everyone. Dogs already know that, so they don't have to take as long."

Cyn said...

Aw shucks, Merujo, you almost made me cry at work (luckily, somebody walked by and I had to straighten up quick.)

Well, you know how I feel about pets with my whole Leo saga...also too much childhood experience with dogs being killed by cars (the result of growing up in a rural area near a 60mph highway.) Much to relate to here.

Anyway, wonderful story-telling. Thanks for sharing this.

Anonymous said...

Argh. You got me. This story needs published.

Sabrina