The Dog of My Youth Is Now My Roommate in His Twilight Years
My roommate hasn't seen my face in 10 years. He hasn't heard my words in five. The brown around his mouth turned white long ago, and a benign, softball-sized cyst dangles from his chest, dragging across the ground as he shuffles his arthritic legs. Seventeen years takes a toll, after all. Seventeen years will change some things, and it will bring others full circle. Last spring, 17 years after he first took a nap on my floor, Schwartz and I became roommates once again.
Born on the same day as the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building crumbled to the ground in the Oklahoma City bombing, Schwartz was a gift for my 11th birthday, a Dachshund whose German moniker derived from his black fur. He was my best friend in all of those cliched ways: the subject of art projects, the after-school playmate who always stayed for dinner. But he divided his loyalty: In the early part of the evening, my mom would sink into the couch to read The Hartford Courant with Schwartz at her feet, burrowed under a royal blue blanket. And for a long time, he was only beloved by the two of us.
He was a four-legged Napoleon with a cantankerousness that was usually pretty impotent: chewing up newspapers, barking down any poor person who rang the doorbell. His demeanor stemmed from poor training, untended neuroses, and unfixed testicles -- things I now understand were largely if not entirely our fault. As a puppy, he and my dad had a few battles of will, and Schwartz's teeth pierced flesh more than once during his early years. That he never ended up the subject of a dangerous dog hearing is a minor miracle.
Affliction after affliction tempered his ferocity. His eyes went cloudy and blind by the summer of 2002, just before I moved away from home. A year later, he nearly died of complications from a hernia. The following winter, nerve damage meant his hind legs would occasionally give out. The nadir came in 2007, when my dad accidentally backed over Schwartz with a car in our family's driveway. Not just into, but over, with a Maxima, nearly severing his jugular.
He emerged deaf, scarred, borderline immobile -- and without his old belligerence. Suddenly, he was the dog we always wanted him to be. After he healed, he spent long summer afternoons traipsing behind my mom while she planted the flower beds outside their home. He even stopped flashing his teeth at my dad. Mostly.
When the fatigue of chemotherapy confined my mom to the couch, Schwartz was the only one of us who was happy -- the nightly ritual that they shared had become an all-day affair. He remained at her side until she wasn't there anymore. When the funeral home came to take her away for good, he sat where she once was, curled his tail to an awkward angle, and whimpered into the darkness. My dad endured the rigors of cancer the following year, and Schwartz slept through the hours of hardship and emptiness that had become our family's new normal. He stayed with my sisters until May. My dad's recovery never came. Now, the dog that I showed off to my friends on the last day of fifth grade, the dog that barked down death more than once only to watch it take the two wonderful people who brought him into our family, is living with me and my wife in our house on Cape Cod.
The circumstances that brought him here were inauspicious, but the truth is Schwartz isn't a bad roommate. He depends on my wife and I to hoist him outside or into the car, but otherwise, his quality of life is on par with any other 17-year-old dog. He still eats twice a day, still hangs out on the couch at night, still wags his tail. There's no trace of the testosterone-fueled liability he used to be. Considering he's been compelled to share a space with a five-year-old English bulldog with only-child syndrome, neither of them has taken the arrangement too badly.
Schwartz does have one quirk that gives us pause. In the small hours, he climbs off of his blanket, prattles across the floor, and empties his bowels. Almost every night. No matter how recently he last relieved himself. Schwartz was never quite housebroken -- since I can remember, picking up poop was as routine and changing his water dish. But now, this ambiguous habit keeps us looking for further signs of deterioration. After all, how much life is left in a 17-year-old dog?
Maybe the better question is: How much life is left in a 17-year-old dog who was once run over by a 4,500-pound car and somehow emerged better off?
Schwartz was a childhood confidante. Then he was my parents' dog. Then he was a blind witness to a painful chapter in my family's history. Now, he's an awkward fit. But he's no burden, and he's earned every day he has left. As long as his tail keeps wagging, I'll keep cleaning up the mess.
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