Autumn — Chapter 17

Read Autumn — Chapter 16

The day Autumn died, I woke up and did not immediately know this would be the day. She was lying in the living room, half on the hardwood floors and halfway on the rug. She barely looked up to acknowledge my entering the room, a sure sign something was off, but she had been listless for days because of the unusual heat.

The night before, she had been so hot. So hot that after I removed her from the tiles on the bathroom floor and placed her in a cold bath, the place where her tummy had been touching the floor remained warm for hours. Literally hours. A sick and dreadful feeling filled my stomach when I walked into that bathroom so long after putting her in that bath and could feel the warmth in the floor where she had been.

The heat of those summer days finished her off, I have no doubt of it. She could not withstand the hundred degree temperatures. The last few days before she died, I would come home and find her inert with exhaustion. She would not move. Her stomach would feel like an iron. I would then run a bath of cool water and lay her in it. This perked her up because she needed that cooling off. I don’t know whether her body was incapable of regulating its temperature anymore. The diabetes did so much else to her body; I could see it killing her thermometer too.

That morning, she was lying there and I didn’t immediately register how badly she was doing. I began to get ready for work, roused Milla out of bed, was busily doing my thing, when I made a horrific discovery.

Neon green ooze had leaked of Autumn. It looked like she had peed and was lying in it, but it was not yellow. The color was not anything I had seen from a living thing before, the color of a summer lime popsicle. My entire body went cold upon seeing that ooze. I carefully cleaned it up and moved Autumn into the kitchen. She was more listless than ever. She could barely stand. My throat was tight. It was beginning to dawn that she would not reach her twelfth birthday.

What was that, the desire for her to reach another birthday? All along while dealing with this wretched disease, I had wanted her to reach another birthday. After her initial diabetic episode, I was not sure she would ever reach her eleventh birthday. Then it was Christmas. Then I began to think maybe she would just keep living through a few birthdays, just looking like a skeleton.

I realize now she was gradually worsening, but having her there with me every day I did not notice the decline. Up until three weeks before her death she still liked chasing things. She couldn’t see while she was chasing things, so we had to accommodate, but she still liked doing it. She even seemed to enjoy looking for the ball or stick or toy she could not see.

That’s the trouble with living with a degenerative disease; you don’t notice the degeneration because you’re so busy managing it. And when the good days completely outweigh the bad, which Autumn’s did, it is easy to forget that the one you’re taking care of is on her way out of this world.

And for some reason I had arbitrarily decided that Autumn had to make it to August 16 and her twelfth birthday. It was like that day could save her somehow, even though I knew in my gut it was not true.

While lying in the kitchen, more neon green ooze came out and she just laid in it. It was this that made it clear to me that Autumn was finally really dying. I gave her an insulin shot. I tried to feed her, but she would not eat. She would not even eat wet food. More dread. More tightening in the throat and drying in the mouth.

I knew.

I debated taking her to work with me, initially deciding against it. Then as I bustled about, fitting into the routine that made forgetting easier for the moment, I realized that if I did not take her to work with me I would not see her this last day and I could not do that.

I worried about the office, whether anyone would care that I dragged in my skeleton dog. I worried about her needing to go potty. I finally decided to bring a towel and tell anyone who cared that this child of mine, my first baby I picked out the day she was born, was dying and if that person was heartless enough to tell me to take her away I would tell them to go to hell, but no one did. No one said a word. If I hadn’t had clients, I would not have gone, but I’ve figured out working on my own that I am the only backup, the biggest drawback to self-employment.  The clients who came to see me that day were extremely sympathetic.  One woman who came in shared a similar story of losing her own beloved pet.

I still have the bowl Autumn drank from the day she died. I cannot bear to put it back in the office kitchen. The day I returned to the office after she died I bawled when I saw that bowl. I had heard people speak of feeling “raw” and I now know what they meant. I felt absolutely exposed those first days after she was gone, like nothing was protecting me. Vulnerable. Words I had heard and sort of experienced, but not like this. No, this was worse.

Watching someone gradually die is the epitome of the expression a blessing and a curse. You are blessed with having your loved one there with you, but you are cursed with their disease. One minute you are wishing they would just finally go, the next minute you are thrashing yourself for the thought, the guilt a cloak you wear constantly. When they finally go, those moments creep up on you, those moments when you had ardently wished the afflicted would die, and you curse yourself, wondering whether your wishes contributed to their demise, knowing intellectually this is not possible, then reasoning emotionally that perhaps the dying one felt your anger and this brought their death sooner. Guilt:  a horrible, ugly poison.

I know guilt is not one of the traditional stages of grieving, but they ought to add it to the list for those of us who have lived with someone who has a degenerative illness. It has to be there for all of us. I cannot imagine anyone being a one-hundred percent perfect nurse to a degenerative patient, and those moments when you are not perfect come back to haunt you. Maybe only a little bit, but they are there. I like to think I’m an emotionally healthy person. I’ve managed to talk myself out of those moments, but they came up nonetheless and they can be brutal during the first days after the loved one dies. Like little bits of acid spray on the raw wound of grief.

Mostly though, I remember Autumn with tenderness and affection. Her body was so decrepit in the end, such a mess. A few months after her death, I watched a video I took of her two weeks before that day and her body was an emaciated skeleton. So sad. I took the video that morning because I thought that was her last day, rather than the day she actually died.

Throughout her life Autumn followed me wherever I would go, no matter how trivial or short the trip. Going into the kitchen for a glass of water?  There was Autumn, at my side. Going for a short visit to the toilet?  Autumn would rise from wherever she had been lying, follow me in, sighing heavily as she laid down next to me, then rising again thirty seconds later to follow me back to wherever I had been.

On that last day, when work was over, I picked Milla up from school and we headed south out of town for Dr. Fletcher’s in Albany. Debbie and Robert maintained a phone link, planning to be there for me in the end. I called Dr. Fletcher as well, to let him know we were on our way.

It was a warm day, hot and yellow. Autumn lay on the front seat, curled up. I kept petting her and sobbing. During those moments I kept thinking to myself that in an hour and a half, she would not be there anymore, that I would drive home without her, that I would never see her again. Ever. The finality was like a cement brick to the head. I could barely drive through my tears.

When Autumn was little and she rode in the car with me, she would lay her head across my forearm as I held the gear shift. As we drove, I placed my arm on the seat next to her and she rested her head there, our last moment a microcosm of our life together, our last hour.

The sun was still fairly high when we arrived at Dr. Fletcher’s near 6:00 that evening. The air outside the car was hot, so I left Autumn in the air-conditioning while I went inside to let Dr. Fletcher know that we had arrived. Debbie and Robert had already arrived and were waiting for us.

It’s odd. Since that evening, I’ve had many moments of extreme stress where my body felt like it could barely handle taking another step, but my mind knew it had to and forced it to keep going, but that night I had not experienced anything like that in my life before, and it felt overwhelming, that forcing myself to go when I did not want to.

I returned to the car and carefully lifted Autumn from the seat. I held her close and walked over to a grassy spot next to the parking lot. She was so light, barely fur and bones. I held her closely in my lap. She did not lift her head or try to walk around as she had the many times she’d been there before. I just held her, and pet her, and told her how much I loved her. Milla crouched at my side, her hand on Autumn’s neck. Autumn had been a part of her life since birth. Debbie and Robert stood next to us, and Robert snapped a couple of photos.

Dr. Fletcher held a large syringe filled with pink liquid as he walked from his office and across the lot to us. He did not say anything, he just walked up and put the needle in her forearm, then whispered to me to talk to her.

She died almost immediately. I pictured her spirit fleeing that prison of a body, flying off into the ether, she left so fast.

Earlier that year, my mom had to put her dog to sleep. It took him several minutes to die. Autumn died so quickly, it just seemed like an escape. I truly imagined her flying away.

Dr. Fletcher helped me to place her body in the wooden box I had brought to bury her in. It’s a strange experience, carrying a box with you to hold the body of someone who is alive when you start out, but whom you know will be dead, so you carry a place to put them when it’s over.

I buried her in Debbie’s back yard. I wanted her in a place I knew I could come to for as long as I lived. I wrapped her in a special blanket and covered her with a shirt of mine. She looked curled up, like she was sleeping. I have seen a dead human once; that person did not look asleep to me, but very dead. Autumn was not like this. I know it sounds almost trite, but she just looked peaceful, resting. Useful words to describe how it is.

It took a long time to dig the hole, longer than I expected, plus it was hot and the ground was really hard. I had to pick with a pickaxe, then dig with a shovel, then pick again. It was after dark by the time the digging was complete.

Before I lowered the box into the hole, I opened it, and pet and kissed Autumn goodbye, even though she was not really there. I knew once she went into the ground, I would never, ever see her body again. Months later I would imagine losing control and going there, digging up the grave, and opening the box, just so that the last time I saw her wouldn’t have to be.

I found a perfect chunk of stone to place at the head of her grave. I surrounded it with bricks. A couple of weeks later, I came back and planted flowers all over the spot, a floral island in Debbie and Robert’s weedy back landscape.

When I visited the grave the following spring ten months later, the yard was full of wild and brown grass and weeds. Yet Autumn’s grave was covered with green, a grass that was a foot taller than the rest of the grass in the yard. It was a soft, green rhombus, Autumn’s little bed in the middle of the field.

Epilogue
Autumn’s was the first major death in my life that I actually remember.  My grandma died when I was two, and apparently I missed her, but obviously a death at that age is nothing like death as an adult, or even as an older child.  The only other death I have experienced since Autumn is Robert’s, which broke my heart.  He died five years after she did, nearly to the day, of complications due to kidney failure.

Having now experienced the death of a close human, I can honestly say that Autumn’s loss was no less for me.  I grieved her closely for years.  Eight months after she died, I wrote in my journal that I was still mourning:

I ask myself why this grief can return so fresh eight months after her death. Then I realize that if she had been human, no one would begrudge my feeling this way, and I’m questioning the depth of my feelings because she was a dog.

I sat on the floor last evening near the couch and thought of Autumn and realized again that she will never be here. Ever. I hate the finality of that. I hate missing her so much. I hate the way it makes my heart hurt. I hate that I’m not allowed to feel this much pain because she is a dog and not a human. I loved her so much. I loved her more than any human until Milla was born. She was my first child. Of course I grieve. And I should not question that it has been eight months, or that she was a dog.

The idea for a book about her life tickled my brain shortly after she left me, and so I wrote down my memories of her death and illness while the pain was still fresh so I would not forget.  Then I had to put the book aside.  I could not write about her as a puppy without crying so profusely that I could not continue. Every so often I would remember something and take a note:  Don’t forget this about her! the note would read, whether it was the way she hopped up and down when I toweled her dry after a bath, or how she liked to hunt beetles.  Autumn, killer of domestic bugs.

Autumn’s death was the first in a series of life events that nearly brought me to my knees, metaphorically speaking.  Sad but true, the timing of her death in relation to everything else was actually fortuitous.  Things went rather south with Bjorn once he entered a new relationship, and we suffered a rather protracted court battle for the better part of a year.  During that time, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  Bjorn’s new partner filed a bar complaint against me that lasted nearly a year.  The area of law I practice changed laws and my earnings plummeted to zero.  Rather than lose the lovely little house into which I had poured so much of my energy, I sold it shortly before the economy crashed.

I am not so sure I could have managed Autumn’s illness while handling so many difficulties of my own.  Yet perhaps I underestimate myself. It is amazing what one can endure when one has to, simply by placing one foot in front of the other, from one day to the next.  Perhaps too, in living with her various degenerative ailments, I acquired the discipline necessary to meet further challenges.

Two months before Autumn died, I adopted an older greyhound.  Her name was Edna, and surprisingly, she was a source of comfort in the months after Autumn’s death.  She came to us having spent the bulk of her life in a kennel on racetracks.  She had raced eight times and failed miserably at it, whereupon she was turned into a breeding dog.  Edna had no idea how to traverse stairs or eat anything but kibble in a bowl.  Teaching her these things and watching her make new discoveries was an utter delight.  She brought us joy during those sorrowful days after Autumn’s death.

In April 2009 Molly suffered a severe seizure. The seizure was horrible.  When I woke to her twisted body writhing on the floor, her eyes rolling in two different directions, feces and urine everywhere, I thought for sure she was dead.  But she did not die.  Three hours later, to the surprise of everyone who had seen her, especially the vet, Molly was 95% better.  And she stayed better.  The vet warned me that more seizures were to come, that she likely had a brain tumor and would continue to seize until one of them killed her, but that never happened.  She never had another seizure.

Then four months later, Molly seemed to deteriorate before our eyes.  She fell down the stairs to my boyfriend’s basement.  She had been having difficulty with stability on slippery floors for some time and those stairs were covered in linoleum.  She stopped wanting to eat.  We thought maybe hard kibble was bothering her so we bought wet food for her.  Molly gobbled that up like a starving beast and we thought things would improve, only the next day she did not want to eat wet food either.  We fed her some by hand and she ate that, but the next day she wanted even less.  Two days later when we took her outside to go to the bathroom, she slipped and fell going up the back porch steps, and the next day when she went out to go to the bathroom, she urinated, then lay in it.  Clearly something was dreadfully wrong.  My dear, sweet, fastidious dog would never go anywhere near her urine if she could help it.  We bathed her and I made an appointment with our vet.

Molly died the next morning.  The vet said she had a large tumor in her spleen that had burst and her belly was full of blood.  She said we could operate to remove the tumor, but Molly would likely not survive any surgery — there would have been no benefit in trying to save her life.  She was fourteen years old.  Her body was old and worn out.  Trying to keep her alive would have been selfish and cruel.

I am so blessed this creature was a part of my life for almost twelve years.  She was always there, quietly in the background.  Molly loved a lot of people.  She was always so excited to see my mom or my good friends.  She loved my boyfriend and enjoyed his company, following him around the house for a snack or to have her rear end scratched.  She took a bit of time to warm up to a person, almost like she was sizing them up to determine whether they were worth her friendship.  Yet once she decided she liked you, she always liked you and would remember someone after months or even years of an absence.

Upon hearing of her death, a close friend of mine said to me, “She was such a good friend and such a polite and gentle dog.  What a blessing to have had her for so long – she loved you all dearly.”  These words were simply true.  I am grateful Molly came to us. In her quiet way she was a fixture in my life for over a decade.  Of the hundreds of dogs I could have chosen from the humane society that cold, winter day, I am so thankful I chose her.

In winter of 2009 I moved to New York.  I had been telling Milla for months that after school let out for the summer, I would get her a small dog of her own.  During the school year, we would prowl shelters and pet stores, seeing what was out there, looking for a new friend.

One afternoon in April, we stopped in a dog store after going out to a movie.  While there, a small, impish, white maltipoo greeted me with enthusiasm and delight.  She climbed up on the railing to the display area, hanging over the bars begging me to pet her.  She was utterly charming.

The store owners brought the little dog into a fenced area in the middle of the store so we could play with her.  Milla and I sat and enjoyed her company for a half an hour before she wore herself out and settled in for a nap.  As we rose to leave, I reached over the bars and lay my hand on her side.  Something traveled between us in that moment.  I felt her entire body relax beneath my fingers. She sighed and stretched her legs.

After we left I could not get the little dog out of my head.  She was ridiculously expensive and I had determined we would be adopting a shelter dog.  However, I kept thinking of her and early the next morning, which was Easter, I decided that I would call the pet store.  If they were open, I would offer them less than half their asking price for her, the same price I would pay to adopt a dog in New York.  If they accepted, I would go and get her. I called the store, they were open, and they accepted my price immediately.  Milla and I rode the subway north to Washington Heights and brought her home with us. I named her Ava.

I fell immediately in love with this delightful creature.  There are some just dog things, such as the way they trot in front of you with their ears back, heading where you’re heading, that I adore in this dog of mine.  I love how wherever I go in the house she follows me, like Autumn did.  It was one of the hardest things to lose when she died.

Ava also has her own unique quirks that I specially love about her.  She sits on my feet.  If I am in a place and standing and talking or sitting and talking to someone else, she perches on my foot.  She will do this when I am saying goodbye to Milla as she leaves the house to go do something and I am staying home.  Ava sits there on my foot, as if to say I am staying here with herYou go have fun.  We will be here when you get back. Then as I move into the house to do whatever, she follows me.

She likes to sit on the corner of my bed look out the window or watch me while I’m sitting at my desk.  She hovers with her paws over the edge of the bed frame, her head rested on them, looking at me.

Ava makes distinct faces all her own.  The most common is what I call her happy face, her mouth slightly open, tongue out, eyes bright, often one ear cocked.  She’ll turn her head slightly as if to ask Do you want to play? In these moments I stop what I’m doing and play with her.

In the morning, when she wakes up, she has the most incredible bed head.  Her eyes are all sleepy, her hairs all akimbo.  She’ll crawl to the top of the bed, as if the effort is more than she can bear, then sigh and relax as we snuggle and pet her.

Later, wild dog comes out, chasing bears and fozzies, rattling them mightily from side to side until they are dead.  Sometimes she brings them to us and requests that we throw them.  We do, because watching her little sheep butt run away to get them is one of life’s greatest joys.  She does not like these stuffed creatures to see anything.  Within a half an hour of getting a new stuffed toy she removes its eyes.  Perhaps she does not want it to see her remove all its innards piece by piece.  More likely she loves that the pieces are hard and fun to chew.

After Ava has a bath she runs through the house like she’s on fire, ears back, bolting from room to room. What is that, dogs running after baths?  I understand their desire to rub themselves dry on the floor, but the running around after, I wonder why.  Almost every dog I have ever owned has gone running after getting a bath.  However, none of them have run like Ava does.  The others have all just gone for their run to dive into their rubs.  This one just runs like a bat out of hell from room to room, then comes and stares at me with the happy face, tongue lolling out, eyes bright. Then off she goes again to make another round.  It’s hilarious.

Ava isn’t thrilled with the bath itself.  She is actually one of the more obnoxious dogs I have had to bathe.  It’s a good thing she is small and easy to hold down because she really hates it and tries to escape.  Yet she is intrigued by the bathtub, or rather, people showering or bathing.  When Milla takes a shower, it is a guarantee that Ava will be in the bathroom standing on the edge of the tub, peeking around the shower curtain, her little sheep butt wagging its mini tail.  When either of us bathe, she comes and stands and looks in.  Maybe she is curious why we would want to do something so hideously awful.  Or perhaps she just wants our company.  Maybe it’s a little of both.

Ava truly loves to snuggle.  She is thrilled at her ability to jump on the bed.  She could not always do it by herself, but she grew and figured it out, and now seems to take great pleasure in both jumping on and jumping off. I can jump on the bed!  I can jump off the bed!  See?  I launch myself many feet past the bed!  Aren’t I skilled?

She will jump on the bed if I am lying there and come and lie across my neck and sigh.  She’s my little doggie stole.  She’ll snuggle there a while and get kisses from me, and strokes and rubs.  She knows I do not like her to lick me.  She does not even try anymore.  My ex-boyfriend lets her kiss him — I think it’s gross — but Ava knows he doesn’t mind so she licks him all over.  The only time she licks me is when I get out of the shower.  She will come in and lick the water off of my feet  until I dry them.

This dog makes me happy.  That’s the simple fact of it.  She came along when I was very sad.  There were so many reasons, many of them huge, for my sadness.  One the biggest was grief over the loss of the dogs who had lived with me.  I would have dreams about them, dreams they were still alive or still lived with me.  Vivid dreams.  Then this little dog came to live with me and I suddenly felt the desire to laugh again.  I laugh every day living with her.  She’s a happy, wonderful little spirit.  Frankly, I’m completely smitten.

Years and years ago, I may not have even been out of my teens, I read The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck.  I don’t remember much of it at all.  I read it because it was a bestseller, and I don’t even recall its premise beyond the title.

However, I remember one thing vividly.  Peck argued that humans can never really love a dog, or any other animal, because to love as he defined it requires reciprocation in kind.  My feelings in response to his position are unchanged:  I wholeheartedly disagree.  Life is full of different kinds of love.  Some loves are equally reciprocal, usually with the person we choose as a mate, but also with certain friends or even family members.  By Peck’s definition, I could not truly love an infant or a small child or someone who does not love me back in the same way and with the same articulation.

What a limiting view of human capacity.  I absolutely loved my dog.  It did not matter that her adoration of me was different.  My love for her was there, and it still is.  Autumn was a gift and I will love her forever.  She helped to teach me selflessness.  She brought me joy.  She increased my humanity.  For this and so much more, I will be forever grateful.

Autumn

Autumn's Last Day

Autumn’s Last Day

Autumn — Chapter 16

Read Autumn — Chapter 15

I awoke one morning in early July 2005 and rose to give Autumn her shot. I called out her name, but she did not come. She was not at my bedside, and she was not anywhere in my room. She would usually get up to greet me and get her shot and food, because food was her favorite part of the day. I looked everywhere and was getting kind of frantic looking for her. Had she somehow gotten out again and I didn’t know it? I checked both doors, then headed towards the dog door to look out at the run. It was then that I saw she was lying in a heap of blankets on the back porch. I stood looking at her, my fist to my mouth, whispering, “Oh no, oh no, oh no. Not this. Not now. Oh, baby.” Funny, I had always pictured discovering her and running to her side, but I could not move.

“Autumn?” I queried. She remained still. Her ear stood on end. The light was the low, not quite sunny light of early morning in mid-summer. She was in a shadow. I stood back and could not move towards her. I was afraid she had died.

“Autumn,” I said. “Baby?”

I finally stepped forward and thought perhaps her ear had moved. Once I was within a couple of feet of her prostrate form, I could see that she was vibrating ever so slightly. I could see her breaths coming slowly, raggedly.

I knelt at her side and carefully touched her head. She was warm. Too warm. Her body vibrated, humming all over, like electricity was turned on inside her skin. Her eyes were glassy, staring at nothing. I was dry.

“Oh, baby. My baby.” I held her and stroked her, thoughts running through my head. What should I do? Who should I call?

I went into the kitchen, picked up the phone, and dialed Bjorn’s number at work. He answered and I could not speak. I could not emit a squeak. My voice would not come. I could not tell him what was wrong. Tears clouded my vision. The words were stuck.

He kept asking what was wrong. I finally managed to say, “It’s not Milla.” I meant that nothing was wrong with Milla.

He got the message because he said, “I know.”

I sobbed and finally told him that it was Autumn. After he told me this was probably for the best, I realized I had chosen the wrong person to call. Why him? Why on earth did I call him? I think on some level I wanted the closeness we never really had, wanted him to care about my grief and pain. During this crisis, I had a moment of absolute clarity when I realized that he would never be that person for me, ever.

I briefly told him what was going on, then got off the phone as fast as I could. I left a message at Dr. Fletcher’s office. Then I wondered, who do I call? I can’t call my mom; she won’t be a comfort either. I couldn’t call her.

Debbie. I realized then that Debbie was who I should have called all along. When I heard her answer the phone, I did not have to say anything. She knew it was me and she knew why I was calling her. There is a reason she is my best friend.

She asked for specifics. I told her how Autumn was. I told her I thought she would have to be put to sleep. I told her that I did not have any way to avoid my workday and would have to take her to Dr. Fletcher’s that evening because I could not get out of my work commitments. In spite of the fact I adored Dr. Horner, Ken was my friend, and I wanted him to be the one to put Autumn to sleep when the time came.

Debbie told me to keep her posted and stated that she and Robert would be there for me. She told me to let her know when I was coming down and when they needed to meet me there.

I was so grateful for her kindness and her calm. She put me at ease. As I spoke to her, I had filled Autumn’s syringe with insulin and given her a shot. I had given her some food. After the shot, she lifted her head and actually looked at me. Apparently the insulin had some effect, and quickly, because she was noticeably perkier than she had been.

It turned out to be a false alarm. Autumn gradually improved throughout the day and by the time afternoon rolled around and I could drive her down to the vet’s, Autumn had perked up significantly and was back to where she had been before the coma episode of that morning.

Dr. Fletcher patted her and gave her some string cheese. He always carried a can of the stuff to help keep pets happy in his office. Autumn gobbled at it.

“She’s not ready yet,” Dr. Fletcher said to me, patting her. I could see that. As prostrate as she had been that morning, she was back to her old self now.

We caught up on our news. Dr. Fletcher told me again that I should go to vet school, that I could have both law and veterinary degrees. We laughed together for a few more minutes before we turned to go.

“You’ve got some time,” he stated. “Not a lot, but some. Maybe a couple of weeks.”

Oh, I thought. Only a couple of weeks? I hoped with all my heart she would hold on just a little longer.

Autumn — Chapter 15

Read Autumn — Chapter 14

In spring of 2003, I graduated from law school. I studied for and completed the bar exam. After taking the test but before getting the results, I was hired by a law firm. Whether I would keep the job was contingent upon my having passed the bar. The firm was in NE Portland, a forty minute drive from our country suburb house in the middle of nowhere.

The reality of consequences was gradually squeezing me into the accepting that some decisions can impact a life for a long time. Less than three years earlier, during my first term in law school, I discovered with a panic that perhaps I had made a grave error. Yet the cost of that error was already well over ten-thousand dollars. If I quit, I would have to repay that sum, and if I wasn’t practicing law, how would I do that? And so I soldiered on.

My dismay grew the remainder of that year. However, second year was an improvement, and I began to believe perhaps the error was not so disastrous as I first thought. By graduation and beyond, I had returned to my original assessment, that I should never have gone to law school. Only after completion I was much further in debt, and much more discomposed. While I loved the academic rigor of law school, I was not enamored of the practice of law. I began to see the entire enterprise as one magnificent, horrendously expensive mistake.

Simultaneously, I was coming to terms with personal consequences as well. I knew three months after meeting Bjorn that we were not the most suitable pair. We were simply completely different. We could spend forty-five minutes arguing a point, only to discover we were arguing the same side. I was extremely energetic, always on the move, and constantly trying new things. Bjorn took life at a slower pace. He preferred hanging out at home and watching sports on television to buzzing around to various events. When we bought the first house, even though it was brand new, I wanted to dive in and start new projects, fixing it up. Bjorn liked it fine the way it was. About our only real connection was the love we jointly shared for our daughter.

Life was forcing me to take a good, hard look at the choices I had made, often on the fly, and determine whether a course correction was in order. I was driving nearly 45 minutes in one direction to my job. I didn’t hate the job, but I didn’t love it either, and making that commute seemed not worth it. I was living in a house and neighborhood with others who did not share my values, my politics, or much of anything except real estate. And sadly, I knew I was no longer in love with the father of my child, and nor was he in love with me. House linked to career linked to relationship, a concatenation of choices was leading me down the path to misery. Change was in order.

Bjorn and I had discussed ending our relationship several times over the course of a year. Early in the pre-dawn hours of the new year, after leaving a New Year’s Eve party at a friend’s house in Salem, the two of us were rehashing the menu from the evening as we drove along the winding country roads in the dark.

I was always the health nut, eliminating high fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated oil years before it became commonplace to do so. Bjorn liked junk food and fast food, and didn’t feel bad about it or any need to eat any differently. The party food had been mostly junk food and I was lamenting the lack of healthy snacks. I was also hungry.

“If you would just eat the junk, there wouldn’t be a problem,” Bjorn informed me, driving down the blackened, curved highway under the cold, winter moon and low, shredded clouds.

“I don’t have a problem,” I retorted. “We are just different. This is what I have been saying for months now. This is just one of many reasons why I do not think we are good together or for each other.” The passenger seat where I sat was reclined back, nearly touching the car seat holding a sleeping Milla. I slumped there, trying to make myself comfortable.

Bjorn didn’t say anything for a long time, such a long time in fact that I began almost to doze off. Then out of the silence he said, “You’re right.”

And with that, we ended our relationship of five and a half years.

Even though we were no longer a couple, neither of us immediately moved out and on. We had recently decided to sell the country suburb house and move into Portland. We had been looking for a house together, and I simply switched and began looking for a house on my own. Bjorn had been working as an engineer, but wanted to move into another area of engineering entirely, an area in which he was unlikely to find employment in the Portland area. He had begun sending out resumes to companies in other cities.

I wanted an old house, preferably a bungalow. I had been looking and looking, but this was the beginning of the housing bubble and prices were starting to get really steep. It was still possible to find affordable houses, but they usually came with another sort of price in that they were further out, in a less desirable neighborhood, or needed a lot of work. If it needed work, that was fine with me. I relished the opportunity. I was less willing to live further out, and I would not even consider some of the more troublesome neighborhoods because it would be just me and Milla living there. We had the dogs, but there was only so much they could do, and I didn’t want them to get hurt either. Often a neighborhood looked fine on the outside, but Portland had been experiencing an influx of Russian and Mexican gangs. No thanks.

After only a few weeks of searching, I found my house. Built in 1920, it needed tons of cosmetic work, but was structurally quite sound. With a few changes, the house would be perfect for us. It also had a lovely, floral back yard, as well as a side yard already fenced and lined with bark chips for the dogs. The support beams under the eaves were carved with loops and bows. This house was charming and perfect, so I bought it.

I had major plans for renovating and started immediately, before we even moved in. Bjorn moved to the house as well, and the two of us demolished the kitchen. It was the only place in the house that was truly awful. The counters were covered with tiny brown tiles that had not been installed properly. There was more grout than tile and each swipe of a sponge brought up a handful of dust, dirt, and goo.

In the four and a half years I lived in that house, I made many changes:  I installed an entirely new kitchen, put in a new kitchen window with rising double panes, to replace the former single-paned window that did not open at all, a travesty in a kitchen. I replaced the floors in the kitchen with new tiles. I removed the ugly, industrial grey tile in the bathroom, covering the floor with small, square white tiles. I removed a wall in the second room that opened into a small room with no real purpose, creating one giant bedroom. In that larger room, I installed a closet and discovered space above the stairs in the wall and turned it into a cupboard, using period knobs for the doors. I built a wall along the far side of the bigger second room, then opened a door into the master bedroom, creating a walk-in closet in a room that formerly had no closet at all.

While making the place for the door, I discovered newspapers from 1925 under the wallpaper advertising “Paris Frocks for Only $25.99!” I moved the front door from the master bedroom back into the living room where it belonged. I designed and installed built-in bookshelves in the living room, matching the woodwork at the base and along the top edge with the woodwork throughout the house. I painted the entire interior of the house with many lovely colors. I replaced all the light fixtures with period fixtures, and replaced a couple of windows that were no longer functional.

I also removed the jungle that covered the front of the house and built a rock wall, then covered everything in flowers. This was quite a chore as there was a 75-foot tall camellia bush that was so close to the house, it hung over the roof. I advertised the bush for free to anyone who would come and remove it. Two men arrived with a trailer and tools and excavated it over the course of a week, before driving it away on a flatbed trailer. There were also many scrubby azaleas who found new homes via the internet. For some reason, someone had installed sheep fencing in the front yard between the camellia and the maple tree near the sidewalk. Twisted and rusting, it was covered in ivy that used the sheep fencing as a ladder to higher reaches in the trees. All of it I removed and replaced with grass and smaller shrubs and flowers. I built a rock wall along the sidewalk, dragging the stones in three carloads from a rock quarry nearby.

Every job was done with the period of the house in mind, and in the end, it was charming and engaging. It was the perfect project. I did not have the money to hire contractors for most of the work, and therefore I did it all myself. I hired an electrician to replace the wiring and update that, and my dad installed the new bathtub fixtures and the front door, but everything else was done with my own two hands. It was a lot of work, but I loved that house and loved the end result.

Four months after I bought the house, Bjorn was offered a job in Florida doing exactly the kind of engineering he wanted, designing medical implants. Within three weeks of the job offer, he packed his truck and set off, leaving me alone with our daughter and the dogs.

On the one hand, I was relieved to let go of the tension between us. On the other, life became much more difficult. First there was the house. Even though it was a project of love, it was still a lot of work, especially for a full-time, working single mother. Milla was attending kindergarten and would go to aftercare there after school. Because of the hours at aftercare, I had to cut back one hour per day at the office, leaving at 5 instead of 6. This did not change my workload, only the hours I sat in the office doing it. In spite of the fact that the workload remained unchanged, the firm cut my pay, which I could barely afford.

I was also now the only person available to ensure Autumn was given her daily insulin shots twice every day. No matter where I was in the evening, I had to plan to ensure Autumn was medicated. I chose 7:15 as the time for these shots because it was early enough in the morning that I had not yet left for work, late enough that it would not be horrible to wake up to on the weekend, and early enough in the evenings that I could still do something after.

At times, I would take her with me in the car if I had to be somewhere and could not be home to give her a shot, a cooler in tow for the insulin, which had to be refrigerated. I also had to be careful not to shake the bottle because this could cause the insulin to become unstable and unusable.

In spite of the difficulties, we managed and forged a comfortable routine. Six months after Bjorn moved away, I left the firm and started my own practice. This brought its own stresses, but it was still easier setting my own time and getting work done at odd hours. I was freed up to attend more events at Milla’s school during the day, and it gave me much more flexibility for dealing with Autumn.

Over the next year, we settled into our lives with Bjorn far away and working at my new practice. I worked on the house on weekends and some afternoons during the week.

I took both dogs out of the house nearly every day. We lived near a dog park with a wide field where the dogs could run without leashes. Even on wet days, I would go and let them romp in the muddy grass, then wipe their paws before having them ride in the back of the car to home.

Autumn couldn’t get up into the car by herself, so I would lift her and get her situated. She would ride, watching the world go by, tongue lolling, ears perked, her happy face on. She loved car rides. Molly didn’t mind the car, but she preferred curling up in the corner or on the back seat.

Autumn actually didn’t seem to notice the poking of the needle into the skin at the back of her neck anymore. Every shot was followed immediately by food and she soon figured out that my shuffling around in the refrigerator door meant food was soon to be had, so she would wait right at my heels, eyes up, perky and expectant, waiting for that shot.

Needles. The funny thing about giving a shot is that the first few times you do it, it’s terrifying to think of the pain it’s inflicting. After you’ve given fifty shots, then a hundred, then several hundred, you can do it in your sleep. I suppose it’s like that for anything new. There is just something rather odd about doing something that becomes so familiar that is actually poking into another living body.

I will never forget those little orange tipped needles. I bought them in bulk from various pharmacy stores. I got to know where the deals were. The shocking thing was the difference in price from one store to the next, for the exact same needles of the same brand. It gave me some insight into what diabetics or others with chronic medical conditions face every day. The same box of needles would be ten dollars less than the cost somewhere else. The cheapest I found were about $17 for a hundred needles (they had to be thrown away after each use), but I found places that sold them for $33 for an identical box. I had the benefit of being strong and fit, so driving to another store where I knew the needles were cheaper was a fairly simple proposition. I could see how a mostly housebound senior would have a lot of difficulty shopping around.

After administering shots to Autumn twice daily for over a year, giving the shots became mundane and completely routine. On weekend mornings, I would wake up, stumble to the kitchen, roll the bottle in my hands, pull the shot, give it to her, feed her, and head back to bed, all in about three minutes flat. I don’t think I even really woke up. All the dogs knew the wake-up time, and if for some reason there was no alarm and I failed to awaken, one of them was guaranteed to rouse me from sleep.

One morning on a Saturday, I staggered into the kitchen, pulled the shot, and the phone rang. I squinted at the caller id, wondering sluggishly who would call at 7 a.m.on a Saturday. There was no way I could read the screen. I am ridiculously farsighted and my eyes were full of sleep.

I answered the call. It was Officer So-and-So from the Milwaukie Police Department. Did I have a golden colored dog? I informed him that I did, looking blindly around the kitchen for the neck I’d planned to shove a needle into not thirty seconds previously.

The officer went on to say that a yellow dog had been seen “wandering in a daze” down the road. She looked lost and starving. He responded to the call and found my number on her collar. He offered to bring her to me.

I explained that she had diabetes and that this was why she was so thin, that I had no idea she was out, that she was an escape artist of the highest order, and that I would be most grateful if he returned her to me. And please, I begged, don’t feed her anything.

Five minutes later, Autumn walked in the door, that diabetic-glazed look in her eye. I poked the shot into her neck, barely glancing down, I had done it so many times. I talked to the officer for ten more minutes, telling him Autumn’s story and about her magical ability to get out of the yard, and thanked him profusely as he drove off. I did not mention that I had failed to replace her underground fence collar after her bath the previous evening.

I was grateful Autumn was back, but I was really glad I did not get a “Dog at Large” ticket. Those can be expensive. I knew. Autumn had given them to me before. Even though the dog yard was fenced with underground wiring, it did not guard against escapes out the front or back doors, and I lived with a 5-year-old who had a habit of running out without making sure the latch had clicked. Autumn knew this and followed Milla around, waiting for any opportunity to slip out the door.

I was also extremely grateful he had not given her any food. On one occasion when Autumn escaped, a well-meaning yet misguided neighbor fed her two huge bowls of food before she keeled over in the woman’s kitchen. Why she waited to call me until after giving my dog a meal I’ll never know. Maybe she thought I was starving her on purpose or something, as if someone who was careful enough to tag a dog would be careless enough not to feed it.

In any case, when I went to retrieve Autumn from the neighbor’s house, the lady started to scold me for letting my dog get so thin, but I cut her off and explained that she had a chronic illness and that the food she gave her could have killed her, which is why she had keeled over.

I wanted to scream, “Why would you feed someone else’s dog, you idiot?” but did not. She didn’t know, and she thought she was helping. I used my glucose monitor to check Autumn’s blood. I ran the test, gave her an insulin shot, and she was back to normal within a half an hour. After that incident I went to the pet store and bought a tag that read, “I have a disease. DO NOT FEED ME!”

The glucose meter was a godsend and really the only part of all the illness-related activities Autumn endured that she seemed really to abhor. Other than testing urine, it was the best way for me to get a reading on Autumn’s insulin levels, especially if she had broken into the trash cupboard and found something to eat, or escaped and gotten something.

We had a strict food routine in the house whereby any food-based garbage went into the compost bucket, which was kept on a high shelf with a lid. When it was full it went into the compost bin out back, away from the dog area. The rest of our waste was separated into two containers, one for trash and the other for recycling. Autumn loved to get into the trash version and lick through whatever was in there, such as butter wrappers or soiled plastic wrap. Once the new cabinets were installed in the kitchen, I put in a double-garbage-can rack, placing the recycling in the front bin, and the trash in the back. There was a childproof latch on the door. When that was closed and the trash in the back, she was not able to get into it. However, Milla had a knack for leaving the door open and the whole thing pulled out. Autumn would then remove the can from the rack and go through whatever was inside.

One time shortly after we moved in, I arrived home to discover that Autumn had gnawed through the bottom corner of one of the kitchen boxes sitting stacked and unpacked on the kitchen floor. She had discovered all the dry good baking items and ate them. Molly had joined in on that escapade. I caught her because I discovered powdered sugar on her ears and muzzle. Naughty things.

Another time both dogs managed to get onto the table and eat a pan of chocolate cake.  I had heard the warnings that chocolate supposedly killed dogs, but this simply was not the case.  I read somewhere that it was only dogs who had an allergy that had to worry about eating it, but who wants to be the person making this discovery the first time?  It makes sense to keep the chocolate away just in case your dog is the one who is allergic.

However, potential life-threatening allergies did not stop my dogs from climbing on the table and eating an entire chocolate cake.  When Dan and I lived at his parent’s, Murphee climbed onto the island in the kitchen and ate a pan of brownies.  In all cases the worst thing that happened was the dogs came away with some really nasty gas, and we no longer had any dessert.  Apparently none of them suffered from chocolate allergy.

The glucose meter was a big help for these non-diabetic dog food eating sprees. However, in order to use the meter, I had to obtain a drop of Autumn’s blood. One end of the meter had a sharp lancet with which to pierce her skin. At the other end of the meter was a test strip onto which I smeared the blood to obtain a glucose reading. Autumn hated the pricking part. There was not any part of her body where it was easy to get a blood sample, mainly because she was furry. Only her lips and the pads of her paws were bare. The lips had to hurt; she yelped whenever I tried drawing blood from them, the skin was so thin and soft. But the pads of her paws were thick and extremely difficult to pierce enough to get blood. When I was able to poke them hard enough, it usually caused way more bleeding than was necessary for the meter, and this made her cry out as well. Digging that deep into the pads was painful. For this reason I only used the test when I knew she had eaten something she should not have. In addition the test strips were really expensive, so I didn’t want to use them up quickly. Humans would use the meters daily, because they could control their levels fairly precisely with diet. Autumn could only eat her prescription diabetic dog food, so it wasn’t necessary to monitor all the time.

Autumn was always so patient with the medical interventions she had to endure, but the lancets and subsequent rubbings were the one procedure for which she refused to sit still or comply. She would pull away and yelp, making it that much more difficult to get blood. But she was a dog – as much as I told her it would all be over soon, she just couldn’t get it. Sometimes I would be frustrated because she had gotten into something and made a huge mess, and then wouldn’t sit still so I could check her blood.

“If you wouldn’t get into anything, I wouldn’t have to do this,” I would scold, obviously more for my benefit than for hers.

I would read the meter and if the levels were high, give her more insulin. On occasion, the meter simply read HI, in its blocky digital letters. This meant her glucose levels were so high, they were off the chart, and insulin was required immediately.

Within a few months after her diagnosis, I noticed tiny white flecks in Autumn’s eyes. The flecks increased as the weeks progressed. I went online and discovered that Autumn was developing diabetic cataracts, a condition that is extremely common. I read somewhere that 75% of dogs with diabetes develop cataracts, and that their presence did not necessarily imply glucose levels were not under control.

In a normal eye, the lens is round, clear, and hard. It is connected by fibers that move so the eye can focus. It is enclosed in a capsule and gets fluids from the eye. The lens does not have its own blood supply. One of the fluids the lens absorbs is glucose. If there is too much glucose, the excess is converted into the sugars sorbitol and fructose. Sorbitol and fructose pull water into the lens which makes the lens cloudy, and a cataract is formed.

Some dogs develop complete cataracts fairly quickly after their diagnosis. Autumn’s developed slowly in comparison to some of the stories I read, and her cataracts were never completely solidly white; they were slightly less opaque than that. However, a year after the diagnosis, she could not really see. She would tilt her head and look at me as if she were peeking out the side of her eye, trying to see around the cataract. A couple of times she ran into the doorframe around the back door, but she quickly adapted and learned where her world was at. I could have had the vet perform surgeries to remove the cataracts, but we discussed it and ruled it out. The cost was over $1000 per eye, and the average life span of a dog with diabetes is two years from diagnosis. Even if Autumn lived another three years, the result did not justify the expense or the upheaval of a surgery. Blind dogs adapt quite well to living without sight, and Autumn was no exception.

After Autumn had been living with diabetes for nearly two years, she was almost completely blind, but she was lively. I would take her to the dog park and throw frisbees and sticks for her. I would set her up, touching her muzzle with whatever I was throwing, then guiding her head in the direction of my toss. Autumn would head out and look until she found what I’d thrown. Her sense of smell was fully intact, and she would find anything, no matter how far I had thrown it, as long as I pointed her in the right direction. She loved the game, turning and running right back to me to throw again, in that familiar trot she had inherited from Cody. She wore out easily though, and would lie down to shred the stick after only three or four passes letting me know she had had enough.

Read Autumn — Chapter 16

Autumn — Chapter 14

Read Autumn — Chapter 13

I remember the color of the light in the room the night Autumn first tried to jump on my bed and failed, golden yellow, soft, and warm. It was late and we were getting ready for bed. I was already in bed, reading. Autumn usually came and asked if she could lie at the foot of the bed. In the middle of the night, she did not ask, just jumped up on the bed, curling up at our feet, or coming to the head where even in sleep I would lift the covers for her to clamber to the bottom near my feet. But in the evenings, she pretended to ask before coming up.

That night, Milla was snuggled next to me in the warm down comforter. I was sitting upright, my book propped on my knees. Autumn came over and made an attempt to jump on the bed. She could not make it. She tried again. Foiled again. Finally I arose and put her on the bed. Must be her hips, I thought, and thought nothing more of it.

Over the next several days, she appeared to gradually deteriorate before our eyes. As October closed and November opened, she lost weight and strength. She seemed also to have another bladder infection and drank water excessively.

With interstitial cystitis, Autumn always drank more than the other dogs. I thought this was what was going on, that she was having an exceptionally bad bout of interstitial cystitis, and it was causing her to lose weight, but I thought she should still go to the vet. Again. I made the necessary appointment and three weeks after her first failed attempt to jump on the bed, I took her in to see the doctor.

She had lost seventeen pounds. I could tell the vet was very worried. He wanted to run a number of tests, but thought cancer might be the cause. He could see no other major possibility for the dramatic decline in weight. There was the possibility of diabetes mellitus, he suggested, but I thought this unlikely because she had tested negative for it before. Cushing’s also, but this had also been negative. He offered to run a battery of blood tests to start. If the results from the first set of tests were negative, he would run a second set. Then a third. We would continue testing until we figured out what was happening.

I handed Autumn’s leash to the doctor so he could take her back to the lab. She was not happy and leaned her head towards me, pulling the leash away from the doctor. I pet her head and kissed her and told her everything would be fine. She kept pulling towards me as the doctor led her away. How many times in her life had I watched her disappear behind a door in a veterinarian’s office? How many times did watching the scene cause my heart to constrict and tears of anguish to form behind my eyes? It did not matter how often I had experienced this, my heart always ached as she was led away from me.

I sat in the sterile waiting room of the doctor’s office, staring at the mismatched tiles beneath my shoes. I liked this doctor. He was not Dr. Fletcher, but no one could be him to me. Yet this doctor was kind and honest, and he explained things to me as if I had a brain. The biggest problem with the clinic was that it was in a town about fifteen miles from our home, so trips there were a bit out of the way.

In the waiting area was a giant cage with three kittens in it. Milla was thrilled with these kittens and played with them as we waited. A fat, orange, office cat came through and asked to be petted. It was not very friendly though, and scratched if you rubbed it too long, so Milla left it in favor of the kittens.

Milla ran through the lobby, her blonde curls bouncing, babbling and telling me about the babies. One of the kittens was a light grey color, its fur almost bluish. “See the blue kitty?” she asked me, pointing to it.

“That kitty is blue!” I responded, reaching out to give her a hug. She let me snuggle her for only a moment before running off to the other side of the counter, searching again for the scratching cat.

A half hour later, the door through which the doctor had taken Autumn swung open and the doctor stepped through. His diagnosis was quick:  Autumn had diabetes mellitus.

Diabetes mellitus, also known as impaired glucose homeostasis, is a group of metabolic disorders with one common manifestation:  hyperglycemia. Chronic hyperglycemia causes damage to the eyes, kidneys, nerves, heart and blood vessels. It is a horrible disease and because of the manner in which it keeps the patient from absorbing food, causes gradual starvation. It results from defects in insulin secretion, or action, or both.

The disease was first identified in the ancient world as a disease associated with “sweet urine” and excessive muscle loss. The elevated levels of blood glucose cause the glucose to build up in the urine. Blood glucose levels are normally controlled by insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas, which lowers the blood glucose level. When the blood glucose elevates (for example, after eating food), insulin is released from the pancreas to normalize the glucose level. In patients with diabetes, the absence or insufficient production of insulin causes hyperglycemia. Basically, diabetics have too many sugars in their blood and no way to filter them out. It is a chronic medical condition, meaning that although it can be controlled, it lasts a lifetime. And Autumn had it. Little did I realize how much this diagnosis would drastically change our lives.

Years after all of this, I came to believe that the medical problems Autumn experienced arose from problems with her adrenal glands.  At the time Autumn was alive, no one really knew what caused interstitial cystitis, but I’ve learned that recent research shows a link to adrenal malfunction. All along the doctors thought she had Cushing’s disease, although she never tested positive for it. And diabetes is one of the symptoms of a long-term Cushing’s dog. Considering Cushing’s is an adrenal malfunction and Autumn’s diseases were all manifestations of adrenal malfunction, I think it’s a safe assumption that this gland did not work properly for her, or else hers was covered in tumors, causing it to keep from doing its job.

The doctor started Autumn on low doses of insulin twice daily. He also wanted us to change her food to a prescription version for diabetics.

“What about her IC?” I queried?

“IC won’t kill her,” he answered. “Diabetes can and will. You will want to do everything you can to lengthen her life span and make her as comfortable as possible during that time. If she eats the wrong food, she could get really sick because she her body cannot filter out the sugars. This can cause all kinds of problems, from blindness to heart failure.”

I got it. Autumn would have to eat what she had to in order to survive the diabetes, IC be damned.

At first, it was somewhat of a struggle to settle into the routine of taking care of a diabetic dog. It took several trips to the vet to get her insulin levels right. We had started her on one type of dog food that she would not eat, probably because it tasted like sawdust, and kind of looked like it too. None of the dogs would eat it. I tried a couple of other brands before I found something she would eat. All of these dog foods were prescription foods and exorbitantly expensive. It was frustrating to buy a bag of dog food that cost nearly one-hundred dollars for a twenty pound bag, only to have every canine in our house turn its nose up at it.

I also had to concern myself with the ingredients of whatever dog food because certain of them would trigger IC episodes. Even though diabetes trumped IC in determining what would land on Autumn’s plate, that didn’t mean I would choose the worst of them and end up causing her unnecessary pain.

It was a struggle to figure out how to manage the diabetes. Because she would not eat most of the foods I would buy, Autumn would either tear down the house getting into trash or escape and go eat someone else’s. This led to several diabetic episodes where Autumn would escape, then wander home, glassy-eyed and practically catatonic.

At the time of her diagnosis, we were living in the country suburb where all the houses looked exactly the same. Shortly after purchasing the house, we installed landscaping and whatnot for the side and back yards. While doing this, we decided to add a sprinkler system to the entire property. Then we fenced a special side yard just for the dogs. Ever since we owned Poppy we had used dog doors to allow the dogs to go out to relieve themselves. These had proved to be a godsend when Autumn starting having bladder troubles. If there was a chance she could make it outside, she certainly tried.

In the new house, we installed dog doors into the garage and out to the doggy yard. This yard ran the entire length of the house, and was fenced on two sides by cedar plank fencing five feet tall. We then installed chain link fencing between the dog yard and our back yard. We placed river rock up the length of one side of the yard, and grass on the other, with paver bricks between the two and along the base of all the fences. The bricks under the fences were fixed into place with cement. Our thinking was that this would prevent Autumn from being able to dig out and under the fence. We thought the cedar planks, placed side by side, would prevent her from squeezing out. Same with the chain link. Basically, this fence was a dog fortress from which we believed she would never escape.

We were wrong. First, Autumn removed the boards from the cedar plank fencing. We nailed it back up and then nailed boards along the base on the outside. She then removed a corner of the chain link fence. This blew our minds. Her teeth in front were all broken in half from ripping off boards and fencing. Once we repaired that hole, she started in on the brick pavers under the fences.

This was the last straw. After Autumn tore a hole in the pavers and cedar fencing, escaping into the neighborhood and getting into someone’s trash, then coming home stoned on blood sugar, I had had enough. I immediately got into my car, drove to the pet store, and bought an underground electric fence, the kind with collars that shocked the dog if it went near it.

For years I had resisted these kinds of containment systems. I thought they were cruel, shocking the poor dog in the neck, but this was ridiculous. A shock was less traumatic than being smashed by a car.

We installed our fence and sent the dogs out into the yard. We set the range on the wire to two feet. This meant that four feet out from the fence, the collar would start beeping. As the dogs moved closer to the wire, the beeping became louder and faster, more insistent. Then, at two feet out from the wire, the collar gave them a shock.

It worked. It worked so amazingly well, I wished I had installed it years earlier. After two or three shocks, all the dogs stopped going near the fence the second they heard the beeps. Autumn would go to the faster beeps, but then she would stop. She was no dummy.

I no longer thought the fences were cruel. It kept my dog contained and out of the way of cars and other dangers lurking about in the big, bad world. It also kept her from getting out and into food that would cause her to get sicker.

All of the other dogs gradually figured out where the line of the fence was at and never even waited for the beep. They stayed away. When I bought a new house less than a year later, I installed the fence in the dog run area there, and it worked then too, to the point that neither of the other dogs needed to wear the shock collar when they went outside.

It was never this way with Autumn. If she did not wear that collar, she escaped, no exceptions. But she did respect the collar and would not risk shocking herself to get out of the yard ever again.

One major plus to managing the fence situation was that I was able to stabilize Autumn’s insulin injections. Once her blood sugar stopped fluctuating because her food intake was controlled, it was easier to figure out where it needed to be and to maintain its levels.

One rainy Sunday afternoon several months after her diagnosis, but before we installed the underground fence, Autumn escaped and got into something, causing a diabetic episode. These episodes scared me. Autumn would return from wherever she had run off to, listless, her eyes staring off into space. I called it her sugar coma.

It was bound to happen that Autumn would get into something on a day when the vet was not open. She didn’t schedule her medical issues around the hours our vet was working. The result was that I ended up driving her into Portland to a corporate vet’s office in a national pet store chain. I had resisted these offices because I fundamentally disagreed with many of their policies. They tried to sell nearly everyone “prevention plans,” claiming the services cost less with the plan, but they charged more for those services in the first place, and seemed only to ensure the corporation would line its pockets on a regular basis, especially since as a large buyer, it most likely got discounts on many of the products. I also knew from my few vet friends that the wages paid to vets were low and the hours unstable. Overall, as is typical in many such conglomerates, profit drove its motives above all else, and I didn’t like that.

That said, the nice thing about such offices is that they are open many more hours than most smaller establishments. The vet we had been going to was open on Saturday, but not on Sunday. If we needed care on Sunday, they directed us to the emergency vet clinics in downtown Portland or downtown Salem, as they had when we thought Autumn’s stomach was twisted. It was one thing to pay an exorbitant price for such a visit at 3 in the morning, it was quite another in the middle of the day on a Sunday.

I dragged Autumn in to have her hooked up to an IV and get her blood sugars stabilized. After running all the tests, the clinic didn’t even bother trying to sell me their plan. They knew they would make way more money on me just based on Autumn’s many problems.

Yet I loved the doctor. His name was Dr. Horner and he was the closest thing to Dr. Fletcher I had found yet. Because I had read so much medical literature, and spent many hours discussing these issues with Dr. Fletcher, I was well versed in a lot of what was going on with Autumn metabolically. Dr. Horner seemed to sense this, and discussed her case with me at a precise, technical level. He was also extremely kind, and gentle with my dog. Over the years I have taken many animals to see Dr. Horner, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a rat, or a dog, or a lizard, he is always compassionate in his handling of animals.

While I had a good working relationship with the vet we had been using, his office was fifteen miles southwest of our house, towards Salem in a town called Woodburn. Not much later, I moved to Portland, and the new house was even further from the doctor in Woodburn. Once we moved, it was easy to slip into using Dr. Horner as our primary vet rather than the office that was so far away.

Read Autumn — Chapter 15

Lifting Their Legs on the World

When I was a girl, my family took car trips around the country. I know there were many long, uninterrupted and rather boring stretches where my sister and I complained and asked, “Are we there yet?” Five minutes later, “Are we there yet?” I used the time to read, still a favorite pastime, or to stare out at the landscape.

Yet as time has ebbed, it isn’t the long drives I remember so much, it is the places along the way. I have several ethereal, out-of-context memories, such as an intersection in the middle of nowhere stopping us at a light in the middle of the night. I was in the backseat. It was dark. We were in the desert. That is all I know. Or the Native American roadside stand in New Mexico or some other southwest place, selling strange toys and dolls covered in actual fur. We stopped at a place to go to the bathroom, and I was given a plastic pony covered in grey felt. It was short and fat, a Thelwell style thing. I can’t remember if I was given the pony before or after my crying fit, the one that seems as if it lasted hours, because I hadn’t gotten something I wanted. I remember the stickiness of the car seat, my raw facial flesh from the salt and water and rubbing. It was cloudy, but it was also hot — our cars never had air conditioning. It seems unlikely my parents would have given it to me after crying in such a manner, but I also seem to have some vague notion of there being some unfairness too, and so I was given this trinket. This episode was obviously linked to some emotional overflowing, and therefore this is the reason it sticks in my brain. I know it was summer and I was 10 or 11.

Mostly though, I remember the places: the museum at the petrified forest, the fluorescent lights shining on off-white, speckled formica tile, the bits of hardened wood under glass on tables, and the signs explaining the geological phenomena. I remember a roadside dinosaur we could climb inside. I remember campsites in far flung places, usually the desert, because we traveled every summer to visit my grandpa and uncles and aunt in New Mexico. I remember Los Alamos and the mesa stable, walking out and looking over the cliffs at what seemed to be vast canyons. I remember the Grand Canyon, and the Great Hoover dam and its unbelievable, terrifying, breath stealing bridge. I could see the water, trapped on one side and then far, far below, the canyon on the other, empty of water. I would marvel that the water caught on the far side could be that deep. I remember the Glen Canyon damn, and riding wide boats among the sheer rock faces. We roamed wax museums, and visited the pretend old west in Carson City, Nevada. We stopped at roadside attractions showing the path of the pioneers along the Oregon trail, and visited ghost towns that had thrived in the heyday of the gold rush. I remember passing billboard after billboard, announcing the coming attractions, as well as signs you had to read as you passed by. Roadside poetry. So it went. Summer after summer, we took our yearly drive. Sometimes in the winter we also visited, and skated on iced-over ponds, or hiked through snowy forests.

Last summer, I took my daughters to Europe. We trekked through several cities. I found myself feeling sadness and a little frustration that in city after city, the same corporate shops dotted the landscapes. Museums were large, crowded, and expensive, certainly not the best option for my then 2 year old. I could not find a small chocolate shop in Antwerp. A shop owner in the Netherlands told me it was because the multinational corporations had driven up the cost of real estate and all the small shops had gone out of business.

When Milla was three, we trekked to our annual family reunion in South Dakota. It was the first time I had been to the small pioneer cemetery where one part of my family has been buried since settling on the plains in the mid-1800s. Many of those buried there were born in Scandinavia. I have a great, great, great aunt who was one of the only white people Sitting Bull befriended. She brought food to them because the American government was purposely starving them. She ignored the prohibition against it and fed them. There is a book about her. These hardy (and hard) people moved from a very cold, harsh place to another cold and harsh place. Some of them were run off their Scandinavian farms by political unrest in their countries. For this, I think some of them identified with the Natives on those plains and perhaps this is why they became allies.

The trip was a complete and utter disappointment on one level. I expected it to look like South Dakota. I expected a “South Dakota-ness” to the place. No. It was Target. It was Walmart. It was Burger King. It was the same ugly, conforming corporate crap we have where I live. Later I traveled to several other US cities. The same thing.

Something erased these individual places and made them homogenuous and boring. I know what it is: capitalism. Capitalism took away the South Dakota-ness, and the Oregon-ness, and the Arizona-ness and replaced them with bland, ugly sameness. There are no little shops selling trinkets made by locals. If there are, they are now in the upscale, “artsy” places and the people making things sell them for a small fortune to tourists whose tours are to shop. Tour brochures in motels feature the “best” malls and the “best” shopping. Going to places and finding things to do that are not shopping is difficult. Oh, you can pay a fortune to ride on some guided boat, or to rent some piece of equipment you likely own at home such as a bicycle or kayak, but it’s rare to go to places and find things about that place that you can’t find in every other place all over. Even Europe has lost its uniqueness in each city. Family trips are taken to destination resorts that are exactly the same as every other corporate resort. Even the lines are the same. All that might change is the weather. Too bad the corporations can’t control that.

Bill Bryson, in his memoir The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid describes rides in cars visiting places in the US. I’ve read many memoirs where the author remembers such things. I have also read stories where such summer trips played a key role in the plot. Driving around in the backseat as a child is a key cultural memory for those of us born between the 1930s and early 1980s.

Since taking vacations as an adult, I have spent many trips trying to find places like those I visited as a child, unusual places that I can take my children that define the place they are in. I’ve been frustrated by the search. I’ve raged against travel brochures that feature shopping as a tourist attraction. What, so I can buy the same shit made in China that is sold all over the world and then lug it home? I drove across the country in 2009. Every single roadside, every single town was monochromatic, exactly like the one before. Nothing had its own identity.

In another favorite book of mine by Bryson In a Sunburned Country, Bryson describes a town called Alice Springs, Australia, near the site of an Aboriginal holy place at the base of the MacDonnell Mountain Range. It is overrun with McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and a Kmart. He says that Americans have created “a philosophy of retailing that is totally without aesthetics…” He also says it is totally irresistible, but I do not agree. I absolutely hate it and I do resist it. I avoid these places like the plague.

I’m currently reading Roger Ebert’s memoir Life Itself. In it, he describes perfectly how we are losing the identities of the world’s places. He describes his love of London, his visits there for thirty years, spanning from 1966 to 2006. Every year he went at least once, many even more. Yet in the last decade, London is losing itself because of the corporations “lifting their legs along London’s streets.” Oh, my good man, what an apt description. In it I had an Ah ha! moment that identified what has been missing from my vacations and visits to places that are not home. I thought it was something about me, that maybe I have lost my luster, and that this is why I haven’t been able to fully enjoy these places I’ve gone. I had an expectation of that feeling of newness, visiting something different from myself that I experienced as a child vacationing in the backseat of our family car.

Yet it wasn’t me at all. It was this erasing of individual identities from the places in the world. It was all the hideous conformity, with no regard whatsoever for the place that had been there. It’s the chasing of the almighty dollar.

We have to do something to change this. We have to stop the reign of capitalism. Something has to shift. People have to believe it is possible before we all become Stepford robots keeping up with the Joneses to buy ugly, plastic junk that destroys our planet. We need to go out of our way to find the few places that still exist where homogeneity isn’t the rule and take our children to these places.

Last summer I visited my friend in Ephrata, Washington. There isn’t much there; Walmart took care of that, although some small shops are trying to make a go of it. Yet they are shops, not tourist destinations. My friend took me for a drive out to the Columbia Basin plateau, a site of magnificent geology, where lava flows and massive floods created incredible landscapes. Up on the edge of one of the cliffs over a coulee there was a little museum telling the story of the geology, the ice age, and its effect on the land. My 13 year old actually read the information on the exhibits. It reminded me of the places we visited as a child. These places do exist. Find them. Take your children. Give them memories that are worthy of reminiscing. Don’t let us all turn into monochromatic robots, shopping our way around the world.

Autumn — Chapter 13

Read Autumn — Chapter 12

I have always ridden and trained horses. Horses and dogs seem to go together like peas and carrots, as Forrest’s mama would say. While attending the University of Oregon, I worked at an international hunter-jumper stable for a few years. Later, after we moved to Portland, when Milla was a baby and before I started law school, I worked at another big sporthorse barn in a suburb south of Portland.

While there, I befriended a woman named Lori who owned a small home-building company. The majority of her clients were wealthy, mostly conservative people, who dreamed of owning small farms and estates, the sort who usually hired someone else to perform all the work required on the farm.

Lori was a dear woman, somewhat doddering, but genuinely kind. She owned several Shelties and a lovely house on the lake in Lake Oswego, one of Oregon’s wealthiest towns. She owned a small thoroughbred at the barn where I was working and, when I left the barn, we remained friends. She hired me on occasion to help her organize her house or straighten up. Extremely generous, she usually paid me much more than the job warranted, as well as lunch.

We had been living in the farmhouse in West Linn for two years when Lori suggested we start looking for our own house to buy. Bjorn and I did not think we would be able to get into anything, but Lori thought we ought to try, and so we began looking for a house to buy.

It was Lori’s advice to buy a house as far from town as we could stand, built new or within the last five years. We did not take our lifestyle into account whatsoever when we took her advice. This advice may have served older, moneyed clientele, but it was not the best choice for young, liberal, professionals, as we were. I had always felt too far from Portland’s center, even when we were only a few miles away. Yet both of us were too giddy with the idea of home-ownership to allow something like reality interfere with our plans. We got pre-approval for a first-time home buyer program and started looking.

At first, the likelihood of our locating a house as suggested by Lori appeared dim. Part of the issue I think was that we were looking in the suburbs where Lori was used to building homes, which were all the places where the residents had higher than average incomes. After suffering one disappointment after another, we finally found a development thirty-two miles outside of downtown we could afford. We chose our lot, which in spite of our foolishness in the purchase on so many levels, was in a truly lovely location next to some older coniferous trees and a wetland. Years after we moved on these trees were chopped down to make way for more ugly houses, and for many other reasons it was for the best we moved on, but the trees were there while we were, and softened the blow of a truly bad decision.

I began having twitches of misgivings while the house was being built, but was still able to quell them by choosing light fixtures and countertops. I was in my final year of law school and fully in the throes of “bore you to death,” the final refrain in the saying about law school that first year scares you to death, second year works you to death, and third year bores you to death. I had figured it out, how to pull the law from opinions, how to hunt down statutes and legislative history, figured out what mattered and what did not. I was truly sick of it. But I still had work to do and after the house was built, it was exhausting to drive home from the campus that was nearly downtown out to the sticks where we now resided.

The length of the drive was an even tighter twist of the screw in that the road to our new home was two lanes and hilly. Although drivers were given free rein to drive 55 miles per hour, most of them chose speeds closer to 35. Because of the hills and curves, passing was a death sentence. This meant that our drives were an extra fifteen or twenty minutes longer than they needed to be.

What a mistake. We were living in a country suburb. As is often the case in these developments, it was named for what it had been: Big Meadow.  The meadow was gone and in its place were Stepford houses in limited shapes and sizes, with perfectly manicured lawns and neutral paint, as required by the unrelenting neighborhood regulations.  I quickly realized I was better suited to living close to downtown, near young, creative, liberal types.  I needed a house to fix up, and since ours was brand new, there wasn’t a lot to do to it. We gave the house our love, built a fence and a dog run, but we simply did not fit in. The neighbors brought us proselytizing literature on a weekly basis. Every visit to the store provided an invitation to our auto windshield to attend a local church play. We were one of only a handful of families who recycled. Basically, were major sore thumbs.

Our immediate next door neighbors were especially different from us. The main thing about them that I remember is that on periodic afternoons the woman of the house had her teenage sons out in the yard and driveway with square-nosed shovels to search for garter snakes to kill. She did not want them anywhere near her home. Since her house backed up to the edge of what had been the big meadow the neighborhood obliterated, garter snakes were frequently in evidence.  After her sons killed a sufficient number of garter snakes, she would spread poison all over her yard to kill insects. She would kill the harmless garter snakes that would have eaten the insects and chose instead to cover her yard in toxic chemicals. Insane.

Within months of the purchase, I was completely sorry and realized what a huge mistake the house purchase had been, but we were there and I knew there was no way I was going to convince Bjorn to move any time soon, so I made the best of it.

As was the case in every place I lived from the time Autumn was about five years old, she quickly figured out the neighborhood. She would roam around for a while then return home, barking her two short woofs to be let in. One nice thing about the development being unfinished was that there were not many houses in yet, and there was open land behind our house for her to run around in. I had to watch her diet closely because certain foods could cause her bladder to go haywire, but in spite of my dislike of the neighborhood, Autumn was very happy there.

The only dog in our family who wasn’t as happy as she could have been was Molly. Once we moved, Autumn and Poppy decided they were a gang of two and would gang up on Molly. Poppy especially was becoming rather aggressive towards her. Coupled with her extensive skin problems, her fixed unwillingness to figure out potty training, and her increasing nastiness towards Molly, I was actually beginning to think I should find her another home. This was an eventuality I had never previously considered, that I would send a dog away, but things were getting out of hand.

One afternoon during the dogs’ feeding, Poppy scarfed up her chicken and rice, then trotted over to Molly to see if she could steal some of her food. Keeping her head low over her bowl, Molly raised her lip, showing her teeth. This was as much as Molly ever did in aggression to anyone, human or dog, and it was always when she thought someone was going to take her food. She had learned that I was allowed to remove her dish, but no such rule applied to Poppy, not as far as Molly was concerned.

Poppy ignored Molly’s warning, and stuck her head in Molly’s food. Molly growled and Poppy lunged for her. The two dogs started brawling, rolling together across the floor. Poppy was attacking Molly, and Molly was trying to defend and get away.

I quickly grabbed Milla and yelled for Bjorn, who was in the garage. When Bjorn opened the garage door, Molly saw the potential escape and darted through, Poppy hanging from her neck. Autumn followed, barking and fired up by the violence. Bjorn ran after them, fearful of being bitten. The two dogs snarled and knashed, Autumn barked and barked, blood appeared in spatters on the garage floor. Molly tried to escape under the car, but this made the situation worse because she was too big to move underneath the vehicle, while Poppy, small and wiry, had full advantage.

Finally Bjorn grabbed the garden hose and sprayed under the car. Molly lay in a heap, whining and yipping in terror as Poppy bolted off. Bjorn chased her and tossed her into the kennel on the side of the house with Autumn. I set Milla down and crawled under the edge to try and coax Molly out. She was obviously hurt. I told Bjorn to go grab my purse and keys. He installed Milla into her carseat as Molly finally crawled towards me on her tummy. She stopped whimpering, but her paw was bleeding badly and she had a tear in the edge of the skin next to her eye.

“Poor baby,” I crooned. “Come here, Molly. Come to me, sweet one.” I petted her and held her. She stopped shaking and I put her into the car and drove her to the vet.

Poppy broke Molly’s foot that day. We did not seek immediately to find Poppy a new home; I thought it would be difficult given her skin condition. A year and a half later, after she had attacked Molly twice more, I decided enough was enough, and I was going to actively try to find her somewhere else to live.

We were living in the new house I purchased in Portland. There was a neighbor who walked her wire-haired Jack Russell down the sidewalk in front of my house nearly every day. Narrow and stoop-shouldered, with white hair and glasses that slid down her nose as she spoke, she would stop to talk and criticize while I worked in my yard, informing me that “People who owned other dogs should not own Jacks,” referring to Jack Russell terriers. She also said that “People with large dogs should not have small ones.” These pieces of wisdom were offered in response to my telling her about Poppy’s attacks on Molly. I thought her ideas were somewhat strange, but what could I say to her strange ideas? I just listened, nodded, and continued raking, or weeding, or whatever else I was up to.

I found this woman’s perspective on Jack Russells somewhat entertaining, especially considering my interaction with another Jack Russell named Jackie. When Bjorn and I had lived in West Linn, someone had offered to give us another Jack Russell.  We were well into many of Poppy’s behavior issues at this point, and crazy busy to boot, so we weren’t terribly thrilled at the prospect.  However, the person who told us about the dog said she was being housed in a tiny kennel in someone’s garage and tranquilized 24 hours a day.  We investigated and discovered the story was true.

The people who owned Jackie worked full-time and lived in a rather small house with a tiny back yard, but they had purchased a Great Dane and a Jack Russell terrier.  Obviously, foresight is not a requirement when one acquires a dog, otherwise how can one account for the canine choices in this family with so little room and no time?  The Great Dane was managing the situation, but Jackie needed more exercise and more room.  Instead of giving it to her, they kept her locked up and drugged.  After several months of this, they finally decided they should find her another home, whereupon we heard about her and decided we would bring her home with us with the sole purpose of finding her a more suitable home.

It did not take many calls for my friend Noelle to claim Jackie, before we even picked her up.  This was a fortuitous circumstance, and we genuinely hoped it would improve Jackie’s lot in life.  After visiting Jackie one evening, we made arrangements to bring her to our house later in the week and for Noelle to pick her up that day.

The afternoon we brought Jackie to our house was warm and sunny.  The people who gave her to us had ceased their drug administration. We lived at the farmhouse in West Linn at the time, and we were looking forward to letting her run drug free in the fenced field behind our house.  Nancy Reagan would have been so proud.

When we pulled up in the driveway, we opened the door to go inside, and Jackie darted out of the car and down the street.  Bewildered at the speedy escape, we backed out of the driveway and drove around for the next two hours, looking for her.  We finally gave up and called Jackie’s previous owners.  Jackie was still wearing her old tags.  If someone found her, they could call them, and they would call us.

Within two hours we received a call from the state police.  They had gotten our number from Jackie’s previous owners, and wanted to bring her to us.  Five minutes later, a patrol car pulled up at our house.  Jackie had been discovered sitting on a log, floating down the Willamette River, several miles upstream from our house.  We never heard the details of how she had been rescued, but this river is massive and swift, and we lived upstream from a rather large waterfall. Jackie was a lucky little dog.  Unfortunately, we were not terribly sad to see her go when Noelle came by our house to pick her up later that evening.  Our neighbor at the new house was right, perhaps some people should not own Jacks.

Not long after we moved into the new house, Poppy disappeared from our fenced dog run in the backyard. There was no evidence of escape, and Autumn was still there, a sure sign the fence was intact; if Poppy could have escaped, Autumn would have been gone as well. It seemed someone had taken Poppy right out of our yard. The dogs had free access to the house and dog run while we were at work, and if someone wanted to, they could have taken her.

The day after Poppy’s disappearance, but before I had posted any of the signs I printed on my computer that said MISSING DOG, I was in the front yard of my house when the white-haired woman walked by with her dog.

“I haven’t seen Poppy out here lately,” she stated, matter-of-factly. “Did you find her another home?”

“No,” I answered, “She is gone. Someone took her from our yard.”

“Oh, well that’s too bad, but you know, people with other dogs shouldn’t own Jacks.”

“Well,” I answered, “I hope whoever has her knows she has a skin condition and gets her the shots she requires and feeds her foods that don’t make her itch.” I said this while looking directly at her, knowing full well she was the one who had taken our dog, because no one else knew yet she was missing.

“Oh, I’m sure they will,” she said, walking off. “I have little doubt of it.”

We never saw Poppy again. The woman had done me a favor, but I was not happy about the sneaky and thieving way she had gone about it. Milla especially was upset to have her little dog gone without so much as a goodbye.

Molly healed from her broken foot and we began feeding the dogs in separate rooms. Molly and Autumn got to eat in the house, on opposite sides of the island in the kitchen, while Poppy ate in the garage. It was the least she could do having hurt Molly.

In spite of the fact Autumn was dining on a smorgasbord of ground turkey, rice, and some disgusting vitamin goo that looked and smelled exactly like blood, she continued to escape and eat trash at the neighbors’ houses whenever she got the chance.

One night, I arrived home late from a law school class that ended at 10. It was nearly 11 by the time I dragged my lumbering book bag into the house. Everyone was asleep. I made myself a bowl of cereal and was just sitting down to eat it and read a magazine before bed when I noticed Autumn lying near the glass back door. She did not look well.

It was not unusual for the dogs to skip greeting me when I arrived home late, so I had not noticed her when I came in. She was glassy-eyed and bloated. She belched every few minutes, and was passing horribly smelly gas, and she seemed to be in pain, holding her head down, with her legs spread at unnatural widths from her body. The worst part though, was that her stomach was extremely swollen. It looked as if she had ingested a soccer ball or something, her abdomen was so distended.

I went into our spare room and logged on to the computer, and entered the symptoms into google. All of the responses came back with “gastric dilatation,” and “twisted stomach,” and “gastric torsion.” One even said simply “bloat in dogs.”

I immediately called our vet’s office. The answering service told us to contact the emergency vet in Salem. I called the emergency vet who confirmed that the symptoms did indeed sound like gastric torsion, and that we should bring Autumn in immediately. Every site I had looked at said the diagnosis was a virtual death sentence.

Terrified, I awakened Bjorn and told him what was going on. He dressed and we loaded Milla and Autumn into the car for the forty minute drive into Salem. Because it was nearly midnight, the drive didn’t take quite that long, simply because we did not have to follow any extra slow drivers.

We slipped into the darkened parking lot of the emergency vet just over a half hour later. The building looked deserted, in spite of the fluorescent lights glowing through the opaque windows. A sign at the door told us to ring a bell. We waited in the cold, Bjorn carrying Autumn, and me carrying Milla over my shoulder. A tech responded to the buzzing and pushed open the door. It felt like we were being ushered into a science fiction spaceship. The lights above hummed continuously but the building was deafeningly quiet because the lobby was completely empty. I’m sure during the day the room was abuzz with activity, but not at that hour. The tech took Autumn from my arms and carried her into a small examining room, the three of us following closely on her heels.

“We will take her back and get an x-ray,” said the tech. “Then the vet will look them over and come out to let you know what we find.” Her voice was grim.

Less than five minutes later the vet came into the room to let us know her plan.

“We will take x-rays. From the way she is presenting, it certainly appears to be torsion, but we can’t be sure without the films.” Gastric torsion is a life-threatening condition whereby a dog’s stomach becomes twisted on its axis, causing the contents of the stomach to become trapped. The stomach then distends because it is twisted and the gas cannot escape. It is extremely painful and if left untreated, the dog will die quickly.

She went on to explain that if Autumn had torsion, her options were limited. We could try surgery, and if she had surgery, there was a strong likelihood this would happen again and again until it killed her. She said she was going to take x-rays first to determine what was going on, but she was fairly certain Autumn was suffering from torsion.

Bjorn and I said nothing. We waited and waited in the sterile, fluorescent waiting room. I was tiring of spending time in these cold, unwelcoming spaces. So much time waiting for tests on this dog I loved like a child. The chairs were never comfortable and on the few occasions televisions were left on, I was even more miserable. I hate television, with its unrelenting noise, flashing, and commercials. The two of us took turns holding Milla as she slept, warm and sweaty on our shoulders.

Forty-five minutes later, the veterinarian came out to talk to us, and asked us to come into the examination room. There was an x-ray on the illuminated x-ray sign.

The vet was calm as she said, “Autumn doesn’t have a twisted stomach. It appears that she got into something that has expanded, causing her extreme discomfort, but the stomach is not at all twisted, and is in exactly the right place. I suspect that as soon as whatever she ate passes through, she will be just fine. I administered a stool softener to help move things along, and gave her an injection of painkiller to aid with pain.”

I was so relieved, but it was after 2 in the morning and I was thoroughly exhausted, both from the emotional turmoil of the situation, as well as lack of sleep. I was grateful that once again my dog was okay, theoretically anyway. The visit cost nearly $300, but we wouldn’t be wondering where to bury my dog anytime soon. Every time we ended up in a veterinarian’s office for another Autumn medical catastrophe, I wondered where that place would be. Every time I asked, would this visit be the one that ended it all?

As Bjorn drove, I sat quietly in the passenger seat, hunkered down low, the chair reclined back touching Milla’s car seat, Autumn curled at my feet.

I was not the sort who prayed, but as we slid through the dark towards home, I sent out a silent prayer, hoping that this problem would be the last, that this visit would be the end to constant medical conditions, and issues, and investigations, and expense, that there would not be more waiting in yet another sterile room.

All the way home, I was grateful she was still with me, but I was fervent in my hope that this time would be the last. Perhaps I did not pray enough, or asked too late, because a positive answer to this prayer was simply not to be.

Read Autumn — Chapter 14

Autumn — Chapter 11

Read Autumn — Chapter 10

Autumn was seven years old when she began having bladder infections. Always fanatically clean and unwilling to wet inside, she began peeing uncontrollably wherever she happened to be standing when the urge overcame her. We had purchased a dog door insert for the sliding glass door to the backyard, so none of the animals ever had to wait to go potty. Autumn couldn’t even make it to the door. She would get up from wherever she was lying and head for the pet door, then stop and squat, trying to urinate. There would be a dribble, and nothing more. I could see the fur on her back end quivering as she strained to urinate, feeling the pressure, but getting no result.

I took her to the vet’s office near our duplex. Unlike Dr. Fletcher, when this vet would examine Autumn, a technician would take her from me in the lobby and do something with her in the back room. Autumn never liked this. She would pull towards me on her leash as she was led away. The doctors were kind though, and always explained things thoroughly to me.

The vet ran a culture on Autumn’s urine and prescribed antibiotics. She would get somewhat better on the antibiotics, but then the infection would recur as soon as the course ran. I would take her back to the vet, get another culture, get more antibiotics. This went on for several months.

Finally, frustrated, I told the doctor we needed to do something more drastic. The vet decided that we should give Autumn some very powerful antibiotics and work to kill the bacteria once and for all. After the course had run, she seemed better, and did well for several months.

There was a great deal of stress going on in Autumn’s life at this time. Actually, there was a great deal of stress in all of our lives. I had begun my first term in law school, Bjorn was completing his final year of his engineering program, and we got another dog:  a Jack Russell terrier we named Poppy.

Bjorn had always wanted a Jack Russell. I saw this dog advertised somewhere and chose her for his birthday. She was living in a small cage in a man’s nearly empty apartment in Gresham. Another dog was in a cage next to Poppy’s. There were urine stains under the cages because he left them there to do their business. It seemed he left them there all the time. If I could have, I would have taken both of the dogs, just to get them away from the man.

The entire time Poppy lived with us, she suffered severe skin infections. She would get fungal infections in her ears that required oozy medications. After she scratched herself bloody, I had the vet run allergy tests, and it turned out she was allergic to about ten different things, several grasses among them. We lived in the Willamette Valley, the grass capital of the world. Not a great place for a dog allergic to several varieties of grasses. Considering all the problems she had, I wondered if the man who sold her to us had bred her in some inbred puppy mill or something. We had not requested her papers, although he offered to get them for us for an additional price. Since we planned to spay Poppy and keep her as a pet, her papers were meaningless, but I wondered later if we could have seen the issues coming if we had known her breeding.

When I got Molly, Autumn was not pleased. She saw the acquisition as a betrayal and competed constantly for my attention. When Poppy came along, however, Autumn enjoyed her new friend. The two of them ganged up on Molly and had a grand time doing it. Molly seemed to suffer more stress over the transition than Autumn did. However, being Molly, she didn’t act out, but spent more time under the bed.

While this was going on, we moved from the duplex to that lovely little farmhouse on two acres in the middle of the suburb.

Autumn loved it. We fenced in about a half an acre in an attempt to provide the dogs with a large place to play and also to attempt to keep Autumn from running off.

All of the dogs seemed to really enjoy this new arrangement. We would let them out in the yard and they would wander around sniffing the bases of the trees, marking each other’s urine, and chasing squirrels.

In spite of the fabulous new digs, Autumn managed to get out and disappear for a couple of hours every week. Ever since she was a puppy living near the field in Tennessee, if she had the chance to go wandering, she would take it. Most of the places we lived had fences so secure that her escapes were not much of an issue. She would return from her adventure and bark at the door to be let in.

Escape was easier at the house in West Linn. Autumn would take off, often for a couple of hours, then back she would be at the door, barking to be let in. We diligently searched the fence for signs of escape, and repaired any areas that looked like possibilities, yet she managed to get out again. Of course.

For a while Autumn did quite well. There were no bladder infections and she seemed happy. Then Poppy starting causing trouble, urinating on the furniture and getting into things and chewing. I almost wondered if Poppy was ruined for potty training because she had been left to pee in the same kennel where she slept for the first nine months of her life.

One evening, Bjorn was in the kitchen cooking, and I was playing with Milla on the floor in the living room. Autumn and Molly were lying on the floor next to me when Poppy jumped up on our nubbly, brown love seat, squatted, and peed. I screeched and jumped up, grabbed her, and tossed her out the back door. The other dogs sniffed the spot, then Molly slunk off and hid, while Autumn looked at me quizzically. Luckily, the love seat was new and came with a cleaning warranty, so we were able to have the urine taken care of, but this was the sort of thing Poppy would do.

Unfortunately, there was no way to lock up just Poppy and leave the other dogs with a way to get out to go potty, so all three had to stay on the porch when we were away to keep Poppy from destroying the house in our absence.

Autumn hated this. After locking them on the back porch, Autumn would bark and bark, venting her frustration. Once she thought I was gone, she would settle down, but soon after the dogs had to start staying on the back porch, Autumn got another bladder infection.

I did not realize it at the time, but I know now that the stress of staying on the porch when she had previously had the run of the house contributed to her getting another infection. And as in the past, it took several courses and a final strong dose of antibiotics to get rid of the infection.

I will never forget the moment one sunny afternoon a few months after she had been off the antibiotics when I let Autumn out to go potty in the front yard, and she peed a stream of deep red blood, contrasting brightly with her fluffy blonde pantaloons. I learned the true meaning of my own blood running cold. I felt my face blanch, and it was as if the world stood still for a brief moment as I questioned whether this was really happening.

I went over and sought to examine the place on the ground where Autumn had peed. The spot was a mix of scrubby grass and hard packed earth. I could not see anything. I called Autumn to me. She seemed to be fine except for the desperate urge to urinate. She continued trying, although nothing came out. Whenever she managed a little, there were chunks of bloody tissue in it. It was gross and terrifying. I thought for sure my little dog was dying.

Heart pounding and choking back sobs, I called the vet. She said to bring Autumn in right away. I grabbed a towel and covered the front seat with it so if she bled again, none would get on the upholstery. I gathered the baby, diaper bag, my purse, and the dog, and we loaded into our compact, green car.

Driving to the vet’s office, I tried to hold back tears, little hiccuping sobs kept escaping my mouth. What if Autumn had cancer? What if she was going to die? Milla sat in the back seat, her eyes wide. She knew something was not right.

We arrived at the vet’s office. The technician wanted to try and get a sample of the bloody urine, so we led Autumn around out front in the strip of grass between the parking lot and the road, hoping she would try to pee. She made several attempts, to no avail. We were ready to give up when she urinated, and some small bloody chunks came out as well.

After the technician took Autumn into the back examination room, the doctor came out to discuss what steps would be taken.

“There are several possible prognoses,” she said. “It could be cancer, but this is unlikely, given the overall symptoms. It could be that she ingested some rat poison. Rat poison causes animals to bleed out. Is there any chance Autumn got into some rat poison?” she asked me.

Anything was possible. Autumn escaped all the time. She also ate anything and everything. I had tried to teach her “Leave it” when it came to food, but this had only ever worked when I was standing right above her, forcing her to leave something alone. She would sit with her head up at an angle, her eyes cast down at whatever food item I was forbidding, a gleam in her eye, licking her chops, hoping against hope I would give in and let her have it.

“Well, we will run the test for that and if she did ingest rat poison, we can take steps to alleviate any harm if we have caught it in time.”

“Okay,” I answered, unsure and worried. There was more. I could tell. The doctor had that anticipatory look about her.

“The other big possibility, and this really matches her history, is Cushing’s disease.”

Cushing’s disease? I had never heard of it. The main symptoms were increased water consumption (check), increased urination (check), accidents in previously fastidious dogs (check), increased appetite (well, Autumn was always hungry, or so it seemed), stealing food (same as hungry), a bloated tummy (check), a dull coat (not so much), and exercise intolerance, lethargy, general or hind-leg weakness (check, check, check).

I was dumbfounded. This described my dog nearly exactly, and actually illustrated parts of her that had been showing up for years, but I had overlooked. She was only a few years old when she began to refuse running with me. Could that have been the beginning of Cushing’s and I did not know it? The vet told me there were other symptoms that also showed up, but these were often the most obvious features. She said it is usually either the increased water intake and urination, or the coat changes which prompt an owner to have their dog examined by a veterinarian, because Cushing’s dogs don’t suddenly become dramatically ill. It is also much more difficult to ignore a dog that is peeing on everything, eating trash, and losing its hair.

The bad news was that Cushing’s was notoriously difficult to diagnose because there were many false negatives. In addition, the medication to treat it was prohibitively expensive. She told me we would rule out everything else first, then look at doing the primary test for Cushing’s. She also thought Autumn should have a scope of her bladder to see what was causing the bleeding.

“How much would that cost?” I queried.

“About 750 dollars,” she responded.

Oh my holy Christ! 750 dollars! There was no way we could afford that, but it seemed necessary to rule out bladder cancer and to try and figure out what was going on in there, because Cushing’s wouldn’t cause bladder bleeding, even if it did seem like all the symptoms fit my dog.

After much hand-wringing and consternation, Bjorn and I conversed and decided we would approach our friends Debbie and Robert for a loan.

I met Debbie when I began working at Oregon State. Poker-faced with a constant smile reminiscent of the Cheshire cat, Debbie worked as a graduate assistant at the university. I worked as a general office assistant. She and I hit it off nearly immediately. We shared the same ridiculous sense of humor, and could entertain one another for hours repeating the lines of simpletons in movies or pretending to dance the river dance. Bjorn and Robert would shake their heads in consternation as the two of us spent hours on the phone laughing until our sides hurt and tears ran down our faces at basically nothing at all. Most of what we found hilarious would cause most people to wonder whether we should be incarcerated in a mental institution.

Debbie and I also shared an interest in politics.  We could spend hours discussing whatever was happening politically in the world.  Debbie was the first person I called the morning the twin towers burned.  We sobbed together, realizing the world would never be the same again.

Because Debbie became my very best friend in the entire world and she shared her life with Robert, Robert became a friend as well, and later my de facto father. I never knew my biological father, and was certainly never close to my step-father. In a sense, I had no father figure really, certainly no one had ever filled those shoes for me, so after the birth of Milla, Robert stepped in and took the job.

While I was pregnant, I decided Debbie was the person I wanted there with me as my support. Robert drove most of the time, and on the night before Milla’s birth, when we called them at 3 in the morning to let them know her arrival was imminent, Robert drove. The birthing center where Milla was born provided birthing “suites,” much like hotel rooms. Robert plunked himself down on a couch to wait for Debbie. Debbie took care of me, and Robert managed Bjorn and kept him company.

In the end, both of them were present at Milla’s birth, and forever after, she was Robert’s heart. He loved that child like she was his own. For the rest of his life, whenever he had the opportunity, Robert would tell the story of Milla’s birth and how, after the doctor plopped her up on my belly, he could see her tiny, quivering cleft chin. He then turned his head slightly and saw an identical chin, only slightly bigger, quivering on me.

Robert loved telling that story, and he utterly adored my daughter. Robert also cared for me in his own way, fighting with me when he thought I was being “dumber than a bag of hammers” (his words), or I thought he was being a “stubborn pain in the ass” (mine).

The two also thoroughly understood my love of Autumn and Molly. Debbie has a human child, and Debbie and Robert lived with the previously mentioned cat named Misty whom they loved completely. They cared for our dogs while we were in the hospital after Milla’s birth. They also welcomed our dogs whenever we visited their house. And they knew I would not have considered having Autumn euthanized for the medical issues she was experiencing unless it were the only option.

Between the two of them, Bjorn and I found emotional support often lacking in our own parents. We would have done anything for them, and in this time of need, they provided us with a loan so Autumn could have the tests deemed necessary by the veterinarian. We paid them back a few months later after Bjorn graduated and received a signing bonus at his new job, but if we hadn’t gotten that loan, I’m not sure what we would have done.

And so the tests were begun. After all the blood work and examination on the day she peed blood, nothing was found or conclusive. Rat poison was ruled out, and surprisingly, so was a bladder infection. There wasn’t any bladder infection bacteria in her urine, once they were able to obtain a sample. They also tested for diabetes mellitus, but that was negative as well. Also, based on the blood tests, cancer was unlikely, but the vet wanted to wait for the results of the scope to rule it out completely.

The vet’s office helped us to schedule the bladder scope at the specialist’s office. They also scheduled the Cushing’s disease test, which required that Autumn fast for twelve hours, then come in and leave a blood sample. She had to stay at the vet’s office all day for the Cushing’s test because first the doctor would inject her with a substance called dexamethasone, which was a synthetic steroid. She would then take blood samples four and eight hours later. In a normal dog, the body would recognize the steroid and suppress cortisol. Cushing’s dogs would not suppress the cortisol because their feedback loop was messed up.

After making all the schedules, I gathered Autumn into the car with the baby. She had stopped urinating blood because the doctor had given her something to relax the muscle walls in her bladder. The vet had also dosed her up on antibiotics, as she had the last time Autumn had a bladder infection, even though there had been no signs of that type of bacteria. The heavy antibiotic doses had worked in the past, so she figured we should do it again.

I called Debbie and Robert, and described everything we had experienced so far, all the tests, all the speculation. Then I called Dr. Fletcher and discussed what was happening with him. He asked me to keep him posted and let him know if we came up with a diagnosis.

I wasn’t as scared as I had been before because everything described to me so far could be managed, but I could hardly wait for the bladder scope that was scheduled for the following week. I was hopeful it would provide some clarity into what was going on.

Read Autumn — Chapter 12

Autumn — Chapter 10

Read Autumn — Chapter 9

The spring Milla was born, we decided to move to Portland. Living in Corvallis had worn thin for me. It was too small and too far from the activities we enjoyed. I liked bigger cities and had mainly stayed in Corvallis because first Dan, then Bjorn attended university there. Bjorn had grown up in a suburb of Portland, and during a visit shortly after Milla’s birth, we realized we could move.

I remember clearly the moment it occurred to me that we could leave Corvallis and live somewhere else. We were driving along in the car in Portland near Bjorn’s childhood home. I was a passenger in the back seat next to the baby (because I was always a passenger in the back seat next to the baby), and as we slid past orchards and neighborhoods, the idea we could actually leave where we were and go somewhere else popped into my head, and I said to Bjorn, “Let’s move. Let’s move up here now.”

Milla wasn’t even yet a month old, but I wanted a change, wanted out of Corvallis with its memories and limitations. Bjorn had one year left towards his engineering degree, and I was planning to apply to law school. We held a garage sale, packed a moving van, and headed north. Autumn was six years old.

We started out renting a room in Bjorn’s dad’s house, but this proved unsatisfactory nearly immediately. I had learned the hard way what living with family can do to a relationship, and within a month we had rented our own apartment on the third floor of a complex that had been, only months before, a filbert orchard. There were still filbert orchards across from our apartment, and we taught the dogs to run out the door, down three flights of stairs, and out across the median to the trees to do their business.

In spite of the fact the apartment was rather small, near Christmas the year we moved in, my brother Derek asked if he could stay with us for a short time while he looked for a place to live.  He had been living with our parents in Jefferson, a town about sixty miles south of Portland.

For years, Derek had struggled with drug addiction.  He would go to treatment, move out on his own and get a job, then for various reasons end up back living with our parents and near the people who always helped him get into trouble.  This cycle had run through about four times at this point.

At the time Derek wanted to live with us, he had been back to our parent’s, and we all believed that if he could just get away from the area, he would have a better chance at success in beating his addictions.

Bjorn and I discussed whether to allow Derek to stay with us.  Bjorn actually didn’t have any problems with it, but I was worried if we allowed him to stay, we would have a difficult time getting him to leave.  Unless he did something awful, I didn’t want to have to call the police simply to get him to move on.

We finally decided that we would allow him to stay, but with certain limitations.  Namely he had to get a job and he could not stay with us longer than two weeks.  We also did not want his girlfriend to live there.  Neither of us I liked her very  much, but we did not tell Derek this.  Even if we had loved her, we simply did not have the room.

Derek moved in. We let him sleep on the couch and keep his belongings in Milla’s room because she slept with us in our bed.  Nearly immediately, he was able to secure a job during the swing shift, so we didn’t see him very much except in the late morning before he left for work.  One afternoon when he did not have to work, I took him over to the management office to help him fill out an application for an apartment of his own.

For Christmas, I invited my parents and my sister and her family to our house for Christmas.  The apartment was tiny, but I had decided after Milla’s birth that we were not going to do the usual holiday run-around anymore.  On Christmases past, we would drive to my parent’s, then Bjorn’s dad’s, then his mom’s family, and often to my sister’s, or some other version of it.  No one ever came our way.  I did not want my baby to spend her holidays driving all over the place.

We pulled out the leaves to the table and made room for everyone. The kitchen was not large, but it served its purpose, helping us to serve dinner to eleven.  Once the family was satiated, we all opened gifts, our families left for home, and I straightened up the mess.

For years I had gone to the movies on Christmas day, me and many others.  Apparently Hollywood figured out this trick because movies started opening on Christmas, which was great since we saw a lot of movies and frequently needed new choices.  During movies, I would breastfeed Milla and she would fall asleep in my arms.  Derek was with us so we all bundled up and headed out to the car and off to see a show.

Three hours later when we arrived home, things were not in order.  We had only opened gifts for my family and one another, but there were still many gifts left for Bjorn’s family and for our friends.  The wrappings to most of these gifts were now spread throughout the house.  Little pieces of ribbon, bows, wet wrapping paper, and tags lay everywhere, in the living room, across the rug in the dining room, down the hall, and in both bedrooms. The cork stopper to a jar of nuts was half shredded, bits of cork speckling the carpet.  Pieces of candy cane were littered everywhere, the chunks obviously sucked on because they were coagulated in their plastic wrap.  A thorough mess.

Normally if we had arrived to a scene like this, Autumn would be standing happily in the middle of it, tongue out with some incriminating evidence on her muzzle, and Molly would be hiding, but both dogs just stood there, looking at us.

“What in the world is going on?” I asked them sternly, knowing of course there would be no response.  “Did you eat our gifts?”

Looking further, we discovered several food items in the hall and in our bedroom.  It did not look like much was eaten, but they had certainly seemed to have had a party opening all the presents and spreading them all over the place.

“What in the world were you thinking?” I hollered?  “Why did you do this?  Do you really think I want to clean up a mess like this on Christmas?”  They ignored me.  Neither of them seemed in any way concerned, which for Molly was completely strange.

I began picking up the pieces and pulling the presents together to rewrap.  Bjorn and Derek took the dogs out on our patio to keep them from getting into anything else.

It wasn’t until years later, after Derek had been to rehab a couple of more times, and long after Bjorn and I were no longer a couple, that I learned the real truth of what happened that night.

Apparently my brother had hidden in his backpack a rather large, brownie-sized cake of hashish.  When the four of us returned home to the mini Christmas disaster that night, Derek quickly realized what was up.  His bag was askew, the pocket in the front of the bag where the hashish had been stashed wide open.  The hashish had been wrapped in aluminum foil with a sticker on the front that read Acapulco Gold!  This foil was lying smashed and spitty in a pile on the cream-colored carpet, the Acapulco Gold! label torn in half.

Derek immediately pulled Bjorn aside and told him he thought the dogs had eaten his hashish.  The two of them dragged the dogs to the patio to confirm their suspicions.  Apparently what I failed to notice was that our dogs’ pupils were the size of platters and rimmed in red.  The reason neither dog had reacted in any way to my tirade was that they were both completely stoned.

When I heard the story, so long into the future, I laughed, recalling the picture of both dogs baked and confused.  I can only imagine how it must have been from their perspective, discovering Christmas goodies while they were high on hashish.

Yet Derek and Bjorn were right that I would have blown a gasket if I had known at the time. Even later, the implications were not lost on me.  Derek had kept drugs in our apartment, and had done so with our small daughter there.  She was mobile by then, crawling about and getting into things.  He assured me the stuff had been zipped up tight in his bag, and that Milla would never have been able to find them, but his concealment had not been enough to keep our dogs from making their discovery.  They were very lucky they didn’t get sick.

Ultimately, Derek fulfilled his end of the bargain.  He moved into his own apartment in the complex and got a job.  His story then continued on its own trajectory.

Meanwhile, Bjorn and I were both ready to move less than a year later.  The apartment was so tiny and located in a suburb that seemed designed to stop all drivers at every traffic signal, which drove me crazy. It was also too far from the university where Bjorn attended classes and the law school where I planned to attend classes a year later. I wanted more than an apartment. I wanted a yard where the dogs and baby could play. I wanted space, and not to be able to hear our neighbors arguing.  Bjorn, nearly 6’7″ in height, wanted room to stretch his legs without banging them on another wall. And so, less than a year after moving north to Portland, we moved again into a high-ceilinged duplex with a rambling yard. An ancient oak shaded half the yard and kept our home cool.

I loved that duplex. Too bad there were drug dealers in the park next to it. We could hear shouts and shots and all sorts of unmentionables there, at all hours of the day and night, which frightened me somewhat, considering the blonde, curly sprite living with us. The dogs also barked at all hours, warning off interlopers, causing us all to jump as we studied and played.

Finally, after witnessing a police officer throw a half naked woman and several baggies filled with white powder across the hood of his patrol car, cuffing her and tossing her carelessly into his backseat, we decided that it might be best to move on yet again.  During the years Bjorn and I were together, we had a knack for moving into places that suited one need and not another.

Our next choice was the perfect little farmhouse. Charming and comfortable, the house was yellow with white trim, and sat on two acres in the middle of one of Oregon’s wealthiest suburbs. The acreage was grandfathered, allowing us to keep livestock, so we fenced it and brought home my old childhood pony, as well as some ducks. We could have stayed there forever. Unfortunately, the little house was a rental and the manager a son who was waiting with bated breath for his mother to pass so he could develop the property, which he did not long after we moved out. There was a five-story cherry tree in the front yard, which was promptly chopped down, along with the house, in his zealous desire to destroy the land and fill his greedy hands with cash.

Our next place was our first purchase and horribly ill-suited for us, too far from town, and too much suburban sameness, block after block. In purchasing this house, Bjorn and I took the advice of a well-meaning, but misguided friend who assisted us in making the purchase. It was only years later after Bjorn and I broke up that I finally bought a house that was suitable to me. We learn with age that which we will no longer tolerate.

However, at the time we chose the duplex, we were a long way from buying our own home. Bjorn was in his last year of school and I was in my first of law school. We both worked and studied and parented our child. The duplex was spacious and shared only a small wall with our quiet neighbors. Built in the sixties, it had sloping, vaulted ceilings and two bathrooms. After the dinky, third-floor walk-up, this was paradise!

During our move from the apartment to the duplex, I saw a sign over the mailboxes at the apartment complex advertising a free cat. According to the sign, the cat liked children and other pets.

Milla and I headed over to visit the prospective cat. The apartment was on the third floor. The people who owned the cat ran a daycare service out of their home. The lady of the house wanted to find the cat a new home because her husband would not allow the cat to come into the house, and he had therefore been living on the balcony for his entire short life. She had gotten him from the humane society when he was a kitten. Except for a few visits with the daycare children where he was dressed in doll clothes and pushed around in a stroller, he had spent eleven months living on a 3 by 6 balcony with one other cat. His name was Friday and we fell in love with him on the spot.

For the rest of his life, Friday adored us. I swear he was grateful to his bones we had released him from the prison of that godforsaken balcony and the daycare children dressing him up in baby clothes.

Autumn had never been a big cat chaser. There had been cats living at the apartment complex in Tennessee and in every neighborhood we had lived in since. She and Molly were both nonplussed by the newest member of the family. After some initial sniffing, the three all ignored one another.

I suppose after Milla, as far as the dogs were concerned, any new family members were acceptable. The two of them had both settled into life with a tiny person running around. First she was a lump they could sniff and mostly ignore, but then she began moving about and carrying food with her, and suddenly she was a much more interesting prospect.

They also relished her diapers. Their’s was a disgusting and foul habit, this desire to eat diapers. No matter what steps we took to keep used diapers away from them, they would somehow manage to get into them and eat them. This would be followed by yellowish turds filled with chewed up plastic and diaper innards.

We had purchased for Milla’s room a widget called a Diaper Genie. The thing had a weird hole in its top through which one placed a used diaper. The diaper would slide through a convoluted plastic contraption and into the bowels of the Genie. A door on the front of the Genie allowed access into the bag which held the diapers. Its point was to ensure that the smell of the diapers did not escape into the room where the Genie was placed.

Both our dogs could open that Diaper Genie and get the diapers out. We would come home from wherever we had been to discover diaper shreds, baby shit, and pieces of soiled diaper spread from one end of Milla’s room to the other. Molly, of course, would be hiding in our bedroom under the bed because, in spite of her biological urge to eat diapers, she knew that our discovery of them would result in lots of hollering and hand-wringing, and this terrified her half to death. Autumn would sit among the diapers, her tongue lolling, breath smelling foul and wrong, wondering where she could find some more.

We attempted to avoid this problem by placing the Diaper Genie into the closet in Milla’s room. To no avail. Autumn was always a clever getter into things, and she would simply open the closet and proceed to dismantle the Genie in there instead.

Finally, I went and purchased an industrial strength, outdoor garbage can, the kind with a lid and bungee cords for closing. We put the Diaper Genie in this, put the whole contraption in the closet and, as long as we remembered to keep Milla’s bedroom door shut, the closet door shut, and the lid on the industrial garbage can securely fastened, we could avoid diaper catastrophes. It was also imperative that we remove the filled bag from the diaper genie to the outdoor garbage can once it was full. On a couple of occasions Bjorn left the full bag on the floor in the bedroom, which may as well have been a giant, flashing invitation to the dogs to come in and have a diaper smorgasbord at their pleasure. It only took a couple of misses on this one for Bjorn never to make that mistake again.

Milla celebrated her first birthday at the duplex.  I invited our family and our closest friends to a little garden party.  I baked a cake that looked like a caterpillar and covered it with fondant.  I sat up half the night stringing together green and yellow, construction paper, daisy chains, which I hung all over the kitchen and living room.  Clearly, Autumn’s birthday parties were just a warmup.

Within weeks of her first birthday, Milla walked across the living room.  She had been cruising for a while, walking everywhere as long as her hands held a couch, the wall, or some other support.  Then one afternoon while holding a marbly green, plastic ball, she took off and walked twelve steps across the room.  It was as if the ball were her support.

Once she began walking, she kept going, and only became faster.  Up to this point, the dogs were interested in her usually only when she sat in her high chair.  Both Milla and the dogs had discovered that the high chair could be quite fun.  Milla would toss whatever food item she happened to be consuming, and then laugh hysterically as the dogs pounced on it like starving lunatics.  Occasionally this would cause arguments between the dogs, which only made Milla laugh more.  First lessons in cause and effect.

During her crawling phase, when things became a little too silent, I would often discover her on all fours, both hands in the dog water dish.  She was also quite fond of making dog food soup, mixing together whatever food stuffs were left in the dogs’ dish with their water.  I kept the dishes on a place mat in the kitchen, and after these escapades, the floor around and under the mat would usually be a watery mess.  Autumn especially loved eating the soupy mixture, and would wait to one side while Milla mixed it for her, then dive in as soon as the baby crawled off to explore elsewhere.

When Milla began to walk, she also began to carry different food items with her.  I usually put her in her high chair to eat, but sometimes, especially if I was busy trying to study or straighten the house, I would pour some cereal in a little dish for her to carry around, or give her a cracker.

One night I sat at the kitchen table studying.  Milla had finished her dinner, but was wandering around with a sandwich in her hand.  Molly was hiding under the dining room table, doing her best to remain as unobtrusive as possible.  Autumn, of course, was following Milla, trying to get the sandwich she held in her hand.  Milla kept telling her “No!” and holding the sandwich up, trying to keep it out of Autumn’s reach.

Finally, frustrated at her inability to get the food, Autumn jumped up and tried to grab the sandwich, snapping at it, shoving Milla backward into the cupboard.  Autumn tried again to snatch the sandwich, but she got Milla’s cheek instead, high up, underneath her eye.

Milla cried out in pain.  I jumped up and raced over to her, shouting, “Autumn!”  Autumn ducked and backed up as I gathered Milla into my arms, sobbing.  Bjorn raced into the kitchen, screaming “Autumn” in a loud and ferocious voice.  He grabbed her by the ruff of her neck and threw her across the room.

“I could kill that dog!” he shouted.

“Leave her alone,” I screamed.  Milla wailed.  “She was trying to get the sandwich.  It was an accident.”

“I don’t care if it was a fucking accident,” Bjorn raged.  “She bit my daughter in the face!”

“It wasn’t on purpose.  She just wanted the sandwich,” I answered.  Milla hugged me and sobbed in my arms.  I grabbed a washcloth and set her on the counter to investigate the damage.

“Go get some antiseptic cream,” I instructed Bjorn, hoping that a project would separate him from his anger.  He stalked out of the room to go search for the medicine.

I wet the washcloth and gently rinsed Milla’s face.  She had suffered a small scratch under her right eye.  Thank goodness the bite was on her cheek and not her eye.

I looked around to see where Autumn was at.  She was cowering in the corner near the glass back door.

“Autumn, it’s okay,” I cooed to her.  “I know it was an accident.”  She was trembling.  I opened the back door and let her out.  From wherever she had been hiding, Molly came running and scooted out past me as well.  Neither dog was comfortable with yelling and violence.

Milla calmed down.  I swabbed some ointment on her small wound and then took her into the bedroom to nurse.  She was none the worse for wear, but Bjorn was still quite angry, and never forgave Autumn for this bite.  For days he told anyone who would listen that he should have killed my dog.  Eventually his anger wore down, but I made took extra care with Milla and food to ensure nothing like this event ever happened again.

Read Autumn — Chapter 11

Autumn — Chapter 9

Read Autumn — Chapter 8

Despite the fact that Dan and I had spent almost two years in couples counseling, the combination of marrying young and living with family had taken its toll on our marriage. As is often the case, there was also a strain between my desire to start a family and Dan’s desire to wait. As his final year at the university wound down, we decided our marriage was over.

We had moved from the apartment to a tiny little house with a small yard, a minuscule garden, and a park nearby for the dogs to run and play. Dan moved out of this little house and back into his parent’s, but would visit with Autumn every so often. He had been offered a job in California, and I think he knew that after he left, he might not see her again.

I remained in Corvallis with Autumn after Dan moved away. Over the next year, I dated a few different men, and eventually met another man named Bjorn. Without intending to quite so soon, our relationship became much more serious than we intended when I discovered I was pregnant. While I was concerned about an impending pregnancy with a man I had only known a few short months, I was also delighted. I had wanted a baby with Dan, but he had not wanted to start a family while he was still in college. Bjorn had two years left before graduation, but when I informed him I was pregnant, he was as excited as I was.

How does one explain circumstances about which one is certain to be judged by a segment of the population? I wasn’t as circumspect as I could have been. I certainly could have made choices that to some would have seemed wiser. Yet I have no regrets; once the seed of my child was planted, I would not have changed a thing that could have arrived at a different result. I knew three months into the pregnancy that I would have ended the relationship with Bjorn sooner rather than later – we were completely incompatible in many ways. But after my baby was born, and even before when she was a minuscule mass of cells clinging to the inside of my body, there was no way I could imagine my life without her.

The months I was pregnant were emotional, both up and down. In retrospect, I realized I was mourning the loss of my marriage and the friendship I had carried for over seven years, while I was simultaneously intoxicated with the joy of expecting a new baby. It was a paradoxical place.

Prior to my pregnancy and after Autumn had decided she was no longer interested in going for runs with me, I would take Molly running or roller-blading, then take both dogs to the park near my house to run and play. When the weather was warm, I would take Autumn swimming. She was extremely healthy. After having spent several years swimming in the summers, she no longer displayed any signs of hip dysplasia. She was quite active, and though not as lithe as Molly, she was definitely athletic and capable. After I became pregnant, I stayed active, walking both dogs, roller-blading and running with Molly for as long as the pregnancy would allow, and riding horses well into my sixth month. The dogs enjoyed the exercise. As the year wore down from fall to winter, we all settled in, expectant and waiting for the enormous change due in spring.

Both of the dogs were big shedders. In spite of the fact that I vacuumed at least every three days, there were always puffles of fur in the corners, under the furniture, and in my bedding. I would joke that I could collect this fur and make a pillow out of it, there was so much.

Bjorn and I had moved into an apartment together. The little house I lived in first with Dan, then by myself was simply too small for our family. As the time grew nearer for our baby to arrive, I began nesting in earnest, cleaning and vacuuming. As my due date loomed, I became nearly frantic with the desire to move about, wishing I could run or ride my bike as I had before the pregnancy.

I awakened the first morning of May and wanted to get out of the house, in spite of the fact that I had expanded beyond any notion of comfort. I had heard that walking could help bring on labor so I was headed out. I grabbed my purse, keys, and the dogs and jumped into the car, Bjorn trailing. The local kennel club was sponsoring a pet day fair. At the fair, hawkers sold kerchiefs, dog toys, leashes, and other assorted canine goods. We wandered for a couple of hours, until my hips could no longer tolerate my weight and the heat. It was a warm day for early spring.

We spent the rest of the day out and about, doing our best to encourage baby’s arrival. It must have worked, because shortly before midnight, my contractions began and increased. At 12:24 p.m. on May 2, 1999, Milla Elina was born.

The two of us had arranged with my best friend Debbie and her husband Robert to take care of our dogs while I was in the hospital having the baby. They were parents to a kitty named Misty and completely understood the relationship I had with my dogs – as far as we all were concerned, the dogs were surrogate children and could not be left to fend for themselves for two or three days.

In spite of the love I felt for Autumn and Molly, I was unprepared for the tsunami level of emotion I felt toward my infant daughter. It was all consuming. I suppose this connection is nature’s way of ensuring the survival of the species. I was in such love, such infatuation, such complete adoration for my child, I could not understand why everyone wasn’t having babies. I walked around for weeks staring at everyone thinking, “You were someone’s baby! Someone loved you like this!” Only later as the hormones wore off did I understand intellectually that some people never feel like I did, but I could never understand it in my heart. I loved my child with my whole body, mind, and spirit.

When I came home from the hospital after giving birth to Milla, Autumn kept trying to get up in my lap, to get near me, but I was afraid she would hurt the baby. I had sworn before giving birth that I would not become one of those people whose dogs disappeared into the background, forgotten and forlorn, but during the first few days home, I did just that. Once we were used to having the baby around and had settled into a routine, I shifted back and Autumn became part of my attention circle again, but I’m sure the first couple of weeks were very hard for her. I imagine in some ways this is how it is for older children when a new baby is born, especially when they are very close together in age. There were fifteen months between my sister and me, and when Milla was fifteen months old, I could not fathom bringing home another infant. She was still very much a baby. People do it, but it must be hard.

Bjorn and I decided that Milla would sleep with us. We bought a pillow with a curve in it and placed her between us on the queen bed. Those first nights were difficult, mainly because little Milla kept getting dog hair in her nose, making it hard for her to breathe. In spite of all my cleaning, there were still dog hairs in the bed, and they would stick to Milla’s little nostrils, causing her to sneeze and cry. I had thought we could manage allowing the dogs to sleep on the floor next to the bed, but that first night they kept trying to get on the bed and get near me. Bjorn would yell and shove them hard onto the floor.

It pains me now to know that I did not do more to stop him. I felt so exhausted and physically worn out. It breaks my heart that I let him treat both of my dogs that way and especially Autumn. I can only imagine what it must have been like for her. She had lived with me her entire life, nearly six years, and this man who had arrived less than a year previously yelled at her and often hit her and at first I stood by and let it happen, too spent to do anything about it. And here was this new baby, taking all my attention, and causing her more grief. It’s not something I can really reconcile in my mind; I wish I had done more for her, prepared better, done something different, but I did not. Thinking of it still gives me a hard spot in the pit of my stomach.

After the first night, I decided to thoroughly clean and vacuum the bedroom. There was so much dog hair, even though I vacuumed nearly daily. It was in the crevices along the wall, behind the bed, in the covers, under the sheets. I took the bed apart completely, unmoored it from its frame, and vacuumed everything from the mattresses, to the carpets, to the window sills. I washed the sheets and bedding, and dusted all the floorboards.

Once the bed was rebuilt, remade, and the room completely hair free, I put up two baby gates in the hall between the bedroom door and the rest of the house. The dogs hovered around the outside gate, wanting in, whining and moaning. I have a photograph from that time, of the two dogs lying out there with pained expressions on their faces, wishing and hoping that they could come back to bed with me.

Keeping the dogs out of the bed made sleeping much easier for the humans, and much more difficult for the dogs. Autumn had never been ostracized before. It was terrible for her. She began to act seriously depressed. I was so involved with the baby, I did not have the energy to give to her, and her heart was broken. She kept trying to get close to me and I kept pushing her away because I did not want her to hurt Milla.

I would sit on the couch trying to nurse (something that was not going well) and Autumn would attempt to jump up next to me. I would halfheartedly tell her to get down, then Bjorn would yell at her. I eventually succumbed and allowed Autumn to lie next to me on the couch while Milla suckled. She curled into a little ball and snuggled as close as she could get. What kind of person had I turned into that I let this happen? My only pathetic excuse was new parenthood and all the that goes with it.

We did eventually get into the groove of parenting. Milla grew and after only a couple of months, the dogs were allowed back in the bedroom and back in our bed. It made for crowded sleeping, but everyone was more content.

Read Autumn — Chapter 10

Autumn — Chapter 8

Read Autumn — Chapter 7

Life moved on. We settled into our routines; I would drive to Eugene five days a week, while Dan drove into Corvallis. I was further along in school and was able to take fewer classes, so I took a part-time job in the evenings at a video store. I was also a member of the university equestrian team, and would travel to horse shows in California every few weeks. Dan was a sports official, so depending which sport was going during whatever season we were in, he would often be out officiating games. Autumn spent most of her time with me, although occasionally I left her home as well.

Basically, as a newly married couple, the two of us were not spending a whole lot of time together. We also experienced tension living with Dan’s parents. Dan often felt conflicted between my expectations for the marriage, and the expectations of his parents. I often felt like his parents treated him like a child even though he was a grown and married man. Dan, stuck in the middle, would often just leave the house and not return until late.

After nearly two years and many tense arguments, I finally realized that we needed to find our own place to live. I was graduating, and we decided it would be easier for us if we lived in Corvallis near OSU where Dan went to school. He was studying engineering and living near the university would give Dan easier access to study groups and the library.

Since I was the more particular of the two of us, I searched for an apartment we could afford that wasn’t too close to the parties and college nightlife. Neither of us were into that and Dan needed somewhere he could study. We also required a yard or patio so Autumn could go out.

We finally located a place not too far from campus and moved there in late spring of 1996. When we announced to Dan’s parents that we were moving, I think they were as relieved as we were. They wanted to do some more work on their basement, and convert the apartment area into a rec room for themselves. Overall, it was the best move for everyone. Dan and I had started marriage counseling and the counselor also supported the move.

The new apartment was located near some hills and a park. Every morning I would rise and go for a run, winding up through the hills, taking Autumn with me. I also took her swimming in a number of creeks nearby when the weather was tolerable. The running helped her to maintain the muscle development when she wasn’t able to swim. As long as she was exercising, she did not have any soreness in her back end.

Rain was heavy one morning as I set out on my run, my sneakers slapping the wet pavement, spraying my socks and legs. Autumn had never minded the rain, but on this particular morning, she was hesitant and lagging behind. Wanting to finish the run quickly and get out of the weather, I pulled her along. Finally, she just stopped, causing me to nearly trip and fall. I turned to look at her thinking maybe she needed to go potty, but she just stood there, drenched and looking forlorn.

“Autumn, what is going on?” I asked, shouting over the loud water falling around us. She just stood there, sides heaving, as if the effort of it all was too much to bear in the downpour.

“Okay. If you want to go back, let’s go back,” I said, realizing that the run was over and turned back toward the apartment. She followed me easily once she knew we were headed home.

The following day after pulling on my running clothes and shoes, I headed outside to run. It was still raining. I tried anyway to take Autumn with me, but she would not budge beyond our front patio. I took her inside and she curled up under the covers with Dan who was still slumbering. Oh well. I figured when the rain abated, I would take her with me again.

But something had changed in her. She never wanted to go running with me again. I don’t know if it was the weather, or if her hips bothered her or what. She had not been acting sore, but for the rest of her life, I could take her for walks, but I was never able to take her for a run with me again.

Shortly after moving into our new apartment, I started working full time at Oregon State University in Corvallis. Dan had another year to complete at the university, and Autumn had to be left home every day by herself. I would eat lunch at the apartment, but I worried she might be lonely all day, although she never developed any of the habits dogs often exhibit when they are unhappy at being left by themselves. In spite of the fact that she seemed to be tolerating the time by herself just fine, I began to think that maybe we should get another dog. It wasn’t that one I day I decided absolutely that we would do so. It was more a vague sense that if the right dog came along, getting one would be helpful.

Even before I considered adding a dog to our family, I was always one to troll the humane society or other shelters. I liked visiting the homeless pets, petting them, giving them treats. I had been donating money to the humane society for years and fully supported animal adoption. I considered myself an ideal owner; any animal that lived with me would be a full member of the family, receive top of the line care, and lots of love.

One Sunday in December 1996, I drove up to Salem to visit the humane society there. It was the biggest animal shelter in our part of the state, and I loved the idea of browsing through all the animals. I was not sure what kind of a dog I wanted, but I knew I did not want a brand new puppy, and also that I wanted a female.

As I entered the lobby at the humane society, I could see through a window in the door into the kennels where the dogs were housed. I waited my turn, then checked in at the desk in the main lobby. They explained their procedures – if I was interested in a dog I should note the number on the kennel, then return to the front desk where they would set me up in a room to meet the animal.

I entered the kennel. The door and walls between the kennel and the lobby must have been built well because while the lobby had been fairly quiet, the kennels were bedlam. The floors and walls were cement, which caused the barks to echo and flow around my ears and head. There were rows and rows of kennels, and all of them were filled with dogs. Each kennel was surrounded on three sides by grey brick walls with a chain link gate in the front.

I wandered up and down the aisles, looking into the kennels. There were so many dogs to choose from. There were lots of brand new puppies, and most of them had signs on their cages indicating they were already adopted. Some of the dogs stood patiently at the gates, others stayed on their blanket at the back, others jumped and pawed at the chain link, barking and hollering. Because it was a Sunday, there were many potential doggie parents milling about looking for dogs.

I stopped at a few cages. Every dog seemed sweet. I read later that the society handled them to ensure they were well socialized before adopting them out. I wandered up and down the aisles, occasionally stopping to pet one and say hello. One dog in particular caught my eye.  She was about the same size as Autumn, but mostly black, almost like Autumn’s photo negative. Where Autumn was brown, this dog was black. Where Autumn’s points and eyebrows were dark brown, this dog’s were beige. She sat quietly in front of the fence. I went over and started to pet her. She looked at the floor, but leaned into the fence of the kennel so I could pet her ears. She was extremely thin, so thin I could count all of her ribs and see her hip bones.

This dog had curved front paws. There was no obvious bend like an L. Rather, her paws simply curved like the bottom of a U.  Later when Autumn contracted diabetes and her body began to gradually starve, her paws began to curve too and I learned that curved paws were caused by muscle degeneration due to starvation. However, that day in the humane society I did not know that the reason this dog’s paws were curved was because she had been starving. The sign on her kennel read QUEENIE. Her breed was listed as a Doberman mix.  I did not believe her to be a Doberman.  Her colors might have been vaguely reminiscent, but nothing else about her resembled that breed.

I pet her for a bit, then moved on to look around some more. I would wander up and down the aisles then return to the kennel with Queenie. Other visitors would stop at various kennels, but no one else stopped at Queenie’s. I kept going back. She would look up at me, then look at the floor, then look back up at me. I decided to take her number to the front desk for a visit.

I was allowed to take Queenie out into a back yard to walk her around and to spend time visiting to see whether she would be a good match in our home. She was thoroughly unobtrusive and mild.  She sat next to me and walked quietly beside me as we strolled through the yard. I asked her if she wanted to live with me.  She just looked at me, then looked away, then looked back again at me. The way she would shyly glance up, then look away, then up again won my heart. I decided right then that this was the dog I wanted to take home.

The workers at the humane society told me that Queenie had been found wandering the streets of Salem three weeks prior. The day I chose her, she was extremely thin.  I could count each of her ribs and she had those curved paws I did not know signified atrophied muscles from malnourishment.  If she was in this shape after three weeks, I can only imagine how thin she had been upon arrival.

Prior to that day, Autumn had lived with us as our child. She slept in our bed. She ate the best dog food. She received top of the line vet care.  She was a priority in our lives. I cannot imagine an animal more loved and cared for. Yet the humane society in Salem would not let me adopt Queenie because the house we lived in was rented and did not have a fence. Also even if our house had met the required standards, Dan and Autumn would have had to come in to meet her before we could take her home.  Even though I had owned another dog and cared for her in that house for over a year, the people there determined it was not good enough. No wonder so many animals can’t find homes. If someone like me could not adopt a dog, I did not see how anyone could.

I hugged Queenie and left the facility completely dejected. I wanted her. I knew she would fit well with our little family. I had to find a way to bring her home.

Knowing the criteria that had kept me from adopting Queenie, I set out to find a friend who would “kidnap” her for me.  I had no qualms about the fraud I intended to perpetrate.  The shelter she was at was not a no-kill shelter.  I could not bear the thought that someone might never adopt her and she would be euthanized.  She was such a gentle, sweet creature.

I ran through a list of possible co-conspirators, and at first I came up blank.  My first thought was Dan, but I had listed him on the application form.  If there were any way to cross reference our names, he would be found.  His name was quite unusual.

I considered my friends Lily and Janae, but they were both students and there was no way they could adopt.  Both of them lived in dorms.

While I was mulling it over, fortuitously, my phone rang.  It was my uncle, John.  My mother had been the oldest of five brothers and a sister.  John was four years her junior and while he shared common facial features, the similarities stopped there.  Where my mom was short and petite, my uncle was tall and broad-shouldered.  He used to be a body-builder and it showed.  John also had been injured in an accident and had lost an eye.  Because of this he always wore mirrored, aviator sun-glasses. When my sister and I were little, we loved looking at John’s one glass eye.  He would tell us stories about taking it out and scaring people with it.  Simultaneously titillated and terrified, we would scream, then beg for him to tell us more.  I think he loved delighting us with his tales.

John had recently moved nearby and was calling me to ask me something about my mom.  I answered his question, then told him about Queenie, and that I was looking for someone who could go in and adopt her for me.

“I could do it.  If you pay me the adoption fee, I’ll make up some story and go in and get her for you.”  John was actually the perfect choice.  He felt the same way about dogs as I did.  Sadly, he had recently lost his own little blue shepherd after she was hit by a car.  He would be happy to help me adopt Queenie.

Elated, I relayed all the details that had derailed my own adoption, including the lack of fence, renting, and that I would have had to bring Autumn back in to visit.  I was never concerned about that requirement, I was simply suffering from a bad case of instant gratification, and I had no desire to drive the thirty-five miles one-way to Corvallis, then back to Salem the following day if I could help it.

“I’ve got it,” he told me.  “I will go there right now and try to get her for you.” I was so pleased! Perhaps Queenie would be coming home with me after all.

I drove home to Corvallis, keeping the phone nearby for the rest of the afternoon.  I waited and waited for him to call me.  I took Autumn for a walk and cleaned the house.  Dan arrived home from class and I told him what was going on.  He was skeptical, but figured it would all work out.  We were scheduled to eat dinner at his parent’s that evening, and late in the afternoon, we drove over there

During the drive, John called to inform me that he had Queenie and wanted to know where we should meet.  I gave him directions to a park near Dan’s parent’s house. I had thought it best if Autumn met Queenie at a neutral location so neither dog would feel threatened, Autumn by the interloper, and Queenie by the top dog who had been in place long before her arrival. We did not want to do anything to further traumatize Molly, or to unnecessarily upset Autumn.

After I hung up the phone, I clapped my hands in joy.  Queenie was ours!

When John arrived at the park, I climbed out of the car with Autumn.  John handed me Queenie’s leash and Dan held Autumn. We let Autumn go because we knew she would come if we called her.  The two dogs sniffed one another all over. Then Queenie laid down, snuffling her nose in the grass while Autumn ran off to find a stick.

“That was uneventful,” I said to Dan, smiling.

“It’s a good thing,” he informed me. “What would we have done if they hadn’t liked each other?”

“I knew they would be fine when I met Queenie,” I told him. “She has a very unassuming personality.  They might not be the best of friends, but they are neither one the sort to fight.”

The story my uncle had told the humane society in order to secure the adoption was convoluted and long. He had gone back and visited Queenie, then came back and asked to fill out an adoption application. During the meeting, he told them he owned his own house with a fenced yard. He said he had a motherless little boy who wanted a dog.  As expected, he was informed that he could not take the dog until the little boy had visited.  He countered with the creation of a sob story whereby the two had owned a dog since before his boy was born, that this dog had recently died, and that after the death of his mother, the loss of the dog was devastating. His little boy was desperately sad and missed this dog more than anything. Queenie looked like that dog and he wanted to surprise his little boy.

“I even cried a little,” he told us.

They couldn’t resist his tears.  Thankfully, the humane society people did not question why a motherless child was not with his father and accepted his story, allowing John to make the adoption.  There was something comical about this enormous man crying just so he could adopt Queenie for me.

The month was January and the air frigid, plus John needed to get home for the evening.  I thanked him profusely and gave him a hug.  I also reimbursed him for the cost of the adoption.  Since the two dogs were so nonplussed by one another, we called the dogs and helped them into our car, then headed over to Dan’s parent’s house as John drove off.

That evening as we sat at the dinner table, Queenie lay under the table near my feet.  Murphee had been as disinterested in her as Autumn.  Both of these two were more concerned with waiting to see if any of us inadvertently dropped some food from the table as we ate our dinner.

As we sat there, Dan’s mom stated that Queenie did not look like a Queenie.

“You should change her name,” she informed me.

“No kidding,” I agreed.  “Queenie is a pointy name.  This dog isn’t pointy, she’s sweet. I knew the second I saw that sign that if I adopted her, that name would go.  It doesn’t suit her at all.”

“I think you should call her Molly,” said Dan’s mom.

“That name certainly seems to fit her,” I agreed again.  “She really does look like a sweet Molly girl.

“Molly,” I said to her.  “Do you want to be called Molly?” she just lay there sniffing the air, noticing the food for the first time.

As part of the agreement to adopt, I had to pay the humane society a rather large fee. It was claimed that most of the fee was to pay for a certificate to spay Molly.  The humane society where she was adopted was in Marion County. Before our adoption fell through, I had been assured that I could use the certificate at a vet in Benton, the county where I lived.

A few days after Molly came home, I scheduled an appointment with Dr. Fletcher to have her spayed. However, his receptionist informed me that unfortunately, the certificates for spaying were not good in our county.  Even though I loved Dr. Fletcher, I thought I should at least get to use the certificates, so I called around to some other vets and was given the same story, the certificates could not be used.  Because I was not going to get to use the certificate anyway, I scheduled the appointment with Dr. Fletcher. He decided he would honor the certificate even though he would not be reimbursed for the work by the humane society. Basically he would be performing the operation for nothing.

Two days later I took Molly in to be spayed. She held her head low, afraid of the vet’s office, but went along willingly.  That was Molly. There were many situations where she was afraid, but she would trust me and go along if I was there. She was like this her entire life.

A couple of hours after dropping Molly off, I received a phone call from Dr. Fletcher’s office letting me know her surgery was complete.  When I arrived at the office, Dr. Fletcher came out to talk to me. It turned out that when he opened Molly’s abdomen, she had already been spayed. He sewed her back up and called me to come and bring her home. He said because the humane society told me she needed to be spayed, it had not occurred to him to question it before performing the surgery.

As I stated before, prior to this I made all of my charitable donations to the humane society.  I wanted to help the organization so it could help animals.  However, after my experience trying to adopt Molly, after the experience with the spaying certificate I was told would work and then did not, and finally the fact they hadn’t even realized she was already spayed and making her undergo an unnecessary procedure, I stopped donating to them.  It has been my unfortunate experience, then and since, that there are many people who work in the animal adoption industry who seem to have the attitude that they are the only people good enough to care for animals. I absolutely understand and support taking steps to keep animals out of bad homes or laboratories.  Yet when organizations that claim their purposes are to serve animals, to keep them from being euthanized, and to find them decent homes, they should not make it impossible for a good owner to adopt a pet. Unfortunately, because of the holier than thou attitude at some facilities, this is exactly what happens.

When she first came to live with us, Molly was skittish, but she loved me and trusted me right away. From the beginning Molly knew certain words and was terrified of them.  Her entire life if I said “vacuum” she would go and hide. In the early days, she was genuinely frightened. In later years she would go and sit on the back porch or in the closet when the vacuum came out. She could not stand the thing. She also knew cuss words and would go and hide even if they were spoken in a sentence full of other words. For instance, I could say I’m going to go and dump the damn garbage and she would go hide. It was like a parlor trick, her knowledge of naughty words. I often wondered what happened to her in her early days to instill such a fear.

Molly loved sleeping on the bed, but years after this, once I owned three dogs and a cat, and had a child, we decided that the bed was too crowded so the dogs were relegated to beds on the floor.  Every so often, Molly would slip quietly onto the bed and lie there as still as possible hoping I would not boot her to the floor. Most times I let her stay; she was not obtrusive.

Dr. Fletcher, examined Molly’s teeth very closely the month I brought her home and told me he was 95% certain she was just under two and a half years old. This would have put her birth around September 1994.  A lot could happen in that time and I will never know what.  In addition to her fear of cuss words and vacuums, she was terrified of loud men, arguments of any kind, and she knew sit, stay, and come. It was obvious she had lived with someone, but who knows what her life was like exactly. She did not like being in trouble, and her perception of trouble had a higher threshold than most of us.

During Autumn’s last years, Autumn would get into the trash and try to eat things she wasn’t allowed to because of her illness.  I would come home to Autumn wagging her tail and Molly sitting in the corner hiding. Simply based on Molly’s body language, I knew Autumn had done something naughty. I know some animal behaviorists would say that Molly was reacting to my reaction, that she had no way to know Autumn had done something wrong, but this explanation does not satisfy. Molly would be reacting to Autumn’s behavior before I even knew what had happened, so there was no way for me to react to it. Molly just knew, garbage spread around meant I would be irritated.

Molly was also extremely fastidious. She would hold potty for hours and hours rather than go in the house.  A few years after she came to live with us, we lived in a 1930’s farmhouse with a full basement. There was no door on that basement so we put a gate at the top of the stairs. The top of the stairs opened onto an enclosed back porch.  When we were gone, we would leave the dogs on this back porch.

One day I came home to discover Molly on the top stair to the basement. “How did you get over the gate?” I asked her. She wagged her tail.  I went down into the basement to discover Molly had gone potty in the farthest corner of the basement. Rather than potty on the back porch Molly had jumped over the gate landing on stairs and gone down and as far away as possible to do it. That’s how she was.

Autumn was not thrilled by the interloper, especially considering I had been her person for the four years comprising her entire life. However, she grudgingly accepted Molly into the pack once she determined she was not going anywhere. For the rest of their lives the two basically ignored each other.  Later when we adopted Poppy, Autumn and Poppy became good friends, and later after that, Autumn and Edna seemed to like one another as well. But Autumn and Molly never did.  They acted like the other did not exist. About once a year they would get into a nasty quarrel and one or the other of the two would end up with a bloody bite. I may have found Autumn a companion in Molly so that she would not be lonely during the day, but my objective in finding her a friend failed wholeheartedly.

Read Autumn — Chapter 9

Autumn — Chapter 7

Read Autumn — Chapter 6

In November 1994 my parents called me and asked for my help getting a dog for my brother Derek.  For years he had pined for a Rottweiler.  Every chance he got, he would go to breeders or shelters to look at Rottweilers and swore he would get one of his own someday.

Derek’s birthday is November 7.  For his 15th birthday our parents decided they would buy Derek his own dog as a combination birthday and Christmas gift.  This was before the internet had taken hold for such purchases, and even after it became more ubiquitous, my parents never really used it anyway.

To make their purchase, my parents relied primarily on the classified ads in the newspaper.  There was a pet section in the classifieds.  It was usually two or three columns long.  Breeders would advertise puppies for sale.  Over several weeks, my parents contacted several breeders, and through this process, they ultimately chose a puppy who would be ready to go home right at Christmastime.  The breeder was located in Portland, an hour north of my parent’s house.  They asked if Dan and I would drive up and get the dog and bring him home the day after Christmas.  Of course we agreed.

The night we drove to get the puppy was rainy and dark.  Visibility was difficult.  We were following the directions the breeder had given my mom, and as is often the case when one gets information third-hand, the directions were not easy to follow. Combined with the terrible weather, we had difficulty locating the house where the breeder lived.  Finally we called my mom who gave us the number for the breeder.  We contacted him and he directed us to his house, two blocks from the street we had been circling for twenty minutes.

The breeder’s house was a simple 1950s ranch, with low eaves and small windows. The home was cheery and clean however, and festively decorated for the holidays.  The puppies were kept in their own bedroom, but were running loose when we arrived.

As soon as we stepped in out of the rain, we were mauled by a wriggling black mass of six puppies.  They wiggled and writhed and jumped all over our feet.  Dan and I squatted to pet them.  One puppy in particular was desperate for our attention.  His fur was shiny, thick, and black.  He had orange eyebrows, and an orange throat and belly.  His tail had been docked, and he wagged his stump as he clambered over his siblings and into my lap so he could lick my face.  I held him against me, smelling his sweet puppy breath.  The breeder stood off to one side smiling.

“That’s your dog,” he stated, matter-of-factly, hands on his hips.  The man was slightly balding with a comb-over, his short-sleeved, oxford shirt tucked into his trousers.  “it is like he knew you were coming to get him tonight or something.”  He grinned at us as he said this.

The dog did indeed seem particularly excited by our visit. The others were playful, but within minutes of our arrival, they dispersed to cause mischief elsewhere in the house.  Our puppy, or rather, Derek’s puppy, hung close, trying to lick our faces and sniff our shoes.  We always thought Autumn’s paws were large, but she turned out to be a mid-sized model.  In comparison, this puppy’s paws were enormous.  There would be no mistake that this dog would be massive.

The breeder spent several minutes showing us his papers and introducing us to his mother and father, both of whom were on site.  He came from a long line of German dogs.  His grandparents were all still in Germany.  We could see from the papers that he did not have any inbreeding, which I thought was unusual for a purebred.  Many of the thoroughbred horses I knew had at least some crossing with cousins.  Years after this I adopted a greyhound who had several cousins who showed up in the lines of both her parents.

The puppy’s bloodlines mattered little to me; I knew he would be neutered eventually.  But I also knew Derek cared, and actually so did my parents.  His breeding was a primary factor in my parent’s choice of this dog over other Rottweilers they looked at.

A half an hour later we were back on the road, the lumbering fur ball asleep on my lap.  Our visit had worn him out.  Before we left, the breeder had spent a few more minutes describing his diet and medical history.  He had noted all this information on a sheet he attached to his registration papers.

For this trip, we opted to leave Autumn at my parent’s house.  We did not want her to overwhelm the puppy on the long drive home.  We called my parents to let them know we were on our way.  The plan was that our dad would take Derek into town shortly before our arrival, then return a short time later to the best gift he had ever received.

As is often the case, because we were not searching for our destination, the ride home seemed shorter than the drive up.  As we wound up my parent’s mile-long driveway, the puppy sat up and yawned, then stretched.  He was so cute.

We could hear Autumn barking as we exited our car.  I knew this bark — it said I know your car and you’re my mom and I want you!

Holding the puppy close to my chest, we dodged raindrops and raced into the house.  Shedding water left and right, we burst through the door, pulling our wet coats from our heads, plopping the puppy to the floor.  Autumn shut up long enough to give the puppy a sniff before she dashed over to me, shoving her nose into my crotch and wriggling and woofing in delight at my return.

Dogs.  No matter where we have been or for how long, they are always so happy to see us.  This must be one of the top reasons people love having them around.  Where else do we get such complete adoration on all levels, simply for being ourselves?

The puppy was sniffing around, looking like he wanted to pee.  I recognized the circling and sniffing.  It could also have been that this was a new place, with lots of new smells, but rather than take a chance, I scooped him up and headed back out onto the porch to see if he would go.  Autumn followed.  She lowered her head and ducked into the rain, squatted, peed, and jumped back under cover.  The puppy watched her, and then followed to squat and pee in the same spot.

One advantage to a mile-long driveway is that those at the top of the driveway can see visitors coming several minutes before they arrive, should they choose to look.  In this manner we saw the headlights to my dad’s truck and were able to settle in the house with the lights low in order not to give anything away. The plan was to just let the puppy roam, and see how long it took Derek to notice him.

We hovered in the living room.  Autumn lay at my feet.  The puppy had lain on the floor near a window and was snuffling in the carpet.

The back door slammed, and my brother called out, “Hello?”

“We are in here,” I said.  Autumn stood, barked once, and went to greet Derek before returning to my side.

Derek walked into the living room, my dad close behind.  He stood there for a minute, then his eyes grew large.

“Oh,” was all he said, before he walked over and kneeled by the puppy, pulling him up into his lap.  The puppy licked at his chin.  Derek, always averse to spit or other bodily fluids, leaned his head back to avoid the tongue washing. My parents smiled like schoolchildren who had successfully pulled a prank.

Only a few times in my life since he has grown have I seen my brother cry, but he had tears in his eyes as he sat and held his gargantuan puppy.

Derek named his dog Kaine after another Kaine in his ancestry.  Within months he weighed over 100 pounds. Like his forebears, he loved herding cattle and rambling around our parent’s farm.  Like Ferdinand the bull, Kaine would lumber down into their fields, then lie down and watch the world, his nose twitching, occasionally chomping at a fly as it buzzed overhead.

He was extremely smart, and learned quickly.  One of the rules in my parent’s house was that dogs were not allowed on the furniture. Autumn was occasionally allowed to get up on the couch, and periodically attempted to thwart my parent’s rule.

One afternoon while we were visiting, Derek was in his bedroom. I sat in the living room with the dogs, and Autumn jumped up next to me on the couch.  Kaine immediately ran into Derek’s room and woofed.

“What do you want?” Derek asked him.  Kaine woofed again, then turned and bustled out of the room before returning to woof yet again.  It seemed to Derek that Kaine wanted him to follow.  He stood and Kaine turned to walk out of the room, looking back to ensure Derek was behind him.  Kaine entered the living room, trotted over to Autumn, turned to Derek and woofed.  Autumn was on the couch, and this was against the rules!  Derek and I laughed and laughed.  I asked Autumn to get off the couch and lie on the floor.  This seemed to satisfy Kaine.  He circled and lay down in the corner, sighing. All was well with the world again.

Derek was fifteen years old when Kaine came to live with him.  Within a few years, Derek moved in and out of my parent’s house several times. He was never able to move anywhere that allowed a dog of Kaine’s size, or there would be silly breed restrictions that forbade tenants keeping Rottweilers.  For this reason, he lived his life at my parent’s house.

In addition, the summer of his seventeenth year, Derek began a decade-long struggle with drug addiction, a horrible, life-siphoning disease.  When he was using, he didn’t care about anyone or anything, and could be cruel.  Kaine sensed this and avoided him during those times.  When Derek was clean, Kaine was his loyal follower.

The result of this was that ultimately, Kaine adopted my mom as his person.  Although he had been purchased as Derek’s, a piece of paper is meaningless to a dog.  He decided who was his person, and although Derek was near the top, along with me and my dad, my mom was his choice.  She was the person he would follow from room to room, if only for even a few moments.  At some point, Kaine decided that this meant my dad could not hug my mother.  He would bark furiously and shove his head between the two of them.  They would laugh and separate, but unfortunately, this seemed only to reinforce the behavior.

Kaine also never seemed to understand that he was bigger than a miniature pony.  Derek held him in his lap when he was a puppy, and when he grew up, he still wanted to sit on one of us.  If we sat down where he could reach us, he would come over and climb in our lap, whether or not he was invited.

Kaine’s biggest shortcoming was his tongue. It was a constant battle to keep him from licking our faces, our hands, our legs if we were wearing skirts or shorts.  His licking drove Derek to distraction.  He absolutely hated spit of any kind, and would shout “Stop licking!” at Kaine when his tongue dared slip past his lips onto Derek’s skin, which happened all the time.  Kaine was almost pathologically incapable of stopping, in spite of Derek’s ire.  After a scolding, Kaine would turn his head to the floor, but his eyes would stay on Derek, as if to say, “Ooh, I’m so sorry, but I can’t help it.  Now can I lick you again?”

At about age 8, Kaine began to show signs he was unwell.  He would be struck still by debilitating fatigue and weakness in his back and legs, lying in a lethargy for hours.  Frightened by this behavior, my mom took him to Dr. Fletcher for tests.  It turned out that Kaine had Addison’s disease, a serious health complication whereby a dog does not produce enough cortisol.  Interestingly enough, it was the exact opposite condition of Cushing’s, the disease I believe Autumn suffered, although she never tested positive for it.

Addison’s is treatable through periodic cortisone tablets.  Kaine was prescribed cortisone to take when he began displaying Addison’s symptoms.  However, as with any steroid, the cortisone could cause side-effects, including long-term problems, so the drug had to be given sparingly.  Near the end of his life, Kaine was taking his medication daily. Without it, he would quickly relapse into dreadful lethargy and pain.  He would whimper if made to move, and he would not eat.

In February 2005, Kaine gave up eating and lay in a corner.  Nothing could coax him to take food or to move.  For two weeks, he worsened, showing interest in nothing, least of all the will to live.  My mom did not want to believe that he was dying.  I know her heart was broken; she loved Kaine like her own child.

Finally though, on President’s Day, my mom called me and asked if I would contact Dr. Fletcher and ask him to come to the house.  I spoke to him and he arranged to meet me there that evening.

The night was cold and clear, diaphanous clouds floated high in the sky.  I could see an exact half moon through the gauzy altocumulus formations.  Kaine lay on a blanket in a darkened room in the basement of the house my parents were building.  His sides heaved, and he did not look up as we entered.  My mom was so upset, she could barely speak.  Dr. Fletcher spoke quietly to Kaine, feeling his glands, running his hands along his prostrate form.

“He’s done,” he informed us.  “It’s time for him to go.”

My mom just stood there, tears on her cheeks. She could not bear to lose her friend.  She asked me to stay with him.  Dr. Fletcher opened his small toolbox and pulled out a syringe, filling it with a clear, pink liquid.  Kaine’s breathing was irregular and ragged.

“Talk to him,” he whispered to me. “Tell him it’s okay.  Tell him you love him and that he can leave now.” Dr. Fletcher administered the shot.

I leaned over Kaine and held his large, head in my hand, kissing his face and whispering to him as Dr. Fletcher had instructed.  Milla sat next to me, kneeling.

“It’s okay, boy,” I said. “We love you.  We will miss you.”

Gradually, over the next several minutes, Kaine’s breathing evened out and slowed.  It was not obvious when he stopped.  His breaths became slower and shallower until they could not be detected.  Every few moments, Dr. Fletcher would check his forearm for a pulse.  Eventually, he said, “He’s gone.”  My mother turned wordlessly and headed upstairs.

Read Autumn — Chapter 8

Autumn — Chapter 6

Read Autumn — Chapter 5 here.

The fall after we returned to the west coast, I attended the University of Oregon in Eugene. Four days a week, I drove south 45 miles to campus. Autumn would lie in the passenger’s seat, her forearm over the console and across my elbow. There were some lectures where it simply was not possible to take her with me, and for those Autumn would wait for me in the car. For the smaller classes, Autumn would attend, lying under the desk at my feet. She was so well-behaved, many people were not even aware she was there.

As was often the case if the weather was dry and the grassy fields were not too muddy, as I walked along with Autumn on her leash, I would find sticks for Autumn to fetch. I would toss the stick, Autumn would chase it and bring it back to me, and so it went.

One afternoon while doing this, I tossed the stick and was waiting for Autumn to return to me when I noticed another student taking off his belt and wrapping it around his dog’s neck. The dog had no collar or leash. Autumn ran back to me with her stick and as she did so, an officer walked up to me to give me a ticket.

“You are going to give me a ticket for letting my dog chase a stick, when she is wearing a collar and leash, is properly licensed, and comes when called, yet that guy over there doesn’t even have a collar on his dog and you aren’t going to give one to him?” I asked incredulously. “You must be kidding!”

He wasn’t. He handed me the ticket and walked off. I must have looked an easy target, or at least a responsible one who would probably show up in court and pay the damn thing. I did go to the court date and did pay the ticket, but I let the judge know exactly what happened and he reduced the fine. Going to court for such an infraction required that one license their dog. Giving me a ticket ensured the officer had won half the battle, and Mr. Belt Collar likely wouldn’t have shown up. I was easy revenue, at least for that first infraction. I never threw the stick for Autumn anywhere near campus again unless I made sure there weren’t any officers lurking about with nothing better to do than extort money from a reliable income source.

About a month after her first birthday, Autumn took the AKC Canine Good Citizen Test. I did not know anything about the test before I signed up for it. Somehow, I had heard about a dog carnival at a park in our town. The carnival was to have booths selling dog paraphernalia, dog games, agility, and other dog-related activities. In those days, I always sought out anything dog. Autumn loved playing games and I thought she would really like agility because she was light and built well for it, plus she was extremely well behaved.

The day of the carnival was cloudy, and although rain seemed likely, it did not seem imminent. The two of us headed over to the park in my green Mazda. Autumn wore an orange scarf around her neck and sat in the front seat, as she always did when there was only one of us in the car with her. I had purchased a harness that I clipped to the seatbelt so if we got into an accident, she would not go flying through the windshield. As we drove up, she looked around at all the dogs, ears attentive, her tongue hanging out the side of her mouth.

Autumn stayed close to my heel as we walked through the various booths and activities. I bought her a new yellow scarf with pink polka dots on it. After meandering about for a half an hour or so, the two of us headed over to the agility course.

Agility is one of the few dog competitions in the United States where the breed of the dog does not matter. It is comprised of a series of obstacles such as tunnels, fences for jumping, teeter-totters, and other events requiring agility in the dog.

As we worked the course, Autumn wore what I considered her doggy happy face. With her mouth slightly open, her tongue out, and eyes bright, she looked like she was smiling. She would look at me, then walk up a ramp to a bridge five feet off the ground. She would look at me, then walk across the bridge. She would look at me then enter a tunnel. Throughout the activities, I would point to something and Autumn would follow. She loved this!

After the agility, we wandered around the carnival some more, when we came upon a table and fenced area. A sign at the table indicated that this was the place for dogs to try and pass the American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen test. Oh, what was this? It sounded fun.

I asked one of the ladies sitting at the table what it was? She told me that the Canine Good Citizen test is designed to reward dogs who have good manners at home and in the community.  The Canine Good Citizen test is comprised of ten “tests” that the dog and handler must complete in order to receive certification that the dog is a good citizen. In order to receive a certificate, Autumn would have to complete all ten tests. Would I like to try?

Well of course! I paid the small entry fee and Autumn and we waited our turn. We looked over the requirements as we stood off to the side until our names were called.

The first test required the dog to allow a friendly stranger to approach it and speak to the handler in a natural, everyday situation. The second test required the dog to allow a friendly stranger to touch it while it is out with its handler. The third test required the dog to welcome being groomed and examined. It also required the dog to permit someone, such as a veterinarian, groomer or friend of the owner, to do so.

The fourth test would demonstrate that the handler was in control of the dog. The dog’s position during this test could leave no doubt that the dog was attentive to the handler and responding to the handler’s movements and changes of direction.

The fifth test showed that the dog would move about politely in pedestrian traffic and remain under control in public places. The sixth test demonstrated that the dog had training, would respond to the handler’s commands to sit and down, and would remain in the place commanded by the handler. Test seven required the dog to come when called by the handler.

The eighth test showed that the dog would behave politely around other dogs. Test nine demonstrated that the dog was at all times confident when faced with common distracting situations such as joggers or something being rolled by on a dolly.

The final test required the dog to be left with a trusted person, and that it would maintain training and good manners when it was left. The owner would then leave the dog’s sight for three minutes, and the dog was supposed to remain calm and behave.

After quickly skimming through the list of requirements, I was confident that Autumn could complete all of them. This would be fun!

After waiting for several minutes, it was our turn to begin. The evaluator explained the rules of the test, which included the rule that the dog could not relieve itself during the exam. Funny rule, I thought.

We began the exercises. Each time, Autumn passed. The only test I thought we might have trouble with was number ten, the final exercise. I was not sure whether Autumn would remain quiet after I asked her to lie down and then went to hide behind a tree for three minutes. During the test, I peeked around the tree to see what she was doing. Autumn was lying still, her head alert, looking towards where I had walked. She did not get up, and she did not make a peep. After three minutes had expired, the evaluator came and got me from behind the tree.

“Your dog passed,” he said. “Congratulations.” He smiled as he handed Autumn’s leash to me, leading me over to retrieve our certificate.

“Thank you,” I answered him.

“You know, your dog, she is completely devoted to you,” the evaluator said, looking down at Autumn as he spoke.

“Really?” I asked. I always thought Autumn loved me too, but it was pleasing to hear it from someone else. “How can you tell?”

“Watch her,” he answered. “Every other step she takes she is looking at you to see where you are, what you want her to do. You can always tell a well-trained dog and one that completely loves its owner when it keeps checking in with its owner like that.”

I beamed. I knew Autumn was my best friend, my dog child. I loved her as much as she loved me, and it showed.

Years later when the internet was much more ubiquitous than it was at the time Autumn took the CGC test, I looked it up and discovered that some dogs train for years to pass the CGC test and never pass, that it is a real honor and achievement to receive the Canine Good Citizen certificate. My little dog had passed it on her first try.

Not only was Autumn good at the tests required by the Canine Good Citizen test, she had managed to learn a lot of tricks.  I have read arguments by people that humans should not force dogs to perform tricks, that it undermines their dogness or something.

Yet such assertions ignore certain aspects of canine character, namely that some dogs, like Autumn, truly seem to enjoy performing these feats of skill.  There was no force involved.  Most of the tricks she learned because we were goofing around and she figured out that certain actions resulted in a reaction from me, which she sought.  Many times Autumn would come to me and perform a trick when there was no food around.  Usually she just wanted my attention, and it worked.  She got it.

Autumn performed all the usual manner of dog tricks, such as shaking or giving five.  She would shake with her right paw and give five with her left.  She also sat up on command, balancing on her haunches, her paws curled on her chest.  Sitting up was one activity she absolutely came up with on her own.  I never held her and taught her sit up, she just started doing it when she wanted something.

Autumn’s best activity by far was playing dead.  I would pull out my finger pistol, aim it at her, fire, and cry, “Bang!”  Autumn would slump over on her side like a dead dog.  Sometimes she would lift her head and look at me with one eye.  I’d cock the gun and shoot again.  Her head would fall with a thump and she would lie there until I told her to get up.

Mornings before I left for school, I would spend a couple of hours studying at my desk.  Most of the time, Autumn would come and lie at my feet, dozing until I packed up and left for school.

As was her habit her entire life, if I left my desk for even a moment to use the bathroom or to get a glass of water, she would follow me, no matter how brief the interruption.  I would stand and head into the bathroom or kitchen.  Autumn would pull herself to her feet, follow me into whatever room, and lie down beside me sighing heavily, her tags clanking on the floor.  A minute later when I headed back to my desk she would rise again and follow, lying again at my feet. This is how she behaved most of the time.

Other times, she woke up ready to play, and she would make every effort engage my attention.  Usually this meant digging through her basket to locate the toy of her choice, then dropping it in my lap or on my feet.  I would kick the toy or toss it, trying to focus on my work, but this only encouraged her to try harder.  She would bring the toy back and drop it again and again until I either ignored her or stopped working to play for real.

If I ignored her, she would then increase her efforts, bringing in the big gun:  the rope.  Autumn’s rope consisted of two thick cotton ropes, one red, one white, woven around one another and through a hard piece of red rubber.  First, she would bring the rope to me as she had with the other objects, dropping it in my lap or at my feet.  When this failed to elicit a response, she would pounce on the rope and shake it vigorously, whacking me in the shins with the piece of rubber.

“Ow!” I would holler.  “Stop whacking me with the damn rope!”

Autumn would stop and pant, eyes bright and tail swinging.  If she was feeling especially fresh, she would lower her front end, holding the rope and shaking it, growling.

“I’m going to pummel you again if you won’t play with me!” she seemed to say, brandishing the rope like a club, ready to bludgeon me again if I failed to join in her play.  Unless I was under a serious deadline crunch, this usually worked.  It was hard to resist someone so determined to have fun.

That fall I purchased a sewing machine.  As my first project, I decided to sew Autumn a little coat.  I purchased a red, green, and cream colored fabric.  I lined it in red and trimmed it with green piping.  Autumn looked smart in the coat, its colors complementary with her creamy tan fur.

I also sewed Autumn a Halloween costume.  Using bright, colorful fabric, I sewed a ruffled clown collar, and ruffles for each of her paws.  I also made a ruffle to go on her tail, but every time she wagged, which was frequent, the ruffle went flying.

On Halloween, we dressed her in the costume, and I painted colorful circles on her fur with washable fur paint from the pet store.  I encircled one eye in blue, the other in red.  Dan dressed in a clown costume as well, and I dressed as a ringmaster, using my riding breeches, coat, and boots.  We made quite the festive trio as we handed out goodies to trick-or-treaters.

The children loved Autumn. Always a fan of anyone who would play with her, Autumn wagged her tail and snuffled the visitors at our door as we handed out candy.  The way she sniffed at their various Halloween bags, I think she hoped someone might offer her a treat.

Later that evening we all went over to Dan’s parent’s for a small party.  We brought along our fur paint and covered Murphee in colorful circles as well.  We may not have been frightening in the traditional sense, but I think some of the other guests thought we were pretty scary to go to such lengths in dressing up our dog.

Not all of my friends shared my canine enthusiasm.  Elizabeth, a friend I had known for years, lived with her husband and son in Eugene, south of us by about forty-five minutes.

On occasion, Elizabeth would ask me to watch her four-year-old son.  I would drive to their house, Autumn beside me on the seat.  I spent one cloudy Sunday afternoon babysitting for Elizabeth while she and her husband went out for a few hours.  They owned a beagle named Lucy.  I always liked Lucy, but Elizabeth thought she had neurotic tendencies.  I never saw these tendencies, but was assured they did exist.

I arrived for my babysitting and spent the afternoon playing with Elizabeth’s son and the two dogs.  Later in the day it began to rain, and we spent the rest of our time together playing in the house.  Near evening, Elizabeth and her husband arrived home.  Her son had fallen asleep next to me on the couch where I sat watching a movie.  The two dogs were sleeping on the floor until they arrived home, but once they came through the door, bedlam ensued as both dogs barked enthusiastic welcomes.  I gathered my things, rounded up Autumn, and headed home.

A month later, Elizabeth called and asked if I could watch her son again.  I checked my calendar and agreed, noting the details in my day planner.

Elizabeth paused for a moment, as if she wanted to say something, then said, “Would you please not bring Autumn with you?”

“Um,” I answered, “Okay.  I won’t bring her in the house, but I want her with me, so I will keep her in the car.  it is a long way away and I don’t like going that far alone.”

Elizabeth said that was fine, we said our goodbyes, and got off the phone.  I didn’t say anything at the time, we had known each other for years and it wasn’t worth a disagreement, but the request irritated me.  I didn’t so much mind not bringing Autumn in the house, but I was, after all, helping them out; allowing the dog to visit seemed a small concession for the assistance.

I knew though, that Elizabeth’s husband was picky about cleanliness, pickier even than I, which says a lot because I’m pretty particular in that regard.  it is one of the reasons my dog got baths every few days.  It was only years later after their divorce that I understood some of the difficulties going on in their marriage, and I’m glad I didn’t make an issue out of it at the time.

Read Autumn — Chapter 7 here

Autumn — Chapter 5

Read Autumn — Chapter 4

Autumn shared her birthday with anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley, August 16. I found it remarkable that decades after the man’s death, the date was still so publicly memorialized. Ah, the cult of celebrity. While many lamented the day, we were going to celebrate.

In hindsight, I realize that some of the way I cared for my dog was a little over the top, but I loved her. I did not have any children. To both Dan and me, Autumn was our child.  I had many friends with dogs, our parents had dogs, and having a party meant we could invite the dogs, but also see our friends and family. After a year across the country we welcomed this opportunity.

Just as with any birthday party, I sent out invitations to the party to be held in the park near our house. I purchased gifts and wrapped them  I bought food, made Autumn a dog food cake, and bought a human cake as well. I also got several balloons. We had celebrated Dan’s birthday when Autumn was five months old. At that celebration, Autumn was thrilled with balloons. She would pounce on them and pop them with her nose. I don’t know how she did it; balloons frighten me, especially near my face.

The day of the party was sun-kissed and warm. The park where the party was to be held was six blocks from our house.  I loaded the cakes, food, party favors, and gifts into a wagon and lumbered down to the park to reserve a table. Because of the season, tables were a rare commodity, and one had to arrive early to get one. Autumn was excited by the presents. She kept sniffing in the wagon and trying to remove the packages. I made her wait, pulling her from the toys and asking her to heel.

In spite of the fact that the purported reason for the party was Autumn’s birthday, nearly all the guests we invited showed up to see us, many without their dogs. Both sets of parents, Dan’s grandma, and a half dozen friends arrived to celebrate Autumn’s birth.  I played Frisbee with my friends while Dan and his played a mini version of softball.  Autumn ran back and forth between both activities, alternately chasing the softball, the Frisbee, or other dogs. Murphee hovered at our feet, willing us to throw balls for her.

When the time came to open gifts, Autumn tore into them. She loved presents. She had discovered at Christmastime that presents meant treats and toys. In fact, for every Christmas for the rest of her life we had to be careful about what gifts were placed under the tree. Even if they weren’t hers, if they contained something she liked, she would root around and find them, tearing off the wrapping to see what was inside. My heart swelled watching her; she was so dear to me and obviously enjoyed her presents.

None of the other dogs were really interested in the cake. They weren’t much interested in Autumn or one another either. Like toddlers at a first birthday party, they were in it for themselves. All the dogs were given treats, and all were allowed to share in the cake, so they went home happy.

I celebrated birthdays for Autumn for the first few years of her life, then we got Molly, and later Milla was born, but for the time, they were a fun way to get together with friends and enjoy our canine friends.

That fall, Autumn started limping after long days at the park or after I took her running with me. It got to be that my runs were take the dog out for a drag rather than taking the dog out for a run. After some months like this, we decided to take Autumn to the vet to find out what was going on.

Since we had arrived back in Oregon, I had taken Autumn to a veterinarian’s office near our house. I had a lot in common with the veterinarian there. His name was Dr. Ken Fletcher, and over time, we became friends.

I adore Dr. Fletcher. After him (who wanted me to go to vet school, and still does in spite of having chosen to go to law school), no other vet could compare. Dr. Ken treated me like a partner in my pet’s care. He told me honestly what I could do myself and what I should let the vet do. He told me how much things cost the vet and what was just junk profit. Basically, he gave me credit for having a brain and for being able to do some things on my own as a collaborator in my pets’ health care. He was not a director who acted as if I could not possibly understand the intricate undertaking of a shot or even more complex aspects of veterinary medicine. He was my partner, and he treated me as someone capable of managing my pets’ health.

When Autumn started having hip problems, Dr. Ken referred me to a specialist in Eugene named Dr. Barclay Slocum. Dr. Slocum was considered the top hip dysplasia doctor in the United States. He had developed the technique used to replace failing hips in dogs, and had performed the surgery on hundreds, if not thousands of dogs.

Dan and I made the drive south to meet Dr. Slocum and to look at Autumn’s hips. Dr. Fletcher had explained to us that if Autumn did indeed have hip dysplasia, the cost would run into the thousands of dollars. We were apprehensive because we knew if she did have the problem, we would not be able to afford to fix it, and we doubted our parents would lend us the money.

Dr. Slocum’s clinic was slick and professional. There was a room with a glass window where we could watch as they anesthetized our dog and took the x-rays of her pelvis. Autumn had to be asleep because they would lay her on her back and press her pelvis open, which would be difficult and painful if she were awake.

An unassuming man with careful bedside manner, Dr. Slocum spent some time with us explaining what would happen that day, as well as what would follow. During our conversation, an assistant came and took Autumn away. She was apprehensive, turning to look back at Dan and me as she was led into the other room. Tears welled behind my eyes. She looked so vulnerable and frightened.

Watching as the technicians worked on Autumn while she was anesthetized was heartbreaking. She lay on her back, her head tilted, her tongue pulled out to one side with a tube protruding from her mouth and throat. My chest tightened in apprehension; she was so still, and with her tongue out, she looked dead. Dan decided to wait in the other room, unable to bear watching, but I could not leave her. I held my fist to my lips, watching as she lay there, prostrate. She looked dead. It killed me.

The tests revealed that Autumn did indeed have hip dysplasia. Not only did she have the disorder, she had one of the most severe cases the doctor had seen. He explained that the hip sockets were supposed to be round so they would hold the head of the femur at the joint. Autumn’s were flat. Every step she took, her femur rotated back and forth across the flat plain of her pelvic bone.

Dr. Slocum displayed Autumn’s x-rays for us to see. The image looked like a Rorschach blot. As the doctor pointed out to us what the hips were supposed to look like, it was obvious that Autumn’s were a mess.

The cost to perform the surgery was several thousands of dollars. In addition, recovery would take nearly a year, as first one hip had to be replaced, then recovery, then the second hip.

We waited for Autumn to wake up from her anesthesia. She cried and yipped, kicking her feet. Both of us pet her and held her even though the technician had assured us that such behavior was normal when anesthesia was wearing off. It still scared me; she sounded in pain. Once she was up and awake again, at least somewhat, the technicians took her vital signs and pronounced her ready to go. Leaving the clinic and driving north to home, Dan and I were heartbroken. We knew it would be difficult to come up with the money, not while we were both full-time students, and working minimally. We were also really worried about the intensity of the surgery and the recovery time. Autumn would essentially be out of commission for a year. I held her in my lap and stroked the fur on her head. I loved this dog.

Once we arrived home, I made an appointment with Dr. Fletcher to go over the results. A week later, Dan and I met with him to discuss what to do.

“You know,” Dr. Fletcher informed me, as we sat with him in his office, stroking Autumn’s bunny soft ears as he spoke, “There is research out now that suggests that sometimes the best thing to do with dogs like Autumn is to wait and see.”

I raised my eyebrows at him and looked at Dan. This seemed to be an odd approach.

“I know it sounds strange, but you won’t lose anything by waiting. Her hips are what they are and the bones are not going to change shape for the worse. Basically you strengthen Autumn’s muscles by taking her swimming,” he said. “There isn’t any impact and over time, the stronger muscles keep the head of the bone in place where the socket can’t.”

It was worth a try. We couldn’t afford the surgery, and even if our parents were to lend us the money, the surgery would have meant Autumn would have to stay in a kennel for months, and then allowed gradual exercise for a year. I could not see putting her through that.

In the end we decided to try Dr. Fletcher’s approach, not only because of the cost of the surgery, but also because of the length of recovery, and we could change our minds if her situation worsened. Primarily it came down to the impact it would have on her quality of life during the prime of her youth. We just couldn’t do that to her.

I began walking Autumn down to the park near our house where a medium-sized creek ran into the swift Willamette River. Up the creek a half mile or so, there were several swimming holes that were ideal for taking a dog. They were off the main path where people liked to congregate, and Autumn loved the water, probably more than anything other than eating. She would jump in any puddle, any pool, any lake, any river. Basically if it was wet, she wanted to be in it. Since the diagnosis came in the middle of the summer, the timing couldn’t have been better.

Nearly every day I took Autumn out to swim. At first, she tired pretty quickly, but as she became fitter, she could swim for a couple of hours without tiring. She would chase any stick, no matter where we threw it, and retrieve it. We would toss colored balls or frisbees into the water and tell her which one to get. Always smart and attuned to our body language, she quickly figured out which was the green ball or the red frisbee, and would swim out to wherever to bring them back to us.

One scorching summer, in an effort to escape the heat vibrating off the cement and buildings in the city, I took Autumn along with my friends Debbie and Robert, and we drove out into the countryside.  As we wound out into the hills, the air became cooler and more tolerable.  We came upon a rocky stream, and pulled over to wet our feet.

Autumn jumped from the truck and scurried down the embankment straight into the water.  We followed more gingerly, seeking to protect our ankles and backsides from a fall down the gravely ridge.

The edge of the stream was covered in lumpy, grey river rocks.  Another fifteen feet in from the bank, trees hung low.  The water was runoff from the nearby Cascade mountains.  Even in late August, the water remained icy cool.  Logs littered the bank, evidence of winter storms and raging water, days when the stream was not nearly so docile.

I was wearing a bathing suit under my t-shirt and shorts, and quickly stripped down before wading midstream to my waist.  Debbie and Robert simply waded out in their clothes.  At its middle, the stream was about four feet deep, and fifteen feet across.

On days such as this, it was as if Autumn had been reincarnated from a fish.  She swam and swam, lapping and biting at stream bubbles, her legs churning under the water.  I would throw sticks for her, she would calculate where the stick would arrive as the water moved rapidly downstream, and meet the stick before it passed her.  On the few occasions the stick made it past before she reached it, she would swim faster, chasing it like a mad beaver determined to create a dam. Debbie and Robert laughed at Autumn and her water antics.  She was obviously having fun.

After tossing sticks for a bit, I sat down on one of the logs in a sunbeam to dry and warm my legs.  Autumn dragged herself out of the water and shook vigorously, sending droplets every which way.  She then bounded over to me and grasped a rock from the pile at my feet, picking it up and tossing it in my lap.

“Ow!” I exclaimed.  That hurt!  “I will throw rocks for you, but don’t hit me with them.”  I stood and chose a rock for Autumn to chase, locating one the size of a plum.  Autumn danced at my feet, barking.  Throw it! She seemed to say.

I tossed the stone into the river.  Autumn turned and hurled herself into the water, dove beneath the surface, then reappeared nearly immediately, a rock in her jaws.

Debbie, Robert, and I stared at one another.

“Do you think it is the same rock?” I asked.

“No,” Robert answered in his baritone, grumbly voice.  “She just found a rock.”

“But it looks like the same rock,” I stated, and Debbie nodded, agreeing with me.

“Let’s throw in another one and see if she gets it,” I said, already choosing a rock.  I looked at it closely to see whether we could identify it as the same rock, then threw it into the water.  Autumn had dropped the original rock at my feet and turned to race back into the water after the second one.  She plunged into the water, disappeared for a moment, then popped up a moment later, swam to shore and dropped the rock at my feet.  She didn’t even shake off the water, but stood dripping expectantly, waiting for another throw.

I examined the sopping stone at my feet.  There was no way I could tell if it was the same rock and told Debbie and Robert as much.

Robert pulled a pocket knife from one of the many pockets covering the overalls he wore, his default uniform regardless of the weather or occasion.

“We can use this to mark the rock, then we can tell if it is the same one,” he said as he picked up a rock and carved a long groove into pale grey surface.  He then dunked it in the water to see whether the mark was still visible.  It was.

Robert handed the rock to me and I threw it out into the water.  Autumn zoomed in after it.

Moments later she dropped the marked rock at my feet.  Amazing.

We played this game for a while, then I went out into the water with her.  I wanted to see what she looked like under the water as she retrieved.

Robert found and marked a rock, tossed it, and just as the rock pierced the surface of the water, I held my breath and went under.  I could see the rock as it slowed dramatically and settled onto the floor of the creek bed.  I also saw Autumn watching the rock as it landed.  She kept her eyes open underwater so she could pick the correct stone!  The dog loved water, there was no denying it.

In time, it became apparent that swimming was ideal for Autumn’s hip problems. Gradually she stopped having episodes of pain and limping. Over the years as she aged and developed other health issues, I was only able to take her swimming a couple of times a year, but she never experienced problems with her hips again. Dr. Fletcher still uses her story as an example to patients who come to him with dysplasia dogs as proof that surgery may not always be necessary.

Read Autumn — Chapter 6

Autumn — Chapter 4

Read Autumn — Chapter 3

After a year, Dan and I were ready to go home. We were still homesick, and also the school I was going to was extremely expensive and not all the programs were as good as had been advertised when I applied. Dan had finally met the requirements for residency to obtain in-state tuition at the University of Tennessee, but we were both tired of the differences, and missed Oregon and our families. We wanted neighbors who would not look at us as if we were aliens. We longed for our friends.

Though we had not told our families, the two of us had gone to a justice of the peace in December and gotten married. The main reason we did this was because Dan could not qualify for financial aid based on his parent’s income and assets, yet they could not afford to pay for his university studies. After the marriage, we announced to the family that we were engaged and that we would be getting married the following summer. No one seemed surprised. Only Dan’s grandma seemed pensive at the scheme, believing we were still too young for marriage. We ignored her portentous concern, especially since the deed had already been done.

When Dan’s parents called to tell us they would allow us to live in their basement apartment for no rent if we stayed in Oregon after the wedding, we did not even think about it, agreeing immediately. I would attend the University of Oregon in Eugene, Dan would go to Oregon State in Corvallis, and we would live in Albany with his parents.

In retrospect, the decision to live with Dan’s parents probably sealed the fate of our marriage, but at the time, it seemed like the perfect solution. Living with Dan’s parents would not matter to financial aid since we were married, and paying no rent would allow us to go to school without having to work full-time. Considering I had worked full-time for my first two years of college, this part was especially appealing.

Once school let out for the summer, we set about selling all the furniture we had acquired during our year on the east coast, and boxing and shipping our belongings back to Oregon. This part was easy. Our biggest concern about the move was the drive back home in a car without air conditioning. We were leaving in late June, driving across the bottom half of the United States, and it was going to be hot. We also wanted to bring as much with us as we could manage to save on shipping costs.

Once we figured out how we were going to pack the car, the only room left for Autumn was at our feet in the passenger’s seat. This wasn’t going to be fun for either the passenger or the dog, but we were so happy to be heading home, we did not care. When we were ready to go, we got up at dawn and drove away, stopping only for breakfast since all our cookware was gone.

We drove straight for 25 hours into Albuquerque, New Mexico. Dan drove all of it.  He was so eager to get home he flew, breaking speed laws in five states. By the time we hit New Mexico, we were all exhausted and the heat was overwhelming. We arrived at noon and decided our best plan for the remainder of the trip was to sleep during the day and drive at night. We crossed Arizona in the dark, then drove north through Nevada during the early part of the day. The temperatures were staggering, near 120 degrees Fahrenheit, yet we had no complaints, gratified that the warmth was dry heat. After the dripping east coast humidity, we were fine with arid wind blowing in our faces.

Autumn managed the trip well. She was used to riding in the car, and since it was so warm, content to curl like a caterpillar, nose to tail on the floorboards. I was the passenger for most of the trip, propping my legs on the dash or in the edge of the yawning window.

When we finally arrived back in Oregon, we were exhausted, but happy. After the tawny deserts, Oregon was lush and verdant in early June. Driving north on I-5, the mountains were corpulent and green. Trite but true, there is no place like home.

Dan’s parents lived in a stucco, Pepto Bismol pink bungalow. Squat and square, from the outside the house didn’t look very big, but was actually quite spacious. They had renovated part of the basement and rented it out to some of Dan’s friends. This space was to be our new home. We would have our own entrance at the back if we chose to use it, or we could go through the house. We would share the upstairs kitchen.

Dan’s parents had a dog of their own, a black and white Border Collie named Murphee. To call Murphee neurotic would be an understatement. Typical of her breed, she wanted to herd all the time. She would skulk around, head parallel to the ground, a tennis ball gripped in her jaws. If she saw a human, she would drop the ball, then stop and stare intensely at it, her brown eyes occasionally flicking up to see whether the human was going to make a move to take the ball and throw it.

Autumn had not turned out to be the enormous beast we all predicted based on Maude and her paws. At just under a year old, she was only about twenty-five pounds. By the time she was six months old, it was clear to us that she was Cody’s daughter and not Jasper’s. Having spent many hours in the presence of the two potential fathers, we had witnessed Cody’s mannerisms in Autumn since she was quite small. Her trot especially was identical to his, their gaits like a Standardbred, front legs straight out in front as they moved. Cody was a very small Border Collie. I found it amazing he had managed to impregnate Maude, but such are the miracles of the animal kingdom.

Murphee, two years older than Autumn, was not much bigger, although she was much more filled out and thicker. Autumn was as tall as she would ever be, but still looked like a lanky dog teenager, with long narrow legs and a slim body. The two were destined to be nearly the same size, although Murphee was always heftier. Autumn’s fur was much softer than Murphee’s. Murphee’s hair was wiry and course. I often called Autumn “bunny ears” because of the blissful softness of the fur on her ears. All her life, rubbing those ears would bring me comfort.

We settled into the basement apartment. The space was open like a loft, only it was mostly underground. There were windows at the tops of the walls on both the east and west sides of the house, so we always had outdoor light. We set up the space like rooms, our bedroom at one end, an office in the middle, and the living room at the other end.

During Autumn’s entire life we had kept pet rats. She was used to them and was careful around them, having been bitten in the nose by our rat Shasta when she was only three months old. Sometimes if we were lounging on the bed or couch and holding a rat, Autumn would want to play with it or sniff it, but mostly she just left them alone.

Murphee, however, was entranced with our rats to the point of obsession. She would stare at the rats like they were tennis balls or sheep. If they were out when she was nearby, she would nose them roughly. I was certain that given chance, she would have eaten one of the rats. Because of this, we left the door to our apartment and the rest of the basement closed. Dan’s parents also used the other portion of the basement for laundry, and I wanted to maintain some semblance of privacy.

We kept the rats in a cage on top of a dresser in the “office” portion of our apartment. The dresser was one I had purchased used as an 11-year-old and refinished. One afternoon, I returned from my day at school to discover that Murphee, in her efforts to get to the rats, had scratched deep gouges all along the top of the dresser.

I was furious. Murphee was not supposed to be in our apartment, and she sure as hell wasn’t supposed to ruin my dresser.

After this, whenever Murphee would come down to whine at the door because she wanted to get to our rats, I would say, “Murphee, get out of here!” in a sharp voice. She would whine and claw until I either chased her away or took her back upstairs.

“Murphee, leave!” I would shout.

Over time, Autumn learned that “Murphee, leave!” meant that I did not want Murphee downstairs. She would growl a warning at the door. Because her growl sounded so fierce, we started saying the phrase when Autumn was terrorizing one of her stuffed animals. “Get Murphee!” we would growl, “Murphee, go away!” Autumn would shake the stuffed thing to death, growling like a crazed fiend, spittle splattering everything in her mock fury.

Over the years, even long after we had moved away from Murphee and the basement, saying the words, “Murphee, go away!” would turn Autumn into a crazy frenzy. I taught her a hand signal to go with the words. I would hold my arm down to my side and shake my hand really hard up and down, saying the phrase. Autumn learned that when I did this, she was to act like a crazy dog. When I stopped, she would stop abruptly. My thinking was that if anyone ever grabbed me around the body and arms, I could still make the hand signal so Autumn would act nuts, hopefully scaring the attacker away.

A few years later, I called into a radio program where the hosts gave out prizes for doing silly pet tricks on the air. “Murphee,” I hissed. “Go away!” Autumn snarled and shook. I stopped the movement. Autumn went silent. I made the movement again and she turned into a raving lunatic. I stopped and so did she. We won a DVD for our efforts.

Sometimes Murphee’s neurotic herding had unintended consequences. Dan was close friends with the two guys, Steve and Brian, who had rented the apartment from his parents for two years before we moved into it. They were a typical group of guys who had known one another since childhood. They liked hanging out and drinking beers, playing sports, and telling each other dirty jokes.

For Steve’s birthday the summer after we moved into the apartment, we decided to get him a crass, pornographic toy in addition to his real gift. After searching the local triple X store, we settled on a plastic labia. It barely resembled its intended design. The thing was baby mouse pink, with brown painted on the plastic to look like hair. There were also several nylon hairs that had been added for effect and a tube of plastic in the middle. It was hard to believe whoever designed the thing ever intended it to be anything except a joke.

We wrapped the toy in wrapping paper and gave it to Steve at his party, which was being held at our house. Dan’s parents had a fine backyard for entertaining, and we often invited Steve and Brian over for events like this one.

Steve opened the gag gift and reacted as we expected he would, with laughter and revulsion. The thing was perfectly hideous. The guys began tossing it back and forth between themselves. Murphee, as was the case anytime anything was thrown that she might catch, started tracking the thing in her Border Collie way, head low, one foot slightly in front of the other, never once taking her eyes from her prey.

Laughing hysterically, we threw it for her to fetch. She ran it down, retrieved it, then dropped it at Steve’s feet, staring at it rapturously. Over and over, we played this game, laughing until our sides hurt and tears ran down our faces.

In the house, we heard Dan’s parents come home. Murphee picked up the thing and ran into the house. We waited to see what would happen. A couple of minutes later, Dan’s mom and dad walked onto the back porch.

“We walked into the house,” Dan’s mom informed us, “And Murphee brought us this wonderful gift.”

She held the thing up for us all to see. “Can anyone explain why our dog is carrying around a plastic vagina?”

Read Autumn — Chapter 5

Autumn — Chapter 3

Read Autumn — Chapter 2

Our lives were extremely busy.  Dan had his job and was waiting to attend school until he had lived in the state for a year so he could pay in-state tuition at the University of Tennessee in Johnson City.  Dan worked the day shift, which began at 6 a.m.  His workplace was about 45 minutes from our apartment.  He car pooled for most of that distance, but we had to drive to meet his car pool at a location twenty minutes from where we lived.  We owned only one car, so Dan’s work hours meant that I had to get up and drive him to meet his ride.

Every morning in the pre-dawn, before it was even light, Dan would rouse me from bed when he had to leave. Without changing out of my pajamas, I would pick up Autumn and carry her to the car where I would fall immediately asleep. Once we arrived at the vacant, eerie parking lot in the middle of nowhere – and it really was in the middle of nowhere, a parking lot plopped in the middle of some farmer’s field – Dan would kiss us goodbye and leave us to get into the car of one of his coworkers.

I would clamber into the driver’s seat, Autumn on my lap, her head across my arm as I held the stick shift. When we returned home, I would climb into bed and Autumn would nestle under my arm, burrowing under the warm covers. It was the only time she wanted to sleep in the bed, preferring the floor under the couch for the main part of her sleep.  Autumn began what became a lifelong habit when she snuggled together with me in the bed. She would lie with her head across my neck.  Her fur was so soft, it was like wearing a warm fur stole. Two hours after returning from dropping Dan at his ride, I would rise for classes and Autumn would stay in bed until we were ready to leave.

I loved life at this time.  I was so naive and confident.  I thought I had everything all figured out.  I spent my twenties believing I knew it all; that I was invincible.  Oh, I knew there were facts of which I was not aware, other countries and places to discover.  But I thought I was pretty on top of things when it came to fearlessness, strength, and inner knowledge.  How little I knew, how much pain I had to experience to figure out just how clueless I really was, but that was years away.

In spite of my sophomoric confidence, I did know that I would love my child when I had one, but this did not stop me from loving Autumn with every bit as much devotion.  Watching her and experiencing her was pure glee.  My heart would fill up, and I would feel my chest tighten loving her.  When I had my human child, I truly experienced parental selflessness when, days after her birth, I realized my ego had to go and she had to become my center.  Until I had Milla though, Autumn was my child. Everything she did brought me delight.  I adored her.

Every couple of days Autumn would go out to run and play in the creek down the hill, regardless of the weather.  This meant that she was often muddy or wet when she came into the house. If only her paws were wet, she would stand at the door and wait while we wiped her feet.

“Towel,” I would say to her, picking it up when she arrived at the door, begging to be let in.  She would stand and lift each paw until all four were dried and wiped of mud.

If she was a real mess, I would carry her in the towel to the bathroom for a bath. Autumn loved baths, and would jump in, waiting for the warm water.  Sometimes she even snuck past the shower curtain and jumped in while we were showering.

When she was done with her bath, she would shake off in the tub with the curtain closed, then jump out onto the mat to wait for her toweling off.  As I rubbed her fur all over, scrubbing her face and behind her ears, she would wiggle, hopping her back end up and down and side to side, shoving her butt into the towel for a good scratching.  After she dried, the hairs on her rear became fluffy, white pantaloons.

I had been taking French and Political Science from a wonderful professor from Rome named Dr. Riviello.  He had a lilting and appealing accent, and taught with brilliant clarity and depth.

Dr. Riviello loved Autumn.  He too had a dog he considered his child, a Dachshund named Baci.  The two of us would talk endlessly about our wonderful dogs.  He was the only professor who allowed Autumn free roam of his classroom.  She would lie quietly under my desk as I worked.  Together we commiserated over our love for our dogs.

During first semester, Dr. Riviello invited me to apply to an honor’s program in political science. There would be an intensive history course studying the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich, beginning with Hitler’s birth. The course would culminate with a study during May term in spring at the University of Munich. We would attend seminars in english three times a week with leaders in various aspects of political science. Our lectures would be in the late afternoon, allowing us to explore the city and surrounding areas during the day. We were also to take day trips into various places such as Berchtesgaden in the Alps, and Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a Bavarian village where Christmas is experienced all year round.

I applied to the program and was accepted. I was exhilarated at the thought of returning to Germany. I had lived in Hamburg for a short time in 1990. This time I would be staying in Munich. While I was excited to be going, I did not want to leave my little dog. I knew she would not understand. The two of us spent every waking minute together. When she wasn’t with me, she was with Dan. While I was in Europe, Autumn would have to stay alone while he worked. My stomach turned at the thought of her anxiety and fear at being left alone for long periods for the first time in her life.

To help acclimate Autumn to the change that would be coming, I started leaving her at home periodically. At first, she was a wreck. She chewed up several of my shoes and stuffed animals. I scolded her, but the scolds were half-hearted.

After several weeks, Autumn seemed to adjust to staying by herself. Our neighbors never complained about barking or whining, so we assumed she was okay.

In the days leading up to my departure, I left piles of clothing and traveling items around, organized according to my own system. Autumn would root through the clothes, then roll on them. I would chase her off, scolding. Moments later, she would be back in another pile, knocking it aside and mashing the carefully folded clothes.

Like a mother leaving her children, I filled my wallet with photos of Autumn before departure. I wanted to bring her image to mind at a moment’s notice. I also thought that at eight months of age, she would likely change dramatically in the time that I was gone. I was right about that. When I left she still looked like a puppy. When I arrived home she looked like a lanky pre-teen dog.

The day finally arrived for me to leave to go to Germany. We took Autumn to the airport with us. I held her the entire way, trying not to cry. I was excited to be going, but I was going to miss my baby. At the airport I kissed her goodbye and flew across the ocean.

Upon landing, I immediately called to check in and to let Dan know we had arrived safely. He told me Autumn had been sniffing all over the apartment, and that he was sure she was looking for me. She only finally settled down when he went to bed.

I asked him to put the phone to Autumn’s ear so I could say hello to her.

“Hello, Autumn,” I spoke into the phone. “Brown, Brown? How are you puppy? Are you okay? Mommy loves you.”

Dan came back on the phone. He said Autumn had cocked her head to the side, looked quizzically at the phone, then jumped down and started sniffing at the back door. Apparently the sound of my voice was confusing to her, so we decided that I would not talk to her like that again.

Professor Riviello also missed his dog Baci. I took Autumn’s photo everywhere I went and showed it to anyone who would look. My professor would show his as well, and the conversation among many of the other students would turn again and again to our perceived bizarre behavior. Some of the students on the trip had never been outside of the small town where the college was located. It seemed to me that they had a pretty narrow perception of acceptable behavior. They certainly considered our dog nostalgia as completely eccentric. They just did not understand. We both thought leaving our dogs was worse than leaving our partners; yet our partners could speak to us on the phone and knew where we were. Our dogs did not.

The weeks passed quickly. The lectures were fascinating, and I was having an amazing time. Too soon, however, the term was over and we were headed back home. Dan knew when I would be arriving. I told him to be sure and bring Autumn.

“Of course,” he said. “You know I wouldn’t leave her home for this!” I knew it, but I just missed my dog so much, I did not want to wait one second longer than necessary to see her.

Even though these were the days before major airport security when loved ones could meet their travelers at the gate, Dan had to wait outside because of Autumn. I raced through the airport, through customs and baggage before heading out into the warm spring afternoon.

Dan was parked at the curb, waiting with a lanky puppy on a leash. She had grown since I had seen her last. She looked like a teenage dog, and less like a little puppy.

I kneeled and called out, “Autumn!” She turned and looked at me, then squatted on the sidewalk and urinated. Oh, my little baby. We knew in that moment that my leaving had most definitely had had an impact on her. She must have thought I would never return, yet here I was.

She ran to me and jumped on my lap as I knelt next to her. She licked my face and arms and chest, her entire body writhing with her tail. Her mommy was home!

Read Autumn — Chapter 4

Autumn — Chapter 2

Read Autumn — Chapter 1

Autumn ran. She would start at one end of the field near our apartment and run to the other end of the field, turn around, and run back. Down to the creek! Through the water! Under the fence! Across the field! Back through the fence! It was like she was a study in the personification of prepositional phrases.

I could stand and watch her run like that for over an hour. I checked out a video camera from my college and videotaped her running. We made copies and sent them home to our families.

“Did you like the movies?” I would ask, hopeful. “Isn’t Autumn adorable?”

“Well,” came the invariable response, “It would be nice if there was more of you two in them and less of the dog.” But why would they want that? She was our baby.

Every day I would let Autumn out to play in the fields behind our house. She would go and play in the creek or chase cows. The cows didn’t really run. They would stand in a herd, heads down, looking at the dog playing in their midst, snorting and weaving their lumbering heads back and forth.

After she had played a while I would call out, “Brown Brown!” the nickname I pulled from nowhere and a term of endearment I used for her the rest of her life. I could lean out over the deck railing and see her in the field below.

“Brown Brown!” I would call. “Autumn!” Autumn would stop whatever she was doing and race up the hill, around the apartment building, up the stairs, and across the deck to me, tongue lolling and panting in happiness.

Life with our puppy was like most people’s lives with puppies. Autumn had a penchant for chewing, particularly our favorite shoes. Probably because we wore them more frequently and they smelled more like us, she gravitated to the shoes we wore most often. Several shoes were destroyed in the cause of raising our puppy to a dog.

We owned one of those fake-wood finish particle board entertainment centers. It lived in the living room and housed our television, VCR, movies, photos, books, and some small knick-knacks. One of the items on the shelf was a small, fuzzy bear with a shiny, green ribbon around its neck that I had purchased in a gift shop somewhere along our drive from Oregon. It sat on the bottom shelf under the television in front of a row of books.

Autumn loved it. She wanted this bear more than any other forbidden item in our home. I would come into the room and discover Autumn, a brown lump between her jaws.

“Autumn!” I would bark, making my voice deep as our dog training book recommended for scolding. “Drop that!”

Autumn would slink down, dropping the bear onto the carpet. She would look to the left and right, avoiding my fierce gaze.

This went on for several weeks. One afternoon, I was lying on the carpet with Autumn, holding her on my belly and snuggling her. I looked over at the bear. Autumn loved sucking on that bear, and I loved her so much, I decided she could have it. I reached out and removed the bear from the shelf, placing it on the ground in front of her nose.

“Here, baby,” I said while setting the bear down. “You can have it.”

At first, Autumn just looked at me. She had been told over and over that the bear was not hers, yet here I was offering it up. Finally, after some coaxing, she took the bear and started sucking on it. As was her usual m.o., after she sucked on it long enough to loosen the fabric, she tore a hole in it and ripped out its guts, leaving puffles of stuffing all over the apartment. Such was the fate of stuffed animals in our household.

For the holidays, we made an appointment and took Autumn in to JC Penney for a family photo. Dan and I dressed in our Christmas clothes and looked like complete dorks. Autumn looked flashy in her Christmas ribbon and bell. The photo I have from that day is of her in a Christmas box, the two of us grinning behind her as if we’d just opened a gift to find a lanky puppy inside. Her tongue is lolling and her eyes are shining. She looks so pleased to be alive.

Autumn traveled with me wherever I went. When classes began in the fall, I took her to school with me. Some professors did not mind the puppy who laid at my feet during lectures. There was a main campus with a central courtyard, and across the street from the main campus there was a long row of buildings that housed the English and Political Science departments, the rooms I frequented most. Generally, the professors in the buildings away from the central campus were the most willing to allow a dog to attend classes.

One afternoon when it was still hot, I left Autumn in the car with the windows rolled halfway down. I had a meeting with a professor in the political science department. Five minutes into my meeting, I heard shouting in the hall and a woof. Uh oh!

I ran into the hall to see a couple of women chasing Autumn down the hall away from me.

“Autumn!” I called to her. She skidded to a stop and turned towards my voice, then she gamboled towards me, her paws slipping on the linoleum. The two students almost ran into her and each other.

“Your dog crawled through the window,” said one of the women.

“It’s not safe,” the other scolded. “You should have left her tied up at home.” Was she nuts? I would never leave my dog “tied up at home.”

“She came in to find me,” I explained. “Next time I will bring her with me or close the windows further.” I was rather surprised that Autumn had escaped. The windows were only open about five inches, but apparently that was enough for my little dog to wriggle through.

“You better,” said the woman. “She could get killed on the highway.” I blanched at the thought and cuddled Autumn close to my chest. I would do anything to protect my puppy.

Not long after that, I was walking Autumn with me on her leash. I had been reading the Barbara Woodhouse book No Bad Dogs and working with chain training Autumn. She was a quick learner and had taken to leash training easily. She seemed to enjoy walking beside me, and would look up at me every few steps as we sauntered along.

By this time, Dan and I were both experiencing fairly extreme culture shock, as well as homesickness. We had been in Bristol about four months, and were constantly amazed how different it was from our home state.  I think part of the problem was our assumption that because the town was in the United States, it would be pretty much the same as where we had grown up, in Oregon.  This presumption was an error on our part.  I had lived in other countries, but moving to those places, I had expected radical differences.  Dan and I had not considered that living in our new town would be almost like moving to another country entirely.  The food, the politics, the religion, the dialect, and more were all quite unlike what we were used to.  It was a completely different culture.

One of our biggest adjustments to Bristol was the cigarette smoking. Tobacco was still a thriving cash crop in Virginia and Tennessee. Smoking was allowed in grocery stores. The non-smoking section in restaurants often comprised only three or four tables, usually in a place with no ventilation, making the fact of the section being non-smoking something of a joke.

There was also a major difference in how local people treated their animals. Sure, there were people in the part of Oregon we were from who tied their dogs out, but it was the exception rather than the rule. In Bristol and the towns near it, we saw dogs tied outside homes everywhere. During that winter, there was a cold spell where temperatures dropped below zero degrees Fahrenheit, and all of the local newscasters urged people to bring their animals in for a couple of nights because of the cold.  It simply was not the norm to do so.  In our apartment complex, the other tenants were shocked and surprised that we kept Autumn in the house with us, and told us as much. We also had a pet rat, which was nearly unheard of.

Another major difference between Bristol, and indeed the whole east coast it seemed, was the rain. In Oregon, we would get occasional downpours, but for the most part, it drizzled most of the year. In contrast, the rain on the east coast would arrive suddenly and fill every available space with running, rushing, swirling water. The drainage systems were different as well, with fewer ditches and runoffs for the water. The result was that when it rained, there would often be small floods. The creek down the hill from our apartment was especially inclined to overflow its banks during these rainstorms.

Across the parking lot from our apartment, there were three mobile homes that the owner of the property also rented out. One of them kept a doghouse about twenty feet from his door, down the hill in the field towards the creek. There were two dogs tied to the doghouse – a frighteningly skinny hound and one of her older puppies. She had given birth in the summer when we first moved in. Gradually all the other puppies had been sold off or given away. The landlord had told us the dogs were supposedly some fancy hunting breed, but you could not tell by looking at them, at least if their care was any indication. They were both sacks of bones and covered in fleas and dirt. The soil in the area was a reddish clay that turned almost sandy when it was dry. Flecks of it filled their fur, giving them both a reddish tinge.

One night in late fall, it began raining like crazy. Huge, splattery drops came down by the bucketful, drenching everything within seconds. We could see the dogs standing in the rapidly rising water. The puppy especially was having a tough time because the water rose nearly to his neck.

Dan and I ran through the dark, first to the apartments, then from one mobile home to another asking who owned the dogs. Everyone said they did not know, but thought they belonged to the mobile home closest to the animals. We banged on the flimsy door. No one answered. We could hear a television over the pounding rain and the lights were on, so we banged again, both of us soaked to the bone. Finally, a man came to the door, eyeing us suspiciously. He was wearing a tattered flannel shirt and dirty, baggy pants. His hair stuck up all over his head, his chin covered in sparse hairs. His cheek was filled with tobacco, with some brown spittle clinging to the hairs at the edge of his mouth.

“Are those your dogs?” I shouted over the deafening rain, pointing to the two sodden creatures down the hill.

“Yeah, so?” he sneered at me.

“That puppy, he’s going to drown,” I turned and pointed at the dog. “See? The water is already up to his neck. And it’s really cold.”

“That water ain’t agoin’ a hurt it,” the man snarled at me, slamming the door in my face. I looked at Dan.  Now what? The dog was tied to a leash only maybe three feet long. There was no way he could survive if the water rose even a couple of more inches.

Without even discussing it, Dan and I ran and untied the dogs. We could not see taking them into our house. The apartment was so small and the dogs so filthy and wet, they would probably have ruined the carpet, and we could not afford to be evicted. Instead we took them up the hill to a small shed that was built on stilts about three feet above the ground. We tied them to one of the stilts under the building.

I stayed with the dogs while Dan ran back to the house to get them some food. The puppy was shivering so hard, I was afraid he was going to have some kind of an attack or something. He was pure black, bone skinny and his fur covered in mud, but he had kind, brown eyes and looked up at me as if to thank me for getting him out of the mass of running water.

Dan returned with two heaping bowls of food. The dogs gulped the food down so fast, we were worried it would make them sick, but after the bowls were empty, they just wagged their tails and came towards us, cowering and wriggling, rolling over to show their bellies. We pet them and rubbed their ears, pleased the dogs were okay.

When we got back into the house, we called Jeannie and told her about the dogs. She lived with three other women, all of them dog lovers.

“We are going to come and get them,” she told us. “I don’t care if they arrest us. That man should be shot for animal abuse.”

“He probably won’t even notice they are gone,” I told her. “We never see him have anything to do with them. And the mom dog is so thin, you could put your fingers between her ribs.”

The next morning, the dogs were not there. Jeannie told me that she and her roommates had come and taken them both away. Sadly, the puppy later died. He had a case of canine leukemia and was too far gone to save. The mom dog, though, grew to be fat and happy. The girls had her spayed and found her a new home.

The man in the trailer never said a word to us. He did not ask if we knew what happened to the dogs, and didn’t get any other dogs while were living there.

Read Autumn — Chapter 3

Autumn — Chapter 1

July 19, 2005
As I write, Autumn is lying on the floor beside the desk in my office. She is dying. Her body is shutting down. We have an appointment with the vet this evening. I keep thinking it will be like the last few times I thought she was done, but she is so much more DONE now.

It reminds me of getting ready to give birth. I would feel the Braxton Hicks contractions, and they would hurt, but they were nothing like the real thing. Autumn has had some bad moments, moments that made me drive her down to Dr. Fletcher, only to have us sent home – thank God, a reprieve – but this is it, the real thing. Her life will be over; mine will start something different. I am looking forward to some of the differences, but I would take all the bad just to have her in my life, have her the way she’s been until recently.

She barks too much. She gets into trash and takes food she shouldn’t. But she’s also my shadow and my friend. She loves me with a devotion I do not deserve. All of her life, she has followed me wherever I go. She is my guardian angel. She will be gone too soon.

Chapter 1

Pigs danced in sequins and cowboy hats, corpulent tubes in clothing, their mistress equally as lovely, with cowgirl boots and a twang.  As our send off to college, we were watching pigs dancing.  Was this for real?

I wanted to go to school in the south.  Yes, there would be writing and riding, my two very favorite things, but the real allure was that the school was in the southern hemisphere.  What the hell was I thinking?

My boyfriend wasn’t coming for writing, riding, or the south. He was following me.  What the hell was he thinking?

As part of our goodbye, his parents planned a party and invited all of our closest friends and family. They insinuated that they had planned an incredible surprise.  Dan and I were certain it was air-conditioning for our car. We were crossing the country in July and the car had none. This seemed like the perfect gift to us.

We were wrong. As we sat in the cool midday sun watching the pigs crossing mini bridges wearing mini skirts and fringe, Dan and I eyed one another, despairing that we had not purchased the air conditioner ourselves.  The pigs had certainly been a surprise, just not what we expected.

The following day, the car loaded with everything that had not already been shipped, we waved goodbye to our family and prayed to one another that the drive would not roast us alive.  But really, we were not worried. We were excited about the upcoming journey, and I was all the more so because I knew, deep in my bones, that I would get a dog. I saw her sitting in the front seat of my car, going everywhere with me. I felt her presence there on the seat beside me. I had no doubt that she would exist. Driving across country, I brought it up several times that my top priority upon arrival would be finding a dog.

“Don’t you think we should think about jobs and things first?” Dan would ask.

“We can look for jobs with a dog, or we can look for both at the same time,” I replied, undeterred. “Plus I will have the work study job at the barn already, so I can look for a dog while you look for work.” Dan did not look convinced, but did not argue with me.

Once we reached Bristol, the town that lay on the border of Virginia and Tennessee, finding a dog remained my top priority. Dan had not yet experienced my enthusiasm. I think he really did not want to get a dog and thought having one would be a hassle.

I was adamant though, and I told anyone who would listen that I was going to get a dog. This proved to be a fruitful tactic. Jeannie, one of my new coworkers at the horse stable, had a roommate with a pregnant dog. She offered me one of the puppies when they were born. She warned me though, that the puppies were likely to be very large dogs, as Maude, the mother, was a beast.

“She is half mastiff,” she informed me, pushing the broom up the aisle. “Half lab, half mastiff, we think,” she added.

“I don’t care if it’s a big dog,” I told Jeannie, helping her to scoop the sweepings into a dust pan. Dan, at the stable with me to help out until he found gainful employment, only shook his head.

“We can at least look!” I exclaimed to him.

I told Jeanne that I wanted to investigate the so-called beast, but that I would likely take a puppy anyway.

The apartment we lived in was not large, by any stretch of the imagination. I marvel now, that we had managed to locate and rent an apartment across country in those pre-internet days. I had somehow figured out the name of the local paper and subscribed, then located the apartment through the classified ads. Over several telephone calls with the landlord, we rented it, sight unseen.

Considering how we procured the apartment, it really wasn’t as awful as it could have been, but it wasn’t that great either. It was out of town about five miles, lying nearly on the border of Virginia and Tennessee. We were on the Tennessee side of the line, but could actually throw gravel into Virginia, we were that close to the state border.

The owner and landlord had turned an old shop into eight apartments, four on each end of the building, two on top and two on the bottom. He did not have much imagination in using the space, and each apartment was designed like a single-wide mobile home. Our apartment was on the second floor. We climbed stairs to a wide deck we shared with our neighbors and entered through a sliding glass door that opened into the dining room and kitchen on the left, and living room on the right. A narrow hall ran the length of the apartment up the right side of the building, with a bathroom and bedroom opening to the left of the hallway. Our bedroom was at the end of the hall, its width that of the apartment. The walls were covered in mobile home wallboard, the fake wood kind with brown stripes. The place was carpeted in pure 1970s gold shag. I could not complain, however; there was a washer and dryer in the bathroom.

The landlord’s own actual mobile home sat up near the street. Our apartments and the parking lot next to them were in the field behind his trailer. Beyond our building were pastures full of cows and deciduous trees. A bubbling brook ran through the field next to the fence separating our field from the cow pasture. While the apartment was rather small, there was a lot of space outside, which reduced my concern about the size of whatever dog we obtained.

Dan continued to advise me to wait, and continued to insist that we should get a smaller dog. Through the phone and thousands of miles away, our parents counseled us against getting a puppy, and they certainly felt we should not get a big dog. They had heard us complain all too frequently of our diminutive and ratty apartment.

I ignored them. I cannot say what single-minded determination drove me on. I did not care if my new dog turned out to be an elephant. I wanted a dog and my new friend had puppies coming. It wasn’t rocket science.

I wonder now at my intensity. Was Autumn’s spirit out there, forcing me to make the choice? Did she want me to choose her after her birth? I don’t know. I had wanted a dog in Oregon, but for some reason, the move across country gave me the encouragement to make sure it happened.

We also were not one-hundred percent certain the dog in question would be huge, in spite of Maude’s size. There were two potential fathers in the litter. One was a German shepherd mix named Jasper. The other was a border collie named Cody. Both of these dogs were smaller than Maude. Genetics worked in both directions.

When I went to work at the barn the morning of August 16, 1993, Jeannie looked like the cat who swallowed a mouse. One look and I knew – the puppies were born. Dan still had not found a job and was helping me at the barn. We all worked impatiently to finish, then drove quickly to Jeannie’s house.

It was already hot when we pulled up the winding, dusty driveway late that morning. Jeannie’s house was also out from town, near the end of a gravel drive. A rambling, green, two story house with pointy gables, it was surrounded on three sides by a wide, wraparound porch.

On the porch, away from the front door, Maude was stretched on her side, twelve puppies in various states covered her body. Some were suckling. Some were sleeping. Some were crawling over the others. Some just lay there like lumps letting the others romp all over them. None had eyes. None had ears. Every dog color was represented. They were utterly adorable. I had no idea how I was going to choose.

What finally helped me choose was the moon. One wee puppy had a white, crescent on the back of her neck right behind her ears – a moon. It was about three inches long and a perfect arc. The rest of her body was a creamy golden brown. She had white tips on her paws and a funny, white hourglass on her chest, but the tiny moon stood out, a beacon ensuring I would choose her.

On our drive home after making our choice, I asked Dan, “What should we name her?”

“I have no idea. Mooney?” he answered.

I laughed. “Should we give her a human-type name like Edith, or a doggish name like Spot?”

“I don’t know. It depends on the name,” Dan said.

I thought for a minute. “She is such lovely autumn colors. Maybe we should call her Autumn,” I mused. “All that beige, with brown, and some white. She is colored like the end of summer, with the moon shining over all of it.”

“Maybe we could call her Summer?”

“Summer,” I said. Then, “Autumn.” Autumn seemed to flow from the tongue.

“I like Autumn,” Dan told me.

“Me too. I think that is what we should name her.”

Over the next few days, we made some other suggestions, but Autumn stuck. The name seemed to suit her. After we spent some time visiting her and calling her Autumn, no other name fit.

Two days after the puppies were born, Jeannie called to tell me her roommate’s father had cut off the puppies’ tails. We were both furious. These were mutt dogs, why cut off their tails? I went immediately to see and discovered that, thank heaven, Autumn’s tail had been spared. The guy had only cut the tails of half the puppies. One had bled to death as a result. What an idiot. Unfortunately, Jeannie’s dog was one of the dogs chosen for a docking. He now sported a stubby, black lump.

How different some things in my life would have been if Autumn’s tail had been cut. I would still have some Christmas tree ornaments she wagged off the tree, and several beverages whacked from low-lying tables would not have had to be cleaned up. But those mishaps were small compared to having a dog who showed her emotion so readily with her tail.

Over the next few weeks, Dan and I went to visit Autumn every day we could. We would sit with Jeannie and her roommates and watch television or movies in the evenings and hold Autumn in our laps.

At first, her eyes and ears were sealed shut. She held her four legs out stiffly, her claws splayed until we settled her next to the warmth of our bodies. She would fall asleep in our laps until we rose to leave.

A little over a week after she was born, we could see tiny slits in her eyelids, shiny brown eyes peaking through. Not long after that, it was obvious she could hear us. When we would make noises she would turn and look at us. The girls had moved Maude into their basement and off the porch to escape the ravaging humidity and heat, and to keep the puppies dry during the near daily rainstorms. Pretty soon the puppies were waddling around in the makeshift pen in the corner.

When Autumn was five weeks old, Jeannie called to tell me it was time to take her home. I had not been expecting to do so until she was eight weeks old. But apparently Maude, tired of feeding eleven babies, had stopped allowing them to nurse. They had been eating puppy food for over a week. They were rambunctious and growing, and the girls wanted them out of their house.

I was thrilled, and Dan had come around as well. All those visits to see our baby had warmed his heart, although I think the size of her paws had him nervous. She looked like her paws were going to be huge, which meant she would probably be large as well. We still weren’t sure if she was Jasper’s or Cody’s, although it was obvious from the puppies’ colors and various sizes that both fathers had impregnated Maude.

The two of us had gone shopping and bought Autumn a new, grey collar and matching leash, dog dishes, and toys. Like parents waiting to give birth, we were ready to bring our new baby home.

When we arrived to pick Autumn up from Jeannie’s house, she asked, “Are you sure you want Autumn? Because if you don’t, we have lots of puppies looking for new homes.”

I stared at her, incredulous. Why wouldn’t we want her? Was she kidding? We had gone and visited her nearly every day. I had held her for hours, even before she had ears that could hear or eyes that could see. “What makes you think we would want another dog?”

“My roommates want you to take another dog because Autumn is the friendliest of all the puppies. You know that she is the first to come running whenever anyone goes into the basement,” she informed me, smiling. “And she most loves cuddling and petting.”

It was true. Autumn loved people and had no reservations about visiting anyone who was nearby. I read later that the younger a dog is exposed to humans, the more socialized and happy the dog will later be. I believe that all that hugging, cuddling, and petting I did when Autumn was little made her the friendly, sweet puppy who came running ahead of the pack.

Jeannie knew there wasn’t a chance we would leave Autumn in favor of another puppy. She smiled as we gathered Autumn in our arms for the ride home.

Dan drove. I rode in the passenger seat, my little baby on my lap. She had on her huge collar. She put her paws on the edge of the door and looking out the window. I snuggled and cuddled her, thrilled she was finally with me.

First thing upon arriving home Autumn had her first bath. She was covered in fleas. The fleas were so dense it was like she had a second, dark, wiggling skin. I had to lather her up about three times to kill all of them. She also had a little pot belly, so I was sure she had worms. I had purchased dewormer ahead of time, knowing that with all those fleas, tapeworms were a guarantee.

We had planned that Autumn would stay in the bathroom for her first night. We were worried about potty on the rug. I bundled together some towels and blankets and made her a bed. I brought in a ticking alarm clock because I had read that the ticking reminds puppies of their mother’s heartbeats. We snuggled and kissed her, placed her on the floor, and closed the door.

She began immediately to howl and yelp. Loudly. We climbed into bed and waited for her to calm down.

She didn’t. The howls only grew in intensity.

Dan, finally employed, had to get up at four in the morning for his job. He was never going to get any sleep with this noise, plus I was worried about the neighbors.

“What are we going to do?” he moaned, trying to cover his head with a pillow.

I could not stand it. I could not let my baby be so sad. I clambered out of bed and went down the hall to let Autumn out of the bathroom.

“If you give in,” Dan informed me, “She will never learn.”

“If I don’t give in, neither of us will sleep,” I retorted. I snuggled Autumn a bit, then tried again to leave her and go to bed. I did not even make it down the hall to my bedroom before the bedlam began again.

I decided to erect some walls at either end of the hall and place newspapers all over the hall floor. I looked around for something that would work as a barrier and finally settled on cardboard boxes.

“What are you doing?” Dan hollered from the bedroom.

“I’m trying to make a place for her to sleep,” I informed him, cutting into the boxes and attempting to tape wide sections to the wallboard. The tape would not stick. Damn.

I then used push pins to attach the cardboard to the walls. This worked to keep the walls up. However, the pen I created did not make Autumn any happier. As soon as I placed her on the newspapers, she sat down and howled and yelled, louder this time.

I headed back into the bedroom to wait and see if she would quiet down. Amid the screeching, we heard some rustling coming from the hallway.

“What is she doing?” Dan asked me.

“I’m not sure, but I don’t want to go out there because she will see me and it will be worse.”

We waited. After a few minutes, there were some rustlings again, and then I heard Autumn immediately outside our bedroom door. I opened it to see our puppy, the cardboard walls felled behind her, waiting to be picked up.

In spite of the fact that I did not want poop or pee on the rug, this wasn’t working. I brought her into our room and into our bed.

Dan and I settled down into the covers with Autumn between us. She was so small, I was afraid she might fall and hurt herself. I turned off the light.

Within minutes, she started whining and then yelping.

“Seriously?” I asked her. “You don’t want to sleep with us either? What do you want?” Sighing heavily, I sat up, holding Autumn close. This seemed to be the only way to keep her from crying. After a time, I laid back down with her between us. She yowled for a few minutes, shuffling around in the darkness. I then heard her jump off the bed, but she wasn’t barking. The silence continued unabated and we fell asleep.

The following morning, I discovered her slumbering beneath our bed. There was a piddle on the rug. I ran Autumn to the patio and down the stairs. When she squatted again, I shouted, “Good dog!” Autumn regarded me as if I were a fool then sniffed the place she had peed.

We repeated a shortened version the next night. I tried the bathroom, but Autumn yowled before I even closed the door. I skipped the failed hall kennel and took her to our room. We started on the bed, and she barked until she jumped off and crawled underneath. It seemed that under the bed was where she wanted to be.

Over the next few days, whenever she slept, she went under the bed or under the couch in the living room. We had purchased some drops to place on newspapers that mimic the smell of urine so puppies will pee on them. This worked about two-thirds of the time. During the day especially, we could see that she was going to pee because she would sniff the floor and circle. We would either toss her on the newspapers or outside, whichever was closer. Sometimes she peed in response to our hollering when we saw her circling.

The floor in that apartment though, especially the hallway, was getting peed on. The carpet was smelly anyway, and the pee covered in various chemicals wasn’t an improvement. I finally broke down and bought a small carpet cleaner. It wasn’t much help, but it covered the chemical pee smell.

Autumn was so tiny. I have pictures of her standing on the edge of an upholstered chair, looking down at the floor that must have seemed so far away. I would put her in the laundry basket on the dryer when I was doing laundry. She would sit in a pile of clean clothes and watch me work. She was too small to jump out, and seem disinclined to do so anyway. Her paws were enormous in comparison to how little she was, so we were certain she was going to be a very large dog, but I didn’t care and neither did Dan; we were in complete love with her. She had won our hearts. Forever after she came to live with us, I described her as my first child, this little dog we plucked from a litter of twelve on the day she was born.

Read Autumn — Chapter 2