Just do it, the old Nike logo said. And so I committed myself to bringing back this blog without quite knowing how to re-enter gracefully, how to fill in the blanks of the past year.
I’m still not sure, but the other day I hit on the diary format, of using moments in a typical day as a jumping off point for associations about different topics. It may be another false start, but it feels right for now. I’d love your feedback.
After this first entry, I worried that I might sound a bit obsessive about Frankie. And then I remembered who my audience is.
4:55am I hear the click of Frankie’s toenails, the shake of his collar, and know he is getting ready to find his way into the bedroom. This morning ritual is comparatively recent. Frankie slept on the bed with me — actually, a mattress on the floor; I got rid of the frame in 2008, after he injured his back — almost from the time I adopted him.
Then one evening, about eight months ago, things changed.
I was used to Frankie’s annoyance at being asked to move from dead center of the bed. He was — and remains in some ways — a rather imperious little pup. At least two pet sitters admitted to me, after the fact, that they had decided to sleep on my living room couch rather than intrude on Frankie’s repose.
I instructed them to just give him a gentle push. After a put-upon snort, I said, Frankie would get up and find a corner of the bed to settle into. Apparently, they found my nine pound dog’s invisible DO NOT DISTURB sign too intimidating to ignore.
But on the night in question, Frankie didn’t respond to my nudge by grudgingly relocating. Instead, he hopped off the mattress and trotted across the hall to my office, where he nestled into his fleecy doughnut-shaped bed.
This threw me for a loop.
I recalled that when dogs are sick they often like to go off on their own. When Frankie didn’t return to the bedroom, I became convinced there was something horribly wrong with him. Too worried to sleep, I kept getting up and going in to check on him. I watched until I was certain that he was breathing, that his sleep rhythms were normal.
I thought the incident might be a fluke, until the same thing happened the following night. This time, I came up with a different strategy: I enfolded Frankie in his doughnut bed, picked him up, carried him across the hall, and placed him in a corner of the mattress. He settled in briefly, then disengaged himself from both beds and walked into the office again.
I brought the doughnut bed to him so he wouldn’t have to sleep on the bare hardwood floor.
In less than a week, I accepted Frankie’s departure at bedtime — and his return to the same mattress the next morning, after I left it for day — as the new normal. In many ways that was okay. Often, I slept better, not worrying about whether I was going to move over and disturb him, or whether turning on the radio when I couldn’t sleep would bother him.
It took me a while, but I finally figured out what my real concern was.
Many of us spend a great deal of time trying to read our dogs’ signals, even beyond the Canine 101 lip licking, paw lifting and gradations of growling. Are they in pain? What obscure sound is making them afraid? How can I fix their world?
This is challenging enough under the best of circumstances, but since last September, when Frankie was diagnosed with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, I have had to learn a new language. There is some basic vocabulary shared by most dogs with CCD — disorientation, for example — but each one speaks a distinct dialect.
What I feared most about Frankie’s nightly departures was that they signaled the beginning of his withdrawal from me. Not recognizing loved ones is as common a symptom of CCD as it is of Alzheimer’s, the human disease it most closely resembles — and probably the most heartbreaking one.
Happily, that turned out not to be the case with Frankie. At least not so far.
What, then, is his bedtime withdrawal about? I finally came to the conclusion that Frankie had experienced a “get off my lawn” moment, a la Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino. At the age of 14, Frankie is a grumpy old guy, and he was declaring that he needed his space.
Come to think of it, Frankie has other things in common with Clint Eastwood: He also spends a lot of time addressing empty chairs.
But that’s a story for another diary entry.