by Elliot Jackson
The cover photo of my Siberian Husky, Sovay, was taken in early 2009 when, as a vigorous 13-year-old, she was still pacing pal Mike and me up mountain passes and breaking trail when we went snow-shoeing. Sovay, typical of her breed, is a highly energetic dog, easily bored and not all at all disinclined to let me know about it – that is, if baleful, pointed stares, imperious whoo-ings, and impatient tap-dance routines at the door can be taken as indication of a need and desire that we be off, now, on some quest for amusement or adventure. To see the antic gleam in her blue eyes, and observe her tongue-lolling, shark-toothed grin as she peered back over her shoulder just before dusting us on the trail, has made those days of back country ramblings a special delight for me; I believed I beheld my companion at one with her ideal environment.
To my regret, and I’m sure to hers, she and I were relative late-comers to the joys of snow-shoeing. Sovay had spent her puppyhood in urban Chicago; but even after moving from Chicago to the Colorado Western Slope, we didn’t get out into the back country nearly often enough for her tastes. Oh, to be sure, I would from time to time consider taking up cross-country skiing again, a sport I had pursued intermittently back in the flatlands of Michigan, and dream of skijoring with her, but I was married to a distinctly nonsporting partner, and it seemed like there was always something else to be doing on the weekends. But times change, people change, loves change, and by the time Sovay was accompanying me back and forth to Salida to see new friends, no winter weekend seemed complete without a snow-shoe trip.
Sovay just passed her 14th birthday in November and still, as of that date, was presenting a picture of health and vigor that I was inclined to regard with a certain level of awe, not without some overtones of smugness: “Look at that! Can you believe she’s 14?” I would hear myself exclaiming to Mike as she cantered ahead of us on our hikes. Whistling past the graveyard? – perhaps – but I had it fixed in my head that my bullet-headed love child, the puppy who had put her sapphire-eyed whammy on me at eight weeks old in a strip-mall pet shop in North Carolina, the puppy I’d impulsively had shipped to me in Chicago in the early days of my marriage, who had broken me into the rigors of dog training, care and maintenance, whose domineering nature schooled me in exerting my will – and staying the course – in a difficult love relationship, the last living link to the days of my dead marriage, was going to go on forever – or at least to 16, that was the story I told myself. 16 years old, a ripe old age for any dog but positively Methuselean for a large Nordic breed. Up until the middle of December, it seemed a practical probability.
But suddenly as a late-autumn snowstorm falling, the infirmities of old age have manifested themselves upon my dog, transforming all our landscapes. In retrospect I could see the signs approaching, but I downplayed their significance: a certain stiffness in the joints, or a hollowing near her hipbones? – well, surely that was only to be expected. But a tumble taken on the ice, after getting a mad, typically Siberian wild hair up and making a hastily-intercepted dash for the gate, seemed to induce an unaccustomed lassitude in her; for the first time in her life she seemed to be really ailing. When Mike brought her over to see me while I was working in Gunnison, Sovay wouldn’t even raise her head in acknowledgment, much less wave her tail in the elegantly understated manner of her usual greeting to me. I became seriously alarmed.
A visit to the vet just a day after we got home to Salida, an exam, a blood test, confirmed that there was more than just arthritis in her joints that was causing her pain: there were signs of kidney damage. New food, a regimen of pills, come back in a month.
She was back at the vet’s office the very next day, on an IV drip, after a morning scene that had harrowed my soul: my beloved dog, my fur-daughter, staggering in a circle like a drunken sailor, groaning with pain and bewilderment, finally collapsing in the snow after I rushed her outside. As I watched the slow heaving of her sides, I wrung my hands, metaphorically and literally: how could she be going down so fast? How could the vet suddenly be saying things like “chronic renal failure”? How could I not have known, not have guessed, not have acted sooner? How could I have denied to myself for so long that she was an old dog?
Sovay was home after a few days, doing much better after her course of fluids, but still not eating enough to ease that knot of worry that seems to have taken up residence between my shoulder blades. As of now, there is no way to know how long I have left with her – a few days or weeks, a few months, or maybe even (o, forlorn little hope!) a few years left to get to that magically-thinking age I had so confidently prescribed for her. Maybe just enough time for a last snow-shoe in the mountains.
In the meantime, however, I am mindful of the remainder of my time with Sovay as a blessing of living in present time: dogs are, after all, instant present time beings. Every little routine suddenly become precious – the clickety-clickety of her nails on the kitchen floor, the slightly lunatic intensity of her stare, the little mooing groan as she stretches down to her toes, or settles with a thump onto her bed. And I try not to hear Time’s winged chariot drawing near, try not to allow any panic in the little prayer that I find coursing through my head: Please baby, please, baby, please. Don’t leave me here alone on this snow-covered trail. Not yet.