When Life Begins – or – Midlife Puppy

A version of this article was first printed in the New York Times, in 1989 (without photographs).

On a bitter February night, my husband Bill and I came home from our veterinarian’s office, wet-eyed, holding an empty red dog collar and lead. Dickens, our big male Labrador, met us at the door and nuzzled us inquiringly. There was no way to tell him that his beloved companion, Bonnie, would never come home again.

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Bonnie - photo by E. J. Wagner

We had lived under Bonnie’s benign despotism for most of her sixteen years. She had roused us when our children were ill in the night.  She had guarded their play. Her stentorian bark warned us of strangers, and welcomed our friends. She and I had grown our first grey hairs together. Our family was bereaved.

Friends proffered comfort. Bernie dropped by with prune Danish and advice. He reminded us that in her last years, Bonnie’s needs had been considerable, and boarding her unthinkable. Dickens, easy-going, and in the prime of life, presented no such problem. This would be an ideal time for us to make the trip to London that we had always talked about. After all, our two daughters were grown and didn’t need us—Sonia working in the city, and Dahlia away at college. Bernie strongly recommended a trip. Then he told us a joke—about three clergymen who discuss the question of when life begins. The first claims it’s at conception, the second opts for the quickening, but the third insists “Life begins when the children leave home and the dog dies. . . .”

A neighbor told us she knew just how we felt—her own little dog having “passed away” ten years before. She would never go through that again. That sort of emotional tie was for young people. She lent us some travel folders, and shared a joke with us. It seems there were three women arguing about when life begins. . . .

We put away Bonnie’s food dish, placed our favorite photo of her grizzled, Labrador face up on the mantel. We read travel articles and talked about London. Dickens watched us. His appetite, like ours, was slight. He sighed heavily and often. Three white hairs appeared among the midnight black of his fur. Disconsolate, he roamed through the house and around the garden, peering behind trees and under the bushes that marked Bonnie’s favorite places. Sometimes he whimpered as he searched, our canine Orpheus, desperately seeking, in the chill Long Island spring, his dear lost Eurydice.

In May, we decided to face the problem and deal with it like mature, sensible people. We requisitioned our daughters’ company and drove to an address in the North Fork. When we returned, the girls held between them an eight-week-old female Labrador puppy—thirteen pounds of warm black velvet wrapped around a feisty spirit, edged with a petunia-pink tongue and white, needle-sharp teeth. She was redolent of that wonderful new-puppy aroma, somewhere between roasted nuts and new-cut hay. We named her Poppins.

We put her to bed in a puppy-crate in Bonnie’s old spot in the kitchen, and took Dickens upstairs with us.

At three that morning I was aroused by an unearthly cry—a keening—a shrieking—a howling—that chilled the blood and nearly stopped the heart. “WHAT IS IT? WHAT IS IT?” I yelled.

“It’s Poppins—she needs us . . . ,” cried my husband, valiantly leaping out of bed and struggling into a bathrobe.

“But why does it sound like she’s right in the room with us?”

“Because,” he replied in a tone of smug self-congratulation, “I thought to turn on the intercom,” and then he was racing down the stairs, Dickens at his heels.

The intercom! That instrument of torture, that I had blissfully forgotten in the years since my children were small. I felt for it behind the bedroom mirror, noticed that it was turned to “high,” switched it off, and went downstairs.

The kitchen was empty except for Dickens. Through the sliding glass doors, I could see that it was storming savagely. Lightning cracked the sky, trees writhed in the wind. Dickens and I peered out into the darkness. It was a long time before Bill appeared, like Neptune from the depths. Water streamed from his hair, flowed from his beard. His robe was sodden, his sneakered feet squelched mud. He held a red leash in his hand. At the end of it sat our tiny Baskerville Hound, looking up at him with an expression of ecstatic adoration. “She did everything,” Bill announced, flushed with success. “Everything, right where I asked her to.”

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Dickens meets Poppins - photo by E. J. Wagner

Clearly Poppins was a quick study. Clearly we were going to lose a lot of sleep. We learned to rise at four and eat breakfast at five, kicking a tennis ball back and forth as we chewed to keep the puppy occupied. When I was busy writing, it was Dickens’ turn to distract her—which he did with amazing gentleness and tolerance. He would hold out his favorite rubber ring, allow her to grasp a side, and then engage her in a benign tug of war, pulling just hard enough to give her a game, but never lifting her off her feet, as he could easily have done. He always let her win. They chased each other up and down the stairs, through the living room, around the garden. Often Bill and I ran with them, ducking to avoid low branches, leaping over logs. When the dogs grew tired, they curled up together on Bonnie’s old bed and sang to each other—their voices rising and falling in an engagingly dissonant, haunting duet for bass and soprano Labrador.

On weekends Bill taught Poppins to swim. Afraid of the pool at first, she paddled frantically with her front paws, and needed Bill to support her rear end—but she caught on quickly and soon was swimming laps, using her tiny tail to steer. She glided like an otter—like a sleek black seal—an Esther Williams in fur. I waded into the pool and took pictures. Our social life was limited to the good company of people who liked to swim with dogs.

Poppins learned to come when called (mostly), to sit, lie down, and retrieve objects when requested—often when not requested. Unexpected items removed from her mouth included a twenty-dollar bill, a four-foot tree branch, part of the dining room rug, half of a garden slug, and a mercifully comatose earwig.

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Dickens and Poppins - photo by E. J. Wagner

Our puppy sleeps until six now. She is half grown and weighs fifty-two pounds. Bill and Dickens and I are a lot slimmer than we were before she arrived, and much more supple. We may be tired and a bit grey, but there’s a spring to our step.

It will be full autumn soon, and the leaves will color and fall in great drifts, and Dickens will teach his young friend what exhilarating fun it is to burrow through them.

When winter comes, we’ll throw snowballs (Labradors love snowballs), and then we’ll sit before a fire, and Bill and I will sip hot spiced cider, and admire the two gleaming black dogs at our feet, and scratch their ears. And perhaps we’ll talk a bit about going to London.

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