By Nancy McCabe
Dogs are good for writers. They provide undemanding companionship. They give us a reason to walk and think. They show us how to pay attention. Dogs are all about the taste and smell of the world. Dogs are all about the details.
I didn’t think I liked dogs before adopting my goldendordoodle, Mollie, twelve-and-a-half years ago, on my daughter’s eleventh birthday. I wrote about that journey here. Mollie became my constant shadow during pandemic shutdowns. She listened to me practice lectures, she nosed her way into my Zoom classes, she lumbered to her feet whenever I left a room and followed me. She stayed by me when I was sick. She poked around the backyard when I read on the swing.
Over the years, Mollie and I had walked many trails briskly as I shed the agitations of the day. She led with her nose, sniffing out olfactory stories of rotting leaves and frozen earth, squirrels and possums and other dogs, old pinecones and shedding bark and someone’s lost shoelace. She zigzagged, mesmerized, exhilarated. Gently lulled from churning ruminations about workplace conflicts or personal frustrations, I stopped chasing my own tail and found myself instead noticing things: the rewarding crunch of a deformed, shriveled peanut. The frogs that sounded like strumming banjos. The little plates of snow on the ivy along the edge of my yard.
We walked under pines, through rain, through ice, through air like a held breath and absences so sharp they felt like presences. She plowed her face through snow, seeking out the secrets buried there or taking advantage of my distraction to joyfully plunge into puddles, face altered as she emerged: fuzzy with snow, brown with mud, one wallowing moment worth the grueling bath afterward and the solitary confinement in a small bathroom to dry.
During pandemic shutdowns, I moved more at Mollie’s pace, reveling in the spectacular way snow broke up on the roof of my car, so that at every stop sign, chunks and sheets slammed, skidded, crashed down. I walked down Bird Island Pier over the Niagara River, looking at plump seagulls, smudges of graffiti, shredded Walmart bags caught on barbed wire like strange wigs. I rediscovered how just walking, just noticing things, helped me recover from the week’s stress and return to face the next.
But as I went back to the classroom in the fall, I was too busy to pay attention to details. Mollie wouldn’t eat, so I bought her tantalizing, expensive food, stinky soft food with Pepto Bismol mixed in. I cooked her special chicken and rice dinners. I bought her jars of pureed baby food. She’d eat each new offering for a few days, then refuse again. The vet was booked for several weeks in advance. I felt obscurely worried and yet firmly in denial.
In October, on the last nice fall evening, I sent my poetry students out on a sonnet walk. I strolled toward our campus trail, doing the exercise I’d assigned, stopping to write a line every few minutes. Although it would snow the next week, the trees were still oddly green, and even more strange, the lawn was splattered with fallen leaves that crumbled in sidewalk crevices like sawdust. I couldn’t figure out where they’d fallen from. Later I would look back at the poem draft I wrote, weaving from one image to another as I watched small weaving dogs on the ends of leashes. I listened to the rushing creek and thought about how Mollie liked to lunge after the frogs at the pond next to the gazebo. My sonnet attempt ended with the words, “Day begins to wane/storms that will batter trees/ just a faint hint of rain.” So, I knew. Obviously, I knew what I wasn’t admitting to myself.
A few weeks later, when Mollie came back from the groomer, a razor had sheared our plump, fluffy dog, uncovering bones jutting at odd angles, so that her back no longer resembled the soft slopes of the Alleghenies. Now it looked more like the stark ridges of the Rockies, knobs of spine spanning the summit, a deep valley between her shoulder blades. Pared down to a small, trembling creature, she shivered all night, feverish.
I took her to an emergency animal hospital in Buffalo. She’d lost fifteen pounds, it turned out. She had cancer, they said. It had metastasized. I would need to make the decision to let her go.
She crouched on the backseat, sharp boned, as we drove home past brown and gold leaves under a baby blue sky scudding with incongruent dark clouds. If I was lying on the couch, she rested her chin on my chest and stared. She still sniffed the trash. Her tail still wagged. Though her face was gaunt, she still cocked her brows toward sounds. When my daughter came home, she jumped up and barked happily.
Even while she shrank and shriveled, even while her flea collar could have accommodated a second neck, even while she lost control of her limbs and they folded in funny directions, all askew, and she couldn’t seem to readjust them, even when her shoulders hunched and she could barely heave herself to her feet, she watched, and sniffed, and cocked her brow ridges. Dogs never retreat into abstraction. They are all about the sensory world.
I sat with her all weekend. My students were working on pantoums and ghazals, and I wrote dreadful pantoum after dreadful pantoum, discovering the power of the form as a container for grief. Writing, like long walks with a dog, is about paying attention. And even in confrontations with my greatest fears, I was reminded of the way immersion in the moment could soothe and offer perspective.
We drove back to Buffalo, stopping at every McDonalds so my daughter could feed her hamburgers in honor of all the food that Mollie had stolen from her over the years. Mollie wolfed them down. I knew if she were still alive, she’d throw them up later, but at this point, what did it matter? At the animal hospital, we sat in a small room with her for two hours, feeding her chocolate kisses and saying goodbye.
The house was so quiet without Mollie. Less than a month later, I brought home Lorelei, a goldendoodle with some of Mollie’s Zen spirit and wild puppy energy. She leaps like a bunny through the ivy in my yard, the same way Mollie used to. She runs and runs and then collapses, instantly asleep. Sometimes she remembers to ring the bell when she wants to go out. Right now she is sleeping with her chin hooked on my slipper. When I take her outside she bounds through the yard with such delight that there are sticks, that there is grass, and ivy, and little pebbles, and snow, and crisp, frost-covered grass. It’s been years since I’ve been outside on a winter night. I’d forgotten about the wonder of walking through grass crunchy with frost. Or watching the moon peer steadily over my fence, framed by clouds.
Puppies are a lot of work, so I take back my earlier statement about dogs providing undemanding companionship. But even when Lorelei paws at my keyboard and deletes paragraphs, eats the bookmark right out of my book and loses my place, wants to go out when I’m halfway through a sentence, I stand by my belief that dogs are good for writers because they keep us grounded, alert, and observant.
Nancy McCabe is the author of six books, most recently Can This Marriage Be Saved? A Memoir. Her work has appeared in LARB, Newsweek, Prairie Schooner, Gulf Coast, Massachusetts Review, and Fourth Genre, with recent and forthcoming work at Manifest Station, The Brevity Blog, Entropy, Essay Daily, and Another Chicago Magazine. An essay at Salon.comwas named one of its Best of 2021. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and her work has been recognized eight times on notable lists of Best American Essays and Best American Nonrequired Reading. She directs the writing program at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, and teaches creative nonfiction and fiction for Spalding as well as online courses for the Creative Nonfiction Foundation.