I awaken in the den, loosely covered in an old baby blanket. The television watches over me, its Netflix screen, courteously dim, reminding me that episode 5 of season 2 of Grace and Frankie is ready for me. For a moment there is just the den, a morning, a dim screen.
And then yesterday reminds the room of the quiet new way of the house. This, in our little world, is the new way. We are going to relearn almost all of our routines. How we get up in the morning. How we sweep the floors. How we head outdoors for a walk when we get home. How we place food on low tables. How we move slowly across the floor of a darkened bedroom. How we bend down without thinking each time we walk through the door.
Goodness knows we’ve complained about Kappi over the years. We nearly took him back to the breeder when he was very young. He would race across the field near our house, chasing our two boys, jumping up and locking his teeth in their hoody hems, bouncing along as they tried to shake him off. He nipped us constantly and chewed through our favorite shoes. His precociousness didn’t so much wane as wander as the years went by. I remember him jumping up and removing a chicken wing from the lips of a basketball player at our season-end party. The boy was nearly six feet tall. I remember Kappi jumping through a screened window as my bridge group simply stared, their fanned cards frozen.
But those are the brash moments, the ones that push to the front, crowding out the more everyday moments. The calm moments where Kappi lies sleeping on the couch next to you, his leg twitching as he dreams of rabbits zigzagging down alleyways. He was a dog who lay next to you, not on you. If he wanted to be touched, he would let you know. He always knew where everyone in the house was, at any given time.
He was fiercely independent and operated at a breathtaking pitch much of the time, but he was also capable of long stretches of laziness, morning-long naps on hardwood floors, looking up through half-open eyes as you stepped over him. There was the feel of Kappi’s tongue on your skin – the motherly gentleness of it, his one concession to gentility. You were more likely to see the galloping curl of his tail as he ran ahead of you at the ridge. Even in his last months, he would put his head down and charge up the pathways at full speed. Arthritis be damned!
Kappi loved the ridge at Silver Springs. Maybe it just seemed that way because I love it, and because I loved being there with him, watching him enjoy the cliffs that rise up out of the riverbanks. We would stand at one a lookout point and he would wander toward the cliff face, looking at me over one shoulder and sneaking over the edge. Pulling on the leash until I pulled back, afraid he would simply tumble down all those meters into the water. He would look up, surprised and slightly amused at my lack of confidence. My ridiculous, but loveable, aversion to risk.
One of the several trainers who worked with Kappi over the years asked me what his role was in the family. Role, I said. He’s our dog.
But think about it, she said. He plays a role in your family. You can tell me next week.
She was trying to use a compassionate touch-based form of training to rein in Kappi’s single-minded behavior. I never got around to responding to that trainer because that was her last day. She phoned later and gently suggested that Kappi was not well suited to a method based on the comforting laying on of hands.
But now, all these years later, I come back to her question and wonder about Kappi’s role. I have been thinking about it ever since we came home last night, all of us, and stepped across the threshold into this new, quieter house of ours. On one hand I feel a need to articulate his role but I am terrified to do it. What if his role was to hold us together? What if he was a small, blond bottle of glue? After all, didn’t he somehow give to us what we each needed, despite not being told what we needed? Was he not calm when we were calm (not always, but usually)? Was he not delighted when we were delighted? Did he not stand next to us with quiet respect, eyes lowered, when we were sad? Did he not bolt along the ridge when we felt energetic? Was he not, for the most part, exactly what we needed him to be? Yes, there were times when he simply demanded to be heard, or walked, or played with. But he gave of himself in an unquestioning, patient way, every day. How many of us can say that? He asked very little of us, when you really think about it. The least we could do for him last night, when the veterinary clinic called, was to rise from our various chairs, from our various rooms and homes, put on our jackets and hurry into our cars and drive through the snow – making small talk about snowstorms and cold and Halloween and years gone by – to the small being who played a mutable but irreplaceable role in our family.
What does one do when that small being comes to the end of his life? In our case, you do not feel resentment that he was cheated out of precious years. Kappi was 13 and he filled his days with an electric sort of energy that was impossibly charming even as it exhausted you. Perhaps he was so charming because he tempered that energy with the delicate softness of his tongue, or the mute press of his forehead against yours when he was tired, thankful, or frightened. Every now and again he would get a small stick caught in his mouth – he would grab a piece of wood from the ground, toss it into the air and chomp at it until it jammed itself sideways inside the roof of his mouth. This would set off a frenetic pawing at his face, a drooly tossing of his head, an angry rolling of eyes. The dog who was afraid of almost nothing was not okay with an intractable twig. It was not easy to insert your fingers into that mouth full of teeth and pry the offending bit of wood from his maw, but I would kneel on the sidewalk or path and work at the twig until the job was done. Afterward he would give his head a final toss as if to shake off the memory of such timbery insolence, and would move close to me, arranging himself so that his muzzle was near my face, and I would lean down, touch my forehead to his, and we would stay that way for a minute or two as the cars or bicycles or strollers or pedestrians drifted past.
We stayed that way as his panting slowed down to loud huffs, as the loud huffs slowed to long, regular breaths. I was never sure if he was saying thank you to me, or if he simply needed a physical respite before he could resume his independent way of being. It was as if he slipped out of his own skin and became a more vulnerable (more human?) being who needed something, someone, just for a moment.
So what do you do after your small chomper of twigs decides to give up the ghost? For now I will keep busy. I will tidy the kitchen, work on my dissertation, and tend to the laundry. This morning I went through my closet and removed the articles of clothing I wore last night at the clinic, and put them in the hamper. The black jacket I wore last night is covered in the finest, straightest of blond hairs. Not the long curving ones that Kappi would normally shed. In their last days, it seems, dogs drop their fur in new and distinct ways. These new hairs will appear on your clothing like unexpected snowflakes.
Kappi, when I picked him up and lifted him in and out of the car as we went from clinic to clinic yesterday, pressed his head against my jacket and left me with several reminders of his face. The hairs on his face were especially fine and petite; they have no doubt woven themselves indelibly into the fabric of my jacket. So I may put that article of clothing away for a time. I’m not sure what I will do with it eventually. I might come across it when I move from this house and see the blond filaments still pressed into the cloth. I might bring the jacket to my next home, even though I will never wear it again. Because, what do you do with a jacket so covered in such fine reminders?
Today, October second, the snow accumulates in a deep white blanket that has arrived rudely, like a dinner guest who has gotten the time wrong. It’s a day Kappi would have loved, rudeness and all. The Icelandic in him loved plowing through fresh snow, pushing his blond body through the soft but weighty flakes, the first to disturb the back garden.
As I watch the snow accumulate on the deck where Kappi used to sit, lie, eat, hunt, whine, bark and pant, I don’t know what to do with my hair-covered jacket. But maybe the answer will come to me later, once the snow is gone. Once you can see the planks on the deck, and realize they need to be sanded down and stained again.
In the meantime, I will apply myself to figuring out what Kappi’s role in the family was. The idea of him as a sort of emotional shape-shifter, bending to absorb our needs and desires, seems inadequate. He was selfless, certainly. He asked little of us, it is true. But he also lived life on his own terms, with his brash, devil-may-care attitude. He plowed through snowdrifts, gobbled down stolen steaks, barked until hoarse at squirrels. He lived in our home, inhabited each room equally, kept his sheepherder’s eyes on us and yes, he held us together. But he also showed us that holding people together can happen even as you challenge, plunge, howl, steal, plow and pant. Kappi, if he was the glue of our family, was always quintessentially, roguishly Kappi.
He was one of us. He was here. He was loved.