The Dog Days of Living

Just before midnight, my cousin, her owner, is asleep at a hotel in Florida that does not allow dogs, but is so luxurious that she would leave Holly in New Jersey under the care of a 21 year old.

The Dog Days of Living
Photo by Markus Winkler / Unsplash

by Kelly Notine

Holly has her first seizure the day after Christmas—Kwanzaa if we’re being technical—just before midnight.

Maybe that’s not true.  Holly has her first grand mal seizure the day after Christmas—Kwanzaa if we’re being technical—just before midnight.  She may have been having absence seizures for months, misdiagnosed as laziness, the natural ‘zoning out’ that dogs adopt when living among toddlers.

Just before midnight, my cousin, her owner, is asleep at a hotel in Florida that does not allow dogs, but is so luxurious that she would leave Holly in New Jersey under the care of a 21 year old.

Have you ever watched a dog die?  Not die with immediacy, not die in the corporeal sense that you watch their eyes glaze over, heave their last labored breaths with them and sag with their corpse.  But die as in the them that exists inside of a brain inside of a skull inside of a head of a sentient being, them die before their body gives out.  Look in their eyes and their gaze is miles away from you, and despite your eyes straining, know that the two of you are looking at different horizons.  Hold a treat under their nose but it might as well not be there.  Have you ever watched that death?

Animal hospitals are not open in the middle of the night because veterinarians are people and people need sleep.  Animals don’t have emergencies at night.  They know that the hospital is closed and simply wait until morning.  I lay next to her in bed as she sleeps and I wait for an hour when emergencies are acceptable.  I watch the clock as she watches the inside of her eyelids.

Engulfment is not a feeling but a condition.  ‘Engulfed’ is not an emotional state but rather the past participle of a word.  Still, as I browsed Youtube for videos of “dog flailing” and “what does a dog seizure look like,” being engulfed was the closest thing to feeling.  The belly of the beast that is 4 a.m. next to a dog who you check to see is still breathing every ten minutes is hard to describe as anything other than engulfing.

Supposedly, grand mal seizures are characterized by a loss of consciousness and violent muscle contractions.  But I can’t help but think that as Holly thrashed on the hardwood, her claws scraping up the finish without knowing it, coughing a white something out of her mouth, that she had been more present in her body at that moment than she had been in months.  She moved like she was alive.

Dogs can show preliminary signs of seizures before loss of fully bodily control happens.  Excessive drooling, bumping into objects or skewing to one side as they walk.  Most people pick up on these symptoms retroactively only after a grand mal seizure has occurred.

The next morning, my cousin gives consent for a “Do Not Resuscitate” order over the phone, while my mother and I hold Holly’s leash for the vet tech in a parking lot shared with a Starbucks and Indian speciality market.  I choke back sobs when really what I want to do is scream at her.  Holly doesn’t deserve this.  She doesn’t deserve to die in a room surrounded by strangers, wondering why the people who raised her aren’t there.  Wondering why there aren’t any toy dinosaurs on the floor, why her tail isn’t being yanked or her eyeballs poked.

Not even a month later, Holly will be put to sleep on a Monday morning in the living room of a house she’s occupied for less than two years.  My cousin and her husband will pet her as her eyes close to never open again.  Their sons will be at a friend’s.  They will leave the house with a dog and return without one.

Her dog beds go out with the trash on Tuesday morning.

A dog whose collar once tightened around her throat, but now dangles at her shoulders, wobbles towards me.  The boys are giggly and anxious to tell me that Holly wears diapers.  It’s funny because diapers are for babies, and they’re not babies, they use the Big Kid Potty, but Holly has accidents and needs baby diapers.  Anyway, Kelly, do you want to play Hungry Hungry Hippos?

I pet a dog who is Holly in name only and pretend not to hear my cousin discuss quality of life in the adjacent room.

Holly’s second seizure is the morning of the 27th.  After sleeping through the night, she quietly climbs off the bed and lets herself smack the hardwood.  I yell for my mom, or for help, or for God knows what.  I yell for anything that will listen to make it stop.

When dogs seize, you cannot touch them; you risk injury to yourself or them.  What an owner should do for their pet is sit near them, talk to them in a calm voice until it passes.  Owners should coo to their dogs in the minutes of limb paralysis that follow, look in their panicked eyes and calm them in ways only they know how.  But I am not Holly’s owner.

My cousin and her family call her Hollybean, “Beaner.”  I don’t know how to tell them that they call the object of their affection a slur for Mexicans, that they can’t just go around Madison dropping that term lest they want a swift backhand from any member of the huge Latino community in town.  But who do I tell to stop?  Do I tell the phone of mine that still has foam from her mouth crusted to the screen?  Do I tell the pounds of mail order dog food that will sit in the freezer indefinitely, “Holly’s Mix?”

I am reminded of a play assigned to me my senior year of high school in which two men wait indefinitely for a mysterious someone, maybe a god of sorts, who never arrives.  There is no timeline in the play, no days or nights; time is all at once nothing and everything, because the waiting is the thing to be done.  The men wait for Godot on word of a promise to come that is never fulfilled.  All we, as the audience, can do, is wait with them.

Like the men, the dog food will wait for Godot.  In my own life, I will wait for a Godot of some sort, not because I’m religious but because waiting is active, ongoing and to stop would mean to accept that whatever I’m waiting for will never arrive.  I will put blind faith in a ‘he’ who won’t come today, but he sends someone to tell me that he is definitely coming tomorrow.  Holly will definitely be better tomorrow.  She could have definitely gotten better tomorrow, if the vet wasn’t selfish, or if the vet hadn’t prescribed her allergy medication, or if I hadn’t let her pee on lawns where they sprayed pesticides, or if they kept her on anticonvulsants, or if—

Even Godot isn’t equipped to treat cancer.

Months earlier an obedience trainer tells the family to stop feeding Holly tablefood.  It’s correlated to her anxiety and dog aggression, or something like that.  So we eat pizza and she woefully looks up, expecting a crust that won’t be delivered.

I should have given her a crust.  I should have given her a goddamn rotisserie chicken if that’s what she wanted.  An emaciated dog in her last days should be allowed a little bit of pizza crust.

I had watched Holly once previously, spring of 2021, in the midst of my semester.  Until then, there had been a dog shaped whole in both my heart and the foot of my bed, and Holly wiggled herself in.  At night I talked to her about the boy I was in love with, the anxiety I had about him.  I talked to her, and even as she faced away from me in the dark, I knew her eyes blinked in affirmation.  I felt her love in her need to be pressed right up against me as we slept.  We watched the same sun dip into the same horizon out the window.

The younger boy cries when he bonks his head for the umpteenth time on the same part of the counter.  As snot and tears dribble out of his orifices, “I want Holly to lick my face” dribbles out too.  A room full of marines would not have been equipped to diffuse a bomb of that size.

The dog that never slept in his bed is the one who he wails for in the middle of the night.  Crib sheets suddenly feel heavy with the weight of her body, indented is the space she didn’t occupy.

The older boy says dogs go to heaven and so Holly is in heaven along with Zoe and Maddy and all of the other family dogs that have died.  Rubbing her ‘booty’ across the big carpet in the sky.

My father is the only person I know who grew up with dogs and yet hates them.  But when I insist on bringing Holly down to the house on Christmas day, coercing her into the car because she thinks she’s going to the vet he acknowledges her with a softness so rarely displayed.  “Hello, dog.”  A wiggle of fingers in her face.  “You stink.  You have fleas.”  She and the fleas that don’t exist look at him and yawn.  His lip almost curves up on one side.

There is some radiance to Holly that is attractive to even the most disgruntled former dog owner.  She is a listener and observer through ears and eyes so full of non judgment that her presence—her lying on a dog bed in the corner of the room, following any and everyone to the bathroom—makes a room lighter.  Her presence alleviates the pressure to reject simplicity in lieu of greater things.  Things will still be there later; for just this moment, be still.

Upon picking her up from the animal hospital, Holly is smiling, as much as dogs can smile.  A pandemic means we had to abandon her at the door, and when our reunion comes, she lunges towards the car and settles in the backseat, a sort of “Thank you for coming back but if you ever do that again I’ll fucking kill you” kind of settled.  My mother is too consumed with having our girl back, so I talk to the discharge nurse.  Anticonvulsants twice a day, with food.  She’ll be bloated from the IV and need to pee more frequently.  Their tests showed nothing wrong with her bloodwork, and so she must just have epilepsy.

Driving the hour back home, I look over her discharge forms again and again.  “Her birthday is June 8,” I tell my mother to soak up the silence.  “We should plan to get her a little pupcake or a bag of tennis balls.”  My mother nods, because the only fathomable thing after witnessing the unfathomable is to consider what toys she would like for the birthday she doesn’t know exists.  Party planning begets recovery, implies certainty that time must continue.

Holly has her first grand mal seizure the day after Christmas—Kwanzaa if we’re being technical—just before midnight.  The me who wakes up startled at her thrashing body knows more perhaps than the me that mourns her being put to sleep.  She’s just gotta make it until morning.  We’re all just trying to make it until morning.

A 2022 college graduate with a B.A. in English and psychology from Drew University, Kelly has been writing since childhood.  Fixated on the themes of grief, mourning, and the Gothic, many of her previous publications in high school and college literary magazines explore what it means to love and be loved as a woman, and the emotional burden of femininity.  Unsurprisingly, much of her analytic writing deals with similar topics; her 2020 paper "Haunting the Pages and the Screen: Translating the Gothic in Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House" exploring grotesque mother/daughter relationships was published in Volume 14 of The Drew Review.  As of late, Kelly has stumbled into a job in social media marketing, yet her passion for literature and critique of gendered roles still bleeds into her daily work (for better or worse).  She resides at her childhood home in New Jersey and spends her spare time writing dribbles on feminism and mental health.