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Charlie's Gift (Revised)
I recently revisited and revised my essay, "Charlie's Gift" for a public reading at the ROUGH AND READY show. Here is the essay I read.
Charlie was the family dog. But he was widely considered to be my dog.
He joined our family in the spring of 1972,when I was still living at home. Long after I had moved out, however, I still came by and took him for long walks in the park. He was always ecstatic when he saw me, and he jumped up and down, with his tongue hanging out of his mouth, his eyes glowing with happiness.
If I looked at it objectively, however, Charlie got excited when most people came by to call, and he usually seemed excited in much the same way.
But logic was never part of my relationship with Charlie. How could it have been? He was a sweet, neurotic dog, a golden-haired, perfectly proportioned cocker spaniel, big enough to be manageable but not small enough to be crushed underfoot
Charlie was a gift from my mother to my father. He was a purebred, as my mother liked to say. But one so pure that he was very highly strung. He had some odd habits. As a puppy, he liked to chew on our toes as we sat at the kitchen table, and as an adult, he had a strange obsession with my father's feet: he would lick them. This was done for the salt, my father used to explain, although I think it was because Charlie knew who was the boss in our family, and it was his way of toadying up to him.
My father and I would often have disputes about Charlie. Not about his care but about more esoteric things. Like do animals think?
The debates would often start after the dog had, in my mind, demonstrated “thoughts.” For instance, there was the time when my father and I noticed Charlie on his favorite couch in the kitchen, sleeping but growling. "He's having a bad dream," I said.
“Dogs don't dream," my father replied in his best Mr. Know-It-All tones. "Dogs don't think."
This idea became a running gag with us, a kind of programmed mantra, in which I would argue for Charlie the thinking dog, and my father would take a Skinnerian position that dogs just reacted to external stimuli.
(It got to the point where I once sent my dad a clipping for a book that postulated that cats had the ability to think. "Proof!" I wrote in the margins of the clipping.
"For cats maybe," was my father's reply, "but it doesn't say dogs.")
Certainly, if Charlie could think, he would have thought twice about the present my father decided to give him one Christmas: all the food he could eat.
Charlie loved to chow down, and he always ate his breakfast or dinner in the same way: fast. He could finish his half-a-can of horse meat in 30 seconds flat (we timed him once) and was usually still hungry after that.
On Christmas day, sometime in the late 1970s, my father said, "Charlie, we'll give you all you can eat."
The dog eagerly downed his first half-can; then, with surprise and apparent joy, he went on to his second half-can.
By the time he had reached two-and-a-half cans, however, the formerly skinny dog was bloated and moving much slower.
“It’s cruel,” said my mother. “The poor dog will eat until he explodes.” And even my dad had to concede that the gift had become too much of a good thing.
We stopped the eating then. And Charlie was pretty miserable for the rest of the day: because he was now so heavy, he could no longer jump onto couches the way he used to; he would try and then, frustrated, sit on the ground growling.
We suffered, as well: Charlie was usually taken for a walk three times a day. But that Christmas, we had many additional “emergency” walks. When you gotta go, you gotta go.
My brother, Peter, and I sometimes had disputes about the dog. One night, I was coming home and I noticed Charlie tied up outside The West End, a neighborhood bar.
In a self-righteous mood that does me no credit but was typical of the cruelty of teen-aged older brothers, I unleashed the dog and took him home.
“That'll teach Peter a lesson," I thought smugly.
It was a lesson in sadism, I think. For my brother, who had just stopped into the bar briefly to look for someone, was shocked to come out and find that Charlie had apparently been dog-napped. He searched the neighborhood frantically, most of the time in tears, before coming home to discover the dog safe and sound.
“I hope this teaches you a lesson," I said, sounding a little like Miss Gulch, the spinster schoolteacher in The Wizard of Oz.
Peter started yelling at me and we both were soon shouting loud enough to bring my father out of bed.
"What's going on here?" he shouted.
We explained. My father, in true Solomon-like fashion, scolded us both.
"Peter, you shouldn't have gone into the bar and left the dog tied up. That was irresponsible.
“And Tom, you shouldn't have taken the dog. That was cruel."
Peter sat in silence, accepting the verdict.
But I tried to have the last word, "In my heart, I know that I was right," I said.
"Who are you, Barry Goldwater?" my father asked, referring to the conservative Senator’s campaign slogan, “In your heart, you know he’s right.” (To which someone once added: “In your head, you know he’s nuts.”)
Charlie lived with us for ten years. As he approached his tenth birthday, he started to show signs of being unwell – not eating his food for one thing. So, Peter took him to the vet, calling me up afterwards to say, "It doesn't look good for Charlie."
After an examination, it turned out that the dog’s kidneys were malfunctioning and the vet had to insert a tube in the dog's paw to flush him out twice a day. For the treatment, the dog stayed with the vet for one week. Although he was apparently responding well, the dog was apparently miserable sitting in a cage all day. The doctor told us that it would be better to let him go home and die.
I went and fetched him, and the doctor warned me: "He should be alright for a while, just don't take him for long walks that might tire him out."
I brought him home, and then left without seeing anyone. Peter arrived soon after and he was so ecstatic to see the dog that he took him for the longest of long walks, running him up and down hills with joyous abandon. Up one hill. Down another. Faster and faster, with the dog running breathlessly after my brother. Until finally, the dog collapsed. Peter thought he had killed him, but Charlie had simply fainted.
He would faint often after that, passing out for a few moments and then getting up again as though he were normal.
When we had brought him home, the doctors had given the dog a week to live. Charlie outlasted their predictions by six months. My mother, taking pride in Charlie’s confounding of the experts, would introduce him to our guests as "Charlie, our dog who is officially dead."
The vet saw him frequently, puzzled at the dog’s ability to keep going, and my dad once reported to the doctor on the dog’s condition: "Some days the dog feels good, other days not so good. Just like the rest of us."
But the poor little dog – who it turned out also had a heart murmur – couldn't outrun his fate for long. One day, he just stopped eating, and then didn't even want to go for a walk. Listless and, quite unlike himself, he sat curled up in a ball, unwilling to move or speak.
Sadly, my father and I took him in a cab to the vet.
"What if we have to put him down?" I asked my father. "He trusts us. And we would be killing him."
"He trusts us to do what's right for him," said my father gently, no longer arguing about whether Charlie could think or not. "He trusts us not to let him suffer."
He stayed at the vet’s, then, and the next day I talked by telephone with the vet who said that we should end the dog’s life. "I think he is suffering,” said the doctor. “But, of course the final decision of what to do is up to you. We can talk about it when you get here.”
On the bus ride to the veterinarian, I agonized about the decision: should I or shouldn’t I? How could I order the trusting little dog’s death?
Ultimately, however, it was a decision I didn't have to make.
For Charlie, just moments before I arrived, stood up straight and tall, let out one yelp, and then collapsed in a heap. Dead. He apparently didn't suffer much – and I always think that he didn't want me to suffer much, either. For after a lifetime of my taking care of him, Charlie had done his best to give me one final gift, and he took care of me.
Revised May 22, 2012