When we left my grandparents’ house on Christmas day, there was only one possible destination. Our family doesn’t readily depart from tradition or routine, and the schedule for Christmas has never involved midday excursions. We don’t go to the movies, we don’t go for walks, we don’t leave on a family vacation. We do write Christmas lists, though, and that year the first entry on mine was a puppy. Still, it didn’t feel real until we pulled onto the farm in Mebane and saw a litter of airedales jumping at the fence.
Mom and my grandfather had picked her out several weeks beforehand, and the people told us we were getting the cleverest, most curious dog in the litter. She didn’t have a name through the rest of that day.
We brought her back to the house and sat on the kitchen floor, my mother, my brothers, and me, each of us vying for her attention. When she got tired, we put her in her crate, not for the first time, which she protested, not for the last time.
Names are hard, and I couldn’t think of anything that sounded right, so we named her mom’s first choice.
Lizzie was quick to point out all the ways that our house wasn’t dog-proofed. The encyclopedias at the bottom of the bookcase had eminently chewable spines. Did you know that down comforters have feathers in them and that if you nibble at the ends, those feathers come out? Her favorite mistake to point out was how easily the corners of rugs could be flipped up, exposing the delicious carpet pad underneath. We kept finding pieces of it, even months after she arrived. All that curiosity translated to the most mischievous spirit.
We learned early on that she was not a cuddler. She didn’t like being handled or to even sit too close to somebody. She preferred to have her space. I decided this couldn’t stand, so I made a habit of grabbing her as she walked by the couch, pulling her into a bear hug. It was so clear that she hated it from the way she stuck her legs out perfectly straight to the noises she would make until I let her go. Other times, I’d flop down next to her on the floor and drape an arm over her, rubbing her belly and picking at her feet until she found cause to get up and retaliate. This was our game, where I would provoke her until she decided she needed to chew on my arms so I would understand my place. It was never hard enough to break the skin. Just a playful gnawing. That’s how we knew it was a game, though I could have done without the slobber.
She was a little more willing to put up with me, as time went on.
Just a little.
There were other ways she was a strange dog. She couldn’t stand to ride in the car. It was her at her most stressed, panting and refusing to make herself comfortable. She wouldn’t lick either. Some dogs will stand there and lick you until you make them stop, but Lizzie didn’t have a taste for it. If people were made of paper, it might have been a different story. That dog loved eating paper. Watch your napkin.
She’s the only dog I’ve known that would roll over on her back and sleep like that.
She wasn’t bothered by storms at first. There was a night a year or two after we got her when someone in the neighborhood set off fireworks or firecrackers. Something very loud outside the house that got her all shaken up. I came home to find my mother distraught that someone had ruined her dog. Thunder and lightning were a real cause for concern after that. The fireworks from the fair, too, if she heard them. As long as the storm lasted, she wouldn’t settle down, pacing about instead. She’d dig at the carpet, like she wanted to tunnel herself a bunker.
Mom never stopped buying her toys. She had dozens, though they had a high turnover rate. More than once she was given a toy that had to be taken away the same day after she destroyed it. We couldn’t have her eating the pieces. She loved (hated?) toys that had squeakers, at least until she managed to break or puncture the squeaker. Through trial and error, we found that a combination of those deer antlers for dogs as well as any toy that was specifically advertised as having high durability made for a lasting rotation. I maintain that I was her favorite toy, though. Whether we were playing fetch or keepaway, she would eventually decide it was time to tussle.
Lizzie loved to meet people. Part of being curious is being social, and she was compelled to greet everyone who crossed our threshold. It was pointless trying to train her not to jump up to people. How else could she have gotten the measure of them? She could tell if someone didn’t like dogs, too, and it was her mission to convince them otherwise.
Containing her ebullience wasn’t easy, and sometimes mom would gate her off in another part of the house just so a person could come and go. I took issue when this happened with family, though. Suddenly a visit from cousins or even my brother’s family meant that the dog had to be banished. I nicknamed her Saint Guinefort.
There were a few instances where she took to the streets to try and make friends with the neighbors. An airedale that doesn’t want to be caught is not one that you’re likely to catch. After that, she wore a collar bearing her name and mom’s phone number.
For as many ways as she was a joyous creature, I’ve always thought her default expression was rather melancholy. Something we have in common. She would often curl up on the floor or on the sofa and let out this prolonged sigh, and she had a way of cutting her eyes that suggested a deep longing. Maybe it was just the way she held her head, with her nose pointed down and eyebrows that bestowed her a permanent frown.
I turned 18 the day we got her and only had about 8 months before heading off to college. Then I got snapshots of her when I came home for breaks. It wasn’t until I graduated and then returned from a summer in Europe that we had the lion’s share of our quality time together.
After my grandfather passed away, mom and Lizzie moved in with my grandmother. Once I moved home, I took up residence in the basement along with the dog. She had free run of the house during the day, but at night she came downstairs. The door to the backyard was down there as well as her crate and the furniture she was allowed to get up on.
She would often start the night up on the bed but would quickly get down and go to her favorite spot on the sofa. The next morning, if mom hadn’t come down to let her upstairs, she would sit on the floor near my head and wait. Then whine, like a balloon leaking air. And then finally get up on the bed and bark.
Sometimes it was a ruse. She was a notorious seat stealer. I would let her out, then let her back in, and she would have beaten me back to the warm spot in bed where I was sleeping or the seat on the couch where I was sitting. This happened while I was hanging out playing games, too. My friends grew accustomed to hearing a single bark over mic, followed by me excusing myself to man the back door.
And going out was a game unto itself. When we moved in with my grandmother, they had a fence put up to give Lizzie a nice big area to run around in, and could she ever run. She loved to stay outside, lying down in a pile of leaves, digging holes, and sitting under the tree at the top of the hill to keep watch. After some time she would come to the back door and bark to be let back in, only once you got to the door, she would bolt, back around the side of the house. She would do it a few times or more, until she succeeded in luring you out. Then the chase was afoot. It didn’t matter if you managed to corral her or gave up and went back inside. Lizzie always won, no matter the outcome.
There was a period of a few weeks, probably 4 or 5 years ago, where she forgot how to go down stairs. She would stand at the top by the bannister and bark or lie down and mope until someone noticed. We gave her plenty of encouragement, but I was determined not to just carry her downstairs when this happened. I thought back to sending nervous kids down the zipline at camp and just sat behind her, giving her a gentle, persistent push. See, once she got going downward, it was fine. It was just that first step that was tripping her up for some reason. We wondered if her eyes were troubling her. They were slow to adjust to changes in light, so we made sure the lights in the stairwell were on whenever she needed to use them. It also could have been her feet slipping on the hardwood. Mom and Nana had carpeting put in on the stairs a year or so after I moved out, and I never heard about it again.
I remember mom texting me after I moved into my apartment that Lizzie was wandering around the house, looking for me. The door to the bedroom downstairs was closed, and she was lying down outside, waiting to go in. In the intervening years, I’ve heard many a tale of stolen napkins, extended adventures in the backyard, and all manner of mischief to suggest she was the same old mess. I was no longer in a place where I was letting her out, feeding her, playing with her, tormenting her, or exercising any sort of responsibility for her. For all the ways you might say she was not my dog, I could say without hesitation that I was her boy. You could tell that just from the way she greeted me when I walked through the door.
She had a growth on her back leg that we had been watching for a while. Earlier this summer, it opened up and started oozing, so mom talked to the vet and they decided to have it taken off.
After the procedure, the initial report was favorable, although Lizzie kept bothering the spot. It did heal, but I started hearing that she wasn’t eating much. Then one Friday afternoon in August, mom asked me to come over because the dog wasn’t herself. When I got there, mom was sitting on the floor next to her, and she wagged her tail and tried to get up, but it was clear her legs wouldn’t support her. This was her first bout of vertigo. It also happened to be a stormy night, and as the thunder rolled in, Liz became more insistent about getting up. She was shaky on her feet but wasn’t collapsing. I convinced mom to wait out the weekend so she could go see our vet and not an emergency vet. Each day after, she seemed a little bit better, but I had been rubbing her back and belly while we sat on the floor together, and I could feel every bone in her spine, every rib in her cage.
Dr. Brink, the only vet Lizzie has seen for 12 years, thought it was probably a bad reaction to some flea medication she was taking, but she had another episode two weeks later and this time her eyes were bouncing side to side. She made it through that weekend, too, and the vet prescribed some anti nausea medication and an appetite enhancer. When I went over to visit labor day weekend, her bones seemed even more pronounced.
My friend’s parents asked me to house-sit for them once, which entailed going over and checking on their cats throughout a weekend. They had two, a young siamese and an old black cat. The black cat was ancient, and petting her felt like rubbing a skeleton clad in smoke. She has long since died, and my friend’s parents moved away, but you could not convince me that cat doesn’t still prowl the neighborhood, appearing every now and then in the windowsill by the kitchen.
Cats have the capacity to haunt, but dogs
Dogs must be allowed to rest.
We call the living room at my grandparent’s house the Christmas room because it’s where the tree goes and it’s where we open presents every year. Yesterday, I was sitting on the floor in there, stroking Lizzie’s chin. She was panting, and every breath was a struggle. But her diaphragm kept going, like a bellows. She had given my mother permission to make the call, but she was also determined to be there with me, with us, until the right time.
There was a large fleece blanket folded into a dog bed on the floor that Lizzie had ignored. There’s a sofa and a loveseat in there, too, but they were blocked off, as they had been ever since we moved in with my grandmother. It always bothered me that my Christmas dog wasn’t allowed a seat in her own room. I doubt she much minded one way or the other.
While I have this impression that many people have taken lockdown as the perfect opportunity to bring home a puppy, these times have not been kind to my family. My brother Sam’s family had to say goodbye to their beagle earlier this year, and my aunt and uncle put their dog down last week. Have you even lived in 2020 until you’ve wept into your mask?
Yesterday felt as long as a day can feel.
Ten minutes before we had planned to leave for the vet, Lizzie stood up, ready to go.
I sat with her in the backseat for the calmest car ride she had ever taken.
While she relaxed on the table, we stood around her, my mother, my grandmother, and me. I held her paw while they rubbed her head and shoulders, and I was struck by how much she would have hated this. All these people in her space, loving on her. It would have been enough to make her grumble and flee the room. And if it was just me doing it, we would have had to wrestle. But she lay there, drifting off, at peace.
Her paw was still warm when I let go.
It has been a year unlike any other. Everything feels as though it has been upended, and it has. My world already feels vanishingly small, and a piece of it is gone now.
Carolina’s Queen Elizabeth has left us. We shall not see her like again.