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Final dog days

My dog Nemo just turned 16. According to the old Lorne Greene Alpo commercials “that’s like 112 to you and me.” People who meet Nemo often remark on his name. They assume we’re big Finding Nemo fans, but my Nemo is 11 years older than the motherless clownfish. He was actually named for the Winsor McCay comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland, which dates back to 1905. Much more his era, if you think about it in dog years.

And I do think about things in dog years these days. If Nemo were a 16-year-old boy instead of a 16-year-old neutered pit bull/German Shepherd mix, he’d have his learner’s permit, and he might’ve already lost his virginity. He’d be thinking about colleges, or maybe joining the military. He’d be on the cusp of life instead of contemplating what to order as the bartender shouts out “Last call.”  

That’s what we assume, anyway.

We recently took Nemo in for a checkup and were surprised — and a little alarmed — to hear the vet pronounce him healthy, speculating that our arthritic, incontinent, wizened old cur would be with us for “several more years.” We chalked up this sunny optimism to the vet’s inexperience. After all, I was her age back when my husband (then boyfriend) adopted Nemo in NYC. Maybe she hadn’t yet figured out how to talk to the owners of a geriatric dog. Maybe she didn’t know that we’d been down this road once before, and that it’s infinitely easier to have your vet unexpectedly diagnose your dog with terminal cancer, amputate her leg, and give her a few months to live than it is to watch your pet’s slow, inexorable deterioration, to be left wondering, Is it time? Is today the day? And know that no one is responsible for answering that question but you.

Nemo’s beginnings were Dickensian. Just 6 months old, he was tied to railroad tracks in the Bronx and left to die during a blizzard. But he didn’t die. He lived on to run with a tony canine crowd in Manhattan and to relocate to Texas, where he patrols a spread populated by creatures unfathomable to his junkyard-dog ancestors. He weathered various additions to our family — human, canine and, most disagreeably, feline. Through some weakness of character, an inner wimpiness that belies his bluster, Nemo tumbled down the pack hierarchy, but I’ve always considered him First Pet — irascible, quick to judge, friendly to few but devoted to the few who mattered.

Now we wait for the sign that will seal his fate. He moves slowly, creakily, but he moves. He skitters pathetically on hardwood floors, suddenly all ungainly limbs like Bambi. His eyes are glassy, but he can see. He’s nearly deaf, but still remarkably tuned to the frequency of the doorbell. Sometimes he refuses his food, but most days he doesn’t. He would never reject a cookie, though he rarely gets treats anymore. We don’t want to surprise his increasingly testy digestive system.

I haven’t seen Nemo’s longtime nemesis, our cat, lift a paw to swat him in more than a year. Does the cat feel sorry for him? No, I must remind myself not to anthropomorphize, especially now. Cats aren’t wired for pity. More likely he prefers some element of challenge to his sadistic pleasures — plucking cricket wings or slitting anole throats is probably more fun.

It’s hard for me to reconcile my old dog with this … old dog. At his peak, Nemo was a sleek coil of muscle. He had a way of prancing like a hot horse at the starting gate whenever the wind blew. His smile was wide, a shade demonic, and his eyes glimmered mischief. I don’t particularly enjoy his company anymore. I’m reluctant to pet him; he’s all dusty dander and clumps of oily fur. When the kids get down on the floor with him and bury their faces in his coat, I cringe and turn away. I don’t want them to see my repugnance; I’m glad someone still loves him for what he is right now and not for what he once was. But they’re catching on. My 2-year-old’s favorite sentence is “Eww, Nemo poops again.” And my 5-year-old likes to inform guests that “Nemo is very old and going to die soon.”

How soon? A second vet opinion was more guarded but still hopeful. I wonder if he’s going to make it to Thanksgiving, if I should book those plane tickets and arrange for pet-sitters or if I should just wait a little longer and see. Mostly, I want to ask him, “Is it time, Little Nemo? For the injection that will send you to Slumberland for good?” But when he notices me staring at him, he just wags his tail vaguely, as if to say, “You’ve known me long enough — figure it out.”


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