The morning Pax died, I folded her body into our favorite summer sheet, a crisp white percale with pale green paisley print. As I carried her across the yard, I took note of her knobby spine, pressed my palm against her accordion rib cage. The last time to touch her, to carry her. My skinny bag of bones. Never could put on a pound. Jon, ever industrious, had already dug a grave for her next to Gray Cat. Maybe that sounds too practical but I found it a tremendous comfort. In the deaths of past dogs, I’ve been known to lay myself uselessly on the floor, sobbing for hours.
I couldn’t bear to just throw her in, so I staggered into the grave with Pax still in my arms. When I set her down, the weight of her body against the earth pushed the last sigh from her lungs. Even in death, she sounded tired and ready, which didn’t surprise me.
I touched her blindly, one last time, and somehow found her familiar, skinny snout, the shape of it a narrow comfort in my hands. Her nose was still damp.
We’re not the most ceremonious folks, but we both cried as we threw down the rocks and dirt fistfuls of burial.
She was a good dog, she was a good dog, she was a good dog.
I think I knew death was coming. I think she did, too. Yesterday afternoon a thunderstorm crackled over us on the farm and instead of cowering, she simply lay at my feet on the covered porch while I read. The storm lasted hours, violent and invisible in the clouds but for sweeping sheets of rain. The cats cried at the door until I let them out, and then they rubbed the whole length of their bodies across her calm face.
For months we’ve joked that Pax would live forever, but of course that couldn’t last.
She began wandering, for one thing. I often joked that she was not unlike an elderly resident in a rest home who ventures onto the street, looking for the bus. Last week while we were all outside, Pax slipped away from us and wandered a quarter mile into the cattle field for no apparent reason.
In August, I spotted her running full speed down the county road at twilight. I screamed her name — screamed, not called, because her hearing had gotten so bad — and she pivoted back to me with this sheepish smile like, “Whoops, sorry about that!”
Earlier this spring, she solo trekked eleven miles to Mayfield Bridge, where we pull out our kayaks after a lazy float down Indian Creek. The farmer who found her said she strolled past politely, pausing as if to say, “How do you do?” and continued on. He persuaded her to come back and wait in his truck while he tracked me down. She was delivered to me on a pink pillow, like a princess. She sat up in the passenger seat and the expression of her face was so good-natured and perplexed, like, “Gosh, what are you doing here?” that I couldn’t be angry or irritated.
These were all signs she was fading, but I tried not to think about it. We made light of her old age, her creaking joints, her wrinkled face. She was still happy and goofy. So much the same.
I found her via Craigslist ad and drove to Portland, Oregon on a whim, just to see. Maybe. I wasn’t sure. But when I first laid eyes on her six years ago, she rose immediately from the dusty backyard that was her temporary home (her original owner having passed in old age, she bouncing from family member to family member) and approached me with barely a greeting before jumping into my truck, across the front seat and into the passenger, ready to go. Ever the optimist. I hadn’t even agreed to take her. She took me. How typical. How splendid.
Pax, my fellow passenger, all of our good long days.
There were long winters in Minnesota, treks across frozen lakes.
God knows how many miles we walked on foot in woods, in parks, on city streets, across cattle fields, through Ozarks hollows.
We hiked part of the Superior Trail one summer, she swam countless times in the Mississippi. We slept in the woods of the Upper Peninsula in Michigan.
She bravely joined me in kayaks.
Once on a road trip to Portland, she hid her face in a Doritos bag while a thunderstorm raged around us. She did not eat a single Dorito. That was Pax, ever obedient, servile. She wanted nothing more than to please.
Oh, but she had her moments.
There was the time I left two steaks to thaw on the kitchen counter in my turn-of-the-century apartment in Uptown, Minneapolis. I came home that afternoon, bewildered by the appearance of a spotless plate on the floor. How had I managed to leave a clean plate on the floor? I wondered for hours. That evening, I remembered: the steaks.
Pax feigned ignorance.
She had a habit of sleeping on the couch when the house was empty, even though she’d been instructed not to. The moment the key turned in the lock, she leaped off in a clumsy thump.
Not me, she said, when you asked about the fur, the drool.
In Minnesota she had jackets for the cold, which she loathed. Also two pairs of boots–both black, one with thick rubber soles for the serious cold and another with sherpa lining. She never fought me when I put them on her, but she never helped, exactly, either, and wore the humiliation of it all on her disgruntled face.
In Missouri she took a particular delight in rolling in cow shit — the joys! — and so last summer I finally shaved her. She looked adorable and sprightly, though she was pissed for a few hours, but eventually that passed. She never could hold a grudge.
She had a long nose, like a greyhound, rank breath, one ear that bore the print of a gray leopard. One blue eye, one half-brown.
She tolerated our cats; they adored her. She was not afraid of the cows or the horses or the mule, and they knew it and paid her no mind. She especially was not afraid of the deer.
She spent the last three years of her life leashless on the farm. (What’s more satisfying than a dog free of leashes? Nothing. Nothing.) She protected us from raccoons, armadillos. Perhaps coyotes. She learned the swiftest path to the nearest creek, maybe a hundred yards from the porch, where Jon dug her two swimming holes for cool relief from the summer’s heat, and she often took herself down by her own accord. I loved watching her take that kind of initiative, so purposeful, so self-satisfied. She did that yesterday afternoon while I watched from afar. On the walk back, she tired before reaching the porch and lay in the cool grass while twilight settled around her. That’s the final image I want to remember her by.
When a pet dies, we like to reference a kind of wonderland doggy heaven for them — a place of open meadows and cool streams and hills and squirrels to chase. Pax had that in life on our Ozarks farm and she’ll have that in death, too. Under the cherry tree in our yard, her old body finally rests, but her ageless spirit roams free.
“She roved ahead of me through the fields, yet would come back / or wait for me, or be somewhere. / Now she is buried under the pines. / Nor will I argue it, or pray for anything but modesty, and not to be angry.” -Mary Oliver