The Quimby Years: An Essay by Amy Shearn

Mourning turns you into a crazy person. Everyone learns this sooner or later, and that fall I got my first real turn to live it. The day before she died I heard someone read a Rilke poem on the radio – “Let this darkness be a bell tower / and you the bell.” – and it was like my spine was unzipping from my body. I found myself running melodramatically from my cubicle at work, unable to hold myself together, going to the church across the street from my office to light a candle, and weep in a pew.

Now mind you, this is all slightly ridiculous because for one thing, I’m Jewish, and for another thing, my ailing loved one was, well, my dog.

Quimby was truly a crazy dog. Once someone asked me, “Can you talk to her? Is she your friend?” I laughed. No, she was not that kind of dog, not exactly. I mean, I loved her, don’t get me wrong. We spent many, many evenings cuddled together, her head on my neck in what seemed like a sweet gesture but was probably her trying to smother me. She was a wild creature, an erstwhile farm stray we somehow convinced to act domesticated-ish. She was a leaper, a chewer, a pouncer, a growler, a leash-tugger, a thing-ruiner. Quimby, destroyer of worlds.

And yet. The death of a pet collapses time, creates an intense spotlight on a certain chapter of your life. It’s now an identifiable fifteen years: The Quimby years. The years in which I had my first post-college jobs, went to grad school, started my adult life, got married, had children.

From the beginning, she had been a symbolic dog. My husband and I had gotten Quimby together at the very beginning of our relationship, not long after my husband had been working in the World Trade Center on 9/11. We were shaken. We were in our early 20s, fresh out of college, and it seemed as if the world were collapsing around us. Suddenly there was war and recession and it seemed clear none of the actual grownups knew what to do any more than we did. It seemed clear, in fact, that there were no actual grownups. We couldn’t quite parse it. This was not how we had expected our lives to go; this was nothing like what we had planned. In this vulnerable state we walked into an animal shelter, and walked out with Quimby.

Having a terrible, wild dog was, in retrospect, an apt way to enter adulthood. We had all kinds of ideas about the dog we would have – Soulful! Noble! Brilliant! We pictured offleash frolics, carefree hikes, a nearly human companion. Instead we got a tornado on a leash. Of course, live long enough and you realize nothing in life turns out just how you imagine – the career path you’d pictured turns out to not exist, relationship are harder than you think, life is more expensive than you’d imagine, and when you have kids, they are not the mini-Boden catalogue cutouts you imagine but beings with minds of their own. They are, in fact, wild creatures.

Quimby was diagnosed with a heart condition when she was about 14, and given an uncertain diagnosis. She chugged along, a little less energetic than before but still seemingly immortal, accompanying us on summer trips to the beach and countless walks in the park. Then one day I noticed an odd protrusion on her dewclaw. My husband and I shrugged – this was the dog of many ailments, the dog who had literally eaten glass the first day we had her and been completely fine. We assumed the puffy dewclaw would fix itself. It didn’t. When we finally took her to the vet, he told us it was a tumor.

The paw was the beginning of a precipitous decline. The vet gave us a painkiller for Quimby on top of the heart meds she already took and suggested surgery to remove the dewclaw, a biopsy of the tumor, and possibly surgery on her heart as well. It was one of those conversations that’s really hard to manage without seeming heartless. “Ah, we don’t really want to put her through surgery,” I said. “She’s almost 16. She has a heart condition.”

The vet cheerfully ignored me. “Dogs do very well with amputated dewclaws! If she survives the anesthesia, she should be fine!”

The dog limped around for a few more weeks, but her heart condition worsened; she was barely mobile, and her breath was labored. I spent nights on the floor with her as she restlessly wheezed and coughed, the first signs of congestive heart failure. I’d read that dying this way feels like you’re slowly drowning. I put my hands on her, wishing I could make her comfortable.

In those last days I paid so much attention to the dog’s body, to her paws and her stomach (which had always been sleek and now looked distended and swollen), to her velvety ears and her crooked tail, which we hadn’t seen wag in a while. Her paws had always had a lovely crackery smell, but her claws had always given us trouble –black and thus hard to trim, and so generally long and clicking across the floor, and in her younger, more annoying, I mean exuberant, years, perpetually scratching the legs of us and any guests foolish enough to visit – she was one of those jumping dogs, and we were those plaintive, apologetic owners. It made sense, somehow, that her paw was giving us – her – trouble once again. Her limp became more pronounced. Her breathing got worse.

In the days after we put Quimby down, I swore I could hear her tapping around the apartment. I understood that the ghostly black shape curled up on the floor next to my bed where she used to sleep was actually my husband’s sweatshirt, carelessly dropped. I knew that the indent in her favorite, dog-fart-scented couch spot was just a trick of the cushion. But the sounds were weird. The tap-tapping, like Quimby was in the other room and had heard a chip bag uncrinkling – that sense that she was always just about to walk into the room. It was haunting.

I said this at the time, and I still think it: Quimby’s last day was just how I would like mine to be. She had a slow walk in the sunny park. Although she hadn’t eaten for days, she managed some bacon my husband hand-fed her. How’s that for a last meal? At home, she lay in her favorite spot while we all petted her and told funny stories about her. Then, a very nice vet came, gave her a shot, she went to sleep, and that was that. It’s the peaceful ending I think anyone would want. Especially the part about the bacon.

Did we want to keep her ashes? The vet wanted to know. Oh no, no. Wait. Maybe? At the last minute my husband decided we should. We turned the other way as they took our dog’s body out the door.

The sadness remained, overwhelmed even. How could I feel so sad about this irascible animal? My husband and I told the kids stories of all the funny things Quimby had ever done – all of which were terrible. She’d eaten this, she’d destroyed that. She’d once jumped on a table of eggs at a farmer’s market! She’d caught a pigeon out of the sky! And yet. She’d been so sweet to our kids. She’d dealt with so much ear-tugging and tail-yanking. She’d stood cocking her head at me when they cried in their cribs. Kind of judgey, I often suspected, but maybe also…caring?

Two weeks passed, and it began to seem more normal. I wasn’t a person with a dog anymore. Ok. Quimby wasn’t alive anymore. Ok. It was like I had to practice it every morning to remember what was happening. So this was what we were doing now. Ok. We were all, actually going to die, but – ok. We had things to do, busy lives.

The kids were sad but also, kids. My 5 year-old son asked, “Hey, can we get a puppy?”

My 7-year-old daughter was more world-weary. “Why would anyone get a dog, knowing it’s just going to die?”

Right. What I couldn’t say to her: The same way we all go on every day, knowing we are all just going to die. Crashing on through the woods protected only by our basic trust that the worst won’t happen to us, or those we love, because if we thought too clearly about it, it would be too much to bear. And because we have things to do. School, work.

For example. I had a reading to give. I didn’t feel like it, but I had agreed to do it, and I thought it might feel good to remember the part of me that was a writer and not just a sad person.

I left the kids with a sitter, swiped on some lipstick, and headed out into the cold winter night to go to the reading. But first, I saw some packages for us in our building’s lobby. One of our wackier neighbors – ok, so she’d long passed the threshold from wacky to plain crazy – had been going through people’s Christmas packages, so I thought I’d better take ours back up to the apartment before I left. Another neighbor got into the elevator with his dog.

I didn’t know this dog well, but I knew it was a bit wild. Quimby had been a rowdy dog in her youth, and I felt a chime of sympathy for the man and the dog both. Maybe now I would be one of those friendly dog people, I thought. That was a good idea! We weren’t getting a new dog anytime soon, but maybe I could be one of those inveterate dog-petters! The man and I exchanged pleasantries and I reached out to let the dog sniff my hand. She snapped, digging her teeth into my palm.

I staggered back. I had never been bit by a dog, by anything. What was this? Blood welled up in the punctures and slashes; within seconds my hand was swelling and throbbing. I backed out of the elevator, in shock. “Are you okay?” asked the man.

“I…don’t think so?” I said.

Ice, bandaids, ibuprofen, and I didn’t know what else to do so I just kept moving, went to the reading with my hugely swollen hand. I felt faint, in shock. At the reading I played the story for laughs, but concerned friends convinced me to go to urgent care and get a tetanus shot and antibiotics. Ok, so this was a thing I was doing now. Ok.

It wasn’t until later that night that I thought: my left hand. I was injured on my left hand, near my thumb. Like Quimby had had a tumor on her left paw, on her dewclaw. I couldn’t sleep, tossed and turned, growing giddy. Had the neighbor dog sensed some weird dog-energy around me? It was some sort of sign – some sort of weird canine-related sign – but what? To stay away from dogs? Or – ?

I got up to get a drink of water, had to stop myself for the millionth time from refilling Quimby’s non-existent water dish. I’m an unpracticed insomniac – sleep is usually my specialty. What did one do? I finally thought to look at the packages, the ill-fated box I’d been bringing up in the elevator when I was bitten, stacked now by the door with a couple other days’ worth of pre-Christmas-boxes I’d been too dazed to process.

On top of the stack of boxes was a smallish, heavy one without an Amazon label – with my name and address scrawled in Sharpie. From the vet.

Oh.

It was Quimby.

Her ashes. Her body. All that boundless energy dissipated, somehow.

My shredded palm pulsed. I recalled another line of that Rilke poem about the bell tower: “As you ring, / what batters you becomes your strength.”

Someone said to me recently that we see in our dogs what we want to see, that we map our preferred traits onto them.

Quimby, well, she resisted that impulse. Instead she showed us which of her traits we often ignored in ourselves. She foreshadowed for us the ways in which life is not predictable, the way children and spouses and even countries are untamed forces. Maybe that’s part of why we invite these creatures into our lives, our homes, our elevators, our beds. We all have wild and unpredictable parts of ourselves that we work hard to domesticate, but that occasionally lash out, escape the boundaries, break the rules.

So much of life, as it turns out, does not obey commands.


Amy Shearn is the author of the novels The Mermaid of Brooklyn and How Far Is the Ocean From Here. You can find her at amyshearnwrites.com or @amyshearn.

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