Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Revenge of the Rabbits

Two nights ago I found myself sitting on the cold kitchen floor hand feeding soggy kibble to my puppy. Not exactly how I’d planned to spend my evening. The wind howled outside, it was a frigid negative 10 degrees (according to the temperature gauge on my car), and I had a nasty cold that had settled in my throat and made me sound just a bit like I could have been the love child of Bea Arthur and Darth Vader.

I’d planned to curl up by the fire with a mug full of Theraflu and knock myself out, but, alas, it wasn’t meant to be. Capone the Wonder Dog was having a bad night.

He hasn’t been enjoying the weather, a brutal gift from Siberia, which is kind of a surprise. Labrador Retrievers are designed for the cold. They’re bred to haul fishing nets out of the icy North Atlantic, but I can’t even get my Lab to take a poo in the backyard without a lot of urging and promises of treats and belly rubs.

I asked Steve Moore, owner of Brown Dog Java (and also the owner of Capone’s grandfather, Alfie) how to know if it was too cold outside for a Lab. He said if they lift up all their paws, it’s too cold. I thought he was joking, but I actually saw this happen today. Not simultaneously, but Capone lifted one paw at a time, let out a whimper, and charged back to the house. I don’t blame him. I was ready to go back inside, too.

The trouble started with dinner. Usually dinner is a big event for Capone. Usually food in general is a big event for Capone, but dinner holds a special place in his heart. I don’t know what he’s thinking, but I imagine it’s somewhere along the lines of “Happy, happy, food, food, happy, happy, food.”  Every mealtime I fill his Bob-A-Lot (an interactive dog food dispenser) (don’t judge me – it buys me fifteen minutes of quiet time in the morning to have a cup of coffee), and just let him go. Tail wagging, he happily rolls the Bob-A-Lot around the kitchen floor and feasts until the Bob-A-Lot is empty and the fun is over. But today he didn’t. He just looked at it and…sighed.

“Something is very wrong,” said my youngest. “Call the vet.”

I watched as Capone nibbled gingerly at the bits of kibble on the floor. He seemed hesitant to bite them, which was a little strange. He usually sucked them up with the intensity of a Dyson. But Capone just wasn’t his usual starving self this evening. 

“I think he’s teething,” I said. “It would explain a lot. Like the biting. And the chewing. And the various poo issues.”

“You’d better call Patti,” said my youngest.

Patti is a friend who owns one of Capone’s uncles, Clancy, and knows everything there is to know about Labs. Honestly. If a person could earn a PhD in Lab training and behavior, Patti would be awarded an honorary degree.

Patti stopped by the next day after work to make sure Capone didn’t have an abscess or a dental issue. He greeted her, tailed wagging, and acted pretty much like himself. As soon as she left however, things got worse.

I’ve heard the term “explosive diarrhea” before, but I thought it was hyperbole, like “greased lightning” or “raging hormones.” I found out that "explosive diarrhea" was pretty much spot on in describing exactly was Capone was able to produce. It wasn’t an exaggeration at all.

It went on all night. One in the morning, then four in the morning, then seven.  I’d decided to cut Capone off from food after he barely ate his evening meal, but by morning he had no interest in water either. I fed him a steady diet of ice chips until the vet opened at nine.

Of course Capone had to get sick in the middle of a snowstorm.  It would have been far too simple for him to have explosive diarrhea on a pleasant, sunny day. We shoveled the driveway, packed him into his travel kennel, and hit the road (or at least what we could see of it) with our sample of fecal matter double wrapped in garbage bags in the back seat. Fortunately, it was a short trip. We really did not want to experience the explosive power of Capone’s bowels while trapped together in an SUV.

The vet, after checking Capone’s poo and finding blood, suggested an x-ray. “Just in case he ate something. Like a sock.”

This was not beyond the realm of possibilities since socks were one of Capone’s passions. His other passion was shoes. In all honesty, Capone is passionate about anything he can stick in his mouth, especially if it will result in his favorite game, “Chase Capone Around the House.” It now takes two people to catch him, trap him, and get whatever he as stolen out of his mouth. He’s become very wily.

As we waited for the x-ray results, I was actually kind of scared about what would show up in Capone’s belly. I thought we’d been pretty cautious, but he was fast and he was determined. I imagined the kindly vet looking over his glasses and shaking his head in disappointment at me. I also pictured a collection of assorted objects in his belly. Keys. Rusty nails. Paperclips. Ginzu knives.

It was a huge relief when all the x-ray showed was gas. A lot of it. “What did Capone eat? He definitely ate something he should not have.”

This time the vet did look over his glasses at me. I just stared at him, unable to answer for a moment. This was a very complicated question. I started making a list in my head. What did Capone eat or attempt to eat in the last few days?

1.     A used tissue
2.     A cardboard box
3.     A roll of toilet paper
4.     A dried up worm that he found in the garage
5.     A thermometer
6.     My socks
7.     My sons’ socks
8.     My neighbor’s socks
9.     Shoes belonging to everyone in our family
10. Shoes belonging to everyone who visited our house
11. My glasses
12. My hand lotion
13. A pillow
14. My glove
15. A blanket
16. The newspaper (a daily event)
17. A book on dog obedience
18. Rabbit poo

Since the rabbit poo was the only thing he actually ingested, I went with that one. “He does eat a lot of rabbit poo.”

The vet raised one slightly judgmental grey eyebrow at me, putting me immediately on the defensive. “I don’t encourage it. Sometimes he’s just sniffing in the snow and comes up with some. I guess it kind of does look like his treats. He’s also been nibbling on the bushes in the backyard. And the frozen moss that grows between the bricks on our patio.”

The vet shook his head. “None of this is good for a dog. I can’t say for sure what caused it, but we’ll need to treat it immediately.”

After a shot of anti-nausea medicine, a prescription of antibiotics, four cans of special food, and a bill that was roughly same amount we paid to purchase Capone, we drove back home. My husband poured a large glass of wine.

“This is not how I planned to spend my weekend,” he said. I felt bad for him. He was only home for a few days, and spent most of it shoveling snow and caring for a sick puppy.

"It's almost like the rabbits planned this," I said. "Like they were plotting for a way to get even at me for accidentally running over their nest last spring."

Capone went straight to his water bowl, happily lapped up water like he hadn’t just been on the verge of dehydration and death, and proceeded to rub his wet face all over my husband’s leg.  “Well, at least he’s feeling better,” I said.

My husband didn’t respond. He just quietly reached for the bottle and poured some more wine. 

                                My youngest with Capone after his long afternoon at the vet's.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Minnie and Martin

My grandmother is in a nursing home right now. She had one fall, then another, and needed physical therapy. She’s almost ninety-four and this is to be expected, I guess, the fragility and slow decline, the forgetfulness, poor health, and scary phone calls to let me know Grandma is in the hospital. Again.

I went to visit her today, bringing along a photo album she'd made for me years ago. It’s filled with photos of me. Only me. I was the first grandchild, the long awaited girl after having three sons of her own. We sat, looking over the faded photographs, and every so often Grandma’s roommate would turn and look at us with a smile.

"It's nice you brought pictures," she said. "It helps."

"It was my mom's idea," I said. "To help Grandma remember."

“Don't worry,” she said. “She's doing well here. Really well.”

Minnie had been in the nursing home for over a year. “But I’m leaving on Tuesday,” she said, her blue eyes bright. “I’m moving to Lancaster. I have family there. It’s five hours away, but we’ll have to stop for lunch. I hope the roads are okay.”

She cast a worried glance out the window, at the icy roads and piles of snow. “It’ll be fine by Tuesday,” I said. “I’m sure of it.”

She gave me a grateful smile, and that's when I noticed the photos on her nightstand. A wedding portrait. Snapshots. A black and white photo of a man in uniform standing next to a younger, brighter, happier version of Minnie.  A small picture of the same man, shirtless and with his hair mussed, proudly holding up two fish. Minnie stood behind him, looking over his shoulder with a mischievous grin on her face and a twinkle in her eye. They looked young. They looked happy. They both looked kind of sexy.

“You look beautiful, Minnie,” I said. “And what a handsome man.”

She picked up the photo and smiled down at it, tracing the outline of his face with one gnarled and trembling finger. Her blue eyes were distant, thinking of days long gone by.

“His name was Martin,” she said. “He was my husband.”

Martin had dark, curly hair, olive skin, and a small, narrow moustache that must have been the style back then. In the shirtless photo he was kind of buff and his hair hung down around his face. He looked like a pirate or a gypsy. Someone a bit wild and lots of fun. In the photo, Minnie’s hands were pale and delicate on his tanned shoulders. Her lips were painted a bright red and she had a deep dimple in her cheek. Both of them had the sort of personalities that leapt out of the photo, grabbing your attention and holding it. The photo only captured a moment in their lives, but it was a happy moment, full of raw joy and love.

“He looks like he was a lot of fun,” I said.

Minnie nodded, her eyes still on the photo. “He was.” She looked up at me, her eyes coming back into focus as she put the photo back on her nightstand. “He died more than fifty years ago.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said, and I meant it, even though they were such ineffectual words in the face of so much pain. Fifty years without her Martin. 

I sat next to her, not sure what else I could say. She pulled out two more photos from under a blanket on her bed. One was of a laughing Minnie. The other was of Martin, taken in profile, wearing his army uniform. He looked serious, his wild hair slicked back and combed into submission. The photos were in beautiful frames and she handed them to be proudly, pausing first just to look at Martin, telling me more about her life with that one gesture than a million words could say.

There had been no children. Minnie had nieces and nephews who sent her packages from California and called her every week from Florida. She’d outlived her sisters. She outlived her friends. And she’d outlived her Martin by half a century.

Minnie tucked the photos back under the blanket and I stood to return to my grandmother, but I took one last look back at the photo of Minnie and Martin and the fish.

“He must have been a really lovely man,” I said.

She nodded. “It was his heart. There is nothing worse than a bad heart. He was sick seven years before he died.  I hope your grandmother’s heart is okay.”

I looked at my grandmother sitting quiet and still in the wheelchair in one of the appliqued sweatshirts I’d given her for her birthday. She was looking through the photo album I’d brought and giggling softly to herself. She had a pacemaker and congestive heart failure. She had heart trouble of her own, but as Minnie stared up at me with her clear blue eyes, I just smiled.

“She’s fine,” I said. “Just fine.”

“I’m packing my things,” she said. “I’m leaving on Tuesday. It’ll be better in Lancaster. I have family there. It’s hard to be here. I’m alone, and there is nothing as bad as being alone. Nothing at all.”

“Good luck on Tuesday,” I said. “We’ll miss you.”

Minnie smiled, patted my hand, and went back to looking at her photos of Martin.  Later when I talked to my sister, I told her about Minnie.  She’d met her the week before.

“She told me she was going to Lancaster last week, too. I don’t think she’s actually going anywhere,” she said. “I think she might be there for the duration.”

The duration. She’d endured fifty lonely years, and now there was more to endure. I got the impression she was just tired of waiting.

I write romance. It’s what I do. I love brave heroes and spunky heroines, and there is something about Minnie and Martin’s story that both touched my heart and then broke it, too.

Sometimes the best romances have no happy ending. Not in a Romeo and Juliet sort of way, but in a Minnie and Martin way. A love that lasted in sickness and in health. Through childlessness and war. A love so bright and pure that its loss was mourned for fifty long and lonely years.

I’ve been thinking about Minnie and Martin all day, and the more I think about them the more questions I have. I want to know how they met. I want to hear about their first date. Did they go dancing? Did they travel? Where were they when the caught those fish?

And as much as I hope that my sister is wrong, that Minnie will be in Lancaster surrounded by her family on Tuesday, part of me selfishly wishes she’d stay just a bit longer and tell me some more.


Saturday, February 7, 2015

Puppy Preschool: Not a Raging Success

 The winding road to the dog park is lined with trees and snakes its way gently up a mountain. On the way we drove past a lake designed just for dogs, complete with a pier. I imagined glorious summer days filled with Capone frolicking in the water as I sat sipping a mint julep or something. We parked the car in a snow-covered lot nestled beneath pine trees. The dog center looked picture perfect, perched on the very top of the mountain, surrounded by miles of trails and woods and wonderful places to explore.

I had such high hopes. My youngest two sons had joined me, in spite of the fact that it was awfully early on a Saturday morning for teenagers. We were all bound and determined to do the best for our dog, and this seemed like the perfect place to start.

Capone leapt out of the car and looked around, tail wagging. Every car that passed paused and the drivers couldn’t help but smile at Capone. He is an awfully nice looking dog, and there is something so pretty about a black lab with a bright red collar and leash against a backdrop of white snow and pine trees. It was like a painting, probably one found in a hunting lodge in a place that included plaid curtains, velvet chairs, and portly men smoking cigars.

Walking up to the center, Capone was thrilled to greet the other puppies. Most were around his size and age, and I imagined a solid hour of nothing but fun and some rollicking puppy play for him. He was a little…enthusiastic…but not more than the other puppies his age.

We walked into the center and Capone sniffed around in joyous anticipation. I began signing him in, handing the receptionist Capone’s vaccination record and the forms I’d brought with me. I was so proud because I’d been organized enough to fill them out ahead of time (3 sheets, single spaced, with over 50 questions). Part of it felt vaguely like a psych eval from the NSA, and I began questioning my answers. What were my goals?  I had no idea. I just wanted Capone to learn to obey me, for his protection and for my own happiness.  

We got in line to sign in, waiting with all the other happy puppies. The receptionist perused my paperwork with a frown. “Are you here for obedience class?”

“No. Puppy Preschool. We have our two orientations and interview for obedience class next week.”

“Oh. You’re signing the wrong sheet. Sign over here.”

 We walked away from the line of happy puppies and towards the sign up sheet with only one other name on it. This was not going to be the crowded group of happy puppies I’d imagined. This was going to be a one on one with Capone and a 10 week old lab.

As all the happy puppies pranced down to obedience class, we were directed towards a large silver table and told to wait. An older couple with a tiny black lab joined us. The man smiled and fussed over Capone. He wife wasn’t quite so entranced. She had very thin, penciled-in eyebrows that rose to her hairline as soon as Capone tried to greet her puppy.

“Oh, my. What is his name?”


Her nearly non-existent eyebrows rose even higher.  “Really? Our puppy is named Luke. After the apostle. We named all our dogs after apostles. Matthew, Mark, John, and now Luke. It’s from the Bible.”

“How nice,” I said. “I guess we’ve got both saints and sinners here today.”

Even though her eyebrows made her look perpetually surprised, I could tell she thought that was funny. She giggled until her husband let Luke get on the floor with Capone. Then all the laughter stopped.

I thought Capone did well. At first. They approached each other tentatively and sniffed with wagging tails. Then a dam burst somewhere inside Capone and he had a sort of love eruption. He began sniffing Luke so aggressively he knocked him over.

“Oh, my,” said No Brows. “Pick Luke back up.”

Her husband guffawed. “They’re just playing…”

No Brows wasn’t having any of that. “Pick. Him. Up. Now.”

I should explain, although Luke was 10 weeks old, he was the runt of the litter (the evil breeder switched puppies on No Brows, I heard the whole story - so did the trainer, the groomer, and every innocent bystander). Luke weighed 18 pounds. Capone, 6 weeks older, was exactly 22 pounds heavier.

By the time the instructor arrived, I was starting to sweat. He asked if we had any questions before we got started. No Brows placed a dainty finger in her chin.

“Luke likes to bite my calves. I tell him ‘no’. Is that okay?”

My sons and I just looked at each other. We hadn’t done an official count, but we told Capone ‘no’ about ten million times a day.

Even the instructor looked perplexed. “That’s a good way to handle it, but make sure you sound like you mean it. You don’t want the dog to think you’re playing. You have to be firm.”

My sons and I nodded at each other. We’d been doing something right. We were definitely firm when we said, ‘no’ – and loud.

Luke was back on the floor and Capone struggled to get close to him again. I raised my hand, even though we were the only two sets of dog owners in the place. “How do I know what’s appropriate when he’s playing with other dogs?”

The instructor looked at my boys. “It’s like when your boys get into a fight. You stop them before anyone gets a bloody nose, right?”

Three jaws dropped. I think Capone’s may have dropped, too. I wasn’t sure what to say. What kind of family did this man grown up in?

He let out a sigh. “Let both of them go and see how they interact.” 

I looked at the instructor in surprise. I had the leash wrapped around both of my hands and I was leaning back as far as I could to keep Capone from climbing all over Luke and squashing him like a bug.

“Let him go?”

He nodded. “Just let go of the leash, both of you.”

No Brows didn’t look convinced either, but we both let go at the same time. It was not a raging success. Within seconds Capone was on top of Luke and Luke had curled into a submissive little ball of black fur.

“Capone. No!”

He knew I meant it. I spoke very firmly that time. He took one look at me and darted out to the reception area, nearly knocking over a cute little girl in a sequined skirt.

“Puppy!” she squealed.

“I’m so sorry,” I said to her dad. He just laughed.

“We have a big dog, too. It’s okay.”

We brought Capone back to the Puppy Preschool area and were met with accusing eyes.  Capone had reached a frenzied state of puppy overload at the moment. He was low to the ground and sniffing, pulling me back and forth.

“Look at him,” said No Brows. “He so crazy. And Luke is so good. We named him after one of the apostles.” She nodded at the instructor and he nodded back at her.

“Dogs eventually live up to their names,” said the instructor sagely.

Oh, crap. No one told me that.

He asked me to lift all 40 pounds of Capone onto the shiny silver table. He proceeded to clean his ears and pretend to clip his paws, talking the whole time. “His energy is off the charts. He needs to learn how to behave around other dogs. He needs social skills to understand appropriate behavior.”

He looked over his shoulder at dogs in the outdoor play area. A spaniel jumped on another dog and proceeded to hump it.

“He belongs out there.”

I felt tears prick behind my eyes. “Are you saying he’s a bad dog?”

He looked shocked. “No. He’s a good dog. He just needs to spend more time with dogs his age. He needs to be corrected so he can learn the right way to behave.”

Capone snuggled close to me and licked my neck. “He’s not a bad dog.”

Ever since we got Capone, I knew we were embarking on unknown territory. We’d never had a puppy. We didn’t know much about dogs at all, but we were trying. And so far Capone was pretty good about 95% of the time. Not bad for a puppy with off the charts energy levels.

We went to the scale and it took Luke several tries to understand he had to sit on it. Even then he didn’t really cooperate. It took three people feeding him treats for him to stay. Capone hopped up and sat down right away.

“He hopped right up,” said the instructor. “Good boy, Capone.”

I mentally stuck my tongue out at No Brows. Capone positively preened.

“He knows ‘sit’, ‘stay’, ‘lie down’, ‘come’, and ‘off’.”

As soon as I said, “Off,” Capone stepped off the scale. The instructor was impressed, and victory tasted so sweet.

At the agility training, Capone kicked Luke’s hairy little butt again. He walked up and down ramps and steps and different surfaces with ease. He was an agility genius.

“He’s doing well for his second week,” said the instructor.

“It’s his first week,” I said, a little smugly.

I couldn’t resist smirking at No Brows. Luke kept forgetting what he was doing and turning around in the middle of the obstacles. It was hard not to laugh at the expression on her face.

“The breeder gave me the wrong puppy,” she said to the instructor.

“Our breeder gave us the right one,” I whispered under my breath. My son giggled.

Suddenly, it hit me. Puppy owners were the canine equivalents of Dance Moms. The bragging, posturing, and competitiveness was (like Capone’s energy levels), off the charts.

A woman came in with four white Westies. She scowled at me when I said, “Hello.” After our class, we took Capone to the dog walk area to relieve himself. She came out with first one dog, then another identical dog. I smiled and tried again.

“It’s like déjà vu,” I said. “Weren’t you just here with different dog?”

She didn’t even look at me. “I have no idea when you saw me last.” She turned on her heel and went back into the center.

Whoa. The Wicked Witch of the Westies.

“People are snobs here,” said my son. “Dog snobs.”

“There were nice people here, too,” said my other son.

We’d be back in a few days for our orientation, then for obedience training, and eventually for Doggy Daycare. Capone chose that moment to squat under a pine tree.

“Good dog,” we all said at once.

                                   Capone exhausted after his fist day of Puppy Preschool.