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By Mia Kennedy May 6, 2021

A Dog Story

Every time I pass Charlie lying on his side, I stop to see if he’s breathing. When I’m certain his chest rises and falls, I keep walking. Whether I’m going to my room with a bag of fresh laundry or rushing out the door to catch my bus, I check. And every time, there is a split second when I believe he’s finally died.

He hasn’t been doing well. For the past few days, he hasn't lifted his head when I call his name. From dusk to dawn, he lies on the big pillow bed in the living room. My mom wrapped it with a Donald Duck towel, the one I used at the beach when I was little.

My mother’s losing her mind. She’s always had a terrible memory. We tease her about it. She begins a sentence and trails off, never getting to the final word. “Can you get me the…” “I can’t find my…” I’ve acquired a sixth sense to cope with it. I intuitively know what she wants and finish her sentences before she realizes that she’s trailed off. Almost every time, I guess right.

It’s gotten worse now. She presses the button on our coffee maker, but doesn’t put a mug beneath the spout, leaving a puddle of fresh coffee on the counter. Or she turns the oven on to roast some veggies but wanders off and leaves it heating the house for hours. And every time I call her back, away from her wandering thoughts, she smiles and laughs.

Charlie can’t stand on his own. Three times a day my mom spoons organic chicken and low-cholesterol kibble into her palm, lowers it to his face, and watches him eat. Afterwards, my dad pulls on his jacket, his boots, his hat, and carries him into the backyard. I see him hold Charlie with gloved hands through my bedroom window. Charlie shakes in the cold. My dad watches the dog relieve himself. Then, he brings him back inside.

My mom had me at forty. She’s a brilliant woman. A trailblazer in her field, she’s highly regarded by her peers and has been published in academic newspapers and magazines. Niche scientific communities regard her as a star, a leading woman. To me, she’s Mom. I worry something bad will happen if I leave her for too long. Instead of heating an empty oven, she might forget something on the hot stove. Who would save her then?

My dad turned sixty in September. Milestones are stealthy. Big birthdays creep, stalking you for months until the day comes and now my father is eligible for senior discounts. My dad, who makes bad jokes and cries at commercials, is sixty. He’s the youngest in the family. The man-child we tease and adore. Does sixty mean he only has twenty years left? Do I only have twenty years left of tight hugs from trunk arms? Of running down to the basement when I feel like my life is falling apart so he can piece it back together?

Charlie is nine now. He’s palm-fed and carried out to shit, but still isn’t getting better. It’s his heart. The trouble started with a murmur, a minor irregularity in his heartbeat. Then, the vets found all this fat in his blood. My mom’s grated parmesan over his dish bowl for years, feeding him pizza crusts under the table. She loves hard. 

I don’t remember the medical term. Was it “syncope”? Fancy word for fainting. When he gets excited, his heart beats fluid into his lungs. Then, he falls over. His limbs go straight and hard. My mom told me that sometimes he loses control of his bowels. That’s the yelping I hear late at night. My parents clean up instead of sleeping, but I can still smell it in the morning. And see it on my Donald Duck towel.

I’m more concerned for my parents than Charlie. He’s a good dog, but we got him when I was eight and I’ve never been in charge of him. I begged them for him. For years, I begged on Christmas, on birthdays, and I regret it.

Now, when he looks the worst he ever has, I can’t seem to care. I feel bad about it, of course, but my focus is elsewhere. I see my mom spending half an hour palm-feeding, mourning pre-maturely, her back curved over him like a weeping willow and I worry. I see my dad putting on his mittens and boots five times a day to take this dog out in a snowstorm and I worry. I see them reading the morning newspaper and drinking coffee, the bags under their eyes deepening and I worry.

Parents are praised for putting their needs aside to take care of their children. My parents won’t be rewarded for the late nights or the Sundays making dog food, the house smelling like boiled chicken. They’ll only get another grave in the pet cemetery. Another worn-out collar.

My parents told me that every time he faints, his heart grows. Getting a little bit bigger with every yelp and fall, it makes the episodes longer, more frequent and more painful. I imagine skin straining over a muscle filled with too much blood. It splits and fissures, cracking like a ripe watermelon. I want it to stop.

I heard my mom saying the same to my father. They shared conspiratorial glances before looking down at the dog, worried he understood. These days, Charlie gets more attention from my parents than I do.

My dad called my mom crazy once. We were on the way back from a ski mountain. My dad and I were driving behind my mom’s car. It was a busy street, cars were racing by, when she slowed to a stop. She had misunderstood a street sign, but the cars behind her didn’t know that. Piled up, they honked at her. My dad called her crazy for it. He was right to.

I want my parents back. I want them to sleep through the night. I want the towels to smell fresh, folded in the cupboard. I want my Mom to have her Sundays back and my father to take me hiking.

I pass him in the living room and stop to watch. His fur-covered chest rises and falls ever so slightly. My eyes become x-rays. I see the pink flesh bomb suspended in space, pumping within his fragile ribcage. Growing, growing. I watch it plump up, engorged and warm, as it nears his tiny sternum. I listen and wait for a pop.

Photo by author.

About the author

Mia Kennedy is your friendly neighbourhood tea witch. She's in her first year of Arts and Culture, writes for The Plant magazine as well as SPACE magazine and is amazed every time she sees her words printed as published works. Mia dreams of publishing a novel, working in a bakery / hat shop / tearoom and meeting Laurie Anderson. Her head's in the clouds, but her feet are planted firmly on the ground. 

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    September 6, 2021

    As soon as I read the first sentence I knew that this story would be one that I could relate to, and subsequently one that would bring me to tears. I used to check if my pets still breathing all the time as they were both old and nearing the end of their time with us. My dog had hip and liver issues and my cat either caught something from going outside or had untreated intestinal cancer. We only found this out after they had both passed. I had them since they were pup and kitten, and I was a toddler. So the emotional bond I had with them was intense, and it only made the whole ordeal worse.

    “I want my parents back.” Struck me the most. When my dog and cat were dying my mom was losing sleep, crying, doing everything she could to savour her last moments with the animals she considered her children. It’s a scary and emotional experience, and It must be even worse when you’re going through the same thing with the most important people in your life. My mom is young, she had me at twenty, so I still have a while before I have to start worrying about if Im going to wake up one morning without her; but with all of the issues and illnesses that run in my family, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a habit that Im going to have to pick up soon.

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    Sebastien Rempel

    September 7, 2021

    This is a wonderfully written article that perfectly illustrates the depth of human’s relationships with their pets. Although the article’s author, Mia Kennedy, describes the health problems faced by her family’s aging dog in excruciating detail, the focus of the piece isn’t the dog. Rather, the author’s parents, and more specifically their reaction to the family pet’s worsening condition, constitute most of the piece’s intrigue. The writer recounts the things her parents do to care for the sick animal, which include spoon feeding him and waking up in the middle of the night to clean up his waste. Additionally, the writer describes her parent’s increasing absentmindedness, which can be attributed to their pet’s deteriorating health. The fact that these people care about their dog this much, despite having no effective way to properly communicate with him, is a testament to the strength of the symbiotic relationships we’re capable of creating with pets.

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    September 8, 2021

    This article written by Mia Kennedy reminds me of my connection to my cats Inka and Nico. My parents adopted the two cats after school when I was 4. I was very close with them and would always play with them and I had a big bond between them. My cat Nico was in an accident when I was asleep one time and my parents in the middle of the night drove all the way to the pet emergency center and saved her life. I was asleep at the time but it must have been very stressful for my parents as they consider their pets kind of like children. The reason for the accident was she drank something from one of the cupboards which is poisonous to cats, till this day I always checked to see if everything is in place.

    Pets are not just pets but family to me and when my cat Inka died in my arms at the hospital due to a kidney problem, I was crying for weeks every day and till this day I get sad. I was at school when my cat got into her accident and for second time again, I was not with my parents during an accident however it was worse this time as my cat did not make it. I can relate to the authors point about not being there to help my parents as even do my cat was sick, I was only trying to think of happy things so it was in the back of my mind. It gets very sad when pets die however, I don’t regret getting them when they die as they were there during my life and will always remain in my memory forever.

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