Lessons from Phoebe

It’s impossible to think about Madroño Ranch without thinking about its critters, both wild and domestic: bison, feral hogs, chickens, wild turkeys, aoudad, deer, geese, snakes, raccoons, porcupines, fish, and dogs.

On some days at Madroño, when the wind is exactly right, it’s especially easy to think about dogs, since we can hear the cheerful chorus from Kinky Friedman’s wonderful Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch, right next door. We think that Nancy Parker-Simons and Tony Simons, who run the place, may actually be saints, and our kids have always loved visiting them and meeting the dogs they care for so lovingly. But the dog I associate most strongly with Madroño is Phoebe, our elderly black Lab mix.

In some ways Phoebe (pictured above in her younger days) has a better claim to the ranch than any of us, since we suspect she was born near the place. We found her out there twelve years ago, a tiny puppy no more than six weeks old, lying by the side of the road with a broken back leg; we don’t know if someone abandoned her because of the leg, or if she was orphaned first and then injured. Even though we already had all the dog we thought we needed in Daisy, a wonderful golden retriever mix, we brought Phoebe back to Austin with us; she was so small that she spent the trip curled up on a bandana on the back seat. Our vet thought for a time that her broken leg might have to be amputated, but we elected to wait and see, and remarkably it healed almost completely on its own (though now that she’s older it has gotten quite arthritic).

Despite the Dickensian start to her life, Phoebe (or “Little Black Dog,” as we also call her, though she eventually grew to a healthy fifty-five pounds) has proved to be faithful, affectionate, trusting, and resilient in the face of adversity—very like a Dickensian protagonist, come to think of it. When our children were little and we were still doing the family car trip up to Colorado every summer, we used to take her along and smuggle her into whatever motel we happened to be staying in to break up the drive, a bit of skullduggery that always tickled the kids. We also used to stop at a drive-through burger joint and buy her a “plain and dry” hamburger as a special treat, though she was usually too shy to actually eat the thing while we were watching. When we needed to break up the monotony of the long drive, we’d stop at a school playground or public park, and the kids would coax Phoebe up the ladder of the slide; she’d perch at the top, peering down the slide, her brow furrowed, before gallantly sliding down on her bottom. (She even negotiated the twisty slides, though they weren’t her favorites.)

She’s also quite vocal, and her repertoire includes a startling number of grunts, sighs, and groans. When our youngest was taking piano lessons, Phoebe would sit beside her while she practiced and make odd noises—we were never sure if she was complaining or trying to sing along. And when we return home after an absence long or short, we can always get Phoebe to tip her head back and start howling by saying “Hellooooooooo!” in a sort of Julia Child-like voice.

As the kids grew up, we stopped making those long family drives every summer, which I’m sure was a great relief to Phoebe. After Daisy died, we acquired other dogs, all of them mutts (we’re firm believers in hybrid vigor): first Honey, a fluffy light-brown-and-white Bernese mountain dog/chow mix (or so we guessed) who died a couple of years ago, then Chula the Goggle-Eyed Ricochet Hound, whom we imagine to be some sort of hyperkinetic blend of pit bull and whippet. As Phoebe got older, she began to slow down and her eyesight began to fail, and these younger interlopers frequently drove her crazy. Honey used to like to nip at Phoebe’s hindquarters, apparently hoping to goad her into moving faster. Chula is constantly galloping back and forth, sometimes in pursuit of her woobies, sometimes just for the hell of it, often bumping Phoebe on the way by.

Old age is definitely not for the faint of heart. Now that she’s completely blind, her once-brown eyes filmed over with white, Phoebe never seems to know exactly what’s going on, but she bears it all cheerfully, or at least resignedly. She’s memorized the layout of our house, and even though she occasionally bonks snout-first into doors or chairs or table legs, she never seems particularly bothered, even by collisions that make us wince in sympathy. And we warn her loudly every time she approaches steps, whereupon she slows down and feels cautiously ahead with one front paw until she finds the change in floor level.

I know that Phoebe will feature prominently when Heather writes about her adventures tromping around Madroño with dogs, as she promised to do in an earlier post; Phoebe was Heather’s main walking companion for years, since none of the rest of us could keep up with her. The most heartbreaking aspect of Phoebe’s blindness is that we’ve had to start leaving her behind when we go to Madroño, because there are so many things for her to fall off or into out there. When the sad day comes, however, we will scatter her ashes out at the ranch, the place she has always loved best.

As if her bum leg and blindness weren’t curses enough, she’s also been diagnosed with Cushing’s disease, a disorder of the pituitary gland, and thyroid and liver problems. All these conditions mean that she has a lengthy and complicated regimen of medications, so she gets a slice of wienie larded with various pills twice a day. (We also try to slip her a sedative when we sense a storm coming on, since she’s always been panicked by thunder.)

She has borne the indignities and infirmities of old age with unfailing good humor, and remains a fundamentally optimistic soul, always ready to go on walks (greatly curtailed these days, in deference to her general decrepitude); a few months ago, in fact, as I took her on her morning constitutional, one of our neighbors commented on how much Phoebe and I resemble each other, now that we both have a certain amount of frost on the pumpkin, as the saying goes. Her appetite is still robust; she always cleans her bowl at breakfast and dinner, and she loves her twice-daily wienie slices. She puts up with the occasional overflows of affection from various cats, and occasional body slams from the overenthusiastic Chula, without complaining. She still breaks into what we call the Happy Butt Dance whenever we scratch the base of her tail. She is, in short, one of my real role models as I too edge reluctantly but inexorably into senescence.

She’s still a really good dog.

What we’re reading
Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone
Martin: Michael Pollan, A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams

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