Life, in Dog Years
My father always pampered his pets. So when he fell ill and moved in with us, it was no surprise that his corgi came to rule our home. What I didn’t expect was for Trilby to care for me after Dad was gone.
Trilby at the author’s Houston home on February 25, 2019. Photo by Matt Rainwaters.
My father came to live with my husband, John, and me when he was 86, after he took a tumble on our stairs and broke his hip on Thanksgiving Day 2013, just before 26 of our friends were set to arrive for dinner. The fall was probably fortuitous, because his memory was already slipping, and leaving him alone in his apartment was becoming increasingly challenging. John, who often knows me better than I know myself, noted that we were facing down one of life’s toughest choices: either I could constantly race back and forth between our home in Houston and Dad’s place in San Antonio or he could move in with us. “I like living with my wife” was the side John came down on.
We could have hired a full-time caregiver in San Antonio, which probably wouldn’t have done much to alleviate a life on I-10 for me, or we could have moved him into an assisted-living facility. But my father had made it very clear in his lucid years that doing so was something he feared more than death itself. While recovering from a car accident some years ago, he had called my mother at 5 a.m. to beg her to break him out of a rehab hospital.
And so, in the way that many women’s choices tend to come down to the needs of others, the decision wasn’t ultimately mine. I knew what my husband wanted, and I knew what my father didn’t want, and somehow in that calculus our living room seemed like the best place for someone who surely did not have long to live, hip fractures being notorious killers of the aged. Most of our friends were puzzled by this decision. I tried to look on the bright side.
When I was growing up in San Antonio, everyone seemed to know my father, and everyone who knew him seemed to love him. He was tall and lean, with a killer smile and an old-world manner, the king of please and thank-you. Well into his eighties, he still had most of his hair and a snappy goatee, which made nurses do double takes when they spied his birth date on his medical chart. He came from a family that made men’s clothing and married into one that sold it, so he was always a snazzy dresser.
Although my father was a warm man, he was not a demonstrative one with his children; he graced my brothers and me with unconditional love, but he was also reserved and had a shyness that was close to impenetrable, a border wall protecting a beautiful country no one was allowed to visit. Here, then, was an opportunity. I could make sure the time Dad had left was spent in safety and comfort, while we connected on a deeper level.
Martha Stewart would have been impressed with how quickly I converted the living room into a spare bedroom, thanks to Pottery Barn and the medical supply store. Of course, Dad did not come alone.
My father had been smitten with dogs ever since he got his first cocker spaniel, Jeff, as a boy. “I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t love dogs,” he used to tell me, and he wasn’t kidding around. A passion for canines was a human decency barometer for Dad, and because he was at heart a shy man, he also sometimes used our pets as bodyguards and interpreters. If Dad said a dog was tired or hungry or even angry, he might mean that he was tired or hungry or a tad pissed off, which was as mad as he ever got. The most famous example of this was when, having had too good a time at my brother Ed’s wedding, Dad said he and Mom had to leave to walk the dog.
So when Dad moved in with John and me and our two golden retrievers, we also had to make way for his nine-year-old Welsh corgi, Trilby. Corgis, originally bred for rounding up cattle, are famous for their herding abilities, but in modern times have also been known to steer humans to their proper places, especially when they don’t know where to turn.
Last year, my middle-aged cousins hosted a family reunion because we were all tired of meeting at funerals. One of the scheduled events was an examination of and intervention for the Swartz descendants and their pets, the idea being that it was time to admit that, while all of us had turned out okay, dysfunctional pet rearing had been pretty consistent throughout the generations. My cousin Josh kicked off the discussion with a slideshow featuring his many rescued street dogs—snarling dogs, dogs with oozing lesions.
We then shared memories of Inky, my grandmother’s poodle, whose soiled-tennis-shoe aroma most of us could still conjure. There was also her taupe-colored cat, Taupie, who expanded over time to resemble a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade float. It turned out that obesity-inducing snacks from the dinner table were routine within the family. So was sharing pillows with drooling canines. Supposedly, before he succumbed to cancer, the last words of my uncle, who had married into the family, were “Get this damn dog off my bed.”
The author’s dad with her two golden retrievers.
My father, it turned out, had inherited this genetic predisposition for unusual pet parenting. Before I was born, my parents had a black cat that liked to perch atop the toilet tank and wait for unsuspecting male guests to get started, and then take a swipe. Then there was a basset hound named Janet who suffered from persistent mange and whose skin had to be scrubbed daily with a stinky solution on a toothbrush. We also had a Great Dane, Chapa, who once left a Stephen King–like scene in a hallway after wagging his scabby tail against a wall and sending blood spewing everywhere. A Lhasa apso, Pushkin, a “gift” from my father’s boss, ended up with shameful dreads due to a lack of grooming. And there was Kelly, the Airedale terrier rescue who permanently traumatized my nephew with her don’t-come-any-closer-kid growl. We even had several generations of semiferal cats, as well as a higher-born Siamese that eventually found a new home at a fancy restaurant nearby. (We had reunions on holidays, when we dined at the restaurant.)
At some point my mother tired of being not just the children’s disciplinarian but the pet despot too, and the dog and cat population declined, mostly after all three kids had left home. But just like empty nesters who begin to crave grandchildren, my mother and father started longing for a dog after they sold our house and moved to a high-rise condo. Mom had the idea that raising a puppy was something she and my father could do together in their golden years.
She’d been married to my dad for nearly five decades, so she was well acquainted with Dad’s tendency to assign her the role of bad cop. She didn’t want a pet who would slowly destroy the apartment if someone (like her) didn’t train it. Nor did she want a big dog that might knock her down while leaping for a treat, presumably held in my father’s hand. She also—whether she would say so or not—wanted a dog that would love her at least as much as it loved Dad. This remains one of my clear-eyed mother’s craziest fantasies.
Mom got on the internet and tirelessly searched for the ideal dog breed for a couple in their late sixties, one that also complemented their personality types and who could meet the pet rules of the condo association, which decreed a strict weight limit of thirty pounds. As part of her research, Mom even took an online quiz. Its sensible questions included, Do you live in an apartment? What is your activity level? What’s your tolerance for pet hair? Barking? “I’ll be happy with whatever you choose” was my father’s response to her Herculean labors.
I recently tried to reverse engineer my mother’s ultimate choice from all the What Kind of Dog Is Best for You? tests. I kept coming up with dachshunds (too nippy) and beagles (no one is that bark tolerant) and something called a Finnish Spitz, which looks like a mini chow chow with a pointy nose. None of these dogs would have worked because, in truth, my parents were a little snobby. I suspect they wanted a nice-looking, smart, somewhat eccentric dog whose sociability ebbed and flowed depending on the circumstances—kind of like them.
Which is probably why they ended up with the dog that consistently took second place in my tests: a Welsh corgi, described on the American Kennel Club’s website as “affectionate, smart, alert”; “among the most agreeable of all small housedogs”; and a “lively little herder who is . . . companionable without being needy.” I’m not sure that my mother ever realized that she had found what might be, for Dad, the perfect second wife.
As it turned out, my parents ended up with a male puppy. Female corgis have a reputation for bossiness, explained Mom, who had developed a highly sophisticated early warning system for competition. They named the dog Wesley, after, I imagined, some long-lost aristocratic relative we never actually had. He was an adorable pup with reddish-orange and white markings, no tail, and relatively long legs that gave him a jaunty step. Within just a few months, Wesley affixed himself to my father with a fierce, undying loyalty all too familiar to my mom. As for the rest of us, Wesley could barely be bothered. As time passed, I began to wonder whether the Queen of England had so many corgis because she kept trying to find one who would give her the time of day.
The author (back row, second from left) with her mom (front row, second from left), dad (holding Wesley), and family, in June 2007.
In defeat, my mother began saying that when she died, she wanted to come back as Wesley. I could see why. Wesley had customized doggy steps leading up to my parents’ bed. His personalized leather collar was from Ralph Lauren. He traveled widely, and Dad couldn’t stand to check him like a suitcase, so he always rode in a dog carrier that fit beneath the seat. In New York, he networked with the dogs of Wall Street traders; in Santa Fe, he hobnobbed with Canyon Road gallerists. At home, Wesley always sat patiently at my father’s feet, waiting for Dad to lower his plate to the floor and give him the last two or three bites of every meal.
Wherever Dad went, Wesley went too. They took long walks in the neighborhood and sunned themselves in the small park beside my parents’ high-rise. “You know,” Dad said to me one day, “when Wesley dies, I’d like to donate a water fountain in his name.” In the car, Wesley sometimes rode shotgun, but more often he wheedled his way onto Dad’s lap, his head out the window, tongue flapping, a doggy driving hazard my father stubbornly ignored. So constant was their companionship that Wesley had his own water bowls at most of the neighborhood restaurants, where the waitstaff greeted him warmly and he pretended to care.
I don’t know whether I was too busy with my own life to notice that Wesley, like my parents, was aging, but my mother did. She had begun to worry about Dad’s reaction to Wesley’s inevitable death—his legs were stiff and his face had gone white. He was twelve, old for a corgi. She quietly began surfing the web in search of a suitable replacement. She located a corgi owner outside Dallas with a five-year-old show dog that would soon be retiring from the ring. Mom put in a reservation to meet the dog, thinking that maybe, just maybe, it could be her dog too, but that was not to be.
The author holding a photo of her parents, Marie and Arnold (“Pic”) Swartz, taken on New Year’s Eve, 1999.
Maybe my feelings about Wesley are colored by the end—Mom’s, not his. She was 78 and fragile on the blazing summer day in August 2009 when she took him out for his morning walk. Dad was on a rare trip to California with my son, Sam. John and I, in San Antonio to keep Mom company, got a phone call that my mother had been taken away in an ambulance, a victim of a stroke or a fall or both—we never knew—and Wesley was still wandering the apartment grounds, alone. To the dog’s credit, he had sat waiting in the parking lot, barking until someone noticed Mom on the ground, and he stayed put until the ambulance arrived.
My mother was revived at the hospital but devoid of brain function. We waited until my father arrived to disconnect the respirator, and I sat there while her breaths slowed and then stopped, numb to all but the pain of my father, who could not bear to sit in the room.
“We were a team,” he said to me in the elevator on the way out, bewildered and terrified, simply unable to comprehend what had happened. Being the oldest child and only daughter, I comprehended exactly what had happened: I was now my father’s guardian, whether I wanted to be or not.
A month later, I found myself riding with Dad and Wesley to meet the corgi Mom had reserved before she died. My father sped and tailgated on the five-hour drive from San Antonio to Dallas like he was fleeing the cops. He was fleeing, of course, looking for anything that might ease the shock of my mother’s passing.
At the suggestion of the boarding kennel owner, a kindly woman named Dee, we left Wesley in the car while we went to meet the potential new family member, who, like all of the dogs in her litter, had been somewhat inexplicably named after a hat. There was an indoor training area with something like a practice ring, and when we entered, Trilby proceeded to speed around the perimeter, bounding in one direction and then another, like a gazelle with very short legs. I’ve often returned to that moment, because it was and still is one of the best expressions of pure joy I’ve ever seen, and it was contagious even in our sorrow. I knew then that Trilby, canine antidote, would take care of all of us.
She was such a pretty dog. She had a silky black, white, and brown coat, and large—even for a corgi—pointed ears that rotated with every sound, like furry radar detectors. When she finally slowed to a walk, she threw her rear end around like a fan dancer in a 1930s nightclub. She had bright eyes that telegraphed a deep interest in and affection for everyone they lit on. “She won’t mind going with you,” Dee said when we expressed worry about taking her away from her home. “She’s a show dog who’s used to lots of people.” We loaded her up in the back next to Wesley, who greeted her with typical indifference. Trilby seemed completely baffled by his reaction.
As it happened, they did not have time to build much of a relationship. Wesley was diagnosed with a disease common to corgis called degenerative myelopathy, not unlike Lou Gehrig’s disease in humans. Within just a few months of my mother’s death, he was unable to walk. Without telling anyone, Dad took him to the vet and put him down. He called me after, sobbing. Wesley was cremated, his remains boxed up and placed on a shelf in the room that once served as Mom’s home office.
I wasn’t sure how Dad would survive this one-two punch, and I sometimes wished Trilby could tell me about those long lonely days and nights in the apartment, a period that, for my father, probably passed in a dreamlike fog that I could do little to alleviate on short visits.
But my father was resilient. He had his dog group, which met early each morning for walks around a soccer field—somehow, Mom had never made those—and now he could show up with a cheerful, sprightly dog instead of an older, diffident one. It was sort of like replacing Prince Philip with Kate Middleton.
Within about six months of Mom’s death, Dad entered what I had been told (warned?) was a fairly routine stage for older widowers, especially the kind who had hardly ever cooked dinner for themselves or done their own laundry. Dad started dating. These women were almost exclusively dog owners, which meant he went on a lot of canine double dates. I knew my father had found a serious (human) companion when he started dating Patricia, an old friend and a widow with shimmering silver hair who had recently moved into the building. Patricia had a gift for outspokenness that my buttoned-up father adored, and she was also passionately attached to her miniature poodle, Casey. Early in the relationship, her daughter took me aside to caution me that her mother “loves her dog. I mean, really loves her dog.” This will work, I thought.
There were drawbacks. At dinners out, Patricia would ask, “Are you finished?” before we were finished and then whip out a plastic container she’d fill with the “last” bites to take home to Casey. As Dad and Patricia grew closer, Trilby also became the beneficiary of this largesse, and both she and Casey started looking like candidates for The Biggest Loser. “Old people and dogs,” the vet said to me once, shaking her head as she charted Trilby’s expansion.
Another problem emerged: the management at the condo shifted from dog friendly to not so much. The freely dispensed poop bags posted near the service entrance disappeared, and Dad started getting a reputation for ignoring the new, stricter doggy rules. Management began sending emails complaining that he was using the main entrance with Trilby—where the guys at reception gave her treats, much to Dad’s delight—instead of the back door. Also, Trilby wasn’t pooping in designated areas. And: dogs were not allowed poolside, but there you could find Dad and Trilby on sunny mornings. He would scan the paper while she nosed illegally off leash for snacks, like a pig searching for truffles.
Denial is common among grown children with aging parents. It was Patricia who first noticed Dad’s memory was beginning to fail. He would forget to make dinner reservations and get lost on familiar roads. He developed balance issues but refused to use a cane, as his doctor suggested, when he took Trilby out late at night. I noticed that bookmarks in the books he once devoured never moved. “There’s something wrong with me,” Dad confessed to me one night, beginning to weep. I hugged him and said it was just stress, which was what I chose to believe. But when his doctor asked if he was remembering to feed the dog at night and I wasn’t sure of the answer, I knew there was trouble ahead. Dad was 85.
Then, at the end of the summer of 2013, Dad fell and broke his elbow, an injury almost exclusive to drunken young men and the elderly, the orthopedist said. Dad stayed with us for about a month to recover from the surgery, when certain plans for the future were discussed but never actually made. He went home for a month, then came back to celebrate Thanksgiving, and fell and broke his hip while trying to be helpful with holiday cleaning. Neither Dad nor I wanted to admit that his days of living alone in San Antonio were over, but they were.
Unlike the two of us, Trilby never looked back. It took her about two days to establish dominance over our placid, poleaxed golden retrievers. Even though I refused to feed her from the table, I began to suspect that living with me had been her plan all along. In truth, I fell for that dog the day Dad and I had driven up to get her, my one and only instance of love at first sight. She had been a cheerful buffer on so many sad days and an easy subject of conversation when my father was struck with bouts of shyness or depression. Her delight at my visits to San Antonio had made it easier to go back to the apartment where my mother was so palpably present and so profoundly absent at the same time. (It took a year or so for me to clean out her closet, with no encouragement from Dad.) To escape, I’d take Trilby for long walks, and when we’d get back, she’d vault out of the elevator, take off at a sprint, flip over and slide on her back, and then wait for a rub on her big fat belly. Sometimes I wondered if my mother’s spirit hadn’t made a quick turnaround, as if she were using Trilby to remind me to enjoy the family I still had.
My mother’s departure had been wrenchingly abrupt; Dad’s, on the other hand, seemed glacial. He recovered dramatically from his hip surgery but not from his memory loss. His diagnosis was vascular dementia, which meant that a series of strokes was gradually shutting down blood flow to various parts of his brain. I told myself that at least it wasn’t Alzheimer’s; he didn’t ever mistake the laundry room for the bathroom, as my gracious mother-in-law once had. I hired a fleet of caregivers, paid for mostly by Dad’s fortuitous long-term care insurance policy. I took Dad to specialists who prescribed expensive medication that was supposed to slow the process of deterioration, and it might or might not have done so. I bought all kinds of walkers—there are many cool options now that boomers are aging—and made Dad take evening walks with Trilby around the block to keep up his strength. I bought him socks designed to help with circulation, sweatshirts and sweatpants from his beloved alma mater, the University of Virginia, and books. So many books. Histories and mysteries, books about vintage cars and World War II, collections of Sunday comics he’d read as a kid, a bound issue of the New York Times dated June 28, 1927, his birthday—anything that might keep him reading, even though it was clear he could no longer hold a paragraph in his mind. I cooked him dinner every night and on weekdays often took him out to lunch, where he still charmed the waitresses. On Sundays, we went to the deli, where he never lost his love of pastrami, at least once it was in front of him. (“What do I order here?” he’d ask, helplessly gazing at Kenny & Ziggy’s extensive menu.)
While my rational mind knew otherwise, my unconscious remained convinced I could cure what ailed my father with nothing more than will and determination. Keeping up with Trilby was a part of that. I brought Dad with me when I took her to the vet so that he could comfort her when she needed shots, when she threw her back out, and when she broke a tooth chewing the ice that fell out of the ice maker to the floor like manna from heaven. As the years passed, I managed to get her back to her sleek, svelte self, despite the fact that Dad kept feeding her from the table even when he promised not to. It was the one time I wondered whether he truly didn’t remember or was just using his memory loss as an excuse.
It was hard, all of it, but not impossibly so. No matter how much of himself he lost, my father never forgot to say thank you. Whatever he didn’t know in his decline, he did know that I put much of my life on hold to care for him.
Trilby in the author’s living room, which she converted into a room for her dad.
His end was predictable, you could say. He was reaching toward Trilby to give her a pat on the head and slid off the couch and cracked his pelvis. He was ninety by then and didn’t have the strength or inclination to put himself back together again, and within a month or so he was gone. “I love you” were the last words he said to me, just after I’d kissed him good-night.
On the way to the funeral, I got a call from a woman who had worked for Dad for many years. “Mimi,” Lucy said, in lightly accented English, “your daddy made me promise I would do something for him.”
“What was that?” I asked.
It turned out that Dad had pulled Lucy aside some years ago and told her he wanted Wesley to be buried with him. Ever dutiful, she had rescued the box of Wesley’s ashes when we were cleaning out and preparing to sell the San Antonio apartment. She had transferred his remains to an attractive urn, and now Wesley was in Lucy’s car on his way to the service.
“I put him right in the crook of your Dad’s arm,” said my friend the rabbi, who was a favorite of Dad’s and continues to dine out on the story.
Trilby stayed with us.
That was a year ago. She is now fourteen and failing herself. Sometimes I think she was hanging on to see Dad out the door, because her troubles started almost immediately after he died.
Trilby suffers from symptoms of the same creeping, fatal paralysis that Wesley was diagnosed with. Her face is gray now instead of snowy white, and it occurred to me a month or so ago that I couldn’t recall the last time I’d heard her shrill, piercing bark. She’s lost the use of one hind leg, and the other is weak, but in the morning she still races around our other dogs for breakfast. She still drags herself to the front door when she knows I’m getting ready to leave, begging to go with me.
We’ve been to the doggy physical therapist, who showed me exercises to slow the progression of her disease. I’ve even bought Trilby a doggy wheelchair, a specially designed sling for her back legs, and two kinds of grainy sprays that are supposed to help her with paw traction on our slick wood floors. When John and I watch TV at night, I wrap her in a blanket and pull her up on my lap and rub her belly while she looks at me thoughtfully through cloudy eyes. I roll her back over and stroke her ears until she falls asleep, snoring slightly.
I have the number of a good doggy hospice, but I’m not quite ready to let her go.