Gabby: A Tribute to My Neighbor’s Dog

A few years ago, a dog across the street, often out while I was writing, became my surrogate pet. I went over and met my neighbor as a ruse to meet her. She was an old dog, she couldn’t see or hear. The man told me she didn’t know I was even there but that I could pet her. I pet her and it startled her. One day, she was no longer there and I knew why. I went over and offered my sympathies to the man. He said he sometimes still heard her in the house. I sat on my porch and wrote about Gabby, and I liked the piece, so I typed it up and gave it to the man. I never heard anything else about it. I returned to the piece later and didn’t think it held up to how it felt when I wrote it so I never did anything else with it, and I was a little embarrassed I’d given it to him.

Cut to a couple weeks ago, that house is for sale. I thought the man had moved but he’d died. I thought he’d lived alone, maybe he did, but his wife talked to me. I told her I’d visited with him, a few times, and talked to him about his dog, Gabby. She said, “Oh, are you the one that wrote him that letter? That was really nice.”

I’ve gotten a lot better over the years about floating my writing out and not worrying about what reactions it gets or if it gets a reaction or if I find out about it getting a reaction. But finding out that my tribute to Gabby at least meant enough to the man that his wife ended up knowing about it, got me to revisit this piece and now I like it again. This is what I gave the man printed out on a sheet of paper.

Gabby

A tribute to my neighbor’s dog

I became a watcher of my neighbor’s dog. I went over and introduced myself after asking my neighbor, first, if I could pet her. He said sure. “She’ll be startled, she doesn’t see or hear anymore, but she won’t mind.” Her initial lurch when I put my hand on the top of her head and then relative calm as I ran it down her back let me feel she enjoyed it, but when I returned the next day my petting her startled her again. I would always be a sudden hand on her in the familiar square of front yard she knew and trusted without use of her senses. I would always startle her.

The man was retired and this was Gabby’s hospice care. He let her out often and she must have enjoyed exploring the same patch of grass past the front steps—perhaps her dwindling senses made every visit feel different—because she would spend ten to fifteen minutes each trip rooting in the grass and under a nearby bush before returning up the porch steps to be let back in. Some days she couldn’t propel her hind end up the steps and had to wait with her front legs on the steps and her hind end in the yard for the man’s help. I wished I could be the help she needed instead of sudden hands behind her startling her and shoving her forward. I would have even simply waited with her if I could have felt, to her, like familiar company. Watching from my porch I would say, “poor girl, poor girl,” softly to myself, imagining that once she was a puppy who would have scrambled up and down steps like that in a yippy blur of fur. That she once kept vigil over her square of territory emitting barks that would sound friendly to family and friends and ferocious to strangers. And that now she gets startled by a hand sneaking onto her back.

Gabby didn’t recognize aging and think of her dwindling senses as loss or she did and possessed grace. Because I’m human or lack grace I could never help aching for her as I can’t help staring over at her empty yard and missing her.

The Ebullience Chronicles

*This is a ten-minute read, longer than anything I’ve ever posted. Obviously no one’s ever obligated to read anything I post but I mention the reading time up front so you know what you’re in for and can plan for when you have the time if you’re interested in reading.

She emerged last among the kittens of her litter from the kennel. When I picked her another couple there encouraged me to take a pair so she’d have a buddy. I told them I lived in a one-bedroom apartment. They said I wouldn’t forever. I wondered how they knew. I’m glad I didn’t let strangers I would never see again convince me to bring two kittens home when I intended to bring home one. It would be thirteen years before we moved into a house. She spent those years in apartments, including a studio, and most of one hiding, by her own preference, in single rooms in houses.

I took this tiny kitten in a giant cat carrier on the bus. We got off on Fifth and Pike and sat on a sidewalk downtown Seattle in the middle of an afternoon waiting for a bus to Capitol Hill. We both felt conspicuous and uncomfortable. I thought of this as a first bonding experience. A thought she likely didn’t share. She responded by arriving at her new home and crawling under the fridge. Seems like she stayed under there for days but it was probably more like most of one. Long enough to worry me, but I couldn’t move the fridge and risk hurting her. I tried everything to coax her out but I think she waited until she was damn good and ready. I admired that. She scared me again when she didn’t eat for three days. Close to taking her to the vet, I realized I’d substituted one cheap cat food for another and tried switching back. That’s what she’d been holding out for. I kind of admired that too.

For some of her kitten months, I kept her carrier by the bed and had to put her in some nights to get some sleep. I was more glad than she was when I stopped. She had a pillow toy she would battle and then carry around in her jaws with a lion’s pride. She would gallop through the apartment and always end up crashing through the blinds of the front room. I called this “thinking she was in the jungle,” a phrase I borrowed from my dad, but she wasn’t a particularly rambunctious kitten. She lay curled up asleep on my lap while I wrote the first draft of Flowers on Concrete, back when I wrote in the evenings and at my computer.

When we moved to a new place a couple of friends laughed when I told her we were almost there as soon as we left in the U-haul to cross town. But what you say to a cat doesn’t matter, it’s the feeling intoned that they hear. The second apartment was bigger and maybe feeling guilty about not taking her with a sibling I tried to adopt a friend’s kitten. I left the kitten in a carrier for a while and Ebullience sniffed around, but the kitten wanted to play when it came out. I found Ebullience hiding from her in the closet. We had a bad experience with a new kitten wreaking havoc on an older cat growing up, so I gave the kitten back. Nobody puts Ebullience in the closet.

Actually, just about anything would put Ebullience in a closet or in a cupboard or under a blanket. An unfamiliar sound might send her scurrying to a cupboard where she would frantically paw the door open a crack and squeeze in to hide. I would walk into a room and hear a muffled meow from under covers strewn on the floor. I wonder if she worried I’d step on her and was intentionally alerting me to her presence. I would tell her she didn’t have to worry about me ever hurting her and pet her through the blanket.

At the second apartment we had an outdoor porch on an upper floor. She roamed while I sat out there reading or writing. We gave it up to nesting pigeons the summer before I left Seattle. I made an appointment with a vet to get her something to keep her calm for the long drive across the country, but she handled the car ride there so well I canceled. She rode for three days in her cat carrier on the passenger seat of my Cavalier. My dad made a trip out to drive back with me with a load of my stuff in his truck. We smuggled Ebullience into a hotel that didn’t allow pets. I thought she might feel safer staying in the carrier, but my dad convinced me to let her out. She burrowed under the tight motel sheets of my bed and spent the entire night next to me not moving.

I kept her in a room at my dad’s where he and his wife shared four cats. She never mingled with them but occasionally snuck out of the room and hid under a chair watching the other cats intently. They mostly ignored her, but when one looked over, Ebullience would hiss. They went back to ignoring her and she went back to intently watching them. First night in my studio apartment I spent violently ill and called my poor mother when I should have called 911 and then left the phone off the hook. She fortunately found the place and took me to the hospital where I had emergency surgery. Ebullience spent that same night hiding in a cupboard thinking, I don’t like it here. It’s new and scary. Not giving me a thought in the world. But, hey, that’s a cat limitation not a personality one. I forgave her.

She did the smartest thing I’ve ever seen a cat do while we lived there. I worked 4 AM shifts. Waking up was brutal. Actually I never mind waking up in the middle of the night; I mind waking up and having to stay up. So I developed the habit of setting my alarm on days off and then snoozing endlessly. One morning she must have wanted something. Probably food, though I’d like to think my attention. She kept meowing as I repeatedly woke up to my alarm clock on my bedside table and tapped the snooze button and returned to sleep. Her gaze followed my hand and I’m convinced she connected my touching the alarm clock with what she didn’t want, i.e. me returning to sleep, because after a few repeats of this, she put her paw on the clock and pushed it off the table onto the floor. She wasn’t batting at it. She intentionally slid it onto the floor because she decided it wasn’t helping her cause. I thought like that hunter in the original Jurassic Park movie about the velociraptor, Clever girl.

We stayed in a second room at my mom’s for a few months while I waited for my house sale to come through. My mom and her husband had no pets at that time, so they were excited to adopt one temporarily, but Ebullience rarely left the room while I was gone at work. She waited up there for me to get home. A night shortly before I got my house, she camped out on a chair in their living room. I called her to follow me up to bed. She looked up, like ‘I’m good down here.’ I scooped her up and carried her to the bedroom. So it wasn’t just her.

I moved into my house with just her, her cat carrier, a sleeping bag, and a TV and DVD-player. I set us up in a small room so she didn’t feel overwhelmed and opened up the cat carrier. I fell asleep with her still inside but woke up in the middle of the night and she was gone. I got out of my sleeping bag and shined a flashlight down the stairs. Her eyes glowed back at me. She was up roaming the empty rooms. Skirting the dog/cat dichotomy, which is unnecessary polarization—a human tendency the internet has allowed to flourish to a harmful degree—cats get unfairly characterized as selfish. Ebullience was more apt to sit in my lap in the winter than the summer for the obvious reason that she enjoyed the warmth. Cats have a set of comfy spots and seem to tour them. Her favorite was the couch cushion next to where I worked. Sometimes I considered that spot being next to me a coincidence, in her mind. But when a year ago I moved my work area to the kitchen table, her favorite comfy spot became the chair I sat in to work. I had to set up two chairs at the table. She got one, I got the other. When I got up, I would come back to find she’d taken mine. This happened often enough that I kept my laptop evenly between them so I could just angle it toward whichever chair she left for me.

Ebullience was an “older lady” as a pet-loving friend put it. Her frailty was something I could feel when I held her. She still got that “in the jungle” feeling but learned not to act on it. She took a wild leap down the last five steps of the stairs and planted with feline agility but looked straight up at me, like ‘holy hell, I’m never doing that again.’ And she never did. I let her on my front porch and she would stalk the perimeter meowing. Every time a car went by she would start for the door back in or look up at me. I would hold her and say, “What if I left you out here to fend for yourself?” Then pet her and she would purr. Again, it’s not what you say to a cat, it’s the feeling intoned in the words that they hear.

A bag of treats was free with the purchase of two bags of cat food. I thought it would be fun to greet her home with a few of the treats. I would give her a few before I left for the day, too. Then I realized she wasn’t eating her regular food. With her history of finicky eating, I thought I’d wait her out. Humans don’t often win battles of wills with cats. I was soon mixing in treats with her food, which she would pick out and eat. She wasn’t eating enough, but still thinking a hunger strike was underway I held off on a vet visit because I didn’t want her to endure the trauma. I tried tuna and a variety of canned soft foods. Her favorite seemed to be chicken and tuna in gravy. I threw out what she didn’t eat and spooned out fresh helpings from the opened tins I kept bagged in my fridge. She meowed for fresh food every morning and whenever I got home. She was barely eating, just licking the gravy.

I don’t need anyone to tell me I didn’t wait too long to take her in, because I know I did wait too long to take her in. One of the responsibilities of taking a pet into your home is to offer good care. Good care includes recognizing what they can’t tell you, which is when they’re too ill to go on, and in that regard, I failed her a little, at the end. My list of information for the vet describing her dietary and behavioral changes over the last month ended with my telling the vet I was ready to say goodbye, if that was her recommendation after an exam. Ebullience spent her last night asleep beside me. I awakened sporadically, through the night, and pet her. In the morning, she was more perky than usual. She wanted me to wake up and go downstairs. I got ahead of her and carried her down and opened a fresh can of tuna. She ate better than she had in days and drank from her water dish.

This gave me a glimmer of hope when I took her in, but her abdomen was filled with liquid, that explained her not eating. The treats were an unfortunate coincidence, unfortunate because I would have taken her in sooner and spared her some suffering. A few problems could have been causing the fluid buildup but none were treatable. The vet said if I thought she felt well enough I could have her for the weekend and bring her back, but her look seemed to be adding, “but I wouldn’t.”

As the vet described how we would proceed in a few moments, Ebullience struggled in my arms. I told the vet she wanted to hide under the covers so I let her back in her kennel, only to gently pull her out again when the vet returned with her assistant. This strikes me as a poignant absurdity: this desire to give my pet two minutes of comfort escaped from the attention of strangers under her blanket before bringing her back out to be euthanized. I was present for a cat euthanasia before and know they are peaceful procedures performed with care by animal-loving vets, but being present for this one was tough. Ebullience was with me since she was a kitten, for sixteen years, but for me, it felt important to make her surroundings in her final moments a little more familiar, important for her to hear my voice and feel my fingers rubbing behind her ears as the circle of her eternity of existence closed.

Grief travels with a demented companion named guilt. Whereas grief is a painful process designed to return joy to shared memories of an eternal quality with passed loved ones, guilt is a miserable loop gumming up the works. For days, all I could think of was Ebullience scrambling around hungry but with no appetite. It took all rational thought for me to recall that I made understandable guesses with the information available to me; I just turned out to be wrong. I delayed taking her in because I didn’t want to make a finicky hunger strike worse with a traumatic car ride and vet visit. She couldn’t have known what peace it would bring me to have her wake up that final morning a tick more perky and feeling well enough to eat a little. It’s made saying goodbye a little easier and missing her a tad more bearable. She was a good cat, I used to tell her. The best cat ever. She knew just what I meant.