Day by Day

Lilah, Jasper and Tucker began their day on border patrol.

Lilah, Jasper and Tucker began their day on border patrol.

Yesterday: a perfect mid-70s temperature. A gentle breeze. Birds singing. And for some reason, none of the neighbors decided to mow their lawns or chainsaw their logpiles. 

I checked in on the four robinettes—tiny robin hatchlings whose parents built a nest in the evergreen shrub by our deck. A week ago, they were still inside their gorgeous blue eggs, and now their parents were spending nearly every waking moment feeding those voracious little beings.

When 3 robins had hatched; you can see the beautiful robin's egg blue of the last bird.

When the 3 robins had just hatched; you can see the beautiful robin’s egg blue of the last bird.

Brian and Melanie and I were all thrilled the robins had built their nest in a location where we could see them clearly, but we were careful not to disturb them; we only took surreptitious peeks when mom and dad were out shopping for bugs, and left when the parents came back with wormy groceries.

There is something life affirming about those strange creatures. Baby birds look like a miniature combination of balding old men and unfinished dinosaurs. They’re helpless, yet demanding, with mouths so big and gaping, you can understand why their parents continue their sisyphean task of attempting to fill those baby bird bellies. Their little cheepy chirps are an endearing soundtrack, as if Mother Nature carefully tuned their voices to tap into the most basic part of any living being’s core: the need to care, to nurture, and maybe even to love.

Baby robin nestlings open their beaks for food

The dogs and I enjoyed the weather, spending much of the day outside. Tucker seemed to be recovering well from his latest chemo treatment—so much so that he got his ball and asked to play. 

And so he played. Several times. He ran after the ball with his before-cancer terrier intensity, and squeaked his ball with emphasis as he gave it back to me for another throw. With each toss, my heart bounced along with the ball—from the joy of watching him run and leap and catch and return, tail wagging and so happily in the moment, to the excruciating grief of knowing his time here with me will come to an end way sooner that I want. 

Look at those ears flapping!

That’s a happy Tucker!

I tried to imprint the day in my mind, attempting to memorize the way he turned to run even before I threw the ball, the power in his stride as he chased after it, the satisfying “thwop” of his catching the ball, the way his ears flopped with each loping stride on the return, the smile on his face beaming around the yellow orb.

Tucker resting after a ball-playing session

Tucker resting after a ball-playing session.

I don’t trust my memory, though, so I took a zillion pictures, and lots of video. I don’t know how much more he’ll be playing. 

My dog Tucker, who has cancer, is still enjoying life and playing ball.

That’s the thing. I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going on inside his body. I don’t know whether the chemo is working. I don’t know when one of the vets on Team Tucker will look at me, shake his or her head and say, “I’m sorry. There’s nothing more we can do.”

After we came inside, I let the dogs rest before dinner. And I lay down on the floor next to Tucker in his bed, and just petted him. The only item on his list of favorite things that comes close to playing ball is to have one of his humans pet him. If your hand stops, he’ll paw you: “More.” If he’s in a lazy mood, he’ll just barely move his foot, a small gesture loaded with meaning; again: “More.”

I was happy to just lie there and accede to my beloved dog’s wishes.

Later that evening, the humans gathered at a restaurant to celebrate my daughter Melanie’s 25th birthday. It was just the five of us: Melanie, Brian and I, and my other daughter Corinne and her husband Luke. The food was good, the conversation a total nerdfest diving into the various levels of wizard in the Lord of the Rings saga, with chocolate cake to cap off the celebration.

It was a Very Good Day.

Early this morning, Tucker—and Jasper—woke me up. Someone had an urgent need to go outside; I couldn’t tell who at first, but as the dogs herded me downstairs, I realized it was Tucker based on the speed of his movement toward the back door. I put Jasper on a leash; he’s not allowed free run in the yard when it’s dark out because if he’s not restrained at night, he turns into The Hound That Has To Bark At And Chase Everything That Moves, causing the other dogs to run around like idiots because Jasper saw Something or heard Something or smelled Something and everyone else has to bark and chase at the Something even if they don’t know what it is. 

With Jasper appropriately tethered, I let everyone out, and dragged my reluctant hound through the dew-wet grass so I could follow Tucker and see what was going on with him that pulled everyone out of bed and into the back yard in the early morning hours.

He had diarrhea. Poor thing. He was obviously uncomfortable, but he got it out of his system as Jasper and Lilah did their business. As I tuned into the birdsong around me, I realized that even though it felt like zero dark thirty, dawn was fast approaching. I heard a small commotion coming from the robin’s home, and decided it was time to bring everyone inside, as Tucker seemed ready and I was afraid our presence was disturbing our resident robins.

We all went back to bed for a few hours until Tucker had another urgent request—this time at a more reasonable hour. It was light enough for all the dogs to run free; Jasper has more control during the daytime. The song of another local—a catbird whose nest we haven’t found but are pretty sure is nearby—seemed particularly intense, and for some reason, it inspired me to go check on the robins.

The nest was empty. I could see one baby bird on the ground near the bush, not moving. I couldn’t tell if it was still alive.

I called Brian, who came outside to help me herd the dogs back inside, keeping them away from the shrub and possible helpless hatchlings. 

The baby was dead. It was wet with dew. A few bright spots of blood showed on its head. We looked all around the area, pulling aside bee balm and peonies so we could see down to the ground, but there was no sign of the other three siblings. Mom and dad were nowhere to be found; I didn’t hear them call. But the catbird kept singing. 

Later, I went outside, and brought the tiny body of the remaining hatchling into our woods, and gently placed it under a gooseberry bush. Either a scavenger will find it, or it will decompose and provide nutrients for the berries that future birds will one day enjoy.

I took a moment and closed my eyes, praying that the last moments of this bird—and the others—wasn’t painful or scary or horrible, but I knew otherwise. More than likely the little robinettes met their demise via bluejay or fox. I cried a little, but I know this is the way nature is. And I cannot blame the bluejay or the fox for being what they are.

When I came back up on the deck, I saw the mother bird land on the railing with a bug hanging from her beak.

And that’s when I lost it.

I sobbed. I bawled. I crumpled.

Because that’s my future. I’ll be preparing food someday, probably within the year, and I’ll set out three bowls for two dogs. Or I’ll call out three names, and only two pups will come.

I feel that pain now, anticipating the future. And it’s real. And it’s fierce. And it’s inescapable.

I went inside the house, where I was instantly surrounded by my dogs. I tried to memorize the feel of their solid bodies in my arms. Tucker gave me one of his signature hugs, stepping onto my thighs, leaning into my neck and snuggling me, his tail wagging slightly. 

I cried silently into his fur, and held on to him.

9 Comments on "Day by Day"

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  1. It’s easy for me to say enjoy the time you have, but I understand how you feel. I am living that pain now. ~Island Cat mom

  2. Mary McNeil says:

    One of my cats (the oldest) is beginning kidney problems. He has lost weight, though he still eats well. I know how you feel, watching Tucker. And then as I pet him, or fee him treats, I think HE doesn’t realize what is coming. Or if he does, he is not dwelling on it. Pets – now.Treats – now. Only us humans are able to worry.

  3. Joy says:

    Don’t think about the future, you have time now, and energy should be focused on positive things for Tucker. You have such a gift to have time. Time is one of the biggest gifts we can ever receive. Enjoy it as you will have plenty of time to be sad later, and you won’t regret anything if you give your energy to him now.

    • Thank you Joy. Those are very wise words. Usually, I’m able to enjoy the moments, feel the joy, appreciate every second with Tucker. But every once in awhile—like with the robin in the story—I get knocked sideways. The funny thing is, Tucker is very tuned into me, and he can tell when I’m sad; he’ll try and comfort me. So I try to stay upbeat, and give him love and pets and snuggles and any treat he wants and all the balls. Because I can’t spoil him too much. I know you understand. And I truly appreciate the gift of time I’ve been given.

  4. we wish you ALL the time in the world with Tucker. we certainly know about being strong and then being struck by the overwhelming sadness of it all. just remember that HE is living in the moment….that is what he knows.

  5. I’m so incredibly glad I came back over some posts and I saw this one. I get it. And I know how easily everything can change – lives destroyed, bonds built … Sometimes when I think about Bear not being here forever, I want to throw horrible tantrum after horrible tantrum. It’s not fair! It’s not right! But there’s nothing we can ****ing do about it except treasure today.

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