He remembers something, but whatever that something is he no longer remembers what. These days the step from the back patio to the threshold into the house seems higher, untraversable in the dim light of an autumn morning, and it confuses him, so he stands in the center of the backyard and barks, not seeing me until it’s too late for him to escape as I scoop him into my arms. (It’s always best not to sneak up behind him, because that scares him.) Once I’ve cradled him in my grasp, the five-pound Chihuahua immediately relaxes and tucks his head into my armpit. He knew I would arrive. I always do. Safe in my arms, I imagine he dreams of the days when he was the most feared Chihuahua in the redwood forests of northern California. He and one other little dog—his sister-of-another-mother—were the only Chihuahuas in Humboldt County.
Only someone with a deranged sense of animal dominance would have thought it intelligent to force Southern California dogs to live so close to the cold 45th parallel, which is why my wife and I decided to rescue the two tiny Chihuahuas. In the isolated chunk of the planet where we lived, most dog owners preferred big breeds—pit bulls, Rottweilers, and Bernese Mountain Dogs. But Chihuahuas are tough. They shiver because of the northern temperatures, but they’ll never admit they’re cold, or that they’re frightened of bigger dogs, unless you find the little runts cowering in the corner of a desolate chain link kennel at the SPCA among nothing but ferocious, slobbering monsters.
Bluto was once a svelte, ten-inch-long Bruce Lee. From the first moment I saw him the little fella dared me to enter his cage. I broke the rules that day and did confront him head-on, where he and a solid black, emaciated female Deerlegged Chihuahua huddled in a corner. She was the puppy my wife and I fell in love with after seeing her in an internet ad. In the shelter, Swee Pea was a sad, submissive little waif, but she was damned cute, so much more resonant in person. My wife and I knew we would not leave the shelter without her.
But there was Bluto. All five pounds of him stood between us and the dog we had come to rescue from a shelter that “terminated” dogs after a certain length of stay. The intrepid tiny boy in the cage who had taken it upon himself to serve as the protector of the pup we had come to rescue held his ground, even as scores of Rottweilers and Pit Bulls paced their kennels with anxiety because of my wife’s and my intrusion into their sanctified space. I put my hand on the floor, palm up. Bluto came at me, fangs bared. The moment he clenched his teeth upon my hand I clamped his snout closed, and quickly clutched my free hand around his belly to stuff him into my armpit. Little fella didn’t know what happened. He sat stunned in my arms and stared up at me. At that moment he became daddy’s dog. We both knew it. Still, that awareness did not alter his personality.
Bluto, for whatever reason, had acquired a testy little temper during his days of living in the streets and redwood forests of Humboldt County, California. Just a few weeks after we rescued him from the pound, the little monster drew blood from the son of our dearest friends. Not a good thing to happen, and several dog trainers suggested that my wife and I put down our recently adopted fella. But that wasn’t going to happen. I had not saved a dog just to kill him. I grew up with Chihuahuas, so his sudden tantrum did not surprise me. The young human had shoved his face too close to the face of a tiny, scared dog, and a dog struck with fear is fierce, particularly a Chihuahua who does not give a damn about the physics of variances in weight, size, and teeth. (I have always thought a Chihuahua would take on a gator in the Louisiana Bayou.)
My mother-in-law does not bite, but she does bark quite a bit, and about a lot of different topics of which she really has no clue. Usually, she complains about her phone. She keeps breaking Google and the internet. Without fail, whenever my wife and I travel two hours down the interstate to visit, one of us has to reconnect her internet connection, and reset all the sign-in and auto-pay passwords we configured during our previous visit. To elevate ourselves to superhero status in her eyes, one of us resets her hearing aid app so she can once again hear her television. When the repairs are complete, we take her to the grocery store.
She teeters like a toddler when she walks, and I’m afraid one day she will fall when she turns the corner to wibble-wobble down the baking aisle. Like Bluto, she too gets confused, and sometimes stands frozen amidst the produce and stares at something inside her head, or stares at nothing at all. When she disappears like that, she trembles slightly, because even after so many years she still has no faith that my wife and I will come to rescue her. She harbors a fear that lifts her shoulders to her ears and shortens her breath. Age has taught her not to trust anything or anyone, specifically not even herself. One of us is always there, immediately, because we never let her get more than two feet away from us. We lean her against one of our armpits until she becomes coherent again, and stable enough to begin a new adventure toward the cheese department.
It is necessary to approach her on the right side. She is blind in her left eye, and coming at her from that direction only scares the bejeezus out of her, because it seems to her as if someone has simply appeared out of nowhere. Sometimes, when we’ve returned my mother-in-law to the familiar surroundings of her small apartment, my wife will mess with the old girl and approach her from the blind side. Everybody gets a laugh when my mother-in-law squeaks with surprise. Still, the slight fright takes a little bit out of her; she heads immediately to the bathroom, then heads to her favorite of the two recliners in her living room. If we’ve brought the two Chihuahuas with us, my mother-in-law calls for her “little buddies,” and all three geriatric souls sit together in the old gal’s favorite chair to fart and trade other smells.
The only difference between my two Chihuahuas and my mother-in-law is that I have the means to care for two little dogs. My wife and I lack the means to care for a beloved human ― her mother.
My wife and I lost most everything we had in California trying to stay afloat during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The business lock-downs took their toll on my wife’s yoga studio. We were forced to pack everything into a seven-foot-by-seven-foot POD and seek refuge. We had to start over.
And now, having moved back to the town where we met, got married, graduated college, and had our daughter, the two of us make just enough to get by. Some months we dip into our decimated savings to make it until the next paycheck. Other months we’re able to return back into our account what we borrowed from ourselves the previous month. It’s always nip and tuck, give and take, sigh a little, sweat a little, enjoy a few more beers at our favorite breweries than we did the month before, or suck up and settle for the six pack of swill we can afford this week. When you’re forced to start all over again the flow of money changes like the current of a river.
We rent a house at the top end of what we can afford, in the state where my wife’s family lives. The house, however, is not conducive to the needs of a frail, eighty-nine-year-old woman. The bathroom does not have a walk-in shower, and my mother-in-law cannot step high enough to get over the side of the tub in our house. She will never again be eligible for a Colorado driver’s license. All her friends live an hour and a half south of where my wife and I live. My mother-in-law would have to start over again if she moved to Northern Colorado with us. Starting over from zero is not all that easy. My wife and I know that first-hand.
But it goes beyond what my wife and I can afford to take care of her mother. No one can foot the bill to be old in the United States. We throw our elderly to the curb in this country that touts itself to be the greatest in the world. My mother-in-law is close to needing an assisted living facility. Medicare does not cover the cost of assisted living, in-home care, or long-term care. Pathetically, according to Medicare, the average annual cost of assisted living is $48,000 which is nearly a whole year’s pay for too many folks. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2022 that the median annual salary in the country hung somewhere around $53,490.
The greatest country in the world… yeah, right.
The two Chihuahuas who have enjoyed a life of canine luxury could not care less about political boundaries and delineations, or the state of human turmoil in the world. They have their choice of five comfy beds positioned throughout the house. They get breakfast and dinner every day, and they get to snarf down treats of organic chicken and bison after every visit to the backyard for a poo or a whiz. They have two loving parents to tuck them in every night. They have a trailer attached to my bicycle so they can accompany my wife and me when we shop downtown or visit one of our twenty-four local breweries. I’m not sure Bluto can see where we’re going, but when we arrive at some of his favorite places he barks up a storm until I release him from the trailer and walk him into a store or to an outdoor table beneath a cottonwood tree where he begs for chips while I down a few stouts or porters. He always accompanies me to the tap line for another pint. Sometimes I let out the leash and let him lead the way. When he becomes discombobbled, loses his way, and gets worried, he stops and waits. He knows dad will be there within seconds.
My mother-in-law was once a teacher, and now she sits alone in her apartment and wonders if and when her second-born daughter and favorite son-in-law will have time to drive more than one hundred twenty miles south on a dangerous interstate to take her grocery shopping and treat her to lunch at one of her “ten thousand” favorite restaurants. She doesn’t trust that we’ll be there, for one because she chose to live so far away that often we are not there, and second because even when we are there she forgets that.
My mother-in-law is adamant about living independently in her own home, which I suppose is all right since I have not checked into the cost of in-home care services in over six months. I’m sure the cost has gone up.
The town where I live has earmarked tax dollars for a new dog shelter just a mile from where my wife and I now live. The new shelter will be able to house 1,132 animals.
My wife and I can afford to take care of another dog.
One thought on “Canine and the Crone”
Great essay! Very heartbreaking.