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The Truth about Abbie

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

Among a host of things we need to get done before time runs out, one is to settle the question: Should we get a new dog? The last dog we had was an Irish Setter, and we had to put her down in the fall of 1993.
We loved that dear old soul to distraction, which helped us tolerate the shedding. As a younger dog, there was just no stopping the fun. She made a joke of everything and visited the bases of certain trees and shrubs as though invisible messages were stacked one on another as we went.
Well, I notice that a letter from Abbie to our former neighbors’ golden Lab, Sixpack, made it into this space a few weeks ago, and I thought I’d better set the record straight about a few things. Tempting as it is to say the poor dear is senile, that’s simply not the case. Her mind is the same as ever – which isn’t saying a lot, but it’s her body that has let her down, not her head.
When Abbie brags to Sixpack about being slim as a reed, she is taking poetic license. The old dog is just plain skinny. Bones stick out in all directions, in places appearing to have worn right through a once magnificent mahogany coat.
She turned 13 in June while we were traveling out West. We really weren’t sure she’d even make it home, and wondered what we’d do with her if she died. Her breathing was so labored, it’s all she could do to get through the day; the slightest exertion wiped her out. The vet X-rayed her every which way, and concluded that a tumor keeping her lungs from inflating adequately, plus more tumors in the bronchioles.
She’s eating pretty well, although she makes it clear she doesn’t care much for geriatric dog food. It’s terrible to see her this way, but she doesn’t seem to be hurting and everything else works great. We put off our trip to see if she was going to get worse, and when she didn’t, we took her along, helping her in and out of the camper.
She was always a champion traveler, riding quietly all day, eager to stretch long legs over miles of trails at each stop. Come night time, her preference was to lie near the edge of our campsite, keeping watch as vigilantly as if she were at home.
Now, however, she’s stone deaf and can’t bark. She sleeps most of the time, and watching her, you just know she was dreaming of the days she chased antelopes across the prairies. Her feet go, she scowls, her lips quiver, and she woofs silently. You just know something exciting is happening. But dreaming is about as much exercise as she gets.
She did take a few steps toward a herd of deer (the ones she tried to make Sixpack believe were buffalos) that scampered our way one evening in Texas, and went through the motions of barking uproariously. The deer looked at this silent charade with puzzled expressions on their faces. Abbie turned once and looked at me so incredulously, it was as though she couldn't believe she had lost her effectiveness.
The heat bothered her, so we ran the air conditioner more than we normally do, even when we had to use our generator in a parking lot. Once or twice, upon arriving at a campsite, we simply hosed her down with cool water. It eased her breathing, but what a pitiful spectacle!
Now, nearly six months later, she's much the same from one day to the next. On some evenings, her efforts to breathe seem so intense, we steel ourselves to make that inevitable phone call in the morning, for her last appointment with the vet.
Neither of us speaks of it, but we go to bed with our minds trying to grasp how it will be not to have Abbie anymore.
Then morning comes, and there she stands in her usual place on the screened porch, ears slightly lifted, tail waving slowly, eyes alight, waiting for what now passes as her morning walk. Sometimes she actually swings into a brief trot, and sniffs the overnight messages on tall weeds with such concentration it seems important secrets must be there.
She retired several months ago. Now we have to go get our own paper from the top of the driveway while she remains at its base, watching us. And when we get back to the kitchen, she's the one that gets the Milk-bones.
I cut out a Far Side cartoon years ago, captioned "How to recognize the moods of an Irish setter." It showed a grinning, sappy-looking Irish setter labeled "happy." Then a grinning, sappy-looking Irish setter labeled "depressed." Then a grinning, sappy-looking Irish setter labeled "angry."
You get the picture: "pensive," "excited," and "suicidal" were all exactly the same. Sometimes I worry that "in pain" looks like "comfortable."
And that "heart-broken" will look like me.
[Sallie Satterthwaite of Peachtree City has been writing for The Citizen since our first issue Feb. 10, 1993. Before that she had served as a city councilwoman and as a volunteer emergency medical technician. She is the only columnist we know who has a fire station named for her. Her email is]

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