Cyn Kitchen


Charlee, my pug, is dying. Not imminently, but as my sister, a former hospice nurse would say, “She’s on the path.”

Something happened a few nights ago. Not a full-blown stroke, but she seems to be suffering the after-effects of a pathway breaking in her brain. She’s not stable on her feet, especially when her head is down and she’s trying to drink. She paces. What’s weird is she mostly keeps to the periphery of whatever room she’s in, her right shoulder riding the wall, turning left at each corner, like a NASCAR driver.

Years ago she went blind from typical pug cataracts but she’s survived well in spite of them. Or at least I think she has. That’s to say she bumps into things occasionally but we, her humans, have done our best to keep the furniture in one place and to mind her so she doesn’t hurt herself. She’s very trusting on a leash plus as long as she has her pit bull, Scout, by her side she remains calm and confident. 

Now, though, whatever switch in her brain failed is driving her to bump into things she knew were there before. The wall. The table leg. Her food bowl. She keeps walking through the feeding area, dumping the dry dog food and then plowing unhindered through the water dish. Earlier today she found me standing at the sink and pressed her head into my leg while I stood there. As if comforted by the anchor of me, she didn’t move until I did.

Charlee has been the clown of the family for fourteen years. Her googly eyes and frenetic personality have entertained us if not also made her an easy target for ridicule. Never the warm and cuddly companion, her presence has always been other. She’s part of the property not unlike the faulty wiring, largely unnoticed until a breaker trips.

I can’t say she was ever housebroken. The only thing standing between me and cleaning up an indoor mess is timing. If I’m off by much she’s perfectly comfortable leaving it for me on the floor. I haven’t had rugs for a decade and a half because those are her favorite toilet. She likes the one spot in the dining room at the end of the table or, oddly enough, the threshold to the bathroom. She’s never been one to fight her urges and no amount of shaming has ever convinced her otherwise.

Charlee’s personality is big-dog but even as pugs go she’s a runty 19 pounds. Her bark is more like a muffled under-water cry, and she hasn’t had teeth for I don’t know how long. The loudest things about her are her farts and her breathing. In fact, her breathing sounds more threatening than her bark. She has startled adults and reduced small children to tears with her snorts. I’ve grown accustomed, but visitors are shocked by the jarring sound of Charlee dragging air through her short-muzzled face.

I’ve only half-jokingly referred to her as an idiot and a moron. She can’t sit still when someone strokes her fur. Human touch churns her in circles, fires up her snarfy breathing and excites her to the verge of popping.

But not since the other night. She’s calmed down to a disturbing level, and when I pet her now and she takes it, a look in her milky eyes like comfort.

Whatever short-circuited her brain must only be the beginning. She’s getting old, and I’ve watched her fade over the years but this episode is a marked step down.

Her breathing grew ragged and her tongue hung low and swollen, right eye drooping. She looked hammered. Her body quaked in a standing position even as she refused to lie on the blanket I gave her. I don’t know if her brain was in overdrive because she couldn’t calm down or she couldn’t calm down because her brain was in overdrive.

Within minutes of slipping a tiny Benadryl past her gums, she finally slid to her knees and rolled her tongue back into her mouth. Her body quieted and she slept all night.

The next morning she was better but still not right. Since then, each day she awakens I am reminded, “Oh yeah, Charlee’s broken.” Every day, though, she rallies and before you know it, has added another one to the count.

I’ve become her convalescent nurse helping her in and out of the house, up and down from her favorite chair. In addition to her new challenges, she’s arthritic and her hearing is shot. When I call her name she runs the other way in search of me. I have to keep an eye on her out here in the country. If she wanders off into the cornfield where her fawn coat matches the severed stalks, I’ll never find her.

“When it’s time I want to be the one,” my war veteran son tells me. He doesn’t believe in asking a doctor or anyone else to do the dirty work of putting down a pet. He says it’s irresponsible. I don’t understand this, but I respect it.

Three years ago when my Staffordshire, Pilot, could no longer stand up and her life was one long suffering, he dug a hole. I sat with her on the floor holding her head and crying it out while he paced outside smoking one cigarette after another. When it was time – I don’t know how we decide when it’s time – I got in my truck to drive around my country mile. I wanted no memory of the gun report, no image of the moment. When I returned home twenty minutes later, there was a spot of fresh dirt in the yard and Pi was gone.

I never asked to hear the story but he told it anyway, months later. That he’d carried her to the hole and she’d lain there at its rim with her head held high looking him square in the eye, nobly, as if she knew what was coming and understood.


I left Pilot in the house when I left my second husband. The move went fast, propelled by fear, me grabbing what I might need the next few days plus his guns, a .357 Magnum, a “Dirty Harry” .44.  I also took Charlee who at the time could still see, and Scout, the younger of the terriers. I left Pilot because she was his dog, and I thought he would come home that night. I thought that when he discovered I was gone and his guns were gone that he would at least be reassured by the presence of his dog— something still his.

But he didn’t return that night. I drove around the neighborhood after dark and again during his work hours to see if he might have taken the day off to pack his things. The terror that gripped me prevented my return to the house because what if he showed up while I was there? What if now that he’d had time to think about his predicament, he snapped?

I’d seen the light in his eyes go flat before. Some mornings he’d wake up exhausted and tell me about the dream he’d had of beating his ex-wife. He’d beat her until he could no longer lift his arms. He’d beat her into silence. He could never beat her enough. I don’t know why he told me these dreams.

He spent six years in the Marine Corps and his hero was Carlos Hathcock, a combat sniper with 93 confirmed kills. Once, after two of my sons got into a fistfight he stuck his finger in the face of the instigator and said, “I could put a bullet in your head right now and not flinch.”

One of his biggest regrets was that he’d never seen combat. He’d never had his mettle tested on the battlefield, and I think he fancied himself a hero who never got the chance to prove it. I also think he fantasized what it might be like to take a human life. He had plenty of practice on non-human lives. Somehow this wasn’t enough.

His capacity for darkness deepened as our marriage aged but by year seven things seemed to level off, maybe even get better. Then my daughter told me what he had done to her years before and in one quick instant it was over.

The only way I knew to handle the cleaving was tactically. The night I confronted him I kept my voice low and calm, making no quick movements, no damning promises. I let him think it was possible to fix this though in my mind it was already over. I knew I had to be very cautious so as not to incite an attack. I had to let him hold me under his paw, and wait.

That night I slept in a spare bedroom. Except I didn’t sleep. I lay on my daughter’s old bed in a dark room, wide-awake. All three dogs followed me, surrounded me on the bed. They didn’t sleep either, could sense that something was terribly wrong. I kept getting up to drink more water from the tap in the tiny half-bath closet. Nothing quenched my thirst, my mouth gone to paste.

At 3am I heard his door open down the hall followed moments later by a flush from the main bath. As I waited to hear his bedroom door close again, my heart stopped at the sound of my own door opening. He moved around the foot of the bed where I lay with the dogs and he sat down. He never wore clothes to bed and this night was no different as he sat there, completely naked, only hours after I learned what he’d done to my daughter when she was a little girl.

I sat up. My heart stamped against my rib cage as if it might gallop away. I heard my own breathing, felt swallowed in the darkness. Then he whispered, “I’m so sorry.”

I didn’t know what this meant. Sorry for what? Was he admitting? Confessing?

Earlier, when I’d confronted him with the accusation, he’d denied everything. He’d said he couldn’t remember. He offered that perhaps if he was hypnotized we could get some answers. His response to my daughter’s claims were so absurd I knew he’d rehearsed them for years in anticipation of this moment.

I said nothing in response to his apology, and then he asked, “Can I have a hug?”

Again my mind tumbled off into implications. Did a hug mean I forgave him because I did not and would never. Did a hug mean that we were good? Did it mean we would get through this? Because we wouldn’t. I’d make sure of that. Just not yet.  A hug, however, required that I allow him to fold me into the crook of his bicep that bulged with a strength I’d witnessed many times, far beyond my own. A hug meant submission. But refusing him might cause him to pounce. So I let him hug me. Leaning into him felt like laying my head on the guillotine. With one quick snap he could silence me. I cooed and petted the beast to keep him calm. I demonstrated my submission, and he spared my life.

When he released his hold he said, “You can come back to bed.”

“I’ll stay here for tonight,” I said, my insides quaking.

As he stood to leave the room he said to the dogs, “Come on, girls,” but no one budged. Then he walked away, closing the door behind him.

I did not blink the rest of the night. Every creak in the walls, every shush of the wind slammed my lids to the top of my skull and pinned them there. I could not pray. Every thought a chaos of neurons. I listened in terror for the footfalls of his return and dared not move.

When morning came, he left for work without a word. When I’d given him enough time to be gone, I called my sons. “Come get me,” I said. “And bring your truck.”   

I’ve never forgiven myself for leaving Pilot that day. My rationale was that when he came home and found me gone he’d take the olive branch of his dog’s presence as a sign that I meant him no harm, that I wasn’t out to get him for everything, that I was thinking of his welfare too but that I had to sort things out. Except he didn’t come home that night or the next and the longer he was gone, the more I worried about the dog and the growing possibility that he would show up at any minute. By day three, I had to do something, so I returned to the house with my sons who were carrying loaded weapons.

My heart pounded as I unlocked the door to my own home. Any moment, I feared, all hell could break loose if he pulled in the driveway.

I walked in the door and began calling for Pilot. She hadn’t heard me enter, so I went through the house shouting her name. When I reached the top of the stairs she burst from the bedroom in the most explosive display of relief I’ve ever witnessed. Her body wound around me as her tail slammed side to side. The noises she made, the whines and barks and murmurs revealed the sense of abandonment that must have set in. She truly thought she would never see her people again. Her joy and relief broke my heart. The messes she made broke my heart. Her empty food bowl broke my heart.

It was foolish to think he cared about her. Later, when we finally spoke again and I explained to him that I’d taken Pilot he said, “Sure… Whatever.”

Pilot lasted a few more short years until that morning when we found her bleeding and unable to stand. These days I drive the riding mower over her grave but still can’t shake the dull ache in my chest for how it all went. She was a better dog than that man. She was a better man than that dog.


Scout’s death will be awful. For as much as Charlee’s presence is like a furnishing, Scout is another sibling to my kids. Scout is my buddy. Her undeniable human qualities have woven her into the fabric of this family. Though we’ve all bonded with her, it’s Joe who has her heart. As a pup they connected like kindreds in an uncanny way the rest of us marveled at and maybe even envied. When Joe is around there is no one else in Scout’s eyes.

But Joe moved to Denver where pit bulls are against the law and guerrilla groups of pity haters kidnap them for execution. It broke Joe’s heart to leave her in Illinois but he loves her enough to want her to live, so she’s with me. Which is fine because I love this dog and she’s a good guard for a single woman living in the country. We sleep together, run together, and on warm evenings we sit together on the porch where she leans against my legs while staring off towards the clearing across the road waiting for the creatures to emerge from the woods into their nighttime worlds. Sometimes she barks. Or chases after shadows. But most times she’s content, like me, to sit back and let the day close in like a prayer as the fireflies entertain with their delicate light show.

I don’t ever want to lose Scout but I know some day it will happen. Her hips are already bad, and I often wonder if they’re this bad at seven years old how bad will they get?

One day last spring, the wind was blowing and it was 40 degrees in the middle of May. Scout was having a puppy dream at my feet, whining and slapping her tail against the floor in her sleep as if something had emerged from the wood and she was given to hot pursuit. Then she woke up, looked out the window as if to check reality against her fantasies before curling back down and settling in to peace. Charlee snored in a ball at the center of Scout’s warm body. The two of them make a good team.

I know the way the story ends. But I don’t know the path that gets me there. Any moment it can all change, a knowledge so terrifying that I realize again how much courage it takes just to keep living. To keep loving. To keep waiting, at the edge of the woods, for whatever’s coming and praying that as night descends, the fireflies will arrive like angels, as will the reassuring weight of my companions, leaning warm against my leg, reminding me that I am not alone. God knows – I have never been alone.