I taught Cowboy to sit, to lie down, and not to walk on the dining room table, but I truly believe most of the education process was the other way around. I learned to stop and smell roses. I learned the one-second grudge. I learned headlong hope. I learned to roll in leaves. Cowboy also rolled in dead fish, a yelping celebration of life I didn’t quite understand, though it was consistent with the examples I did follow. He was pretty much happy about everything, all the time.
Cowboy couldn’t teach me to solve problems, not in a detailed way, but he did listen with patience, providing an acceptable form of adult self talk, without the billing. There were also clear priorities. Dogs never diss, but it’s instructive what they ignore: TV, fashion, politics, the NFL, cars, cash. Super Bowl or Survivor or whoppers on Fox, it makes no difference. Offer a dog a hundred dollar bill and he walks away as if it were broccoli. It’s always Eden with a dog.
And so, Cowboy. He was happy with March. Or September. 3:00 a.m. was wonderful. Or noon. He greeted rain or sun with the same gladness. Snow and ocean were wonderful. Cheese, wonderful. Monday, wonderful. He’d shift from sleep to alert joy instantly, brown eyes again surprised and pleased by existence.
Cowboy understood ‘beach,’ ‘walk,’ ‘ball,’ ‘Sandy,’ and ‘John,’ all action words because it’s about doing with a dog, nothing is lyrical. At these sounds he jumped, cried and barked at once, by which he meant: ‘just so, oh yes yes!’ He especially liked the verb ‘cheese.’ And, of course, he recognized ‘Cowboy,’ though if we referred generically to ‘the dog’ in conversation, he would turn, knowing that reference too, and be enormously uninsulted.
Cowboy’s favorite word was ‘out,’ to which he responded: ‘just so, oh yes yes yes!’ Most days we’d drive to the beach. If it was warm, I rolled down his window and he’d hang his head in the breeze, a lesson for living we all recognize. After the beach, he’d get back into the car and park his wet self with a happy sigh. At the bakery, we split a donut. Then we’d drive around for a while listening to Rameau or the Stones.
When Cowboy died, friends said, “Get another dog.” As if I were not missing Cowboy and our story, from that bright Wyoming spring to the vet vigils. No dog for now, not in grief over a death that remains impossible. Cowboy is in the yard, on the sofa, under the bed, this desk. I still look for him in split seconds of hope before reason interferes. Denial? Just so.
In this empty house, Cowboy will slowly become his picture, passing into that fond anonymity that pet portraits have. Someone’s beloved dog. I’ve already given his food to the birds. I don’t flush the toilet twice or answer a staccato bark that means he’s again stitched himself to the pear tree. I am learning how not to have a dog. It’s a difficult lesson and one I don’t quite understand, but I will master it, like the others. I am living in the present. I am eating cheese.
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