Suburban Soliloquy #41

On the 24th of April of this year (2001), Boris Kuma-san Chaliapin, my gentle Newfoundland dog, was unleashed from existence.

I have mentioned Boris many times in these essays. Boris is the very first word that appears in the first Suburban Soliloquy I wrote. Back in 1988, the day before Christmas, Ms Keogh, my wife, spotted an ad in the newspaper offering a Newfie puppy for sale. She called and we followed up with a drive out to Lancaster County that very same afternoon, a trip of a hundred miles. At our destination we followed a country lane that led between snow-clad fields and it brought us to the dairy farm of a Mennonite family. The father wasn't home, but his well-mannered, rosy-cheeked boys of no more than ten years of age handled everything. They took us across deeply tracked mud and into an ancient fieldstone stable. In one stall was a new litter of cocker spaniels defended by a touchy, bleary-eyed mother. In another stall was a Holstein calf. But in the nearest stall were Newfoundlands.

The Newf mother was glad to see us. She seemed relieved to be rid of one of her three remaining puppies. We took the last male, the runt of the litter we were told. Boris was five pounds when we brought him home. He was over 190 pounds [86kg] at his peak. During the drive back from Lancaster he fitted on Ms Keogh's slender lap.

Ms Keogh is telling me, "write about that first night at home." We had built a low wall to keep him trapped in the bathroom in case he made a mess. I couldn't sleep for his crying and ended up sleeping next to him on the bathroom floor.

The Newfoundland is bred for lifesaving. They are fantastic swimmers with an instinct for rescue. This proclivity has earned them the position of ship dog on many a sailing vessel and steamer. Boris lived the retired life of a suburbanite and never had the opportunity to rescue anyone. Still, he demonstrated the instinct when he leaped into the flooding waters of the Neshaminy Creek to rescue loose timber and an empty beer bottle. He never had to prove his strength pulling either carts or boats. But we learned of his strength when, seeing a potential meal scurry by while being attached to the back of the house by a cord strong enough to tow a car, he pulled the stud out of the wall and dragged it behind him broken in half.

"He also dragged me," Ms Keogh is reminding me as I compose this essay. "Remember, he dragged me in my silk suit up a driveway after someone's cat. I screamed at him. He finally stopped. And then turned to figure out why I was in distress, but didn't see anything attacking me." And she laughs to think about it now. She wants me to tell my reader about his love of swimming, how he would not come out of the lake. To get him out, we had to throw branches in for him to rescue. He would bring them ashore and we could reconnect his lead.

It was the first May 2000 that Boris's hind legs gave out. I have it noted in my notebook-journal. After that he was unable to rise up on to his hind legs without my assistance. I'd have to clutch his haunches and lift his rear into the air. His stiff legs would drop into place beneath him and I would slowly lower him to his feet. From that point in time, Boris began depriving me of a good night's sleep, or, since I work most nights, a good day's sleep. For the last six months at least, rarely would Boris allow me to go two hours without waking me for assistance. It amazes me that I actually adapted to this condition, gathering sleep from a collection of short naps. Still, it had affected my health and my ability to be creative. And as the months progressed, the poor dog grew worse. He began to foul himself and the living room carpet with greater frequency. Eventually it became a daily occurrence.

Towards the end, Boris, who had earlier sequestered himself to the living room, abandoning the bed Ms Keogh built for him in the corner of our bedroom, became uncommonly lonely. He took to an incessant dull barking, a kind of huff, huff, huff, which stopped only when we joined him. We began to regularly play games of Five Hundred Rummy in the living room to keep him company. That satisfied him for a couple of months, but when it was no longer enough, Ms Keogh ordered the Swedish folding cot from L.L. Bean. We took turns sleeping in the living room.

In the last few weeks, it became considerably worse. Boris was fouling himself and the living room two or three times daily. If I got him up at all, he could barely manage to stay up for more than a few feet and then his legs would give out.

We found a veterinarian who would come to the house to do the disagreeable deed. Putting one's dog "to sleep" is a ridiculous euphemism for killing one's pet. But it works magically to take the sting out of the pronouncement. It wasn't easy to find a vet who would come to the house, but we were determined to see Boris die in familiar surroundings and among family.

On the last morning of his life, Ms Keogh stretched out a green blanket on the living room's carpeted floor and laid down a presentation of toasted bagels, cream cheese, lox, slices of tomatoes, and capers. The tomatoes and capers were for her, but the lox [smoked salmon] that was Boris's favourite food. There the three of us feasted. Boris could still eat with gusto. We snapped photographs of the occasion and Boris, for the rest of the day, was permitted as many treats as he wanted. For the remainder of his life, nothing was to be regarded as bad for him to have.

I spent most of the day in Boris's company, napping alongside him when he did on the cool tile floor of the foyer. Stroking him revealed how much life yet thrived beneath my palm. His skin was supple and warm, reacting to my touch. He breathed. Resting my hands against his side, I could feel the ongoing processes of life moving inside him. He sighed as I stroked him. It didn't feel right that we should be putting a stop to this.

That afternoon the mailman stopped by. He works a different route now, but after he finished, he stopped by to see old Boris one last time, to say farewell. In turn, I wished his wife the best of luck. She is in the advanced stages of colon cancer and was due to have surgery that Thursday.

The vet came as scheduled, late that night. She had to attend to all her other patients first, and then she could clear a large enough space in her small truck to carry Boris's body away. While she injected him, I held Boris in the folds my arms and hugged him. Only when I was sure he was dead did I allow my emotions freedom and I wept uncontrollably.

The next day I came home from some morning chores, the house still stinking from Boris, but he was not there in the living room waiting for me to lift up his back end, to wipe clean the excrement in the rug and in the long hairs of his backside. And I wanted to do it, if only to have had another day with him. Even now, five days later, I miss him terribly. When I hear a distant train whistle come through the night and enter the opened window of this room, I listen for Boris to bark in reply, as he always did, and it startles me that he doesn't, that it can't be.

Bruce Bentzman

Addendum: Newfies in History and Literature

This is the forty-first in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
For further reading, Mr Bentzman's book "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman" is available from Amazon.