Carmen confessed she wasn’t fond of dogs, and when I thought of the street creatures in The Philippines – scrawny, mangy curs – I could understand it. Only a few Filipinos have dogs for pets, and these are mostly pampered lapdogs – Shih Tzus and Maltese and the like, carried or carriaged through the malls wearing diapers; the street urchins are mostly ignored. To be fair, I never saw a Filipino deliberately aim his car at a dog sleeping on the road, and the dogs seemed to have an instinct that they would be left lie. To Carmen, dogs lived outdoors; so did cats, even though she had one of her own.
But I was surprised she was fearful of my dogs. Maybe it was the size – standard poodles are twice the size of the semi-feral mutts she was familiar with; maybe it was their ‘attentiveness’ – she found the way they made eye contact unnerving; maybe their eagerness was a little off-putting to a reluctant visitor – responding with enthusiasm if you gave them any sign at all. But who could blame Carmen’s anxiety when Bonnie tried to stand eye to eye with her.
When I introduced Carmen to them she was amazed that Halle, white, was black Bonnie’s mother. I explained genetics and Mendel’s peas to Carmen, told her the family history of poodles and the Jordans, showed her the two books I had written about the Jordan family Poodles, The Maxim Chronicles and The Hallelujah Chorus. (There’s a whole chapter in THC about genetics.)
Certainly she thought of dogs as dirty. Despite my claims that Poodles were not like dogs – they had hair, not fur, did not shed and were very clean – that didn’t impress her much. Having hair instead of fur means they don’t shed and so there is very little hair to sweep or vacuum up. But they do need frequent brushing to look their best. I showed Carmen how I brushed them out, the backyard picnic table serving as a grooming table. That didn’t impress her much either.
She didn’t like them to touch her with their noses or mouths, and she was disgusted if I allowed them to kiss me!
She didn’t like them sleeping on my bed, and so I had to put a stop to that; and she didn’t like them getting on the couches, but I didn’t stop that. Each had their own doggie bed in my bedroom; Halle used hers because she was too old and infirm to jump on the bed; daughter Bonnie didn’t sleep on her bed, she preferred mine and was puzzled when I insisted on the new boundaries. Even with the dogs sleeping on the floor, Carmen was not impressed; dogs should not be allowed in the bedroom.
Carmen asked about the girls’ food dishes in the kitchen. I explained that they were placed on a wooden crate about 10 inches off the floor, and the water dish on another crate right beside the other, because it was better for tall dogs not to have to bend their heads down to the floor to eat and drink. That drew a puzzled look. ‘But why are their dishes in the kitchen? Dogs should eat outside.’ I ducked the real answer and explained instead that Canadian winters made eating outside infeasible. That didn’t impress her much. She asked about the water dish in the upstairs bathroom, also on a raised stool, of course. I explained that was as a deterrent from drinking from the toilet. This certainly didn’t impress her much.
Poodles need a haircut about every six weeks, just like humans, more frequently if you are more fastidious and can afford it. A bath and a blow and a haircut took about 90 minutes and cost $120, each. Now that did impress Carmen, but not in a good way. Her own haircut at the local salon cost $55. It didn’t help when I pointed out that her mani-pedi cost another $40 but the girls’ nail cutting was included in the price of their grooming, tooth-brushing too.
Carmen asked how much it cost to buy those poodles. I explained to her that it was complicated; these poodles were registered pedigreed dogs and Grand Champions to boot and intended for breeding. $3500, each. But I said, raising them, and showing them, not to mention vet bills and grooming costs, were a lot more. I’m not sure whether Carmen was impressed or appalled.
‘How much are the vet bills?’ Carmen asked. She already had an inkling from the few months she lived with us: Halle’s health problems, arthritic hips, were the biggest cash drain: $135 a month for Metacam (for inflammation); $90 a month for the gabapentin (pain), (but this increased as Halle’s dosage increased); $75 every six weeks for the New Zealand mussels glucosamine; $225 for her physical examination. However, it cost $1900 for Bonnie’s examination, shots, and x-rays, and teeth cleaning. More amazement on that Filipina’s face. I decided not to tell her about Halle’s surgery four years earlier for Mast cell tumours, nor about Bonnie’s emergency surgery for gastric dilatation volvulus.
The girls each had separate food dishes and Bonnie was trained to go around the kitchen table to eat from her own dish, leaving the other for Hallelujah. Halle needed twice-daily doses of Metacam for her ailing hips and this would not be good for Bonnie. Carmen was impressed with that. Smart.
For more than 30 years, almost every night, I had walked the family poodles (Bonnie was the fifth), only missing if I was out of town on business or the weather so foul they wouldn’t go out. And now that I worked from a home office, I also walked them mid-afternoon most days. Carmen naturally joined us on these walks – she didn’t want to be left alone in the house and she was interested in exploring the neighbourhood. The girls loved their walks and they knew the routes. I didn’t like to go the same way every day and so the dogs would stop whenever we came to a choice, look at me for a sign, and then off in that direction. They both had leashes but I often let them walk on their own, the leashes looped over their torsos. They walked at heel when told, and waited at the corner for permission to proceed. Carmen was impressed. All that was needed was vigilance, for other dogs, and for our dogs’ deposits, for which we carried little plastic bags. Carmen was amazed!
She wasn’t interested in holding a leash, and was nervous when the dogs entangled her in them. But as the weeks and months of Carmen’s sojourn in Canada passed, she became more and more engaged in the walks. She became vigilant of the dogs’ deposits, but left the scopping for me. She began to hold Halle’s leash; Halle, being less exuberant with her aging infirmity, needed the leash not so much for control as encouragement.
By July, Halle was becoming so weak she couldn’t manage the stairs by herself, and she needed to be supported when she squatted to pee. Carmen became comfortable with this task, though at times Halle would surprise us if we weren’t paying close enough attention; and that meant she needed to be cleaned up when we got home. I used large cleansing wipes but this was a task too far for Carmen.
It was becoming increasingly obvious that Halle’s quality of life was deteriorating. She was 15 ½ years old now and I knew soon I would have to face the reality of her demise. One day in July as I was metering out her meds I stopped to count the remaining supply before I would have to replenish: 23 days. I decided that was enough. It was the right thing to do. I phoned Lynwood Animal Hospital and made an appointment with Dr. Roscoe for August 6th. As the days marched inexorably on I was acutely aware that this would be yet one more dreadful date in my August calendar: my wedding anniversary (August 8), Marlene’s birthday (August 30), my birthday (August 27), Marlene’s death (August 19), Emily’s last text (August 20), but I refused to dwell on those endings, nor on Halle’s.
I was ever so grateful for Carmen’s company as we took Hallelujah on her last trip to the vet. Of course I cried, but I refused to grieve. I had had enough of grief.
In the remaining months of Carmen’s time in Canada she bonded more and more with Bonnie. She put her leash over her head, she made her heel – perhaps a little too harshly, she changed her water dish, religiously. When I was out of the house on business Carmen would wait in the upstairs front bedroom for my return, Bonnie sleeping nearby in the hall waiting too. When I returned Bonnie always knew it first and was downstairs at the door to greet me; Carmen would look out the window to see my car pull in the driveway. Bonnie came to be attached to Carmen, out of respect or fear I’m not quite sure, and Carmen became very fond of Bonnie. She even worked up the courage to have Bonnie take treats from her hand, but not quite. Carmen’s family were amazed when they heard about the poodles: ‘Mama, you don’t like dogs!’ ‘Yes, but Tito likes dogs and now so do I.’ But that wasn’t the whole story, Carmen had come to love those poodles for their own sake.
On October 23 we took Bonnie to stay with daughter Alison for five months while Carmen and I spent the winter in The Philippines. But I knew I would not be taking her back when I returned. She would be Alison’s dog by then and I couldn’t see upsetting her, and Alison’s little boys, nor Bonnie when we returned to Canada. It would be another loss. But it too was the right thing to do.
Saying goodbye to Bonnie marked another major change in my life. When Marlene had died I had thought, when Halle was gone, I would get another poodle and train him as a therapy dog. But now I knew that, so long as I was exchanging domiciles with Carmen, 12,000 miles apart, there would be no more poodles in my life.