Toward the end of our packing on the evening before our flight, Jena and I went to my parents' house for dinner. We ate a good meal—hamburgers and hotdogs grilled by my parents. We chatted, and Jena and I tried to forget the lingering duties we still needed to tend to at home before we left our apartment and the city where I have lived for the past six years.
In addition to this being our last homemade dinner in America, it was the night I had to say goodbye to Walter, our family dog. Walter joined the household nine or ten years ago. Legend has it that the pound picked him up near the dumpsters at Arby’s in Heber City, Utah. At the pound, he had a euthanasia date that the employees overlooked because of Walter’s charm and their belief that he would find a good home. (They hadn’t actually euthanized a dog in four years or so because the dogs there were consistently adopted out.) Thus, Walter, the biggest dog in the place, went home with my parents after they began volunteering as dog-walkers after Calvin had died.
Walter began his life with us in Utah, and has since made the move to Flagstaff. He enjoys a pleasant life, though recently he suffered an injury due to a mishap at the kennel while my parents were on a trip. As I'm told, the handler who was bringing Walter out of the back took an alternate route through a pen that he thought was empty. Yet, as it turned out, a dog was in the pen, and the dog attacked Walter. He tore his right ear in three places. One tear near the head, one at mid ear, and one at the end, which was so bad that Walter had to have the lower end of his ear removed.
Due to the injury, Walter has acquired a plastic opaque, white cone that fans out in at least a foot around his head. At times it reminds me of a lion's mane, an angel's halo, or a dollar store's cheaply made funnel. Walter is still working on understanding how much room he needs to allow for his cone when walking though doorways, turning corners, and brushing up against human legs. When he catches his cone, and it scrapes and flops loudly as it rebounds back against his face. Inside the cone, of course, is Walter’s bandaged head, and only one ear is visible. Extra furry skin is pushed forward by his wrappings such that from certain angles, he slightly resembles a chow. He is a lab.
To assist him with the recovery, I had been visiting Walter frequently. I have allowed him to press his head, cone included, into my chest as I kneel in front of him. I have thoroughly brushed his coat so that he’s not too hot while sleeping through medicated dreams. I have carefully dug my fingers under his bandages where he isn't injured and itched him enough to make his rear leg go. His spirits was more than willing, then, on the night of my last dinner with my family, to go for a short walk.
After dinner, we went to Buffalo Park in Flagstaff which is a vast meadow surrounded by low mountains. Walter and I have spent a plethora of time there together over our years in Arizona. When he was young and full of unceasing vim and vigor, I’d take him to the backside of the park and throw a tennis ball down the hill there. He would promptly retrieve the ball as if the act were the most critical responsibility concerning his existence. Other times, we walked across the park to the network of trails on the backside. During these walks, I read Moby Dick and trusted Walter to guide me like I was blind. Once, I remember we took a shortcut through the long grass of the meadow only to find it was peppered by small cacti that broke off in little sea urchin-esque balls with one-inch white needles. Walter’s every step resulted in injured paws, so I grabbed the eighty-five pound cur into my arms and carried him the rest of the way back to the parking lot.
Now that Walter is a bit older and slower, he still enjoys Buffalo Park by walking the two-mile loop on the dirt path on a leash. Like many dogs, he urinates, defecates, and sniffs nearly every blade of grass.
In the parking lot on this night in particular, Walter first ran his cone along a stone entryway wall sniffing vigorously. He scraped the thing against each of the trash cans, making a sound to rival a plastic sound. On the trail, he scooped up dirt as if his cone were a trowel each time he bent to the ground. The grass is long and dry at this point of the summer, before the monsoons. It was the type that is replete with those seeds that get stuck in your socks if you so much as glance at them. It was this grass, though, that made us laugh. When Walter stopped to scrutinize clump after clump, both he and the grass disappeared momentarily, leaving only the body of a dog, a wagging tail, and a cone.
We enjoyed the first half of the walk. We joked that Walter’s cone gave him extreme focus to his sense of smell. It must have been like wearing a permanent pair of binoculars for one of us. I wondered about Walter’s sense of object permanence, whether his body had ceased to exist because he couldn’t see it. I imagined his head like the giant one in Zardoz that floats above the ground.
As the evening darkened with the waning light, Walter trailed behind. It was then that he suddenly began sneezing explosively. Not just one, two, or three times. Five must have come out in rapid succession by the time I got to him. In his nose I saw two short spines extended from his nostril. I reached in immediately and pulled on one of them with my fore fingernail and thumb before Walter cringed downward in another sneeze. The spine bent, thank god, so I suspected it was merely grass as opposed to a cactus spine. I certainly hadn’t pulled it out, though, and Walter continued to sneeze.
Before and during his sneezes, Walter’s good—or, rather, ear-ed side of his face—contracted, beginning at his brow and continuing down to his lower right jowl. His nose pulled rightward as well, and his head lifted for a moment as if the sensation would pass. And then the sneeze inevitably shot from his snout like a bullet from gun.
More motivated and aggressive, now, I reached into the cone and grabbed the top of Walter’s snout as my father held his body. His mouth was wet with saliva, and my ring finger slipped between his molars. As I went in with my left hand, to make another grab at the spine, a sneeze ran through Walter’s face, and he closed his jaw like a vice. When yanked my hand from the cone, my ring finger began to bleed profusely where the nail meets the skin. The digit still moved, however, so I supposed it wasn’t broken. Standing back for a moment, I watched my father continue to work with Walter, trying time after time to pull the grass seed from his nose.
Although my father was unable to remove the seed from Walter’s nose, Walter’s sneezing eventually began to slow as we walked back toward the car. His cone was now covered in mud from snot, saliva, and dirt. Jena had given me a tissue that I kept around my throbbing finger, and my mother tried to keep the conversation up, but a sobering silence descended upon us.
Back at home, my mother made us root beer floats while I cleaned my wound and my father cleaned Walter’s cone. We ate the root beer floats with Walter’s belabored breathing coming from the next room where he laid on the floor.
When it was time to leave, I realized quickly that I had no idea when I would see him again as Jena and I will be gone for at least a year. But the goodbye was surprisingly easy. I simply sat on top of him, and bent over to him a hug. Walter and I have a thousand memories together, and some of the most memorable have been the ones where one of us gets hurt. Tonight it was both of us—him with the sneezing and me with the bruised and bleeding finger. There was comfort in the mutual discomfort.
I will miss Walter, but there I have no doubt that my parents will continue to tend to him well. In the car on the way to the airport the next morning, my mother asked if she could send us anything via email that would help to mitigate homesickness. Immediately, I suggested pictures of Walter.