You do not notice breathing until it is difficult. Then it is all you notice. Ragged breaths that come from the stomach up into a chest that once bellowed air as easily and reflexively as one might blink.
The old dog nearly died on the bathroom floor of a Days Inn. Imagined carrying his cooling carcass out to the pickup, imagined that too-long drive eastward toward home. Imagined the cold stiff burial under a Montana cottonwood turning October yellow. Imagined a lot of things. Did not imagine revival, but he did.
He rode in the front seat thirteen hours home, too weak to piss without being lifted out onto roadside grass.
At home, snow dusted the tall-back above 12,000 and the tailwind that chased you all the way from the coast peeled leaves off the aspens, alders, cottonwoods, robbing the fall of its color. But the bellows kept going, the machinery, pumping, filling, emptying, repeat. Pumping, filling, emptying.
The old dog home on his bed in front of the crackling woodstove, an old dog who does things his own way. Doesn’t die when you think death just on the next page, never came when called and on deer track, never lost a taste for discarded socks or detritus from toddler-feeding chaos, always retrieved and hardly ever pointed–just the exact opposite of every other setter on the planet. Outdid field trial champion Labs on water retrieves for Christ’s sake, but you think he’d point for more than a tenth of a second?
He crawls off soft bed for hard tile floor, laps water, pisses himself. Meds onboarded, food offered and refused for the first time ever. Draining, slowly down the drain. But the machinery still going. In. Out. In. Out. Thump. Thump. Thump.
Later. Not wagging his tail anymore even when hugged in the tears of his 8-year-old. Even when she places a spare sock in front of his nose and says, “I love you, Scouty, you can have these socks.”
Tomorrow. It will be tomorrow. And when tomorrow comes and the pickup is brought close to the front door so the carry will be easy, he goes his own way and the machinery stops. Ironic poetry from an old dog whose idea of verse would probably have been bawdy limerick told in a dank pub somewhere in the country. Yet the poetry: the machinery stops without veterinary action. Spares himself that final ride, spares his loves their final despairing decision.
The pump stops and the wind tails westward and all is quiet except the whispered cries of those left in the slipstream.