PHOEBE, A “SWEET DOG,” DIED THURSDAY. Not from natural causes, but gently, the way many of us might want to choose if cancer invaded our multiple organs as it had done to hers.
She was credited as being the principal author and creative force of this blog, variously named “On Trump’s Trail,” and “Tracking Trump,” and more recently,” Dangerous Times."
I suppose this is a good time to acknowledge that it’s improbable that a dog, much less a cat and an opossum, could be responsible for a blog. I mean, it's absurd, right?
But in fact Phoebe was the project’s inspiration. She guided every posting. She was the antithesis of Donald J. Trump: she was kind, thoughtful, honest, loving, decent, gentle, fun to be with and no threat to democracy.
Mainly, Phoebe was a “sweet dog.” Everyone said so.
This was first documented in the notes of the veterinarian who gave her the once-over in 2010, a week after she had been brought to Rhode Island from Missouri, where she had been picked up as a 6-month-old stray.
The vet found her infested with fleas, with bad teeth and a “hacking” cough. But he or she also took care to scribble this comment: “Sweet dog."
My wife, Judy (referred to in the blog as the “Nice One”) and I (the “Grouchy One”) adopted her two years later from Middletown’s Potter League shelter. We know nothing of her previous caretaker, only that she had not been abused, physically or psychologically. We, too, immediately realized that she was “sweet.”
I’ve long tried to figure out why this was this was so.
Her face, with long eyelashes, deep brown eyes that were encircled by buttons of black and set against the delicate white fur on the rest of her face, plus hints of a smile -- maybe these combined to telegraph a subliminal message that all was well. It sounds sexist to say, but her face was exquisitely feminine.
One of the first times I saw the connection she had with everyone was during a visit to Wellfleet on Cape Cod. Phoebe and I sat on a stoop while others in our party ducked in and out of the village's shops. It seemed every man and woman and even some teenagers stopped to talk.
They started by saying that she was so beautiful, followed by the standard questions: what kind of a dog, how old, what was her name and could they pat her? Often they mentioned their own dogs, some dead, others left behind during this vacation, and often they said something about their lives. This happened regularly throughout her years. Sometimes we'd be walking, and a driver would stop their car, roll down the window, just to say hi. To her, not me.
There are answers to the questions. She was part yellow Labrador retriever, her dominant background. We also suspected there was Husky in the mix, the clues being the curl of her tail and a ring of thick fur around her neck and throat. Maybe she had a bit of Southern hound, because she was an obsessive sniffer, far beyond what was reasonable for a normal dog.
I also worried, in color-poisoned America, whether her nearly pure white coat was the reason. I hoped not, but like everything else about race, nothing is certain. I never saw bias on Phoebe’s part due to gender, age, occupation, skin, size, IQ or party affiliation.
The exception was the mail lady, who was blond.
Sweet Phoebe was a committed watchdog, and from her perch on the enclosed sun porch, she perpetually embarrassed us by barking rudely at all people who walked by, despite our repeated lectures that the sidewalk was a public right-of-way, and what’s more, a baby stroller or an elderly man's cane were no threat to national security.
The mail lady, whose official duties required going onto the actual front porch, adjacent to the sun porch, was subject to a full air-raid blast during every delivery. To her credit, the mail lady was always cheerful and maybe realized – as would a seasoned burglar — that Phoebe’s furiously wagging tail signaled that anyone who actually made it through the front door would be warmly welcomed.
In Pre-Covid Times, when we had actual, not virtual visitors, we humans would get to talking. After 10 minutes of this nonsense, Phoebe would barge into the middle of the group, halting all conversation until the topic returned to a proper subject, “what a sweet dog.”
You’d have thought, given her retriever ancestry, that she would obsessively return a thrown tennis ball. Instead, she scooped up the ball, and tossed it into the air, caught it, tossed it into the air, caught it….
Phoebe had a bedtime routine. She would to jump onto our bed, the only dog the Nice One ever allowed to do so, and insert herself between us so she could be petted and fussed over. After a few minutes, she climbed down and headed for one of her three official sleeping accommodations: a standard dog bed next to our bed; a futon in an adjoining room; and a three-cushion couch downstairs on the sun porch.
There was a soft green blanket, on the dog bed, a gift from the Nice One. With her nose and front paws, Phoebe would spend several minutes arranging the blanket, and when she finally had it just so, she would collapse onto the bed, her long nose buried under the blanket.
Many people have noted the clockwork that's embedded in the canine brain. Phoebe knew precisely when it was time to eat or to take her several walks, including the longer mid-afternoon one.
Should I forget what was on tap next, or pretend to, Phoebe would silently appear and just sit, staring, her face in its I’m-As-Cute-As-A-Baby-Seal mode. Staring. Never moving. Staring. Staring. Staring. It always worked.
Phoebe was reliably reliable, in contrast to her predecessor, Lucie, a powerful part-Lab, part-greyhound, whom we euphemistically described as “assertive.” When coming upon another dog, Lucie made sure the other dog understood the hierarchy, which is why we preemptively crossed the street. When there were visitors at home, or large family gatherings on Thanksgiving and Christmas, Lucie was always on a leash, meals included.
Phoebe, on the other hand, was consistently calm and welcoming. That was the case even in emergencies, when small children spotted her at the park and came on the run, yelling “Doggie, Doggie,” as their terrified mothers screamed “What have I told you about strange dogs?” while frantically dialing 911 on their cell phones. Phoebe was patient as the children grabbed her velvet ears and pushed and tugged her mid-sides and stuck their faces into hers. It would be nice to think that Judy and I had something to do with this, but Phoebe was predisposed to be civil, something reinforced with each positive encounter.
It didn’t work.
Phoebe grew older. Our wizard veterinarian, Dr. Kristin Braga of Portsmouth, extended Phoebe's tenure, for instance diagnosing Cushing’s Disease, which was successfully treated with pills and periodic monitoring.
As Joe Biden’s election passed its first anniversary, Phoebe became increasingly fussy about her meals, and by January, Braga ordered x-rays, then an ultrasound, both scans showing “masses” (read "cancer") in Phoebe’s liver, spleen, kidneys and pancreas. Treatment was discussed only briefly.
Phoebe rebounded. She began eating ravenously, chased and wrestled with Ben, our new and often fierce kitten. One time, Phoebe found one of Ben’s stuffed mouse toys, picked it up in her mouth, and dropped it front of the kitten.
It didn’t last.
Day by day, we watched her decline. Maybe she followed our discussions. I know this is anthropomorphic, but I’m certain she figured something was up, and that she didn’t have a say about critical factors, such as the what, the where and the when. But she knew the who.
She stopped eating altogether. Needed to go out every hour or two. I slept on a downstairs couch, so we could visit the backyard on demand. Her breathing became labored and her back legs lost more strength every day.
Her skeleton was visible under her fur coat, which remained luxurious and soft, but you could still feel the sharpness of the bones. She slept, went out; slept, went out, even braved the deep snow left by the Blizzard of ‘22, determined to avoid making a mess of things indoors.
Our daughter later came up with the right word: “joyful.” Phoebe's life wasn't joyful any more, and dignity was slipping away.
But is there really a “right” time? Today, next week, next season? Consulting our guidelines, physical condition and dignity, the answer turned out to be Feb. 3, at 11:15 a.m.
The first shot was a sedative, and, as promised, Phoebe seemed to sleep. Suddenly, I felt relief, as if terrible weight was lifted from her, the fight she had undertaken to keep living, and not just for her own sake. A second shot stopped her heart.
We could pick up her ashes in a week. That meant a new set of questions: where to take them? She had guided us to so many perfect places in Newport. Access points to the Cliff Walk, especially the seaweed clogged beach at the end of Marine Avenue, where I had delivered my parents’ ashes. The towering gate to the Breakers mansion. The generous shores of Fort Adams State Park. That secret stone bench someone had installed off Ocean Drive, overlooking storybook inlets.
We knew, but couldn’t yet feel, the emptiness of Sweet Phoebe’s leaving.
We knew, but couldn't really measure the wonder she had shared with us. There never would be another Sweet Phoebe, surely not during our diminishing seasons, days, hours.
Should we have waited another day?