Dreadful Sorry, Clementine
The love and guilt of caring for a dog
When I think back on the day we moved into our apartment, the particulars are very hazy. The movement of the furniture, and the movers carrying it, and myself, are like a cloud in my memory, spreading indistinctly over the area of the apartment as I now know it. How long did it take? Was it especially stressful, compared to our other moves? Though this was the fifth apartment my wife and I had moved into together, it was the first time we had moved since becoming parents, and that certainly made the whole thing seem higher stakes. Yet I do not think the move itself was especially stressful.
One moment does stand out in the recesses of imperfect memory. After the movers began winding up, as all but one of them were out the door, indeed the very moment that the last of them was asking for my signature so that he could leave—I looked down absentmindedly, and noticed that my dog’s face was larger than usual. It occurred to me that this might be an alarming development, one that required decisive action on my part. The possibility of a moment’s peace after a successful move slipped through my fingers as my dog stared up at me, apparently clueless that half of her face was rapidly expanding. I called her vet to let them know we were coming and took the first Uber who would allow a dog in the back seat with me.
This incident is in many ways typical of how I relate to Clementine, our big dumb pit bull we rescued in early 2014. From the time we brought her home from a foster in New Jersey, trembling and dripping snot all over our apartment until a thin layer of the stuff coated the floor, we have had to make a concerted effort to keep her healthy. I had frankly never seen a dog get congested before, never mind have skin allergies. Clementine has very acute skin allergies, the management of which have been a long and emotional journey for the three of us.
When we first moved to New York, into our Upper West Side apartment on 97th and Broadway, we enjoyed the ability to meet up after work and travel at leisure up to our apartment. Sometimes we walked all the way from our offices in Tribeca or Midtown. Sometimes we stayed further downtown for a drink or dinner or both, before taking the subway home together. By the time we adopted Clementine, we had already grown less and less in the habit of doing such things. But bringing her into our lives meant that someone would need to be home after work to let her out and feed her, by and large precluding such outings with the both of us, especially after we moved to Brooklyn.
Yet we were happy, very happy to have her. We understood the trade-offs and we were willing and ready to make them. A year earlier I had called Catherine’s bluff, after years of her asking for a dog, and said I was ready. She was not, not yet, but by the time we brought Clementine home, we really were. We rearranged our life around her in big ways and small; I woke up early so that I could have time to take her for a short walk before going to work. As her initial illness, which the foster and the rescue organization had failed to tell us about, was treated properly and faded, we discovered that she had allergies that were quite chronic. Though we never really discussed it and I couldn’t tell you how it happened, I became the manager of Clementine’s health. This is, occasionally, a rather large time commitment. At minimum, it has meant that I am the keeper of the pills, and the schedule on which they are administered. At times, I am in frequent communication with her vet and her dermatologist, and incidentally she has a dermatologist, a dermatologist who is only in on Thursdays and who is not easy to get to for Brooklyn residents who do not own a car.
For around a year, she had this miraculous drug—Apoquel. Her problems more or less vanished. Only, around the time that Catherine became pregnant with our first child, Clementine developed a growth on her paw. This growth turned out to be a side effect in less than 1 percent of Apoquel users. The problem is that Clementine’s allergies are not to be trifled with; left untreated, she will scratch herself raw until she develops a skin infection, which will require antibiotics to treat or she’ll be in real danger. So we attempted to lower the dose of Apoquel rather than cutting her off entirely, and compensate with traditional antihistamines.
While we were in the hospital, with Catherine in labor with our first child Elliot, the dog sitter texted to let me know that Clementine had developed a limp. This was the beginning of a turning point for us with Clementine, from the beloved but helpless dog of a childless couple, to a hapless and burdensome dog to be handled in excess of our responsibilities as parents.
I remember, years ago, when he was a new father himself, Will Wilkinson tweeted about taking his dog into the vet for a procedure or treatment. He followed up by saying “Some people love their dogs less after they have children. Some people.”
I think that we are those people, and neither of us are very proud of this.
The first few days after we brought Elliot home were rough, and Clementine only made it harder. She was excited to see us, and did not notice him at first. When she did notice him, she got a look in her eye that I had only seen when she noticed another dog that she wanted to go after, and immediately began barking. We had never had to keep a newborn baby alive and safe before and that was terrifying enough without the prospect of our giant dog doing him harm, so we kept her confined to her crate, which was just awful for all of us. She still had the growth and that limp. We took her off Apoquel entirely and the growth slowly shrank, and we slowly gave her chances to interact with the baby, but something fundamental had shifted. After being the only life we were responsible for and monopolizing our attention at home, we had imprisoned her to focus on being parents. Even now I don’t think it was the wrong choice given the circumstances, but I felt guilty then and I feel guilty now.
Clementine actually turned out to be wonderful with our children, except in as much as she is a clutz and a wrecking ball and so has to be managed so that she does not do harm she has no intention of causing. Max, our one-year-old, will crawl right up to her and grab her face if we’re not quick enough, but Clementine just tolerantly lets him do it, or starts licking him gently. At moments like that I feel something like how I felt when we first brought her home, in those early days where she was our only responsibility apart from our responsibility to one another.
But on most days I feel more like I did that day when her face blew up because something had stung her when I wasn’t looking. Between being a parent, a husband, and having a job, the moments to simply relax and not worry about those who have a claim on me are scarce. And that is wonderful, that is life as it should be, where loneliness is largely absent. But I do value the time I have for myself, such as it is. Clementine has sadly become that one more thing, that one last bit that chips away at that time I have for myself, or that one more creature making trouble in our home when the baby and the four-year-old are making independent trouble already. She’s become additional, additive, supererogatory.
I am sometimes disappointed in myself for feeling this way, sometimes wishing I could do better by her emotionally, but she feels, quite frankly, more like a burden than a joy on most days.
But I would never abandon her, the way that some families abandon their pets when it comes to this. And I will always look after her health, and will continue to enjoy those moments where she most feels like a member of my family.
And I will be absolutely heartbroken when she is gone.