About a year ago, a friend of mine came to visit me in Nevada City, California. We were at the height of our short, colorful autumn, and we went walking with my dog, Merle, among the blazing oaks and aspens. As we crossed Deer Creek on the Pine Street Bridge, moving from the quieter part of town to the more bustling, touristy section, I said, “It’s too bad Merle isn’t younger because otherwise she could show you the trick where she runs over the bridge.”
“What’s the trick?” my friend asked.
“Merle and I arrive together at one end of the bridge. I take her off leash and tell her to sit and stay. Then I walk all the way to the other end and shout, “O.K., Merle!” and she takes off like a shot and runs to meet me. She doesn’t take off until I say she can.”
My friend said it sounded really cool, but perhaps not like a trick.
“I wish you could have seen her in her prime,” I said. My friend said that yes, although he had seen at least fifty Instagram posts of Merle running fast when she was younger, it was sad he would not see the not-really-a-bridge-trick.
Merle looked anxious. To anthropomorphize is a stupid practice, but, still, allow me to indulge in the feeling that her eyes, at that moment, were saying, “I am sad that I am going to die soon.” Her health had recently taken a sharp downward turn. Arthritis was the most noticeable sign.
For a few quiet moments, my friend watched Merle and her old-cowboy gait. “You need a bridge dog,” he finally said.
“Oh, Merle is still a bridge dog, I assure you.” I said. “She still loves to walk over the bridge, even if she can’t run.”
“That’s not what I mean by ‘bridge dog,’ ” he said, gingerly. “What I mean is a dog that you get—well, not necessarily soon, but also not not soon, I guess? A bridge dog is a dog that will be around when Merle—when she is—you know! No longer with us.”
It was Merle’s turn to watch my friend. She sniffed the air around him, then looked at me as if to say, “Who is this joker?”
“ ‘Bridge dog,’ ” I said. “I’ve never heard that term before.”
“I don’t think I made it up,” my friend said. “I wish I had, but I can’t really imagine that I did.”
I Googled “bridge dog.” I didn’t find anything about it as a saying, but I found quite a lot about some bridge in Scotland that dogs leap from to commit suicide. I didn’t click.
About ten years ago, the relationship I was in fell apart, partly because my boyfriend cheated on me, but mostly because he had never liked me in the first place. My career had dead-ended. I was forty-one and making minimum wage working as a teaching assistant at a middle school where the students often shouted at me, “Why should we listen to you? You drive a Yaris!”
How had my life amounted to so little, I often wondered, when I wasn’t freaking out about how it was too late and I was too old to fix it. All of my friends lived somewhere else. Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night wondering what would become of me; sometimes, out of nowhere, my face would start burning with shame. I didn’t have the courage to go full-on Scotland-bridge dog, but I was toying with the idea, and if it hadn’t been for my parents, I might have done it.
The school where I worked was adjacent to a forest. Once a month, a stooped, white-haired, hard-of-hearing tree expert named Don took the kids into this forest and talked about it with passionate abstraction while they hissed homophobic slurs at one another. Don was a blowhard, and about one in ten of his crass jokes were funny. His best feature was his beautiful blue heeler, a compact, pleasantly aloof, short-haired dog. (They’re sometimes called Australian cattle dogs, or Queenslands, because they came into being when ranchers bred collies with dingoes for greater stamina.) Don’s dog was trim and agile, with a sweet, short-snouted face; she moved only at Don’s command, every step infused with a sense of joy and gratitude in being of service. “Get ’em, girl,” Don would say if the kids wandered away, and she would bound off, barking when she found them. If Don wanted the dog to come back, he only had to whistle; seconds later, she would be at his side.
One afternoon, when the kids weren’t around, I caught her in a moment like this, still as a statue but for her black nose, testing the wind. I said to Don, “I am going to have a dog just like her someday.”
Don regarded me with rare kind interest. “I sure do wonder,” he said, “what you’d look like with your clothes off.”
The dog looked at me apologetically. I went to join the kids.
Years passed. I left the school. I was getting paid to write again. I had a boyfriend who could actually stand me. One day, I got a text from him: “Hey, that dude Don died. My dad knew him. Didn’t you like that dog? It needs someone to adopt it.” Weirdly, my boyfriend’s housemate, P., was at this very moment on his way to adopt the dog, because his dad had also known Don. (Everyone’s Dad Knew You—R.I.P., Don.) When I told P. that I also wanted to adopt the dog, we decided that we’d share her. This dog was our Merle.
The “our” part is important to clarify. Merle did not belong to anyone. She belonged to herself. She loved to be in motion, to walk with me, to play disc golf with P., to stand at the edge of a river and bark at the water while the rest of us swam. She would go anywhere, with anyone. She just liked to hang out. If she’d been a man at a party, Merle would have been in the corner playing Hacky Sack, pretending not to hear questions about why he never had a girlfriend.
P. had an eight-to-five job, so Merle was with me every day, all day. After a few years of dating, I moved in with my boyfriend and P., and so it was the three of us, and Merle.
I could not believe how much happier I was now that I had Merle in my life. Merely by agreeing to feed her and dispose of her waste, I had opened a portal to a pure, white-light joy that cut through all miseries, personal and structural. We walked and walked, mostly at night, over the bridge, around the town, over the other bridge, in the cool dark. Mere errands became ecstatic experiences because she was with me. “We are together,” I liked to exclaim to her reflection in my rearview mirror. “We are alive, and we are together!” My life was no longer a disaster. It was instead the miracle that had landed this creature in my back seat. I don’t want to say that Merle made me happy, but she made me stop wishing I was dead.
Merle was nine or ten when we got her. For three or so years, she was the dog we had known from the beginning. Then she started to slow down. I used to love to watch her from the window when P. took her out in the mornings—how she would start out walking and then, as they rounded the corner to the park, break into a trot. But there started to be days when she didn’t speed up. There came a heart-in-the-throat moment of suspense every morning of whether or not she would quicken her pace.
Merle had barely trotted at all for weeks when I saw my bridge-dog friend again. He asked how Merle was.
“Good, mostly,” I lied. “What about your cat?” His cat was also getting old, though not as fast as Merle. “Are you going to get a bridge cat?”
“Of course not,” he said.
“Why wouldn’t you?” I demanded.
He waved me away, as if he hadn’t introduced me to the very concept. “My cat would know something was up.”
I stewed silently on the implication here, that Merle would be too dumb to register the significance of a bridge dog.
Merle started to drink lots of water. The vet said her kidneys were bad. She ate ravenously, but nothing stuck. She dropped five pounds, then five more, then ten more. She went blind in one eye. One day, she threw up everything, even water. In the car, on the way to the vet, she let me hold her for once. She peed all over me, and I whispered to her, “It’s an honor.”
I decided I would not get a bridge dog. It would be an insult to Merle and to our relationship.
She survived, but continued to decline. Then P. moved out to live with his girlfriend, and Merle had to go back and forth between their house and ours. When people asked how it was, only having Merle half the time, I said it was hard, that I missed her. I was lying. It wasn’t that I no longer loved her. But there was something restful and uplifting about the days when Merle was at P.’s house, when we didn’t have to watch her panting, or struggling to walk up and down stairs, or stand up. Once you have stopped stupidly hoping that it will never happen, watching a dog die isn’t stressful so much as it is simply depressing. Privately, I had started to scheme.
I entered “HEELER 200-mile radius” into Petfinder. Beautiful heelers from across the state—from Stockton to Sausalito, from Roseville to Richmond, from Winters to West Portal, from Fremont to Fresno, from Dublin to Downieville, five or ten e-mails a week—arrived in my in-box.
In one photo, a heeler named Ruthie was half sitting and half lying down, and looking off camera imploringly, as if she hoped someone would tell her which one to do. It was glaringly obvious that she needed me. I still thought that getting a bridge dog would be weak and callous. I told myself that I wasn’t getting a bridge dog at all, since, technically, Merle no longer lived with us—not full time, at least.
Ruthie was scared by the noise and activity of the pound, so she was staying with a shelter volunteer, who told us that they had found her living in the street. “Living in the street next to a bakery?” I asked. She was terrified, but so fat—glossy and golden. Her adoption form listed her as “purebred heeler,” which isn’t even a thing. She looked like a corgi-heeler mix, or as if a pig had mated with an egg bagel. The volunteer told me that Ruthie walked on a leash, which, in a sense, was true. Ruthie ran in a circle around me one way and then the other, wrapping me up, unwrapping me, then making a mad dash in one direction, then the other.
Everyone could agree that Ruthie was cute but clearly not O.K.
“What do you want to do?” my boyfriend asked. “I have to play D. & D. in two hours.”
“Let’s just get her,” I said. “If it doesn’t work out, we can bring her back.”
The next day, a guest who had found us through the Couchsurfing app left our gate open. He’d broken the single rule that I’d made for his stay: “Do whatever you want, just please, for the love of God, don’t leave the gate open.” I cursed myself as I ran after Ruthie across one busy street, then another. I managed to wrangle her, only for her to slip out of her collar and run away again. I finally tackled her on a neighbor’s lawn. She snarled and whipped around, her top teeth scraping my scalp, but I wouldn’t let her go. “I’m your mom,” I said, panting into her fur. “I love you already, Ruthie. Whatever we go through, we’re going to go through it together. I will never let anyone hurt you.” I felt her stop struggling underneath me, as if she had heard me, but she was probably just tuckered out.
From that moment, Ruthie always seemed to be pressed against me, whether waking or sleeping—jumping on me and pleading to be petted, making little baby noises and snuggling in tighter. As our love grew, Merle continued to decline. Ruthie made that decline bearable, exactly as a bridge dog is supposed to. “You love Ruthie more than you love Merle,” people said to me, accusingly. I said that of course I didn’t, but they were right. No, she was not a good dog at all. But she was cuddly and desperately in love with me, and that can make up for a lot.
This past June, Merle had a terrible night of vomiting. P. and I agreed that we’d meet at the vet at eight-thirty in the morning, when the clinic opened. At eight-fifteen, I finished reading an article weighing the question of whether Awkwafina’s character in “Crazy Rich Asians” was racist, stood up, and said, “Come on, Merle, let’s go to the vet!” Merle’s eyes were open, but she didn’t move.
“Merle?” I said.
P. wrapped her in a flannel sheet that he had in his car. We put her on ice and took her out to the San Juan Ridge, where she’d grown up with Don, the tree expert/sexual harasser. P. and my boyfriend dug a hole, and we all lowered her into it. Before we put the dirt over her, I looked hard at the distinctive outline of her short snout under the sheet, for the last time. I cried, but my pain was not bone-wrenching, because Ruthie was running around us in circles. I complimented myself on this skillful avoidance of the bad feelings typically brought on by loss. Bridge dogs: 1. Death: 0.
Two or so months passed, and I rarely thought of Merle. It was her time, I said. She had been ready, I said. I had been ready.
On the night of July 24th, I was washing dishes, as usual, my nightly fun. It was a particularly bad pandemic night. I was certainly grateful that I lived with my boyfriend and wasn’t all alone, but I missed seeing friends. I was also at a point when the introspection forced by months of semi-quarantine—the long silence that enabled incessant cataloguing of mistakes, failures, and disappointments—was making me wonder if I even deserved to have friends at all.
In the midst of this sinister pessimism and sorrow, I saw that Taylor Swift’s new album was out. Like a lot of people, I think, I listened to it alone, through headphones, with tears streaming down my cheeks. I listened all the way through and then went back to my favorite, the second track, “cardigan.” It hit a perfect tone of refusing to stop feeling the pleasure of the presence of someone who is gone. “I knew you” is the refrain: “I knew you / Dancing in your Levis / Drunk under a streetlight / I, I knew you / Hand under my sweatshirt / Baby, kiss it better.”
I thought about Merle. Two and a half minutes in, as the song built toward its last, diminishing refrain of refrains—“I knew you’d come back to me / And you’d come back to me / and you’d come back to me / You’d come back”—the exquisite memory of Merle, and her loss, finally hit me. I fell to my knees, buckled under by the totality of her absence, months of swallowed loss pressed into this instant of pop-song-induced devastation. Merle, my Merle, who had brought me back from the dead.
Ruthie dashed into the kitchen, presenting herself to me, as always, with bottomless affection. But my heart ached for Merle, her tireless legs moving through the dark, the way she could come out of a sprint into a dead stop, her unflagging smile in my rearview mirror, promising me that nothing mattered and everything was great. I remembered telling my friend about Merle’s trick, and how he’d said it didn’t really seem like a trick. There are no tricks for love or death. There is only the time when you were with the one you loved and the time when they are no longer there, and more time, and more still.