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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Dublin’s heart

by Philip Martin | August 9, 2022 at 4:31 a.m.


A dog's heart works hard.

It bumps along at 120 to 150 beats per minute, techno rhythms, almost twice as fast as ours. A mean little fist squeezing double-time in a dog's chest.

You cannot sync your heart to a dog's. The best you can hope for is sympathetic syncopation. They have their own clocks. They hurry through our lives. We are lucky if they have time for us.

It matters how you cut up time. A dragonfly can expect to live a week, if dragonflies can expect anything. That doesn't mean they don't grow old. That doesn't mean that they don't matter. Their planet is different, that's all. They live in a world where night is a season.

A teenage dog is old. There is no getting around that, no matter what we tell ourselves, no matter how many 17- and 18-year-old terriers we see on our walks. No matter how bright their eyes, no matter how they kick up their paws and prance over the grass, teenage dogs are old. Their hard-working hearts are old.

The heart is not the seat of your emotions. It is a dull muscle. We have figured out ways to replace the heart--we can swap another in, we can install a device made of metal, plastic and ceramic to do the heart's job. We might even, for a time, live with a baboon's heart.

The heart is perhaps haunted by the soul, but the soul is not inextricably linked to the heart. The soul is mystery, so slight as to be dismissed as rumor by the tough and practical-minded. We know for sure it does not follow the heart.

The heart is a biomechanical instrument, a machine made of flesh, a means to circulate oxygen-laden blood. A heart has nothing to do with love.

There are people who are love agnostics. They believe everything can be explained as a transaction. All creatures are motivated by self-interest or, more precisely, by instinctive imperatives to seek security and good feelings. These people believe there is an algebra of need and that the most successful creatures are those able and willing to leverage the sentimental weaknesses and wishfulness of other creatures to their advantage.

We are all essentially selfish, they reason. And when a human being does something that appears selfless, it is because that human being has made the calculation that they would rather be perceived as selfless than enjoy whatever the superfluous benefit they are surrendering. There is no real altruism, they argue, there is only exchange and negotiation, even--and maybe especially--across species.

Animals can be clever. The cleverest wolves come closest to the fire and eventually eat from the hands of the Slow Hearts. Eventually bargains are struck; eventually the wolves are "tamed" and put to "work." Eventually they sleep in beds and have their fierceness banked and their trepidation bred away. Eventually romance is introduced and the animals sleep in the beds of their "masters," and advocates for the dignity of dogs and cats arise to indict the dangers of anthropormophization of animals and the humanist practice of keeping them as pets.

It is selfish, they say.

And I am nothing if not selfish.

My Dublin was a little dog, a terrier rescue, black and rust and cream. She had one eye, having lost the other one to trauma-induced glaucoma a few years ago. (I like to think it happened when she was playing tug with her sister Paris, who I more than once saw sock her sister with a knotted rope after she'd pulled it from her jaws. Paris did not win the game as often as Dublin did, but when she did she was exuberant.)

Dublin was fine last Thursday afternoon when we took her, Paris, and Audi across the street to the dog park. She flashed around a bit; I chased her a little and pretended to snatch at her tail. After a while she flattened herself out in front of the gate like one of George Booth's cartoon dogs in The New Yorker, signaling it was time to leave.

We cleaned up and met a friend for drinks that evening; when we returned we opened the front door to let our girls wander out into the common area for a minute. Paris and Audi trotted out, but not Dub. I went inside and found her in distress, lying on her side, near a pool of sick.

While Karen watched the others I cleaned her up and carried her outside. I set her down in the grass and though she was unsteady, she could stand and walk a little. We brought everyone back in. She ate a bit of supper and drank water and walked around a bit before lying down on the floor, next to one of the rugs she sometimes slept on.

Before we went to bed, I took her outside again. She seemed stronger and a little sheepish at having caused a fuss. I was less worried.

I didn't sleep Thursday night. I checked on her every couple of hours. She was resting peacefully. At one point she coughed during the night, but she's been coughing a little for the better part of the last two years now.

As I understand it, her heart was enlarged, a congenital condition--both Paris and Dublin have had heart murmurs since they were puppies--and this somehow impacted her trachea. We'd been watching it, but Dublin was strong, fit and athletic. She was the best at going over the dog park ramp. She insisted on leaping into the back of my car, though it was more than twice her height.

We weren't worried about Dublin though twice in the week before, she'd stumbled and lost her balance and, for a moment, had trouble regaining her feet. I saw one of these episodes, Karen saw them both.

I thought it might have been an inner ear problem--one of the many ailments our dog Coal experienced during his long and unruly life was idiopathic vestibular disease--but didn't connect it to the coughing.

Friday morning, she seemed better. She jumped up into a chair by herself, and seemed eager to go for a short walk. So I changed my mind about leaving her home, and hooked her up with her sisters. When we got home she trotted over and leapt on her chair again. Maybe she seemed a little tired.

I left Karen an encouraging note about Dub's condition and left to do some errands. Karen got back from her run about 10 minutes after I left. She'd decided to work from home that day, to monitor things.

A little after 10 a.m. she called me to say Dub was not doing well. She'd called the vet; we were taking her in that afternoon.

I got home and saw she was dying.

We sat with her on our couch, stroking her fur, holding water for her to lap. Paris stayed a respectful 10 feet away, watching from her rug. Audi, we presume, was in our bedroom, probably lolling on the bed.

Just after noon, Dublin made two small noises we'd never heard before. Something between a whimper and a sigh. Soft. A release of breath. She licked Karen's hand twice. I got up to get a glass of water, and as I started to sit back down, Karen said she was gone.

Dublin's hard-working heart failed. Dublin never did.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at pmartin@adgnewsroom.com.


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