CAMDEN, S.C. – Eulogies, it has always seemed to me, are best delivered while the subject is living and can enjoy hearing the best version of him – or herself.
Thus, today’s column is dedicated to Ollie the Blind Poodle, also affectionately known as Ollie Oops. A toy poodle born blind, Ollie sometimes bumps into things, whereupon his human – yours truly – will say, OOPS! – and then apologize for not paying closer attention.
Now that Ollie, 17-ish, is in decline, I’m attentive to his every breath, which lately alternates between the sound of a honking goose and what I call a “sneezle.” Not quite a sneeze, a sneezle is the sound I imagine a proud pig might make upon nuzzling a freshly discovered truffle.
This symphony of sickness is caused by fluid in his lungs, which medication may help, and a collapsing trachea, about which nothing can be done. His heart also may be involved, but only an MRI would tell. The risk of anesthesia at his advanced age, alas, is too great to consider.
I first met Ollie in a grocery store here. He was resting inside a soft cloth shoulder bag sported by the-one-and-only Lita “Squeaky” Wangensteen, a local horsewoman and dog lover who has rescued and found homes for thousands of abandoned dogs. She routinely had up to a dozen or so small, fluffy-white pups in her home, providing a sort of chichi dervish of energy and excited expectation.
Spotting me in the store, Squeaky gestured for me to come take a peek in her bag. There was the future Ollie, then about 6 or 7 by the vet’s estimate, and looking nothing like the feisty, fearless charmer he would become. Just shorn, he had a pointy nose, orange-painted toenails and, not to be redundant, had been neutered that day.
“Cute,” I murmured, dragging out the vowel in hopes of sounding sincere.
Squeaky invited me to dinner that night so that I might get to know Mr. Sad Sack better. Short story: I was overserved and went home with a blind poodle.
The next day, Ollie and I set off for Washington, where I then lived, arriving on Olive Street to the full embrace of our block’s cast of characters. Such was their enthusiasm that, suddenly, the previous absence of a blind poodle seemed an oversight now corrected.
Living with a blind dog presents a certain set of challenges, needless to say. Until he got used to his new circumstances, I mostly carried Ollie, whose then-5-pound body fit perfectly on my right arm. He was so content there, safe and loved – and, importantly, properly positioned to receive admirers – that I eventually developed “poodle elbow.”
Ollie adored our front stoop, where Olive Street’s usual suspects ritually gathered for cocktails during nice weather. Ollie proved to be a party animal, who barked in protest if the humans gathered without him. He knew everyone’s voice, and especially loved Jack and Craig next door. When Meaghan and I would talk in our high-pitched voices, Ollie would chime in with a staccato-soprano howl that proved irresistible and contagious. Soon enough, all were howling in solidarity with him. Insanity came easily to us.
During our 11 years together, Ollie was a reliable travel companion for his hopelessly peripatetic human. When I moved to New York to take a job on cable news, he went to work with me. When I suffered a concussion in 2014 after a fall, he seemed to understand that my vagueness wasn’t my fault. When I moved houses and offices 13 times during those years, his blind love never faltered.
Ollie even shares some credit for Amtrak’s decision to allow dogs on certain trains, following a column written to that effect. That’s our story, anyway. He isn’t perfect, of course. Once at a party, he snapped at a high-ranking government official, sending red wine all over the man’s silk jacket. Later that evening, the host congratulated Ollie for his discerning taste.
My tiny friend will last a bit longer, but there’s no way to know how long. If love were medicine, Ollie would be eternal. But writing about him while he’s still at my side has helped a little. The truth is, I’ve always believed that Ollie and I rescued each other, that our intersection wasn’t coincidental, and that he came along to show me what the blind dog sees: patience, understanding, tolerance, charity, gratitude, compassion, forgiveness and, of course, love.
My capacity for all of these is greater, thanks to Ollie. There will never be another.
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