It is dark, and all of her world is asleep. She knows there are rules, and also that she is breaking them. It is all part of the thrill. She is stealthy, and no one will ever suspect a thing.
Valentine is 15 years old, according to the calendar, 105 when you factor for the canine. She was a gift to my wife on Valentine’s Day that many years ago. I had found her sitting alone, a small puppy in a big cage. She fit warmly in the palm of my hand as a teary-eyed woman thanked me for saving a dog’s life the day before it was scheduled to end. Valentine, to her credit, has made the most of it. Her entire life has been an expression in contrast: sweet and attentive as the day requires, a moveable feast of trash cans and cat food, and the hunting of stuffed animals throughout the wasteland of the boys’ room as soon as the lights go out.
Granted, neither provide the rush she used to know. Such things are a young dog’s game. Her lot is now left to the night kitchen, an uncovered recycling bin and the bag of pretzels forgotten on the table.
It is dark. She is steady and she is sneaky, a ninja on four paws. The night is hers for the taking.
I am awake in a moment, jarred upright by the sound of thunder in the hallway. It is the echo of can on hardwood, unsated cravings rummaging through a paper bag for the hint of bean or cheese or the aforementioned cat food. A bottle clinks against another, and still she digs all the deeper.
About two years ago, when we first realized Valentine had lost her hearing, we were afraid it would affect her quality of life. Initially, it did. For instance, she no longer stopped on a dime and ran the length of a field to wag at our side should someone but speak her name. Instead, she embraced the new freedom we had apparently allotted her. Finally, she assumed, they trust me to run along forever. Rather than cower from the challenge, the literal new trick for an old dog, she owned it. In fact, we wondered if she even knew.
That is what I wonder at midnight. My eyes are open in the blackness, and Valentine making all the noise of a toddler trying not to. She is enjoying this, I smile to myself. She thinks herself so damn clever.
There was a time, once, when I would have jumped out of bed, bent on putting a stop to it. However, I am riddled with the regrets of another old dog. That one died in my arms after 16 years of growing in them, my children stretching long upon her side, tufts of fur by the handful never pulling on her patience. She never knew anything but loving us. But one day, right before the last, I scolded her far too severely for my foot finding the fruits of her incontinence. And yet she sought me out when it was her time to pass, me crying in the green grass, whispering a plea of forgiveness into the soft give of her even as her eyes clouded over.
Valentine is almost there. Her ears were the first to go. Then her body filled with large lumps of cancer. Now, unbeknownst to her, she also leaves a trail of memories behind — a tangible pathway of unstepping stones atop the planks beneath her.
The boys know, and they don’t want to talk about it. They have known far too much loss in their short lives — my old dog, four cats, the neighbor’s peacocks that they obligatorily cared for, and countless fish. And those are just the animals. They have also lost two great-grandparents, two grandparents and two just as close. My children have loved, lost and know which is better. They have outgrown suits bought just for funerals, and they understand the things I wish they didn’t.
Perhaps Valentine is keenly aware, or, hopefully, joyfully oblivious. Maybe she is making the most of it.
And so I stay in bed, knowing a messy floor is a small price to pay for the happiness she has brought our family. As far as I’m concerned, she can burrow through the trash until the damn sun comes up, and endless mornings after. It’s the least we can do, and I don’t care what I step in.