The Dog in Winter 

For some, December is the cruelest month.

If we make it through December,
Everything’s gonna be all right, I know.
It’s the coldest time of winter,
And I shiver when I see the falling snow.
If we make it through December,
Got plans to be in a warmer town come summertime.
Maybe even California,
If we make it through December we’ll be fine.

—Merle Haggard

In mid-December, I always think of my favorite Christmas carol. “I don’t mean to hate December,” Merle Haggard sings, “It’s meant to be the happy time of year.”

I can’t say that I necessarily hate December, but it’s certainly not the happy time of the year, not for me and, I suspect, not for a lot of other people. It’s not just the short days and the cold nights and the bad air. There’s also the reminder, as the year comes to an end, of the Big Ending we all face, though consciousness of our common fate is usually muffled by the enforced merriment of the holiday season.

I’m willing to concede that my dour view of December is at least partly idiosyncratic, the result of chance happenings in the final month of the year. The die may have been cast early on: It was in December—I was 6 years old—that we had to give away the family dog, a German shepherd mix named Prince who had knocked over a neighborhood kid during a frolic in the snow. A hard December to make it through.

A couple of years later, on Christmas Eve, our incorrigibly friendly cocker spaniel followed some carolers up the street and was hit by car on Foothill Boulevard. Sam was found a few days later, after a thaw, in a snow bank near the Episcopal Church up on the corner. “Stiff as a board,” we were informed by the helpful neighbor who deposited the cardboard box containing Sam’s body on our porch. Another hard December.

In late December 1999, my wife and I joined her extended family to wait out the end of the world in upstate New York. As the clock ticked down to the predicted millennial catastrophe, I slipped on unseen black ice, and reclined for a timeless moment in the icy night air. When I finally fell to earth, the impact shattered my shoulder. I made it through that December, as it crept toward the Millennium, in a haze of Percocet and Bombay Sapphire martinis.

In December five years ago, my father died nine minutes after midnight on an unacceptably cold night. My brother and I watched from a fourth-floor window for the arrival of the gentlemen from the mortuary. Snow was falling softly on the parking lot below, and when the van pulled up, we saw two spectral figures in long coats emerge, a squat black man in a bowler hat and a beanpole white man in a stocking cap. As they glided toward the building, they seemed to be enacting some ancient ritual, two absurd magi come to witness not Birth, but Death.

We all made in through that December. Everything was all right, aided in large part by the fact that our father had made it through, in superb fashion, 93 years. There was also our recognition that he would have found something comical about the characters who had come to carry him away.

Now in this December, we are living with the knowledge that our 15-year-old dog, a Corgi mix with outsized ears, is on her last legs. Nellie was supposed to have died in July, but subcutaneous fluid drips have kept her amazingly alive. A Californian by birth, she has never enjoyed winters, particularly because her short legs don’t do well in deep snow. Nevertheless, she waits patiently as I dig a dog toilet for her in the backyard, and then gingerly traverses the icy deck and sniffs out a suitable patch of dead grass.

This December has been the coldest she has known, and somewhere in her canine brain she must be affronted by the indignity of having to do her stuff in the coldest time of winter. Nevertheless, as good dogs do, she trots out into the icy air to do what she needs to do.

On the coldest nights she will hesitate on the threshold, and look up at me as if to say, can’t you do something about this? But she always plunges into the cold night.

If we make it through December, we’ll be fine.

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