Last fall, with the arrival of the rainy season we were told to expect, I began washing the dog’s feet at the apartment door after mornings in the dog park. We bought a raw aluminum bucket at the hardware store, and I used that and a rag. Anticipating our return from the park, my wife would fill the bucket with hot water and soap, drop in the cloth, and leave the set-up outside the door for us atop the coir mat. She’d hang a ratty beach towel from the doorknob, one of a matching pair we found in 2010 at a 7-Eleven along some railroad tracks on the 101, when we first vacationed together in Southern California. After washing the dog’s feet, I’d scrub his underbelly, being careful around the penis and a hernia scar, and dry him, also where he’d been rained on.
Then or now, I’ve never done enough for his taste, and so after we’d enter the apartment, he’d shake himself off on the rug at the door then find the rooms where we have carpeting and, alternating side to side, run his face and his body along the floors to wick water from his fur. He used the couches and the upholstered chairs, too, upending cushions.
We came to the Pacific Northwest from an apartment in New York City, where, in our last years there, the cat developed a mass near her left ear that she would scratch and which would bleed. Like the dog in our new home, she would shake then for comfort, and the result could be a splatter. The floors were hardwood, and the varnish had been scraped through and worn away over the years. More than once during the end of her life we left the city for long stints, and despite our warnings and detailed instructions on cleaning up after her, the people who cared for the cat in exchange for the use of our apartment would reach out to us across the ocean or across the country and ask whether a certain quantity of blood was too much, whether we were concerned about its congealing in the ways it would and stain the flooring. They would send photos, and my wife and I would consult and echo the veterinarian with reassurances that there was nothing to be done, apologize for the mess the cat was making, and nevertheless ask that they do their best with the paper towel and stain remover we’d left under the kitchen sink.
But I sympathized — less with the cat than I should have, which informs the way I care for the dog’s feet these days, and more with the human tasked with spraying the floor in the morning or when she returned at night where the blood had landed and pooled and dried as scabs.
In my own mornings at home back then, I sought the privacy and the quiet of the early hours, in part for yoga on the internet and guided meditation, rising between 4 and 5 a.m. on and off after our son was born in 2011, brewing coffee and then sliding a table across the hardwood to make room for a mat. At some point, my wife installed felt pads on the bottom of the table, but I was never careful enough, and much of the damage done to the flooring was the result of my morning routine. We suspected while lasting more than a decade in the apartment that we’d be the last ones to live there before major renovations, and so over time I worried less and less about what damage I was doing, or about the security deposit, because that flooring would be torn up soon enough.
But the blood. This I worried about. It was probably worst the last year of the cat’s life.
For a long while it was there every morning in various amounts, left in discernible trails. We tried a towel for her to sleep on in front of the radiator, and this collected some of the blood, but she would move in the night in search of water or food or the litter box, and she would scratch when she was awake moving, and the scratching would start the bleeding. Depending on when in the night she’d scratched, it was more or less fresh when I found it in the morning, requiring more or less stain remover. The fresher it was, the redder it would stain the paper towel and the easier it was to absorb. Older blood would have dried, turned dark, brown, requiring not just the spray bottle but the scrape of my thumbnail through the toweling. Drops’ edges were especially stubborn. Most terrible was when she’d settle her body again on the towel after leaving a trail, sleep, still bleeding, and then find her head stuck momentarily to the floor when I startled her awake in the dark and peace of the morning we shared.
Throughout the time we lived in that apartment, when there was a different dog and the cat, too, sweeping the floor had been enough each morning to make way for the mat. That dog was a shedder. Litter would have been kicked from the cat’s box overnight and required a broom in the morning. I would sweep a pile of that mess under a corner table where we kept the television, proceed with those reassuring middle-age stretches, and then use a dustpan to move the fur and litter to the kitchen trash. For the most part, I remained upright and found this chore easy. I kept my hands clean. The blood, though, required more. Hands and knees. The wetness of a cleaning solution. My fingernails, scratching. Facing that, I began each morning with a heavy sigh. The opposite of what the woman on the internet would call the victorious breath.
Not again, I thought, every morning. Not the blood.
As the winter proceeded and the muck and mulch in the dog park became endlessly soaked, even on the sunniest days, the aluminum bucket at the door proved to be not enough. The dog got too muddy. My wife filled the bath most mornings as we approached the building and, leaving my boots outside the door, I lifted the dog through the apartment and deposited him into the warm tub, where he stood while I scrubbed him with the rag. In these circumstances, I still attended to each paw and his underside, the belly scar below, but the soaking alone loosened most of the grime before I even got to it, making my handwashing, the paw-washing, less delicate and less necessary than it had once been.
It sounds all very strange and silly as I write it, attending to this animal, regretting a lack of delicacy and my own necessity, when, in the end, all we’re really trying to do with either the bucket or the tub is to clean him enough for the furniture. He’d just as soon leave well enough alone. The dance was always awkward at the door, and I began with the back paws, which seemed out of sight, moving the bucket into place behind each leg one at a time so he wouldn’t notice, lifting by the wire handle while suds sloshed and breached, and, as if startled, each leg he first recoiled and stiffened before I could coax it down into the water. He rested a paw on the bottom of the bucket, knee-deep, and I would wash and then dry before moving on.
Is Christ too obvious here? Christ didn’t have a dog, you’ll say.
There’s a moment from my adolescence that remains as hazy in my memory as anything that took place then, a foot washing in my church or church hall or the parochial school gymnasium, almost certainly among a group of young people assembled in clangy folding chairs for a Catholic religious retreat. My bare feet were handled at the end of oversize jeans, some water was poured over them. It’s the sort of thing that would have moved me then, and if my recent experiences with the dog or my regret around the cat is any indication, would probably move me still now.
The ritual was based on Christ’s own practice in the lead-up to his death, a moment I would have known in my childhood from John’s Gospel, where in the midst of a meal that would be known as his last supper, Jesus rises and insists on washing his disciples’ feet, even as the most devout of those, Peter, refuses, resists. A recent book, The Kingdom, by French writer Emmanuel Carrère, whose memories of Catholicism in the book remain somewhat more vivid than mine but whose Catholic vestiges and vision feel more or less aligned, ends with a meditation on this scene, Peter’s refusal, and a description of Christian sympathy:
It’s not the first time that Peter doesn’t catch on, and it won’t be the last. This whole thing with the feet is too much for him. Despite Jesus’ warnings, the events of the past days have persuaded him that the time has come, that he and the others have backed the right horse, that Jesus will become the leader. A leader is venerated, admired, put on a pedestal. But admiration is not love. Love wants proximity, reciprocity, the acceptance of vulnerability. Love alone does not say what we spend our lives saying, all the time, to everyone: “I’m worth more than you.” Love has other ways of finding reassurance, another authority that doesn’t come from above but from below.
Though the cat often seemed bothered by the mass at the side of her head—and my sense of this may have been projection—the blood itself, even as it dripped, even where it lay and pooled, didn’t seem to bother her. My concerns were not her concerns. Likewise, though he seems to enjoy the place on the couch and in our bed afforded by his cleanliness, the dog is never happier than when he’s covered in mud. One might suppose, too, that the people having their feet washed by servants in the first century appreciated the gesture and perhaps enjoyed how it felt, the clearest benefit was enjoyed by the homeowner who kept his floors free of outside dirt and dust.
A friend I was once telling about the cat, including details of the scraping and the splatter, wondered aloud if what I was really trying to do was find enough peace and quiet in the day why I couldn’t think of, or see, cleaning up the blood, the bending and the movement, the attention it required, as the beginning of the morning routine, continuous with the rest. Part of the meditation and the answer to my sighs, he proposed, not their cause. Part of the reassurance provided by the various lives I was living for, stretching for.
This is what Christ meant by loosening his tunic and insisting on washing the feet of his followers, Carrère says, understanding that the clean-up doesn’t change the material conditions of those we clean so much as bring us closer to those conditions so we might become open to them, vulnerable ourselves, sympathetic, loving: the filth, the blood, the dust; the musculature and scars, the breath and other reflexes that make up the lives carrying on outside our own. Christ was telling his followers, telling Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, who cleaned his own crucified body, telling us—followers or not—we could be changed, we can be, not by being washed or having washed, but by washing.
Scott Korb directs the MFA in Writing program at Pacific University.