Before heading to the bathroom herself, she pads to the door to let out the 13-year-old Vizsla who puts up with "sharing" her tangle of bed covers each night.
Hearing the door crack open, our herd of cats shoots the gap, and I hear my daughter exclaim over their dew-wet feet, or their light pawing of each other as they dive into the cat-food bowl she fills, out of the dogs' reach on a bench inside the door.
Many of our three dogs and five cats pre-date our daughter's birth and have had to adjust to her constant handling -- the chasing and babying, and her patter, often very close to their faces. Those that came into our lives while she could name them and watch them grow from babyhood are nonsensically pliant and forgiving. These are cats that can be strung up by one paw, when she drops something, say, and reaches down to fumble for it, the cat tipping like a nearly-spilt cup of juice under her other arm.
For an only child, our farm kid especially, pets are siblings. They're the animated other in her life when mom and dad sit motionless in communion with computer screens. They will chase ping-pong balls around the living room and pounce on fingers that wiggle underneath bedspreads. They will curl up and purr or stretch out and snore within an arm's reach, even with the steady hum of her singing or chastising of Baby, her fallible imaginary playmate. They run ahead of us, climbing trees or splashing into the creek, whenever we leave the house on foot or four-wheeler or bicycle or sled. They are the first thing she hugs when she gets scared of her parents' arguing and the last thing she asks for at night.
Our pets also introduce our daughter to hard things she doesn't always grasp in the realm of human significance -- like injury and death. A veterinarian once showed me how our four-footed companions can suppress physical pain long past the point at which a human would be howling in misery. At the time she had one of our older dogs sedated for a hysterectomy, and she was preparing to pull one of our dog's teeth while she was unconscious -- it had broken nearly in half, exposing the roots, probably in the chewing of the many bones to be found on a farm.
"Animals usually won't even flinch until they're completely under and you lay your tools right on the nerve that's exposed," the vet said. I had no idea my dog's teeth were so damaged.
This amazing tolerance gives my daughter a close look at injured flesh and bone: a tumor swelling like a blister on the tip of a cat's nose; a pocket of fluid that wells up on a dog's head; stitches that mark the removal of a cancerous teat; a warty protrusion growing through the hide of a cow.
My daughter takes these details to heart, asking at bedtime not for fairy tales but for real-life accounts of how people or animals she knows personally have been hurt, have bled, have healed. I take this as a good sign she's aware of what bodies can endure, possibly cultivating an understanding of that crossing over -- the point at which life cannot be sustained.
Last year, my daughter helped me bury the first of our aging pets -- a raccoon-sized, pitch-black lazybones of a cat named Frank, who got louder and more insistent as his eyesight and hearing failed. Most days, he didn't leave the steps leading up to the house, assured that both the people and the food would show up in close proximity at some point. He was hit and killed when he sprinted in front of a co-worker's truck on our gravel driveway; he had followed me and Eliza when we set out on foot.
Together, Eliza and I dug a Frank-sized hole in the backyard, near an oak sapling I had been sheltering from the deer that feast on plantings close to the house in winter. When we walked around the quonset shed to pick up Frank's body, I was shocked by how heavy it was and how it stretched to couple feet as I lifted him by the legs, then got my other hand under his head, where it wasn't matted with blood. We had some trouble refolding him to fit even our generous resting place, but eventually, I sat talking to him, stroking his glossy but slightly ill-groomed old-man-cat fur and recounting the 11 years he'd lived with us.
"What are you doing, Mama?" Eliza asked.
"Well, I'm just trying to remember how good Frank's life was and that we loved him," I said.
Then she, too, petted his head, examining the pink of his distended tongue with fascination.
As we pushed in the dirt and mounded it up so the dogs wouldn't dig into the grave, Eliza said something that made me think she didn't quite get the finality of it, that death was irreversible.
But that night by lamplight, she got the story right. Frank joined the Pantheon of hurts and heartbreaks she keeps enshrined in her last waking thoughts.
"He can't come back alive, can he Mama," she decided. "But we put dirt on him so the worms will come and find him, right?"
I had forgotten I'd said anything about decomposition, but the idea took root.
She'll often ask what Frank looks like 'now.'
And we talk about how clean bones can shine.