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Excerpt: A dog’s diagnosis leads to the savoring of mornings and appreciation for every detail

In "Rough Beauty," the author and her canine companion, Elvis, refuse to await the end and instead relish the days

A former Artist-in-Residence for the State of Colorado, Karen Auvinen has won two Academy of American Poets awards and has been nominated for several Pushcart Prizes in fiction.

Her work has appeared in The New York Times and numerous literary journals. She earned her M.A. in poetry from the University of Colorado Boulder under the mentorship of Lucia Berlin, and went on to earn her Ph.D. in fiction writing from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Auvinen currently teaches film and popular culture at the University of Colorado Boulder.

The following is an excerpt from Auvinen’s book, “Rough Beauty.”

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit


“Rough Beauty” by Karen Auvinen.

2019 Colorado Book Awards finalist for Creative Nonfiction

The Book of Mornings

Just before his fourteenth birthday and five years after I’d moved to the cabin, Elvis was diagnosed with cancer. A lump on his back had tripled in size over the summer, and the biopsy exposed blood mixed with cells.  A bad sign. The surgeon who removed the mass—a Hemangiosarcoma–couldn’t get the whole thing.

“To do that,” he said, “I’d need to take half your dog.”  

The tumor was bellicose, I was told, the prognosis poor.  Even if Elvis were to have chemo and far more costly radiation, it might buy him only a few months.

“How long?” I asked.  Three to nine months.

Of course I wanted to stop time.  

My first reaction was to thumb my nose at death.  To make a spectacle in celebration of my dog. I would cast Elvis’ paw print in bronze, I would make t-shirts with his picture on them, along with the words THE FAREWELL TOUR.

But I would prepare for it nevertheless.  

Days later I celebrated Elvis’ birthday on the day in November when I’d adopted him from the Humane Society, making roast chicken and mashed potatoes, a meal Elvis loved and one we’d shared on Sunday nights that first desolate year I lived in Wisconsin when it was just the two of us in a house in a small port town.  Although chicken had long since been replaced by duck and other allergy-friendly proteins on Elvis’ menu, that night, I drank pinot noir and lovingly fed my dog slivers of thigh meat as he licked my fingers appreciatively. He wore a t-shirt tied in a knot to cover the eighteen-inch suture line inside a wide rectangle stretching between his shoulders and butt.  Afterward, I gave him a few spoonfuls of vanilla ice cream and a birthday cookie I’d gotten at the pet store.

Karen Auvinen and her dog, Elvis. (Photo by Rowan Turner)

A few weeks later, Ryan, Judith’s daughter, arrived to take pictures.  I wanted at least one good photo of us together—but it was the dog who was photogenic, not me.  The three of us walked out to the peeper pond. By then, Elvis felt frisky enough to pounce and play, galloping ahead as Ryan clicked away.  Then, she posed us among aspens, near a rock outcropping, and crouching on the patchy winter ground. The sky was full and blue. Each shot revealed the dog I knew:  Elvis flipping to roll in the snow, Elvis bowing and lunging to play, and Elvis flying, mid-leap, across a white embankment. In one he nuzzles my cheek; in another, I am holding him tight, my grin as wide as his own.     

In the end, it wasn’t anything I’d planned that stuck me to the days and made our time memorable.  Instead it was something quite small. At the cabin, mornings had always been my ritual. I rose just before the sun, meditated, started a fire in the woodstove if it was cold, heated water and ground coffee beans for the French press.  By then, Elvis would be out in the yard, marking bushes, sniffing for what had transpired in the night. He toured the berm in the summer; in winter, he skirted the edge of the road, checking on Paul and Teresa’s to the west and then headed east, chasing rabbit or coyote tracks to the Strickland’s before crossing back to the cabin.  When I heard the thump-thump-thump of him leaping up the stairs, I opened the door and let him in, and settled on the couch with my notebook and a cup of coffee so inky and rich it tasted like espresso.  

Then I watched.  

I gathered the morning in my notebook like someone pulling laundry from the line.  Everything went in. Whatever was offered: In winter, it might be chickadees at the feeder and junco picking seed from the railing and ground.  The sharp smell of looming snow when the wind changed direction and upsloped across the mountain, or the moldiness of grasses emerging at the first thaw, after months beneath ice.  Once, it was a moose, a cow, who surprised me in the early pink light of a late winter dawn, strolling down the drive and through the northern meadow. I watched her long-legged stride scuff the frozen patches of dirt and snow, grinning as she took her time, moving toward the peeper pond.  

In summer, it was the determination of the robin whose urgent call was the pulley upon which the sun rose, followed by a twittering chorus of hundreds of birds.  I could smell the loamy scent of dirt as the first hummingbird buzzed to the feeder, as I counted the shifting colors in the garden and listened to the wind gather across the meadow.  The air was alive with bees and butterflies; chipmunks chased along the rocks, a grosbeak stopped for a drink and a dip at the watering hole rock. Sometimes there was gunfire, target practice on a warm summer day.  

I found a home in the details: the winter wind, the first hint of sun, the color of dawn; the ticking sound the woodstove made when it was heating; the creak of pines, full of sap in summer, and aching, frozen in winter; the beauty of bare aspens against a winter sky, the quality of snow—soft, fat, sharp, stinging; the antics of animals, like the crow who sang  “boop-Bee-do, boop-Bee-do” over and over from the top of a ponderosa on a summer day; clouds making pictures across the sky, or shrouding the Indian Peaks with weather—and that same sky, whose blue was the deep translucent blue of dreaming, whose moods reminded me that each day was its own imperative, the architect of it all.  

Day after month after season, the practice of taking it all down became meditation and I, an observer of place.  And then its guardian.

In the same way, I began collecting mornings with my dog. Weirdly, six months before his diagnosis, Elvis had begun nuzzling me awake.  As soon as I stirred in the dim morning light, he stretched and padded to the side of the bed, inching his nose across the mattress in greeting, something he’d never done.  “Good morning, handsome,” I’d say, and stroke the fur fanning out from his cheeks and pull affectionately on his ears.  He moved closer, placing a paw on the mattress. An invitation. Carefully, I’d help him up, hoisting him by his harness, and he’d settle along the length of my body. Together, we greeted the day.

In those first weeks after his diagnosis, I was in a panic.  I wanted to do so many things. But in the stillness of one morning, I stopped, thinking suddenly of the way I’d gathered the days on the mountain.  Here was another moment, another detail. To mark it, I raised a silent thank you. In this way, I collected each morning with neither the calendar watcher’s sense of time running out, nor the dread that the end might be near, but with genuine happiness that Elvis was with me this one day.    

Miraculously, weeks passed into months into seasons.  And my boy was still with me.

— Buy “Rough Beauty” at BookBar

— Interview: “Rough Beauty” author Karen Auvinen


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