Sunday, December 07, 2008

Of Dogs and Love and Death

My black labrador retriever, Max, is 11 years old this past month. He had a blood test from the vet and although nothing seemed to be too out of whack, given his breed, it should be only a few years (if that) left for him. It is hard to contemplate his passing. As it has been with all my pets. He was a Christmas puppy, purchased 11 months after our aging cocker spaniel had to be put to sleep, while we held her in our arms and cried hot wet tears for her passing. But she was 16 and her systems had failed her badly and there was nothing we could do to stop the pain. I thought I would never get another dog, but my daughter was brilliant in her line of attack. She waited 9 or 10 months without saying a word and then started a quiet campaign of asking for another dog.

It was effective, because on Christmas day, there was a small black furry beast waiting under the tree for her and her two brothers. It was the happiest Christmas of my life. Unfortunately, for the kids and for Max, the marriage lasted only for a year after that. And then we were on our own. But, Max made the very best of it. He is a patient dog, one not given to emotional excess. Although I can tell when he is exasperated with me when I don't walk him because it's too dark and rainy outside, and I'm just home from work, too tired to even fix a decent supper. But he puts up with me and loves me and I will never have a steadier companion.

My first word as a child was 'doggy.' I apparently said it with a soft 'g' but it was definitely my first word. Not ma-ma. From my earliest days I was drawn to dogs and trailed after the neighbor's dog when we lived in Denver, petting him fiercely whenever I could.

We moved to Defiance when I was 3 1/2 and we got our first dog perhaps a year or two later. Her name was Gypsy and she was a dalmation. My younger sister and brother and I loved her wholly and she returned that love unstintingly. There is a picture with the 3 of us gathered around her as she lazes in a round papasan chair, and we all have party hats on, even Gypsy. She was as big as my little brother at the time, but so gentle with us. Unfortunately, she was, unknown to us, deaf, as many dalmations are or were. We could not figure why she would run away from us all the time and only come back when she wanted to . And we lived on a busy street--North Clinton. One dark gray November afternoon, our parents were away and we had a babysitter. Gypsy got out the front door and ran across the street. A car hit her on the way back. We all saw it. The car did not stop and Gypsy dragged herself to the house and up to the porch. The babysitter would not let us bring her in to the house. We were frantic. I was all of 5 and the other two were 3 and 2. I went to the basement and brought up every rag I could find and packed it around Gypsy who was in shock and shivering to beat the band. Still the babysitter would not let her come in. I have no recollection of how long it took for my parents to get home. All I know is that Gypsy was taken to the vet's and several days later, my mother told me she had died. Given the circumstances, it was, in retrospect, a significant event for me.

I wish I could say it was my only experience like that, but it was not. We had a succession of dogs. Punch, another dalmation, lasted less than 3 months because he bit the baby's ear. Didn't matter that the baby kept bothering him. That was enough to get him booted from the house.

Our third dog was a female boxer we named Duchess. She was a beautiful dog who showed up in the back of our house one spring morning with her mom and another boxer pup. My folks found out who the dogs belonged to, and took them back but returned with Duchess. She was a sweet girl, with a taste to chase fast cars. Our family had moved from North Clinton St. and built a house on Elliott Lane, a quiet cul de sac, that unfortunately was just above Rt 24, the river road that led to the dam. We'd had Duchess for about a year, when one day she went missing. I went looking for her and found her body down the hill on the side of Rt 24, where a police car had stopped. The cop knew to follow me home without saying a word to me, because I was crying so hard. He told my mother.

You would have thought that would be the end of it, but, no. Our next addition was a basset hound named Digby. He was a much savvier dog, who liked to wander (my father refused to get him neutered, or the house fenced), but when he did it, he went north away from the traffic and towards Defiance College, where he was found, brought back to us, but he would take off again and again. Eventually he was adopted by a bunch of students there. When one of them was graduating from college and moving back to Canada, he asked if he could take Digby with him and my folks said yes. So, as far as I know, Digby lived out his dog life. He loved to be bathed in the front yard in an old tin baby tub that we had in the garage. And his ears were so long, he'd step on them constantly.

After Digby left, my mother got a flat coat lab, mix puppy from the owner of the butcher shop north of Defiance. We named her Mandy. Mandy was a great dog, very gregarious and loved to be around us kids. In the summer of 1962, went on vacation and when we came back, Mandy had gone into heat. She was the belle of the ball, so to speak, in our front yard. We had dogs lined up from all over the neighborhood. I was in the 6th grade at the time, and can remember looking out of the kitchen window at the ruckus going on, and being told of the reason for the large scal congregation, turning to my mother in disgust, saying. "I'm sure glad humans don't do that." You would have thought that that would have been a teachable moment for my mother, but no. I ultimately learned the facts of life from two 7th grade girlfriends on the bus a year later, to much embarassment and shame. Mandy was allowed to come to term with her pregnancy (we were Catholic after all) and gave birth to 8 or 9 very variegated puppies. We witnessed some of the birth when we came home for lunch on day and it was ensuite. I have no idea how my folks found homes for all of them and I am afraid to enquire more deeply into the matter.

After the puppies were given away, Mandy was fixed and it seemed that she became very protective of us, her real kids. When I was a sophomore in high school, our house caught fire on Palm Sunday. It was quite the excitement in Defiance, because the smoke could be seen for miles. I remember some guy went into our house and rescued, what he thought was our most valued object--our color tv--and when he opened the door to come out, Mandy followed him out. Fall of junior year, I came home from school one day to discover that my mother had put Mandy to sleep because she had bit the tv repairman. No word to any of the kids. She was just gone. She had jumped up on my bed that morning to wake me up with a lick and she was gone.

I didn't wait very long to mount my own campaign for another dog. I think by then I had figured out how to manipulate the Catholic guilt stuff for profit. I was good enough, that I got my mother to agree to to purchase a wire hair terrier that winter. We had to drive east of Toledo to pick her up. Her name was Maggie. And she was a balm to my heart. Maggie moved with us to Rochester MN after my junior year, when my father decided to do an internship at the Mayo Clinic in anesthesia. And Maggie produced Molly, who produced Muffin. By this time I was in college and family dogs were not quite the part of my life that they had once been. But the pattern had been set. I even had a dog in college for a while, until I realized I was not ready for the responsiblity and found a home for him ("Jocko" a cross between a husky and poodle).

I did not bring a dog into my life for eleven years after that, until 1983, when I adopted Sally, a stray cocker spaniel who I had picked up on the streets of Capitol Hill in Seattle outside the Development office of the Seattle, Art Museum where I was working at the time. Sally stayed with me and my then-spouse until her death of old age in 1997, a record of sorts. But if you fence your yard in, and take walks with your dog on a leash, you really can increase their life span. And don't invite tv repairmen to your house, either.

So Max will live out his normal life span with me, and I will be more than grateful for his constant devotion and companionship. One of my favorite buttons of all time goes something like this: "I got a dog for my husband. It was a fair trade."