NOTICE: Posting schedule is irregular. I hope to get back to a regular schedule as the day-job allows.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

ESSAY: A Dog’s Life [Full link to blog for email clients.]

[This past week, I have seen quite a few postings about losing a pet.  A friend posted on Facebook about the passing of his daughters' dog, and his own fond memories.  My sister and niece posted about losing a cat that entwined itself in their lives, becoming a member of the family. I wrote the following 7 years ago when we lost our family dog,the protector and companion of our sons, and my constant companion as I wrote and worked late into the night...]

She came into our life in a hurry.  The kids and I had gone to the shelter.  We were looking to adopt a different dog, but there she was, sitting in the cage, looking at us.  Every time one of the boys walked near, we heard “thump, thump, thump” from her tail wagging and hitting the wall.  The card said her name was Jessie, mostly Border collie, 9 months old.  I went back later that day.  I took my wife and her parents.  Jessie was a hit, and we adopted her the next day.  Our landlady took some convincing, but she agreed as long as she was “mostly an outdoor dog.”  By day she stayed in a kennel, inside where it was cool, or warm, depending on the season.  In the evenings she roamed the house, and stayed with us whenever possible.  In between she loved the back yard.  It was fenced, and she’d sit and enjoy the evening breeze.  In a couple years we bought a house.  She had full run except when we were at work, but the basement and back yard were still hers.

The first time I ever heard her bark, the boys were in the back yard playing.  Our rental house was on a corner, and the driveway for the house behind us was right behind our fence.  There was a strange car, and unknown driver, and she was backed up against my younger son’s legs, doing her best to protect him from danger.  In her mind she was the sheep dog, and two boys, 4 and 6 were her flock.

After we moved, there were neighbor kids coming over to play in the back yard.  There was a swing set, slide, clubhouse, ladders and swinging bridge.  The star attraction was a dog that liked to catch the Frisbee.  Every child in the neighborhood was welcome, a friend, someone to be trusted.  But a stranger at the door was someone to be wary of, barked at, warned off.

She was an indoor dog, kept off the furniture, but would sleep in the bedroom.  Her kennel was in the basement, and an old sofa was hers.  That one she was allowed on and it showed.  The kennel was her cave, her sanctuary, and the boys were warned to stay away.  A dog needs a place to call her own, even if she does spend more time at your feet. 

She was a woman’s dog, and lavished more attention on my wife, her mother, and mine.  One weekend Mom and Dad were visiting.  We’d had several dogs while I was growing up; mostly small, house dogs, lap dogs, curl-up-at-your-feet-in-the-bed dogs.  I came downstairs that morning and Jessie was curled up at Mom’s feet.  In the bed, forbidden territory, but there she was..

She was the kids’ dog, their defender, their playmate.  From that first bark, she seemed to treat the boys as her special prize.  They grew older and started to ignore her, but my youngest would just stop for no particular reason, and give her a hug.  I just knew they would grow up together.  Lately my eldest son would do they same.  When he came home from school he’d take care of her, and she’d curl up next to him at his desk while he started on his homework.

She was my dog.  I was usually the last in bed since I did most of my writing at night, and she wouldn’t go into the bedroom until I did.  She liked the space under the desk, at my feet, beside me on the floor, or any narrow walkway that I’d have to cross to leave the room.

She missed us when we were gone, and welcomed us with wagging tail when we returned.  “Thump, thump, thump.”  If you packed a suitcase she was there staring at you, and moped around the house and stood at the door watching when she knew one of us was traveling.  She welcomed returning family members with great joy, glad to have us home, glad to be home.

It wasn’t all fun.  She was afraid of fireworks.  That first 4th of July in the new house, we found out.  For several days she would not go outside, but would sneak off to the dining room, and we’d have to clean up.  When she did want out, it was usually at 3, 4 or 5 AM, especially on weekends, and it was usually my wife who had to take her out. She got into the garbage, chewed a few items of clothing, and was always underfoot.  She dug holes in the back yard, rolled in the grass, and barked at you if she thought you had forgotten her.  If I opened the refrigerator door, she was there in an instant.  She seemed to always know if cheese was involved.  And always, there was “thump, thump, thump” as her tail wagged and hit the nearest object.

She was Jessie.  Jessie Mae.  Miss Jess. Jessie Girl. And particularly on those muddy or grassy days: Messy Jessie.  She could fly down the stairs, leap from the third step, and land 5 feet into the yard, running at full speed.  Once I saw her clear a 4 foot fence in one leap, another time she squeezed under it and barely slowed down.  But she rarely ran away, and was very good at obeying your voice.

A couple of years ago she went outside after an ice storm but never came back to the door.  She probably was running and hit the ice, and injured her knee.  She needed an operation, and in a few months was good as new, until the other knee went.  It took time, but she recuperated, still, that was the end of the Frisbee days.  Yes, she was growing older, but then, so were we.  I had an operation, too, and I knew just how she felt.

Yesterday I went to the refrigerator and got out a piece of cheese.  Alone.  For the first time in 10 years.  A month ago she was fine, a week ago she seemed okay, but the next day she stopped going outside, stopped eating, and seemed to have trouble walking.  The vet said that the X-ray showed a large mass, probably cancer, operable, but very high risk.

We sat in the room at the animal hospital.  The place where she’d had her knee operations, with a wonderful staff, caring, compassionate.  The kind any human or canine would want to know.  We sat there for the last time.  Her chin in my hand, and her eyes said: “I Love You.  I’m hurting.  Make it stop.  Take me home.”

The boys were away on school trips.  They’re 13 and 16.  Almost 10 years of our life.  My wife and I had to make the decision on our own.  In the end we just couldn’t prolong her suffering for the few days or weeks she would have. 

I’ve heard it said that a dog’s love is the closest thing to God’s love, unconditional, forgiving, unrestrained.  I don’t know what God looks like: tall, short, voice like a famous actor, or a quiet whisper.  But I know he must love dogs, after all, he gave them his name.  Jessie is home.  And somewhere God will throw a Frisbee and she will chase it and bring it back.  He will say “Good Girl!” pat her on the head, and scratch her behind the ears.  And she’ll sit and wag her tail… “thump, thump, thump” will resound through Heaven.

One day I’ll go home, too, and she’ll be there.  She’ll welcome me at the door, tail wagging, happy to see me.  She’ll bring me the Frisbee and I’ll throw it and she’ll catch.  She’ll sit at my feet, put her nose under my palm and slide her head under my hand.  I’ll scratch her behind the ears and she’ll say “Good Man! Welcome Home.”

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