A Long Walk Together

Fifteen years ago, our family began a long walk with a loving companion. That portion of our joyful walk ended last week, as it often does, with a final visit to our veterinarian and many tears. It was an unanticipated journey, in many ways, and it began with tears as well, but not my own. It began with a weeping Marine in my driveway.

I couldn’t recall ever seeing a Marine cry before. And I wasn’t entirely sure how I’d ended up in this predicament. But there she was, standing on my driveway, tears welling up as she spilled out all her troubles onto the warm concrete – her divorce, her fight for custody of the kids, her transfer to a new base halfway across the country, and then, on top of it all, unexpected puppies. It was the first and last time we would ever speak, but she dumped out her life story standing there in the bright sunshine while two small children, a boy and a girl, wailed in the back seat of her SUV. At some point during the car ride to our house, they’d sleuthed out why they were in the car with the dog, and with the windows down, their lament carried halfway down the block. Overwhelmed. Her. Me. All of us. What exactly does one do with a crying Marine?

Minutes earlier, a small blonde bundle of fur and feet had tumbled out of the backseat and flopped, face down, into our yard. The last puppy in the litter. Once she found her feet again, she went to work relentlessly sniffing everything in sight. There is nothing safe from the onslaught of a four month old Labrador Retriever; they are completely irrepressible in every way. And as the Marine poured out her woeful tale, and the children’s sobbing reduced to a wet snuffling in the back seat, the dog searched every corner of the yard, finally tiring and collapsing in the cool grass to pant.

Our two sons, then ten and fourteen, laid down in the grass to pet her. We still had the two cats that we’d brought back with us from Germany nearly ten years before, but old cats are not suitable companions for young boys, seeing as how they have so few common interests. Dogs, on the other hand, have nearly everything in common with young boys. Both are smelly, often somewhat dirty, and will eat off the floor if you let them. So there was never really a question as to whether the boys would want a dog. It was more a matter of when, and what kind.

“Next to one’s bosom friend, what companion like a dog? Your thought is his thought, your wish is his wish, and where you desire to go, that place of all others is preferable to him.”

-John Burroughs

I should back up. A few days before all of this, I answered an on-line ad about a puppy. “Our family is interested,” I wrote. “Maybe we could arrange for a trial run over the weekend and see how it goes?” The response came back from a Marine at the local base, and we made arrangements for her to drop off the dog for a couple of days. And now, as she wept in my driveway, it slowly dawned on me that this was no trial run. I looked over at my two sons, now romping in the grass with the yellow dog, and realized that she was ours, ready or not.

And before I knew what was happening, the Marine shoved a supper dish and some chew toys into my hands and walked around to the driver’s side of the SUV. “You seem like a nice family,” she declared. “She’s yours.” And just like that, she was back in the SUV, driving away, children still wailing their objections in the back seat, pleading.

Her name was Kansas, and since her fur was the color of late summer wheat under a blue Midwestern sky, we kept that name. She had without a doubt the softest ears of any dog ever, and the tiny, needle-like teeth that all puppies have when they’re done with their mother’s milk. The boys loved her, and the cats at least tolerated her, so my wife and I settled in with another member of the family.

Our daughter was born the next year, the one person in our family lucky enough to have never known life without a dog. When we brought her home from the hospital, we laid her on the couch and the dog snuffled the tiny bundle. We worried at first that a young dog would be too rough for an infant, but we needn’t have concerned ourselves. That dog was the gentlest of nursemaids. Later, when the baby became a toddler, tails were pulled, ears were chewed upon, and the dog became a rocking horse more than once. She never batted an eye. That little girl was her girl. Last week, now a teenager, she curled up on the floor next to her dog, a 13-year-old girl snuggled up to a 15-year-old dog, their heads touching on the living room carpet.

Many of us could measure out our years by the dogs that have been our companions. The first dog, Ruby, a beagle, who came to me in childhood. Her offspring, Sam, a hunting dog. The tiny and tyrannical terrier who lived in our home when I was a teenager, and moved with my parents to their country house after I moved away. And the long dog-less years while I was in the Army, moving too often, and deployed too much, to properly care for a dog. And then, not long after we bought our first home, a buff-colored puppy who became my companion and friend.

Each time we’d leave the house, I would solemnly charge Kansas to stand guard against intruders. And then I’d chuckle and walk away, because there was no way that dog was ever going to be a defense against burglars. Any thief could have taken all we owned if he’d only rubbed her ears while he did the deed.

Some canines are pugnacious, spoiling for a fight at the instant they spot another dog. But her breed was never given to such rough pursuits, and as an accident of temperament, she was particularly docile, even for a Labrador. She would start and pull at the leash in the presence of another dog, but never in hostility, for she was so overjoyed to see another beast of her own species that she could hardly wait to get closer to it, sometimes to her detriment.

She had few friends of the four-legged variety, preferring to spend most of her time around her human family. There was one dog to whom she drew close, a mongrel bruiser who lived with some friends of ours. He was covered everywhere in coarse black hair, almost the length of a sheepdog, and had human eyes that unnerved me every time he rolled them at me, which was often. Even his feet violently sprouted the long black hair, in a manner that gave him an appearance almost more bear than dog. He was a decent enough dog, generally, although he would bolt for the outdoors as soon as a door would crack open, and was utterly impervious to our cries for him to return. Eventually we learned that he loved to ride in the car, and would come running immediately if we drove around the block with the car door wide open, calling his name. As soon as he saw it, he  would dash for the car, long hair streaming back from his face, and leap joyfully inside, ready for a trip. But his dreams died each time with the snap of the leash on his collar, and he was returned to the house while we assured ourselves that we would be more careful  with the door in the future.

Once while we were away on vacation, the two of them were taken on a walk together, and a great Chow rushed at them from across the street. Kansas laid down in submission, and received a deep bite on her haunch for her attempt at peacemaking. Her friend leaped in to the fray with enthusiasm, punishing the assailant with tooth and claw before they were pulled apart. Kansas suffered stitches and shots from the encounter, but she never wavered – when it came to other dogs, she remained a dedicated pacifist until the end.

Squirrels, however, were a different matter entirely. Any squirrel who dared to cross our property line would receive a strong verbal warning and then be chased off the property.  Deer, apparently, represented an existential threat to our family, and she could not contain herself when they’d wander through the yard. But the deer were never in danger from her border patrol. They’d scatter upon contact, and she would stand flat-footed, head swiveling, trying to decide which one to chase. By the end of her life, to her disappointment, she never caught a single one.

She officially retired from guard duty several years ago, but would occasionally return to active duty if the situation warranted.

At night she’d patrol the house, stalking the hallway outside the bedrooms. We always sleep with the doors shut – no dogs in the bedrooms, I’d tell the kids. Besides, she snored terribly. In the morning, before the alarms would ring, she’d already be awake, snuffling under my door to remind me that I really should be getting up earlier. And when I’d step out into the hallway, that tail would begin to beat against the wall – thump-thump-thump – in a way that only a Lab’s tail can. It’s one thing that dogs have over cats: no matter what time of day it is, they’re always happy to see you.

A walk without a dog has a different sense of rhythm. Now when I walk through the meadow behind our home, it’s at a man’s pace, not a dog’s. There is no sniffing, or stiff-legged posturing when another dog passes by with his human. No one to chase the rabbits and start at the deer when they kick up from their hiding places in the underbrush. People look at me differently when I walk through the meadow by myself. When a man walks with his dog, he doesn’t have to be going anywhere in particular, but when he walks alone, everyone expects that he has a destination in mind. I think it’s a lonely thing, to go for a walk without a dog.

Last year she had a seizure. It went on for a long time, and we rushed to the vet, frantic, my wife driving and I laying across the back seat, using my body to hold her in place as we rounded the corners. An injection of Valium calmed her tremors, but did little to calm our fears. The vet tells us that it’s probably a brain tumor. There are tests that can be run, pet neurologists to consult, even brain surgery, but the bottom line is still the same. Our dog is old, and dying. There are no solutions for that.

I’ve watched my wife transformed into the gentlest of nurses, cleaning the dog’s skin and preparing her food. Watching her lovingly care for this old animal, I realize that this is one more part of our long marriage, one more thing that we have in common together – we have both loved the same dog for all these years.

Old dogs have a quality that makes them especially suitable companions. To sit with an old dog in the evening, and to do nothing, is not boring, it is peace. She knows nothing of jealousy, or discontent, or middle-aged anxiety. She does not worry or fret about what tomorrow’s work will bring. It is enough for her to lay at my feet, to be comforted by my presence, and to know that I am comforted by hers.

But I find no comfort in knowing that her pain will be over soon. I am angry knowing that Death, the last enemy, is lurking round the corner. Some people say that Death comes as a friend to the dying. I can’t see it. He always looks like a thief to me. First he’ll rob you of your freedom, and take away your joints, your movement, your vision, your balance. Later, your dignity. Unsatisfied, eventually he’ll come back for more, and steal away your very breath, your life. And while I believe that Death was completely defeated at the resurrection, a remnant of his power remains, and every once in a while we have opportunity to see it in all its sickening glory.

I killed a bird once as a child. A tiny woodpecker alit on a tree some distance away, and I unthinkingly swiveled and fired my pellet gun at it, never expecting to strike it, but only to frighten it and then watch it fly away. It fell to the ground, a bright red dot on its breast, but did not die. I rushed upon it to find it twitching, struggling to breathe. I stood there for a long moment, unsure, aware that a decision was called for. The moment loomed large for me. I could walk away, and let the tiny creature’s suffering weigh on my conscience, or I could finish it there, and live with knowing that I was responsible. I buried its tiny body, weeping, in the backyard. Death up close.

I’ve never held the view that animals have souls. All of my children have asked me the same question at some point: “Will our pets be in heaven when we get there?” I tell them that I am certain there will be animals in heaven, that God made animals and plants and people as part of his Creation, and that he’ll restore all of it to perfection one day. But I don’t think that means that our specific pets will be there, because God didn’t make animals in the same special way he made people – in his divine image, and with souls that will live forever. But, I always end that conversation the same way: “God is full of mercy, and he loves us very much, and I never rule out what he can do. Besides, he’s also a God of surprises and joy, so let’s just wait and see.”

Part of me hopes that I’m wrong. That somehow the animals we love are made new again. That she’ll be waiting for me when I arrive. Fifteen years is not nearly enough time to love a good dog, and was certainly not long enough for her to expend all the love that she had to give to our family.She probably still won’t have learned to fetch the paper, though.

“Dogs’ lives are too short. Their only fault, really.”
― Agnes Sligh Turnbull

At the end, I cried like a child. Face down on the cold tile of the vet’s office, my forehead pressed to hers as the first shot of sedative began to take hold and her eyes drooped, to tell her that she would sleep soon, that the pain would be gone, that she was loved. To tell her thank you for her years of devotion.  Before her eyes closed I whispered one last time, “Good dog.”

 

 

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