The dog I grew up with was not exactly the stuff of an active, outdoorsy, towhead boy’s dreams. You know, the hearty, exuberant Old Yeller type. No, Saber was a dachshund—his pedigree proclaimed him Saber the Second of Hawthorne.
Now I’ve never met a dog I didn’t love, but in Saber’s case I also hated him. I know it wasn’t entirely his fault; my mom had a way of making our family pets kind of neurotic. He was fidgety, paranoid and, well, just didn’t have a very good grasp of who or what he was. And he smelled, all the time, as if he had just eaten rotten fish.
The smell was the easy part; I could always hold my breath…or, even better, just keep my distance. But what I couldn’t escape was the slurping.
Saber slept in my room, in a little bed over in the corner by the radiator. Every night just after lights out he’d start licking himself. Which was fine…for the first few minutes. But it went on and on and on, this slow, syrupy slopping.
I was a pretty mellow kid, but this sound tapped into some kind of deep-seated rage. At first, just barking No! at him would do the trick. But each night I’d have to increase the volume and frequency of my rebukes.
Then it got to the point where the little bastard just ignored me. That’s when I started reaching down to the floor for one of my slippers and just winging it at the sound.
Though I’m pretty sure it wasn’t from a concussion, I don’t remember exactly when or how Saber passed on. (I hope he ended up in a place where he could mop his privates to his little heart’s content.) I’m sure his passing left more of a void for my mom than it did for me; she never had to listen to that infernal slurping.
My second dog was everything Saber the Second of Hawthorne was not.
When I was a lad, we spent summers at my parents’ summer home about an hour north of the Twin Cities on the lovely St. Croix River. Those halcyon days found me—after my chores were done—playing in the corn and alfalfa fields, hiking up in the hills, catching frogs along Lawrence Creek, swimming down at the river, or fishing.
One mid-July morning I opened our twangy-springed screen door and found a dog—a young black Labrador mix—curled up on the stoop’s dewy floorboards. She was pretty scrawny, her coat matted with burrs and spots of blood where she’d been cut by thorns or who knows what. Her floppy underside and extended nipples told me she’d recently had pups. (I never did find out what happened to those pups.)
She looked up at me hopefully, pleadingly, and it was love at first sight. We asked around, ran a notice in the local weekly, and waited. With good food, a safe place to sleep and lots of affection, her body soon filled out and the wounds healed. I named her Lady. And, despite my parents’ admonitions, I prayed no one would claim her.
No one did. And Lady and I became partners in crime for one of the most wonderful summers of my life. We played and explored to our hearts’ content, inseparable.
While my thoughts those days went
no further than the present moment,
my parents, I’m sure, were agonizing
over the inevitable.
I trained her, well enough to make her a welcome house mate, but apparently not to inhibit her wild instincts; she still managed to find dead, moldering carcasses to roll in—snakes, birds, fish…to her they were all like the finest perfume. And she got grounded for a week after killing one of our neighbors’ geese.
But Lady was a good dog…the best dog.
While my thoughts those days went no further than the present moment, my parents were agonizing over the inevitable: come late August, when we moved back into the confines of the city and our fragile, antiquarian mansion with its small yard, what would we do with Lady?
Their decision struck me blind with grief and anger. Lady, they insisted, would move to Rolla, Missouri to live with my sister, who had a bigger yard and a more forgiving house. She lived there for some years, and then returned to Minneapolis where she spent the rest of her life. My sister and her family were very good to her.
I understood the wisdom of my parents’ decision—more so as I aged and became a parent myself—but deep inside my boyish heart I’ve never forgiven them.
After college, between starting architecture school, the serious threat of being shipped off to Vietnam, and scrounging for borrowed and rented housing, there was no room in my life for a dog.
But in the early 70s, even though by that time I was married and had a baby (a human one), I felt I’d been too long without a dog. We’d moved from Minnesota to New England where I was teaching and coaching at Vermont Academy, a private boarding school nestled between ski slopes and trout streams in Saxtons River, Vermont.
It was an emotionally tough time, what with the demands of my new family, my being largely unprepared to be a teacher, classrooms full of partially-wasted students who’d been stuck there against their wills, and one campus group vowing to kill me for reporting a few of their friends for doing drugs in their dorm room.
I was out of my element in so many ways. I desperately needed some sense of control in my life, a relationship that would be easy and fun. So I went to the local humane society. I wasn’t sure what I wanted…until I saw him. The sweetest little thing, all squiggly with excitement and love. And, wouldn’t you know it, another black lab.
I hope he had a good life—with a wiser,
more considerate master than I.
Ah, yes, little Pooh Bear. What I was thinking?!! I didn’t even know if dogs were allowed in our in-dorm faculty apartments. Besides, with a wife, a baby and a demanding schedule, I wasn’t sure how I’d keep him from waking us up at night, or even where I’d find the time to care for and train yet another new member of the family.
Furthermore, Pooh Bear was not house-broken—not even close. For the first few weeks, I kept him, secretly, in a closet in my art classroom/studio. Every night I’d cover the floor with several layers of newspaper, put him out to do his business and then nestle him into his blanket in the corner. The cries and scratching began even before I could close the door. I tried not to listen.
Next morning, every morning, before classes, I’d open that door to find the poor little guy jumping out of his skin with excitement…and covered—along with the now-paperless floor and the walls up as high as he could reach standing on his hind legs—in shit. Pooh Bear, indeed. Potty training him alone was going to be tough; I didn’t even know where to start.
Things did not improve, so, alas, shamefully admitting defeat, I returned Pooh Bear to the shelter, hoping against hope that I’d not irreparably traumatized him. I hope he had a good life—with a wiser, more considerate master than I.
I don’t know if that whole Pooh Bear debacle had anything to do with it, but in 1976, now back in Minnesota with two kids, my first marriage ended in divorce. I was ashamed for not having had what it took to be a good enough husband and father to keep our family together.
Deeply mourning the loss of my kids (their mom wasted no time in whisking them back to her happy place, New England) I could barely put one foot in front of the other.
I needed therapy…the kind I knew only a certain breed of dog could administer. So I headed once again for the humane society. It took a few visits, but eventually my stars aligned with those of the third black lab mix in my life, Bess.
Over the next several years, Bess and I grew very attached. At last, I had the time and temperament to really train her and gain her trust. We shared our deepest thoughts—well, my deepest thoughts. We bonded. Her name evolved to Bessie, and then, during my mushiest, most sentimental moments, to Bossy Bessie. Don’t ask.
Bess and I often went back up to the family’s summer place on the St. Croix, where she did exactly what Lady used to do those many years ago: bounding joyfully through the fields; following me—that is, when she wasn’t waylaid by a smell quest; and, yes, anointing herself in eau de rotting flesh.
We even survived a tornado together. It was the classic story: Hot, humid July afternoon, and I’m on the second floor repairing a window. It gets eerily still, and the sun’s swallowed up in dark, kind of greenish clouds. Big rain. Hail. And then the classic deep, rumbling, train-like roar.
Bessie felt it before I did, the vacuum created by the giant sucking vortex bearing down on us. I grabbed the radio and a flashlight, and we ran down to the basement. In less than a minute it was quiet again.
We headed up and poked our heads out the back door. Trees were down; the garage roof was gone; and right next to it, the entire flat, tar-and-gravel roof of the apartment building next door lay across our back yard.
Anything for love, I rationalized, not
yet quite aware that I'd just given up the
right dog for the wrong woman.
During the Bess era, I got married again. My new wife was a suburbanite through and through. Fastidious. Clear vision of the lifestyle she expected. And she came with attachments: two kids and a foo-foo little dog named Bibi. She couldn't quite picture perfect little Bibi having any competition in our new, modern, immaculate suburban home. And I…well…I was an idiot.
In the spirit of compromise—I'm still not sure what she gave up as her end of the bargain—I agreed to do with Bess what my parents had done 30 years before with Lady. I found her a nice, loving home on a farm near Red Wing. And Bibi, well, ironically, a few months later the precious little thing was run over by a car.
Driving away from that farm, seeing my sweet Bossy Bessie in the rear view mirror, for what I knew would be the last time, tore my heart out. Anything for love, I rationalized, not yet quite aware that I'd just given up the right dog for the wrong woman.
Against my better judgement, I did go to visit Bess once. It was surreal. Half of me prayed she'd come bounding out to welcome me; the other half hoped she wouldn't. She didn't. No one was home and she was nowhere to be seen. Probably for the best, but my heart ached anew.
It took me nearly as long to recover from my abandoning my best friend as from my second divorce. Eventually, though, I moved on. Bought a sweet little home in the city—which is where I finally realized I belong. Even fell in love again.
Once more, I was with someone who already had her own kids…and dog. But his time I knew that, even if I'd brought a pack of pit bulls to the deal, Sally, the ultimate dog person, would never have dreamt of asking me to give them up.
Maxwell, Sally's miniature schnauzer, was, shall we say, an acquired taste. Grumpy, yippy, paranoid…and not a black lab. Nonetheless, we loved him well for the rest of his life.
Eventually Sally and I got married and, with both of us having put our child-rearing years well behind us, into our lives tottered our second miniature schnauzer, Abby. Well, Sally actually bought her for her son. But Matt was a carefree, socially active young man soon headed off to college; I knew all along Abby was going to be our dog.
Abby was the black-and-silver variety of schnauzer. And on her the “silver” was really silver. I mean it had both the light gray color and nearly the same metallic luster as the precious metal. We came to call her, in our tenderest moments with her, our Silver Girl.
We never did figure out why she got so excited
every time I mentioned the name of then-
Minnesota Twin, David Ortiz.
I suppose I could go to great lengths explaining all of Abby’s special qualities, but if you’ve ever had a really good dog, you know them: Her unfailing excitement to see us; the way she looked into our eyes—sometimes angling for a treat; other times just wondering what we were thinking; her keen sense of right and wrong; her amazing vocabulary—in both Dog and English. (We never did figure out why she got so excited every time I mentioned the name of then-Minnesota Twin, David Ortiz.)
The traits that most stand out, though, are those Abby exhibited as she neared the end of her life—the grace with which she moved, even as her body was failing; the loving gaze of those now-cloudy eyes; and her sheer tenacity.
As lovely as such qualities were during those final weeks, the ones they brought out of me were even more unexpected. I never knew how tender and patient I could be until I carried her out to the lawn and held her upright while she piddled; until I cleaned up her increasingly-frequent indoor accidents…without the slightest annoyance; until I held that bony, feeble frame in my arms for the last time, soothing her with soft-spoken praise.
I knelt beside her, placed my hand
on her bony side and knew.
On Abby’s last last night with us, Sally’d had to go to bed because of an early appointment the next morning. Before I joined her, I carried Abby outside to piddle. Then, as I laid her gently into her dark green, pillowy bed, I had a strong feeling that her time was close at hand.
I lay down with my head against her side, listening to her slow, shallow breathing, until I was sure she was asleep. And then, tearfully, I went up to bed.
On her way out early next morning, Sally noticed Abby sleeping in the same place I’d left her. But when I went down two hours later I was apprehensive. There was our sweet Abby, out of her bed, lying in the middle of the floor. I knelt beside her, placed my hand on her bony side and knew. Our Silver Girl was gone.
Maybe it was the fact that she was the one dog I’d known intimately from puppyhood until the day she died, but Abby, of all the fine dogs I’ve loved, was and is the canine love of my life. The mere thought of her still brings tears to my eyes.
It’s been nearly seven years now, and I still don’t know if there will ever be a place in my heart for another dog. But, just recently, I’ve had the sneaking suspicion that Abby, as protective as she was of her space, may finally be ready to move over and make room.
Dogs are our link to paradise. They don’t know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring—it was peace. ~ MILAN KUNDERA