Copyright 2011 © by Teresa Cypher
You Were My Dog
It was June of 1996; it seems like such a long time ago. We were walking across the parking lot to the flea market when we saw a couple giving away puppies. A month earlier we had put down our 5-year-old German shepherd after a mystery paralysis had left him unable to move anything but his head and neck. Still emotionally bruised from the loss, we had no plans to get a dog so soon, if at all.
But here we were, looking at three Border Collie mix puppies. Two were black and white, and one was blonde like the famous Lassie. I liked the blonde but it shied away– to the point of cowering behind the clothesbasket in which they had arrived. One of the black and white ones was aggressive. I had just read an article about choosing puppies from a litter, and it suggested avoiding the shy (a frightened dog will bite) and to avoid the most aggressive for obvious reasons. So, we were like Goldilocks…looking them over and picked the one that was “just right”—the other black and white puppy.
We brought him home with us. He sat on the seat of the truck like a little trooper, eyes forward, alert. I recall marveling that we had just taken him from everything he had ever known in his whole 6 weeks of life, yet here he was, happy and accepting of his new family as if he had never had another.
We put him on the ground when we got home, and coaxed him—which he happily obliged by following us up the hill to the house. He paused and gave a sweet little puppy bark at the cat. He was so chubby he had to stop and rest every so many feet. He was dubbed, on the spot, the Pokey Little Puppy.
Pokey was the family pet, but for reasons I can only suspect have to do with a dog always knowing who the cook is in a house, chose me as his master. My daughter, Ziggy, bathed him and fussed over his “pretty paws” and my sons coaxed him to tag along with them everywhere they went on the family farm, still, at the end of my work day when I parked and shut off my truck, he came, rumble, tumble, roly, poly, down the hill in the yard with his little voice yapping excitedly.
I didn’t want a dog, not one of my own. I wanted him to worship the kids, not me. Yet, day after day it became obvious that Pokey was choosing me. I tried to deny acceptance of my “masterdom” he was granting me. But it was undeniable when still a pup, at a slightly older, long-gangly-legged stage, he followed the old farm dog roaming. The farm dog came back but Pokey did not. I was heart-sick, worrying where he could be. I canvassed the neighborhood, making known to all the neighbors that we had lost our dog. It took two days, but a neighbor called. He was at her house…glad to have learned that it was our dog—because she did not want a dog! I conceded then; he was my dog.
The years began to slip by. He travelled to St Louis with us and walked beneath the arch. He always travelled well, but was the dickens for burying his cheeseburger, instead of eating it, when we stopped at a McDonald’s. He loved it when we went for ice cream, and he always got this own.
We memorized the black freckles on his white muzzle, and marveled at the Holstein pattern on his belly. Which prompted us to even check his gums—and yes, there were pink and black spots inside his mouth. The vet told us that he thought there must be some Springer Spaniel there too. My daughter and I used to laugh when we would gently lift the long tufts of hair on his ears and ask him in a silly voice, “Who does your hair? I simply must know!”
Pokey chased Frisbees and played fetch—sometimes even returning the ball to us. He spent summers on bramble covered hillside with the kids and me, while we picked berries, basked in summer sunshine, and relished summer breezes. There was birdsong, laughter, berry stained faces—and Pokey ate as many berries as we did—and nowhere was there a single, sad, thought about how short a dog’s life is.
Excuse me while I pause. There, better. Could not see the keyboard for my tears.
A couple summers later when Dave and I got married, Pokey attended with my niece holding his leash. He was not fond of other animals, but he sure loved people. He would excitedly bark and dance when the kid’s friends showed up—and he had his favorites.
He tagged along outside, but was never quite the outdoor dog that Gus was. Pokey was our intellectual with a British accent, and Gus was our big bruiser, head of security. But Poke was willing to follow me anywhere I went.
High School graduations came and went, college absences were endured. Dogs don’t understand. All they can do is react when the world is wonderful again. Each trip home from University brought a round of barking, licking and tail wagging that was nearly more than my daughter could take!
Our middle child, Nathan, got married, and his absence was acknowledged with a dancing and barking routine each time he visited. And oh, how Pokey loved out daughter in law, Amanda.
I took him for walks out across the fields after work, him and Gus, our Rotty mix that was a couple of years younger. They were my best walking pals…and I think they felt that way about me too, with the exception that I outright refused to pursue groundhogs with them.
Poke loved all of us, but I know that through and through, he had chosen me as his master—that human being who gets all of the trust…that he will not go hungry, and he will not be abandoned, and that he will not grow old alone in a chain link kennel.
More years went by, seeming to fly now. We moved into our new home, Dave and I having agreed that the dogs could live a comfortable life in the basement. Then…it just sort of happened. At first it was an area inside the front floor, then it was the living room, then it included the family room.
And life went on in its comfortable way.
A few more years vanished and Ziggy married Tim. Gus was suspicious at first, but Poke loved him from the very start. He received the happy bark and dance when he arrived.
Our youngest, DC, was the last remaining child at home, and as the dogs aged, he spent hours with them rubbing their ears and playing with them, but we all could see that the dogs were slowing down.
I can’t recall exactly when it happened, but Pokey moved beyond just slowing down to actually becoming an old dog. It seemed to coincide with the birth of our first grandchild. Pokey was not only an old man by then, he was a grumpy old man…refusing to take Natalie into his “pack” or his heart.
Gus, on the other hand, our big bruiser, adored her from day one. Not long after Natalie was born, Gus developed diabetes which after several months of insulin shots and trying to get his blood sugar under control, took his eyesight anyhow. DC steadfastly gave insulin shots to him every day. A year and a half later Gus was gone from complications of the disease.
That brought us to August of 2010. Poke was ancient. Only one time the whole summer did he walk up to the garden with us. He no longer followed us up the lane to watch the sunset. I started lifting his hips to help him up the porch steps and into the house, and he continued on in his very limited way. I grappled with having him put down. As a human, I felt so limited in my ability to assess his quality of life. He never cried in pain, he laid where he could watch me work on the computer, and seemed happy enough. Who was I to judge that was not enough? How can we measure in by human standards when death is better than living? I never imagined that he would make it through the winter. I rarely prayed, but I began to pray that he would just quietly and painlessly stop breathing while he slept.
But, his heart was strong.
The day finally came when I stood inside the house, watching him hobble outside to do his business. He was beginning to lose his ability to realize when he had to go to the bathroom, completely deaf, and in the preceding two weeks, his eyes had begun to cloud over.
I called the vet and took the first step, getting the information into the computer. From there it was a matter of me deciding when I was able to handle it, when I could move past the emotions of the love he had loyally given me for nearly 15 years, and allow my intellect to step up to the task of what I had to do.
We dug the grave.
Another couple of days went by, and at a visit to the vet for our new rescued dog on Tuesday, I told the receptionist that I would be back on Thursday with Pokey.
I had not baked cookies in a while, but I baked a batch of chocolate chips, and fed Pokey all that he would eat. And he had eggs for breakfast—not just one, like normal mornings, but several. And I counted days, then hours.
DC made the call to confirm the time to take him –after all the regular appointments were done. That made it 3:30. I gave Pokey a half-gallon of Neapolitan ice-cream. He licked and licked and licked…unaware that with each moment ticking by my heart was breaking even more.
I sat outside with him in the beautiful sunny day, a light breeze bringing scents to his nose, and thought about how I could barely remember what it was like to not have Poke in my world. Steadfast friend, skunk spray, the dancing when he smelled cookies baking, how I reached a point that spelling the word W-A-L-K no longer worked because he knew it by the letters too, when he was year old and I fell and fractured the sinus bone under my eye, after the ER missed it, I laid on the couch for two days and he laid on the floor beside me, only leaving to do his business.
The time came.
Dave gathered him up and put him in the van…and he rode just like the trooper he always was in a vehicle. At the vet’s, I went inside and paid…and signed the consent.
Then I went back out and crawled into the back of the van where DC was already rubbing his ears. The vet wondered if he might bite, so I held his muzzle by rubbing his chocolate ice cream covered chin. I talked to him while the vet worked, and tried in vain not to cry. I wished out loud that Poke could hear my voice. He looked up into my eyes and I kept telling him through sobs that it was okay, “It will be alright, sweetie”.
I don’t think he was scared, but he struggled for a second when the vet had to try for a vein the second time. Inside I was screaming for it all to stop. Let him close his eyes and sleep.
I watched as he relaxed, and through tears we continued petting him and rubbing him. It felt like it took so long, but in reality, the end of his life happened very fast. The vet listened with his stethoscope and said Poke’s heart had stopped.
Ten minutes after we had arrived at the vet’s, we were pulling back out onto the highway.
Pokey, if you could hear me I would tell you, I did not miss the fact that only a few weeks ago, you took Natalie into your pack. And two weeks ago when she arrived, you laid on the floor on your rug and barked and barked and barked that joyful bark you saved for when your most favorite people came to visit.
I would tell you while I rubbed your ears and tousled your fur… that it was the hardest thing I ever did. And I will miss you forever.
Dave heaved with huge sobs as he lifted you from the van, then we buried you in the shade of a witch hazel and a butternut tree, on the east side of the house. There, where there is a flower garden with a small stone wall, and the daffodils are blooming right now. There is a gazing ball…and sometimes, if you recall, I do go there just to sit, but mostly to work, pulling weeds, turning the compost, admiring the lilacs that came from the farmhouse. And to clear my mind and just think.
Maybe not tomorrow, but in time, when I work around your grave, I will smile when I think about the joy you brought to my world…to all of our worlds. And admit again, even though I never wanted it, you chose me and I accepted it…sometimes we don’t even know the things we need in our lives…or the things we want.
You were my dog… and my life was bettered for it.