Cynthia and I just got a dog, named Rosie Kangaroo. (Long story. Let’s just say the girl has hops.)
When I was young, I always wanted a puppy, but my parents were not inclined to give me one. To placate me, they got me a rabbit, but it “disappeared” one day. Then they got us a cat, but it too eventually “disappeared,” after giving birth to a litter in my parents’ closet. (All of this was quite disturbing for a boy whose sister had “disappeared” when he was young, but I’ll save that for my therapist.)
Anyway, no dog. No way.
Fast forward to 1990. My wife wanted to get a collie. I said no. Our son Stephen was only a year old, I argued, and you never know, the dog might bite him. She bought the collie anyway. And guess what? The dog nipped Stephen in the face, coming close to tearing off his tender little cheek.
But they were henceforth bonded for life.
Stephen and Molly the Collie grew up together. Molly was there for him when I divorced his mother. She was there for him when things got tough for him in school. She was there for him when he broke up with Tina, his first girlfriend. When Molly died, after being run over accidentally in the driveway, it was the saddest day in his life. Or maybe the second saddest.
I myself went dogless after that. But I didn’t mind sharing dogs. I met a women with three of them, including a gorgeous half-coyote named Sally who, in doggie terms, became my first love. But it wasn’t until I moved to Pennsylvania in 1999 that I took on full-time care for a dog, by myself.
I had just moved from western Colorado to Scranton, PA. I was in a basement apartment that smelled like cat urine and I was looking for a better place to live. I visited a house in the woods that was about to be listed for rent, and when I got there, it was so pretty I thought I was going to faint. Thinking the owner wasn’t home, I walked around the property. I saw the creek in the back, the towering pine trees all around . . . and then I spotted the hammock. I took a chance and plopped into it. And that’s when I met the sweet old dog that would soon become my best friend.
He was a black Lab with a graying face and a bit of a limp. He spotted me, scuffled over, went front paws up on the hammock and pulled it down, attempting to climb in with me. He wound up with half his body on top of me, the hammock dipping to the ground. I patted his bony head and laughed like a boy.
That’s when the owner, an affable man named Ron, came out from the garage. He took one look at us and smiled. “I guess the place is yours,” he said.
He was moving out west for a year, and Noah was too old to make the trip. He had another dog out back–Tisha, a beautiful Husky he was caretaking for a friend. Would I mind if two dogs came with the house?
Noah nuzzled his head into my armpit. No, I didn’t mind.
I don’t want to tell you what happened a month later, but I have to.
There was a rainstorm. A deluge. As usual, Noah stayed inside with me, and Tisha stayed in her doghouse, her collar tied to a clothesline that allowed her to run back and forth as she pleased. Overnight, it rained so hard that the land by her doghouse collapsed in a mini-mudslide, and she was hanged by her collar. (Did I mention she had a choke collar? Those things are terrible.) The next morning, I was met by a gruesome sight.
I had a hard time cutting her loose, but I’ll spare you the details. Afterwards, I brought Noah out and let him sniff his friend, to show him what death was like. I didn’t want him to think Tisha had disappeared.
So it was just me and Noah after that. We took long walks down the dirt road and spent easy days in the garden. In the evening, we’d go out on the back terrace and he’d sit at my feet as I opened a beer, watched the ducks, and listened to the woodpeckers as the setting sun changed the color of the creek. When a blue heron swooped upstream, low to the water, its great wings creating strange whumps that ghosted past the house, Noah lifted his head.
When I met Cynthia, she came with a dog—a sweet, needy, and very pretty Gordon Setter named Tess (as in, of the D’Urbervilles). Noah graciously shared his house with Tess. With Cynthia. With all of us. When my kids were there, he kept an eye on my son as Stephen dashed through the woods, slaying Orcs with his fake sword, and lay down next to Caitlin as she gathered salamanders in a jar. He entertained them by going off into the woods and returning with an elk leg in his mouth—as a gift, I suppose. Then he’d try to lick them in the face.
Before too long, Noah and Tess fell in love.
Then, one wintry day, Cynthia took the dogs for a walk. When Tess came running back, looking terrified, I knew something had gone wrong. I looked down the road and there was Cynthia returning with Noah at her side; he was limping and wheezing more than usual. Down that part of the road were three trailers with a cage of pit bulls in the back. As Cynthia and the dogs had passed by, one of the pit bulls had charged out and leaped onto Noah, knocking him onto the icy road.
I gave Cynthia a hug—she looked more frightened than either of the dogs, and she had heroically chased away the pit bull before further damage was done—and brought Noah inside, where he collapsed on his bed by the front door. I gave him some water, but his panting didn’t abate. I sat on the floor next to him and checked his fur for blood, but there wasn’t any. He breathed as if he couldn’t keep up with his heart. Then he pawed his way onto me so that he was half on the bed, half on my lap.
I cradled his lumpy head and told him he was a wonderful dog. I told him that Ron missed his “goo’ boy” so much, so he had to hang in there for a few more months so they could be reunited. That I would be forever grateful to him for rescuing me from a life in the basement. That Cynthia and the kids loved him as much as I did, and it was so nice of him to accept the love and compansionship of Cynthia’s pretty little fancy-pants dog, and it was nice of him as well to have been such a pal to Stephen and Caitlin, letting Cait ride him like a horse, and swimming in the creek with Steve just to keep an eye on him. I told him that the pit bull was a mean stupid son of a bitch, and I hated that pit bull as much as he did. I told him that as soon as he was feeling better, I’d go down to the trailers and kick that pit bull’s stocky little ass, and while I was at it, I’d kick his owner’s stocky little ass as well.
I gave him some more water, and Cynthia soothed him with her soft voice. Then he rested his head on my lap and died.
So then it was just us and Tessie. By then, she had become “our” dog, not just Cynthia’s. Over the ensuing eight years I grew to love her more than any other dog–more than most other humans, in fact. When my year at Hemlock Ridge was up, Cynthia and I moved to Colorado, and Tessie immediately took to the new terrain, reveling in the deep snow, dashing through the mountain forests off-leash, and stalking squirrels and chipmunks outside our house.
There were six good years there before we noticed the limp.
She died the following year, from cancer.
If I told you how Cynthia wrapped Tessie’s leg every day, changed the dressing, spoke tenderly to her as Tessie’s tumor grew out of her skin, looking more and more gruesome, her death more and more certain, you’d know what love is.
I had always understood it intellectually, this bond between people and their dogs. You’ve heard the stories: a man dies, and his dog dies the next day. It’s all about loyalty, unconditional love. But I never felt it. My son certainly did, when Molly the Collie died, when he held his beloved dog in his arms. And when Mickey, the shelty Caitlin grew up with, died this year, she certainly felt it as well, distraught to be so far away at college. And when Tessie died . . . well, I hope to never see Cynthia in that state again.
But still, it’s beautiful. To love another being that much. To witness its death. To see, up close, the passing from this life to another. To feel the heartbeat stilled.
I miss Tessie to this day. Noah, too. But here’s what I just realized: Rosie Kangaroo is my first dog. By that I mean, I didn’t inherit her. Cynthia and I went to the shelter together, and when we met her, I felt my heart go pitty-pat. Well now, look at you. I think I love you. One glance at Cynthia and I knew she was feeling the same way.
Our second dog. My first.
At home, when she buries her head in my crotch, or puts a paw on me as I rub her ears, it reminds me so much of Tessie that it makes me think twice about reincarnation. And when she lays out on her belly and sighs through her nose, the precursor to a long nap, she acts chillingly like Noah. (I know, I know, all dogs do these things. Indulge me, please.) So it’s as if when I love her, I am loving my dead dogs too.
At the time, I didn’t realize it, but did you notice? We chose a dog that’s part setter, part lab.
Part Tessie, part Noah.
No wonder I love the bitch.