Friday, October 21, 2005

Gone Dogs

My good friend and co-worker Irene's mutt-dog Griff passed yesterday from some bizarre stomach condition. He was between 13 and 15 years so he had a good run. I had seen this dog on several occasions at their home and he surely put the capital "M" in mutt. Scraggly, brown mottled, long-legged hound dog with ten times more energy than sense. When you visited he would almost wag himself to death and jump around like a spastic, his flailing legs and long toenails on the kitchen floor created a rythmic clacking-like a canine version of Riverdance. I've been thinking of long lost dogs lately-their faces stare back at me from the pictures that line my fireplace mantel and inhabit a large part of my computer hard drive. I remember with laserlike precision, the when, why, how and where we got each of them. If you love pets, as I do, and you make it to the half-century mark, as I have, you will dig more pet graves than you want. A dog and a cat are buried in the front yard of our old house in Clemmons, N.C., a tree marking their resting places and their graves hold not just their limp bodies and bones, but like the ancient Egyptians, we buried them with their favorite treats and trinkets, in the hope they would use them wherever dead pets go.

It's midnight on a crisp fall night-I'm sitting in my customary chair taking the first draw on a rum and Diet Coke. I lean over to open the door to the back porch so the dogs can rush out and bark wildly at some local kids who have the gall to be riding their bikes up and down a public street. We have a safe neighborhood but when they get to barking in tandem, you would swear that one of us was being stabbed to death by a hooded serial killer. I step out on the porch to collect them in when I feel that they have barked and growled enough. The full moon has flooded the backyard with hazy light and my gaze shifts to a thin, gray slate headstone, leaning against large cinder rock that sits in the mulch of a large flower bed. The headstone is surrounded by seashell and small statuary rabbits. The slate tablet reads "Mystery-1985?-2002," the bottom line adding the words, "Our Sweet Missy." That is how we referred to her during her 10 years with us. She was absolutely the sweetest dog that ever lived and just writing this brings up the tears like water from a well.

She was named Mystery by others for good reason we were told. She had been passed from home to home many times in her early years and no one really remembered where she came from-given the sweetness of that dog, that is something I cannot fathom. To this day, I would eat my own liver than to give up any of my pets-not even one of the fourteen goldfish inhabiting our plastic garden pond. If someone intentionally hurt or killed one of my pets, I have no doubt whatsoever that I would kill the perpetrator with my bare hands, turn myself in, proudly plead guilty and do the time-no doubt whatsoever! We came across Mystery for the first time on our nightly stroll up the hill while walking our first dog, Duncan. Mystery came charging full bore out of a garage of a house owned by Betty and Charlie Fulton. Betty was a stereotypical older southern lady-sporting a blue-gray "jiffy-popped" hairdo, she was garrulous and gossipy. Her husband was pot-bellied and laconic (he had no choice about the latter since Betty talked incessantly with the rapidity of a Gatling Gun). Most times Charlie would be aboard his John Deere mower, either mowing his five acres or just riding around surveying the scene. He also had an old truck which spent more time in the field than on the paved road. For the next year, everytime we would walk past the Fulton house, this small Yorkie-mix dog would come barreling out of the garage toward us barking. Her bark was comical-it was soft, muffled and froggy and the word I gave it was not a "bark," but a "berf." When she got close to us, if we made the sightest move toward her she would quickly retreat to the garage and the "berfing" would change to just a low, gutteral grumble. We would just horselaugh everytime it happened-the combination of the ferocity of the initial approach, the immediate retreat and the goofy bark and grumble was absolutely comical. She soon became the focus of the walk-if she didn't come charging out we felt cheated. We fell in love with the little dog. She began to grow accustomed and less spooked by our efforts to give her some attention and the first time Jane managed to hold her still, she plucked a dime-sized engorged tick from between her eyes.

Betty and Charlie had other animals including a few cats and a pit bull they kept tied to a doghouse in the backyard. I joked to Betty that we would love to have Mystery if for any reason they felt they didn't want her anymore-I could not imagine that ever being the case-but a week later Betty was in our driveway handing me this fuzzy little dog through the passenger window of her car. We asked no questions. We didn't have a crate with which to train her and acclimate her to her new abode so the first day we went to work, we shut her in the guest bedroom with some food and water. When we came home she had chewed up the carpet near the door and had chewed the bottom of the door itself and the wooden threshold- and incredible feat of destruction for an eight-pound ball of fur. Things got better-she slept on the bed with us and she and Duncan roamed the yard and woods-they were inseperable. She still, however, felt the pull of her old home and the fields where she used to chase (and catch) bunny rabbits, ride in the truck with Charlie and according to Betty, had a litter of puppies that she (Mystery) saved from threatening floodwaters-picking up the puppies by the scruff of the neck and dropping them, one by one, onto the safe ground of a raised garden bed. One minute she would be laying in the front yard of our house in a shaft of sunlight and a moment later she would be running up the hill to her own home-we always knew where we could find her-guarding her old garage. This went on for the better part of two years, then suddenly the urge stopped like clockwork. On one of our walks, which now included Mystery, we asked Betty if she knew why. Betty said that Mystery had come up last week and had been "beaten up" by their Siamese cat. It was a relief not to have to trudge up the hill and haul her home anymore-thanks, cat!

Mystery was a house dog after we got her but she loved the outdoors. She would wander the yard and fields behind our house. Sometimes I could hear her disitinctive bark far back in the woods, then hours later could hear her rustling through the leaves and brush, finally emerging back into the yard, then up on the deck and into the house. She (as most small female dogs), was fearless of other animals. Although spayed, she was hardwired as a female to flirt and tease the local male dogs. Her best friend, other than brother Duncan was a huge German Shepherd named Rex who lived about six houses down at the very end of the cul-de-sac. Mystery would go into the front yard, give a couple of muffled "woofs," and this huge dog would come running. When he got to our place, she would completely ignore him, and we would pet him and give him some attention to make up for Mystery's aloofness. Years later he would come to the house accompanied by a gangly, black female hound dog we called "Skittish." She was a boundless bundle of uncontrolled energy-wiggling wildly-her legs constantly clomping and churning even while making no forward progress. If our door was cracked, this wild beast would charge through and romp through the house, overturning food and water bowls, scattering the cats like a pickup careening through an dirt road full of of chickens and sending all the other dogs into a barking frenzy. The dog would go from room to room on the first floor, then re-emerge out the door wiggling and clomping in place. She resisted all of our attempts to pet her, hence her nickname.

Duncan died in early December 1998 replaced by Shadow a month later. Shadow is a snaggle-toothed, large headed, thick bodied black mutt with sad eyes and floppy ears and short legs-he looks as if he was put together by a committee. In the spring of 2000, I loaded he and Mystery into my old Jeep and drove them five hours eastward to our new home on the coast. Our new cleaning lady didn't understand her name and always called her "Misery" to our great amusement. Mystery didn't miss a beat although she was beginning to show her age. Somedays she appeard as if she could hardly get around, yet later that same day, we might look out over the flat landscape and see her 300 yards away just laying in the sun. Our nightly walks began as such for her, then became mostly walk and some carry, then some walk and mostly carry, then finally mostly carry. One of my favorite photos is Jane carrying her on a walk during a January snow. We started taping her legs with brightly colored self-adhesive gauze to give them stability. She accepted the application procedure fine and pranced around proudly with her red or blue "stockings,"but often we would come home from work to see the gauze chewed to tiny pieces on the carpet, her legs bare again.

She began to show her age-her legs joints got weaker, her eyes clouded, her toenails grew and curved into circles because of her herculean efforts to resist clipping despite her frailty; we had to lift her onto the bed and her belly started to distend. Her breathing was often raspy. On her regular visits to the vet where she was a favorite amongst the staff, I always feared I would come home without her, that the vet would talk us into putting her down. She always came home. I could see what was coming and I asked the vet how we would know when it was time-she replied simply, "she'll tell you." She told us on an August weekend-her breathing was labored but not such as we felt she need to go in right away. She had a fitful "sleep" on a Saturday night and I awoke to Jane's gentle tapping and the words, "David, I think she has passed." She was curled up in her little burgundy plaid padded horseshoe- shaped bed looking quite peaceful. I couldn't believe she was gone. I went outside, picked out a beautiful sunny spot near a windmill palm-a place she used to lay to warm her bones. I tearfully spaded a small grave and gathered up some of her favorite items plus a small plaster rabbit like the kind she used to chase in the fields with Charlie Fulton. It took a long time to get her from the bedroom to the yard-we were inconsolable and could not stand to let go. After she was positioned in the grave, still in her soft little plaid bed, it was hard to cover her with the black dirt-we wanted just one more glimpse of this precious creature and we kept patting her cold head and telling her how much we loved her. Finally the accumulating dirt put her out of our of sight and we quickly finished that horrible task and turned to decorating the spot with seashells. We were spent so I suggested we take the boat out to the beach and enjoy a nice summer day. I convinced myself that Mystery had been reincarnated into a dolphin, swimming blissfully in the blue ocean water. We had a subdued day on the beach, cleared our minds and at dusk we rounded the corner at Shackleford Banks and Beaufort Inlet and headed to the ramp. Suddenly just to the right of the boat, a pod of dolphins rolled out of the water, exhaled loudly through their blowholes and disappeared again. We looked at each other and smiled-our Sweet Missy was alive and well.


Blogger Kelly(Mom of 6) said...

Wow..what a beautiful story! I don't know what else to say..very touching.

4:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I will always remember the nightly walks where Missy would go as far as she could then wait for us to come back for her. Needless to say I cried reading this post. Today is Josie's 5th b-day. I remember vividly holding her and her siblings the day they were born. I don't know how I got so lucky to have such an awesome doggie and buddy!

9:55 PM  
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