Years ago I went through an intensive therapeutic experience at a place called OnSite. It was a game changer for me and I was able to address issues springing from my childhood that had plagued me and dulled my ability to engage more fully in my life and loves. There were many surprises during the week I was there and perhaps the best one came from my experience of one of the members of my small group. She was remembering the loss of her mother as a ten year old and the impact on her life and she began to speak of her pets and what a comfort they were, both then and now. I found myself in tears which I initially thought were prompted only by compassion but I realized quickly that they were also personal.
In my own early life every pet we had came eventually to a bad end, an ongoing reminder that my crumbling family was in survival mode and unable to be attentive to the bigger picture. I had had pets since then but had held them at arms length, mostly relegated to the back yard and neglected. At OnSite, listening to this woman I found that I was unable to stop weeping and I began to think about how much I had loved our dogs as a child. There was Richard, the rangy mutt who kept an eye at all times on my little sister and me; then there was Grover, the black Cairn terrier, who waited in our driveway every day for me to return from school. The animals in my life provided the consistency, companionship and pleasure that I was missing. But Richard disappeared and my mom told us he ran away. Grover was hit by a car; he was lying in the road by our house when we rounded the corner one afternoon. After that my parents divorced and we moved from Tennessee to California. We continued to have pets but I had already started to hold pieces of my heart in reserve. To give all to anyone was just too much.
I came home from OnSite and told my husband, Kenny some of my experience there. I finished by saying: “Also, I’m getting a dog”. I began a search and read training books. I had long admired German Shepherds and discovered a town in
Kentucky where several breeders were located. I went for visits, looking at puppies, looking at the parents. I found a breeder I liked and put a deposit on a male from his next litter. I told him what I was looking for temperament-wise, a dog on the other end of the spectrum from the Shepherds that were tightly wound and destined for police work. He said they routinely did a series of response tests on the puppies and would pick a dog that was a bit more laid back. He did and I brought King Curtis home in January 2000. I threw myself into training, taking lessons, buying hot dogs in bulk and throwing balls until I could hardly lift my arm. Curtis grew and grew and grew. He was big and beautiful with one small physical flaw. His ears wouldn’t stand up. I threw mys
elf into working on that too, taping his ears to frames for months which he would reluctantly tolerate, his only complaint a look which seemed to say: “Really?” Inevitably though, I would remove the frames and the ears would wobble and fall. Eventually I let it go and as time went on one ear gradually came up while the other one kept its fold most of the time. And I liked it. It made him look a little softer, which he was. He was wonderful with children and I distinctly remember a trip to the Smoky Mountains with the Girl Scouts. We visited one of the swimming holes of my childhood and Curtis, who loved water, spent the afternoon swimming circles around the girls, herding and supervising, making sure all were accounted for. He was well socialized and got along with other dogs most of the time but once in awhile he would inexplicably lunge at a neighborhood dog walking past our yard or at a dog passing us in the park. It was maddening but I never could get him completely past that nor of his terror over storms. Otherwise he was a great companion and I credit him for starting me on a path to consistent exercise. I made a decision early on that I would not put a fence in my yard preferring to keep Curtis with me wherever I happened to be. This meant a lot of walking and playing and we hiked the trails at Edwin Warner Park, which was conveniently located near my house, every day and sometimes twice in a day. I lost 22 pounds that first year and discovered a love for walking, and eventually, running. I entertain a fantasy of being a guide for the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club in my twilight. He was amiable to other adults too, although once in the park a man started walking towards me and I was startled to hear Curtis growl. The man turned on his heels and went the other direction and I always wondered if the dog had sensed something other than good will in his intentions. I felt free to go anywhere at any time though because I had him with me and I felt confident about leaving my children with a sitter when Kenny and I were working. He had a low, loud bark and where his family was concerned, he was the enforcer and meant business.
In 2005 we decided to surprise Lily, our youngest child, for her tenth birthday with a puppy. She had shown her love for animals and her willingness to be responsible with a high maintenance hamster named Oreo who delighted in clinging to the side of his cage like a bat and spraying the nearest wall with pee. After Oreo’s demise, which I did not grieve, I started looking for a small dog for Lily. There was a family in our neighborhood with a Maltipoo, a cross between a Maltese and a miniature Poodle. He was a darling little dog and had a nice temperament so I decided to try and find a local breeder. I found one in Manchester and put a deposit on a female, sight unseen, over the phone. I took Lily to get the puppy shortly after her birthday; she named her Trixey and we brought her home to Curtis who was appalled and immediately went on a hunger strike. Trixey was a pocket pal, tiny but with a distinct alpha streak that made her fearless. She would bound up to Curtis and leap in the air, trying to lick his nose and engage him to play. He would turn around and swat her with his tale, sending her tumbling. I thought he would never get over her arrival but one day I walked in the door to find them playing and from that moment on they were inseparable.
They were an unlikely pair, this enormous Shepherd and this little lapdog. She looked dainty but she had a lot of the junkyard in her and would scrap around, looking for dead things to roll in and garbage to eat. As she came into her adulthood, Trixey found her yap, much to Kenny’s dismay. She announced anyone’s arrival with a series of high-pitched barks that exploded out of her mouth and could not be stopped. It was like doggy Tourette’s syndrome. Lily would try and hold her little snout closed when she started to clamor and the barks would shoot out sideways. She even barked at Kenny and Henry when they returned home in the afternoons and evenings, acting like someone with short-term memory loss. In spite of her annoying little traits and the fact that technically she belonged to my daughter, I had an experience with this little whistler that I hadn’t had with an animal since I was a girl. I gave her my whole heart. I didn’t mean to. It just happened. I loved her spirit and how the mention of a walk, even spelled, would send her tearing around the living room, attacking her toys until they squeaked in submission. I loved her looks, like a miniature black bear that sprang rather than ran and had a hitch in her step like Grandpa Walton. Curtis would have been content to attach his self to my leg at all times; he was often a black hole of emotional need, which I interpreted as a weakness in the gene pool and although I loved him, I didn’t always like him. Trixey, on the other hand, had a strong independent streak and although she was long on affection, she liked her space. I like my space too so we clicked.
I structured my routines around caring for these pets and we all benefited from the disciplines. I often thought: “How did I get so far into my life without recognizing that I’m a dog person?” In the movie, “The Kid”, Bruce Willis’ unlikeable character, Russ, discovers a younger, chubby version of his self named Rusty, sitting in his chrome and black leather living room one morning. Rusty helps Russ reattach to his inner child and become a more fully realized human being in the process. On the whole, the movie is a bit treacly but there was a scene in it that I loved where Rusty is trying to get through to Russ and in frustration shouts: “You are such a loser, you don’t even have a dog!” The additions of Curtis and Trixey to my life were, as much as anything, an indication that I had made a deeper investment in the land of the living.
Three years ago I discovered a growth in Curtis’ mouth that was gnarly and smelled funny. The Vet removed it, had a biopsy done, told me it was a malignant melanoma, told me it was terminal and gave him three to six months. I went home preparing for the loss of my dog but he continued on without the slightest sign of illness for nearly a year. Then one day we were out walking the neighborhood and a man passed us jogging. Curtis wheeled around and bit him on the butt, grazing the skin and causing an endgame change of events. Though he had bitten other dogs in fights, in nearly ten years Curtis had never bitten a human and I called the Vet asking if maybe that was an indication that he was starting to fail. She said to check the tumor site and sure enough, another one was emerging. I was looking at a fall season with an inordinate amount of travel, which meant that my kids would be walking the dogs. I could tell he was having a difficult time; when I would leave the house, my family said that he would stand at the front door and bark until he heard my car returning in the driveway. I felt that I couldn’t take the chance that he might bite someone else and decided to act preemptively and have him put to sleep. I don’t know that I considered the potential impact that my decision would have on me; my aim was to act responsibly on behalf of everyone concerned. I talked it over with my Vet and made an appointment a few weeks out. On that day he was upbeat and frisky. I was miserable and felt as though I was betraying him. I sat with him at the Vet’s office and told him what a great dog he had been and all the ways he had changed my life. He drifted off to sleep and then, he was gone. I could hardly find my way home. I went into a period of mourning that I was unprepared for; I thought I would be relieved but I was bereft and missed all of him, including the annoying parts. But I still had Trixey.
Trixey grieved Curtis as well, searching for him in the house and sitting by the front door gazing out the side light, waiting. But over time we both recovered and Trixey became my constant companion. She rode in the car with me, ran with me, walked with me, traveled with me and was always nearby when I worked at home, inside or out. She learned to shake for a treat and would grudgingly lie down when someone came to the door instead of accosting them. She wasn’t silent about it; she continued to trumpet the slightest change of events, even while prone. I found this more amusing than annoying; she was a joy to me.
Two weeks ago I was packing up my middle child, Henry to head for his first year of college in Texas. Trixey woke up that morning not feeling well and didn’t want to go for a walk. We had been in the park the night before and I thought maybe she’d eaten something and had an upset stomach. Later in the evening we took Henry out to dinner and when we returned she had died. Just like that. I don’t know what happened; friends asked if I wanted to have an autopsy done but in truth, I didn’t want to know. I rarely reacted to a dog not feeling well one day because often the next day, it was over. But if I’d had her autopsied and discovered that getting her to the Vet immediately would have saved her, I would not have been able to recover. The Lord was kind to me and gave me grace after a sleepless night to have a couple of days enjoying my beloved son and getting him squared away. When he was elsewhere I would let myself come apart for a few minutes, walking across campus to the car. Other parents passing would nod in sympathy saying : “It’s hard to let them go isn’t it?” They had no idea. Henry is so excited about school and so ready, it isn’t at all hard to let him go. It’s time–we know it and he does too. But Trixey, that’s another story.
I am a homebody. I travel for a living and my idea of a great place to spend my down time is at my house. But on the drive back from Texas I dreaded returning to my refuge, dreaded putting away the toys and the beds, dreaded the emptiness. I wasn’t wrong about that, it was silent and stark and awful to all of us and we sat on the couch and cried. Then Kenny’s father died after a fall and he left for Las Vegas to sit Shiva with his mom and brothers. His father had dementia and his death was expected and, in many ways, a blessing but it heightened the emotional upheaval. After he left I wandered the house, unmoored and unable to focus wondering: “What in the world am I going to do?” A couple of days passed and our friend Mills called to express his sympathy and fondness for Trixey. I came unglued again and told him I didn’t know how I was going to get through this loss. He listened and said after a moment, “Ashley, get another dog.” I had known I would get another dog eventually and maybe two, but the thought of getting one right away felt as though I was dishonoring Trixey’s memory, as if she was in any way replaceable, which she is not. A part of me will long for her for the rest of my life. But I was sitting at the computer later that evening and I thought I would have a look around. First I looked at a Shepherd, a retired police dog that needed a home and was already trained. But that felt like more dog than I could get into at the moment. Then I looked at Brussels Griffons. Then I typed in “Maltipoo” and up came a local breeder whose grandfather was Lester Flatt. She had Poms, Yorkies, Morkies and, at the bottom of the page, a litter of Maltipoos, born in July and available in September. And there he was. I looked at him, looked at the other puppies, looked at him again, filled out an application, made a deposit and named him Samson. Kenny checked his email from his mom’s house, saw the deposit receipt and sent me frantic messages: “Slow down!!” He forgot that he was talking to the girl who proposed to him on our second date. George W. Bush and I have that in common: we are the deciders.
So tomorrow we open our lives and hearts to a little man who will top out at about 8 pounds of power, might and yappiness. He is not a replacement but a continuation of my devotion to the canine kingdom. And maybe next spring…