Sunday, June 9, 2013

of dogs and dads

one morning in late january, just after daybreak, i strapped on my good boots under my nightgown, grabbed my coat and took the dog out. it was a brisk morning, and the dog's paws crunched on the icy driveway and yard behind my childhood home, and i figured i could, with a treat in my pocket, keep the dog from traipsing too far afield without his leash. it was the country, after all.

nose to the ground, he plotted his track across the same yard where my siblings and i had worn a circular path years before as we drove my daddy's ford around and through the wiregrass, trying to learn how to drive, the same stretch where my brother and his friends practiced the perfect dunk shot. the dog peed and pondered, trotted and thought, until i saw the hairs on his back stand on end.

the dog is part yellow lab, but it was the beagle in him that shouted at that moment, a long howl toward dogs in the acre next door. so here i was, in my fancy boots and gown crunching through the yard after him — past the old well where i used to sit when i contemplated running away from home — hoping these strange dogs would not bite me or him and would let us go our own way.

when i was a child, dogs roamed the whole town. no leashes. no dog fights that i can recall. we knew all the dogs (and the few cats) by name and personality, my favorite (other than our own dogs) being margie, the st. bernard who plodded all over our neighborhood with not one single enemy, dog nor man.

our dog Trouble was more than once found running through the halls of our elementary school, the doors of which were always open in warm weather. i remember looking up in the middle of my class, seeing a streak of copper running past the door. Trouble, looking for one of the three of us, at a time in our family when it was important for us to be together. i think he stole someone's lunch before most likely my brother caught him and called the woman who was looking out for us while my parents were away, to take him home. i picture addie now, in her blue VW bug, Trouble's red-tipped tail wagging through the window as they headed home.

the downside of all this freedom was the fact that we lost at least three dogs to the highway in front of our house.
but on this crisp morning some 40 years later, i'm chasing my suburban dog in my nightclothes through the crunchy grass into the yard of neighbors i don't know.

the three canines dance around each other, taking to trees and bushes to mark their spots. i of course am whisper screaming, come! cheese! (our emergency word!) now! (it is, after all, just shy of 7 a.m.) and not once does he turn his head.

after one last sigh onto a bush, he trots back into my parents' yard, past the remnants of my old sand pile where we buried the ashes of Bogey the beloved first dog i owned as an adult.

Bogey's favorite place besides at home with us was in my parents' back yard. rumor has it that he even fathered a puppy or two in his spry years when visiting. ever the country girl, i let him roam a little then, holed up as he was in our small city yard. my mother, in between dogs at the time, snagged the shaggy, collie-colored pup from her neighbor and love him quickly and completely. Shag sometimes came to visit his suspected father, though the two never quite acknowledged each other. Shag was an escape artist, wriggling out of our fence more than once when he visited, and not too many months went by before mama lost him to the highway, too. 

then Bogey died, and the only place i could think of with any permanence was my childhood back yard. and so we went, the Book of Common Prayer in tow, to say goodbye to him. i thought at first my father might see a ceremony over the dog's ashes a bit ridiculous, and i was surprised when he joined us in the yard, weeping, even, over this good dog he had grown to love, too.

(as an aside, a few days after Bogey died, i sat down in the early morning hours and wrote a goodbye to him. i sat on that story for a few months, then with pounding heart sent it off to an editor at the N &O, a stranger to me but based on his columns i knew he liked dogs. 'who wants to read a story about a dead dog?' my husband growled. (this was 10 years before Marley and Me... even i didn't know if anybody would. "Bye to Bogey" would become my first published story in a dozen years, and for weeks afterward, letters came to the mailbox at the street, the writers telling me how much my story, and their dogs) had meant to them. 10 years later, Marley made history. such is my luck.)

we are that way about dogs in my family. just love them something nutty and think everybody should. and between us we've had a lot of them: Chester. Lassie. Sir Walter Raleigh. Trouble. (Zorro & Remus, the lone cats.) Macon & Moe, Deacon and Mr. Biggles, Gypsy & Molly... well Molly not so much. Shag. Bogey & Socks. Now LRR & Bailey, Scrappy & Ruby. even my friend's dog, Sookie, i love her, too.

my sister-in-law reminded me the other day that while she and my brother were on their honeymoon, my sister and i found an Irish setter to give them for their wedding present. they pulled up in the driveway with a u-haul carrying all their wedding gifts from Delaware, and we placed a copper-colored puddle in their laps. it seemed like the most natural thing to give them a dog. no matter that my brother was in medical school and my sister-in-law was working... every respectable married couple needed a dog. and there was none more perfect than one who looked just like Trouble. they named her Macon. and what a good dog she was.

the next year my sister married, and she got a chihuahua named Moe (whom the cleaning lady always called Mo-ah!). Moe lived to be pretty old himself, lost an eye and had a hip replacement, the vet frantically calling my sister when she was visiting north carolina, saying the dog would die without the surgery. she had no choice but to keep that dog going. years later, she now has two.

my parents' latest dog Ruby — a regal king charles cavalier — stole my father's heart as soon as she arrived all the way from iowa, free for the taking. Ruby rarely left Daddy's lap in the past couple of years, and on the rare day when he could talk in the hospital, he always asked about her. in his absence, she sits by his pillow on the bed.

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bogey, socks & LRR... as seen by artist Katy Caroline
LRR our third dog in 31+ years, inherited like so many from a college son who couldn't take care of him anymore. we still had dog #2, Socks — a gender-confused collie mix with chronic health issues — when LRR came to live with us, my mother's day gift of '08. his presence forced Socks to live to 14, hard-headed as she was she would NOT give up her spot as queen of the house. Puppy used to grab hold of her feathery tail as she walked into the kitchen, and she would drag him across the floor, which he thought was great fun. not so for the big dog.

now Little Ronald Reagan — i call him Pop Pop, because we called him Puppy for too long and his given name, just does not suit — rules the house. i adore him, despite the fact that he ate shoes and deck furniture and water hoses before i discovered doggie day care. though he should be, he is no fan of water, probably because he fell off the back of the sailboat one early spring day when the Skipper was at the helm and i was home, but he loves to sail.

and he escapes, much like on that winter morning at home a few months back, taking himself for a walk to his girlfriend's house down the street, usually when my husband is not quite watching.

the other day i visited the doctor and learned my blood pressure was high, when in late january, it had been normal. the slow climb likely began february 6 and continued to climb for those 75 hospital days and my mother's fall and then Daddy's homecoming. nothing else has been normal. why should my blood pressure be?

i came into the house that evening, and my husband had a directive:

'you need to sit down with the dog,' he said, and i knew immediately he was right. in all these weeks i have been running...to work, to hospitals, to grocery stores, to home, to my parents' home and back again, trying to take care of so much when pretty much everything within my grasp is out of my control, in all this time, i have had little time for my pup. worried he would have to spend too much time alone, i dropped him at day care on my way out toward whatever the day held, bringing him home, both of us bone tired, restlessly resting until we were at it again.

in this past month, i have been trying to replace what was our new normal with just normal, and some days it works. we have finally gotten back to our Friday walks, to days like today when he sits at my feet as i write.

on other days, it's harder. i'm sad. i'm worried. i have fleeting moments when i don't think about what's happened to our family in the past few months and feel guilty for it. i have had trouble concentrating on anything, especially writing. am trying hard to remember every single thing my father ever taught me, and too often my memory fails.

but he and my mother taught me to love a dog. and what a gift that has all been in my life.
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