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I confess, I’ve become one of you: a fanatical dog lover. My front porch is littered with chew toys and half gnawed bones. The back seat of my car looks like it’s growing blond fur. I plan my days around outings with my dog. I spend more time with a hyperactive one-year old puppy than with any other living being, and I love it.
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Twenty years ago, when I first moved to Colorado, a place that seemed to have more Labrador retrievers than children, I thought you dog lovers were over the top. I scorned you for letting your mutts run off leash in public places. I cringed when I heard you talk about your dogs as if they were your kids. I told myself I was a cat person.
But truth be known, I had given up on dogs long, long ago.
It is 1967 and I’m thirteen. My family has moved into a neighborhood on the far northern edge of Jackson, Tennessee, fittingly called Fair Oaks. Our quiet enclave is bordered by a thick, dark forest on one side and a cemetery on the other.
My best friend Cindy Meriwether; her Collie mix, Trixie; my lithe little terrier, Pixie; and I are inseparable. Every day of this endless summer we walk the streets and the surrounding woods, Cindy and I up front, the dogs trailing behind like shadows. There are no streetlights in Fair Oaks, so at night we hang out on the steamy asphalt streets beneath starry skies, and Trixie and Pixie navigate our paths through back yards and across ditches, toward home.
One lazy afternoon, Pixie and I are walking home from Cindy’s house. It’s hot and I am dragging my feet slowly over the small rise that separates our houses. I cross the street like a zombie, without looking, and the next thing I know I hear a horrible screech of brakes, then a car door opening and shutting. I can’t look back because I know that Pixie is lying there, flattened. My mother and sister run to me, then to Pixie, and I keep walking, zombie-like, all the way to my room. I stay inside for what feels like the rest of the summer.
Unconsciously and misguidedly, I decide at that moment that I will never put myself in that position again. I will never love another dog and lead it to its death.Fast-forward forty years. My sister is going on a cruise with her husband and has asked me to stay with her very old dog, Roxie, for a week. Roxie is a tough old bird, diabetic, a street survivor who has retired from years of racing the neighborhood kids on their bikes. She has long, thick, cinnamon-colored fur, a graying face, and eyes clouded over with cataracts. I call her my blind guide dog.
We walk each day around the neighborhood church where she sniffs every surface, pees in her favorite spots, and barks fiercely at a pack of unruly puppies over the fence. At night, I feed her a ball of cheese and, as gently as possible, stab her with an insulin shot. Then I watch TV or read and she sits at my feet, staring at me with her sightless eyes, sending me waves of love. She wins my heart and teaches me all kinds of things that dogs know: perseverance, the authority that comes with age, dignity in infirmity. Finally, nearly a year later, she teaches me letting go as she takes her last rattling breaths, lying on the cool concrete floor of the garage. I stretch out beside her and kiss her soft muzzle goodbye.My sister’s other dog, Ollie, becomes my walking companion. He’s enormous, an 80-pound pit bull mix with a massive square head that scares people who don’t know him. They don’t know that he thinks he’s a lapdog, that he will jump onto your bed during a thunderstorm and tremble next to you, that he takes treats from my mother’s arthritic hands, his black lips as soft as a baby’s cheek. He teaches me generosity. He will walk as long and as far as I ask him to, any time, any place. He will walk me through three years of unthinkable loss and grief, and he will make me laugh every single day. Now I spend my days with Tiek, a beautiful golden retriever whose singular purpose in life is to please those who love him. He naps on the floor behind my chair as I type these words, one eye and one ear trained toward the moment when I will stop and stand up. I look into his liquid brown eyes and he sends back love and an invitation: Can we play now? I snap the computer shut and head to the door. You bet, I say. Baby, I’m yours.
Music in the audio version of this column is “Pretty Little Dog” by Shake That Foot. You can listen to the whole track and download it here:
Tagged with: The Middle Distance