Sunday, November 10, 2019

A Dog Story.

Published originally in August 2014.

Somebody told me a story today and it's one of those stories I'm sure I'll remember till the day I die. We tend to say such things too off-handedly and unthinkingly. Not so here. 

There's this buddy of mine, a guy I never got to know all that well. (I'm not sure anyone knows him all that well.) Yet I know him well enough to like him and admire him as a person and a man. A man's man, though such characterizations are no longer fashionable, or even politically correct. So just keep in mind as you read that my buddy is a serious, no-bullshit kind of guy, a mountain of a homo sapiens who was once tasked with doing things for our government, fixing things, shadowy things that he still can't admit to on the record a quarter-century later. That's not some bar line in his case, it's the god's truth. I checked him out to the extent I was able (and he also wears the scars, an ugly bullet wound among them). In an era when masculinity is considered "toxic," my buddy would be regarded as a walking bio-hazard. We'll leave it there. Larger point being, he is not easily given to sentimentality. 

Rewind a dozen years. My buddy had rescued a gigantic hybrid wolf-dog that people initially warned him not to bring into his life. Unpredictable temperament. Why take that chance? 

Wolf-dog turned out to be a wonderful addition to the family, striking the perfect balance between pet and protector. The creature loved his adoptive family from the first, and like most watchdogs, had that sixth sense that enabled him to know beforehand when trouble was afoot. All visitors who were expected were welcomed graciously onto the premises during daylight hours...but one did not dare go near the property at night when all were asleep inside, especially if my buddy was out of town. The lone exception to the latter caveat was kids; wolf-dog loved children. My buddy would joke that some 9-year-old miscreants probably could've crept into the place at midnight, made off with all the electronics, and 125-pound wolf-dog would've cheerfully accompanied them on their mission into and out of the house, "smiling" and nuzzling the intruders' legs the whole time.

The beast also played tennis. He'd fetch the balls my buddy hit to his wolfy side of the net, race back to center-court, somehow spit/toss the balls a dozen yards over the net in the general direction of my buddy, then run back toward the baseline, poised for another volley.

For more than a decade my buddy and wolf-dog criss-crossed America. As my buddy's life grew more prosperous, wolf-dog went from watching over the picket fence of a modest tract home to patrolling the grounds of an authentic horse farm; he performed his chores with obvious pride and purpose. Each morning wolf-dog would amble out to the stable and say hello to his equine pals, then survey the property and eventually return. The dog never complained, was content to take on whatever role my buddy assigned him, even if it meant sitting in the front seat of a moving van with basically nothing to do but watch the landscape gradually transform: cherry trees giving way to cacti or vice versa, as my buddy took his family from west coast to east coast, then back again, then east again.

Shortly after arriving in Pennsylvania this last time, my buddy began to notice the changes. They sneaked up on him, as changes in a family pet almost always will. My buddy would notice them mostly when he returned from being away for a week or so. Nothing you could pinpoint at first—and still wolf-dog never complained, never made a sound in protest—but just a subtle difference in gait and demeanor. And now there were times when wolf-dog would come back to his favored resting spot, a cushion on the ground near the barbecue pit, before finishing a full survey of the property. One day my buddy was watching from the deck as wolf-dog turned and started back to his resting spot before even saying good morning to the horses.

They went to the vet. Bone cancer. Advanced.

"Do you know what we're we talking about in terms of time?" my buddy asked.

The vet replied, "Likely not very long. The dog will let you know." 

Despite the circumstances, my buddy allowed himself a small chuckle, thinking, You don't fucking understand this animal, doc. Wolf-dog had been stoic from day one, never showing fear, never showing pain, not even for a moment; not even after getting hit by a car, once, back in those early California days. He just went about his wolf-doggy business with purpose and self-possession.

One morning a few weeks later wolf-dog struggled getting to his feet from his backyard cushion. He shot my buddy a faltering glance and emitted a short whimper. My buddy had never heard that sound emanate from his pet before, not in all their years. Wolf-dog then bowed his head slightly, as if embarrassed at his momentary lapse, or so it seemed to my buddy. 

But then the huge animal lifted his regal head, fixed my buddy with an unblinking stare and whimpered a second time, briefly. Stoic again now, still proud. Holding eye contact. Just sharing the needed information.

It was time.

My buddy said good-bye to his beloved wolf-dog the next morning. 

He tells me he has never been the same since that day, and never will be. I believe him.