Sunday, June 2, 2019 •

A Tribute to a Mutt

My family never had much luck with pets. My childhood, and the childhood of my two younger brothers, was filled with tales of hamsters getting squashed, fish practicing cannibalism, birds flying off, cats vanishing overnight, and dogs coming to quick ends on busy roads. Most of this was due to living in rural areas of America where it was expected that animals (and, to an extent, little boys) learned to fend for themselves. The stakes were high and, unfortunately, an untimely end was often inevitable. We loved every critter and creature–I can tell you every name, from Brownie to Rocky to Spencer–but it became something of a family joke that to join us meant certain doom. Our longest relationship with a dog was two years.

But then along came Annie, the first dog we ever had who was invited indoors, and she was with us for nearly a decade.

Annie was a silly dog. She was a boxer with a brown and white coat, a leathery black nose, notched floppy ears, goofy bulging eyes that made her look a bit dim-witted, and a butt that wiggled when she was happy. She loved to terrify the mail lady, look out windows, run on the dam and chase bunny rabbits and kitty cats. The only prey she ever successful caught was the occasional possum, which would play dead long enough for Annie to carry it into the house and deposit it on the living room rug. The possum, thought to be a play toy, would soon begin to stir. Mom would scream and Dad would escort the newly resurrected back outdoors. Mom came to call these possums “slow kitties,” and I’d like to think Annie’s self-esteem was lifted every time she caught one. Yes, Annie was certainly a silly dog.

Although Annie was officially my youngest brother Zach’s dog, I came to know her well. Several years ago I went through a rough time and found myself a bit lost and scared and quite likely running from sadness. After a long time away, living overseas and being tossed about, I came back to live at my parents’ home in Missouri for a while. At Christmas my parents and brothers went to Philadelphia, but I chose not to go. I don’t really know why I didn’t go with them; I’m sure they were confused too and made their guesses. At the time I told myself I needed some space alone, thought that some time would be meaningful; but probably my plans were to isolate and hide. Annie ruined those plans.

For that whole week Annie wouldn’t leave my side. She followed me around the house. She sat next to me on the couch when I watched tv. She peered into the refrigerator with me when I looked for snacks. She stared at the stars with me at night when I went outside to smoke cigarettes and think. She barked when I put on my coat, until finally we began to go out and get French fries together. We went and walked through the woods and got muddy together. We cried and laughed and were angry together.

On Christmas morning I gave her gifts: a chew toy, some treats and a gray dog sweater. I have a photo of her wearing a little novelty Santa hat I’d bought at a pet store, with the sweater tight against her chest (it was slightly too small and we’d been enjoying lots of French fries). She was looking at me as if to say, “Ok, bud, I know you’re needing some laughs, but this is the last straw.” About ten minutes later the neighbor girl came to our house to deliver holiday cookies. Annie, always enraged by the doorbell and thinking herself an action hero, lost her mind and began flinging herself against the front door, her Santa hat wildly flapping against her back. As I attempted to graciously accept the tray of cookies, smile and wish happy holidays to the poor terrified girl, amidst all the panicked barking and scraping of nails, Annie latched onto my leg with her gummy jaws and finally got her revenge for my inconsiderate, unstylish gift. We didn’t talk to each other for the rest of the afternoon, until finally she put her paw on my knee and I said sorry and rubbed her ears.

At some point that week I got mad at Annie for never letting me be. I yelled at her. I told her to leave me alone and go away. But she wouldn’t. She forgave me and she stayed by my side. Sometimes dogs know better than us, don’t they.

I don’t live at home anymore and a couple years ago Zach went away to college, leaving Mom and Dad alone in the house for the first time in over 30 years.

I imagine having Annie around has meant something to my parents these past couple years. I imagine it meant something when she was there to greet them after a long day, when she stood at the bottom of the stairs waiting for them to go to bed each night, when she lay on the floor and snored and made them laugh and filled the big empty house with her odd noises and doggy snorts. I know it meant something to me, knowing she was there with them. It gave me some peace and comfort. And I always looked forward to seeing her when I visited.

Three weeks ago Annie stopped eating. Her tumors had grown and she began to act not like herself. She became weak and seemed to be waiting for something. Zach made it home last weekend; they got to see each other and he was able to hug her.

A couple days ago Dad lifted Annie into the back seat of the car, but they weren’t going to get French fries. At the clinic someone came out and put a needle into her. She lay down in the back seat and she left us. I don’t know where Dad drove after that; I can’t imagine how he felt and what thoughts must have come. I’m sorry you had to do that alone, Dad. Please don’t feel guilty. I love you too.

They wrapped her in a brown blanket and buried her in the back yard down by the little stream where she liked to sniff for squirrels, in sight of Mom’s daffodils and close enough to hear Dad’s lawnmower in summer. Someday I hope to stop by and maybe I’ll leave something for her then, but I won’t tell you what; that’s between her and me.

Dogs are funny; they get in your heart when you least expect it. They dig in your heart and bury their little bones there and one day they’re gone, and you’re left standing over that hole they dug and wishing harder than hell that they’d come back to play. I can tell you a million ways how we’ll miss Annie, can tell you a million ways how special she was, but I’ll never be able to tell you even one way how much we loved her. I just can’t seem to find words for that.

Thank you, Annie. Thank you for your love and for the moments you gave our family. You fit right in. You were one of us. You dug big holes in our hearts and we’ll fill them with tears and funny memories and cover them up with the love we have for each other. Thank you for being there for Zach. His brothers, being so much older, weren’t around much, but you were. Thank you for seeing him through until he got old enough to go the way without you.

Damn it, Annie, that you weren’t just another dog. Damn it that you were so damn special. Damn it that it hurts like hell to say goodbye. Damn it but it all was worth it. Rest in peace you dumb, amazing, wonderful dog. We’ll keep an eye out for the slow kitties for you.