What can I say about the dogs in my life? Well, for starters, I’ve had quite a few. Now, stop it already. I’m not talking about those dogs. I’m talking about real dogs, the four-legged ones. You know. Our pets. Our best friends. Our confidantes.
The first dog in my life was Brownie. All that I remember about him–tapping into nothing more than my own memory–is his curly brown hair and his wonderfully large, black, wet nose. I was hardly more than a toddler, and he was my mother’s dog. Anything else that I might know about Brownie, I learned from my mother. Dog memories run deep. My mother saw Brownie through.
My dad brought the next dog into my life. Spotty was a coal-mine foundling. All mine. He had the spotted coat of a brown-and-white Beagle, but his stocky frame, unusually large ears, large paws, and short-but-wavy hair barked Collie. Spotty lived outdoors and slept in a doghouse that my dad and I built, outfitted with a bed that my mother made. Since I was a grade-schooler, he spent more time with my mother than with me. He followed her around all day, especially when she was outdoors, hanging laundry on the clothesline. My mother taught Spotty to sing, and she enjoyed mimicking his operatic accomplishments. I never heard Spotty sing, but I learned that love is not diminished when shared. My mother saw Spotty through.
My next dog, Lassie, leaped into my life right out of the popular television series Lassie. Both Lassies were Collies. Somewhere I have a Polaroid of me, summer-sun-bleached hair, holding my prize-winning sunflower. Lassie was surely nearby, but she’s not in the photo. I discovered quickly after one short season that she would be far happier running the wide open farm fields that became her new home. Sometimes love means letting go. I wonder who saw Lassie through.
After that summer of 1959, I didn’t have another dog in my life for many, many years. Actually, I was a graduate student, and the name Brecca caught my fancy as I studied Beowulf. I decided to buy myself a dog associated with water and swimming. A Saddleback English Springer Spaniel seemed perfect. Brecca was my first pedigree dog, and he was the first dog in my life to live with me indoors. Brecca watched over me through thousands of hours of graduate work–the endless cycle: Reading. Research. Writing. Repeat.–and never grew weary. When I completed my doctoral work and returned to DC, I was the winter caregiver for my mom and dad for a decade. Brecca followed my dad up and down the hall as he walked to regain strength after a stroke left him partially paralyzed. And when my niece/goddaughter, Janet, came along, Brecca followed her as she crawled all around the house and up and down the stairs, always positioning himself to ensure her safety. When his ear cancer proved untreatable after a first surgery, he would patiently lie on his side as I applied homeopathic compresses. His follower-trust triumphed to the end. I saw Brecca through.
Sparky–a Dalmatian–came next, followed by Maggie–a Blue Tick Coonhound. Grief can be sudden as I came to learn and as the speaker in Robert Frost’s “One More Brevity” had learned long before:
I was to taste in little the grief
That comes of dogs’ lives being so brief,
Only a fraction of ours at most.
My family veterinarian saw Sparky through.
I saw Maggie through.
After those two doors closed, Hazel entered through an open one. My late partner, Allen, and I decided to adopt a dog. Since we both worked and were away from home during the day, we planned to adopt two dogs so that they would be company for one another.
As we started the adoption process, “Must play well with other dogs” topped our list of requirements. The animal shelter assured us that Hazel loved other dogs, so we brought her home. She was a mature, nine-months-old puppy. She was house trained within a week. She jogged right past her chewing stage. She never jumped up on chairs, sofas, or beds. She was well behaved, even off leash. Then came the day when she ventured to a neighbor’s house and started a fight with a dog twice her size.
At that point, we knew that we would not adopt another dog to keep Hazel company. She adjusted beautifully to our mountain home and to our professional schedules. We found ourselves molding our lives around hers, taking more and more vacations at dog-friendly VRBO destinations. Though calm and serene, Hazel always looked like the reddish blonde Husky-Lab puppy that we first fell in love with. She played the part flawlessly right up until the night of her last day. Allen and I saw Hazel through.
We both knew that we would bring another dog into our life. But we were both quiet. For some reason–inexplicable to me, even now–I wanted Allen to take the lead in finding our new best friend, so I waited for him to initiate the conversation. When he did, he agreed to do the solo search, even agreeing to my single stipulation: no black dog. He understood why after I explained that one of my sisters had a black dog that died tragically.
After a week or two, Allen came home and gave me his angelic, twinkly-eyed smile.
“I’ve found the perfect puppy for us!”
“I’m not sure. She’s a mix, about seven months old, and she’s been spayed.”
“No. But I met her today. You’ll really like her.”
As I found out, “Perfect Puppy” belonged to one of the hospital surgeons with whom Allen worked. Allen had arranged a visit for both of us the next afternoon.
When Dr. Stevens opened the door to greet us, a black puppy–yes, black, all black except for a small, white brushstroke on her chest that an artist might have forgotten to color over–made her escape and raced down the walkway. I sat down on the stoop and watched. The puppy turned, saw me sitting there, and came charging back–a whirlwind of short-haired, shiny waves–and sat down, smack dab on my feet.
The black puppy won my heart then and there.
I beamed Allen my widest smile. “She’s going home with us.”
We worked out the details with Dr. Stevens. Allen wanted to bring our new best friend home in his Toyota Tacoma. I headed on home in my Jeep.
When they arrived, I was sitting in my reading chair in the living room. As if she knew exactly where to find me, the black puppy ran to where I was and sat down, smack dab on my feet, just as she had done at Dr. Stevens.
Allen sat across from us on the sofa, and the three of us stayed in position for the next several hours.
Finally, Allen got up. Without invitation, the black puppy jumped on the dark brown, leather sofa and put her head on a ruby-colored throw. The color contrast was striking, and, in an instant, I knew.
“Husband, I’ve got a name for our puppy.”
“Yeah? What do you have in mind?”
He came back into the living room, looked at her, then at the throw, and, finally, at the sofa. He knew, too. Ruby became our Valentine’s Day gift, one to the other, each to the other two.
Ruby has the general build and gentleness of a Labrador Retriever; the face and solo-bonding bent of a Boxer, and the strong-willed temperament of a Beagle.
Whatever she is–and she’s all of those things and more–she’s the perfect dog that Allen sized her up to be when she was just a perfect puppy.
From the start, she knew how to show each of us equal love. She was always with Allen while he sipped his morning coffee and perused his various digital newspapers. She was always with me while I pondered evening academics online. She was always with both of us when we watched Star Trek or, her favorite, the Great British Bake Off. When Allen and I cooked, she always watched from the dining room door where she stayed until we finished our meal and Allen put his last bite in her dish. When we gardened, she ran back and forth between the two of us.
To Allen, the joy of feeding Ruby. To me, the joy of having Ruby smack dab on top of my feet whenever I sat down, or, as time went on, on my lap. To me, the joy of brushing her.
I usually brushed her in my office after finishing my evening academics, the two of us sprawled out on an Oriental rug. As I brushed, she would give me knowing looks from a far-off, far-away land. Invariably I felt the need to talk with her.
“I don’t know who you are, Ruby, but I know that you are an old, old soul come back to see me through. Who are you?”
Ruby never seemed to mind my one-sided conversation. In fact, she seemed to nod in knowing affirmation. And I became more and more convinced of what I felt from the start. How can it be that I don’t know who she is? And, yet, I have known her. And, yet, I know her.
The three of us continued our daily routines and rituals from February 14, 2018–when Ruby entered our lives–until January 28, 2021, when Allen lost his life, after a short, three-month, lung-cancer battle. I saw Allen through.
The rituals and routines, though not the same, go on and on and on. Ruby still likes to sit on the deck of an afternoon around 4:00, fully confident that once more she will see her other “daddy” driving up our mountain road in his Toyota Tacoma. Some days, I wait and watch with her.
What the three of us once did together, Ruby and I now do as the inseparable Dynamic Duo that we have become. She is always at my side, always by my feet, always within earshot. Listening. Watching. Waiting.
I hope that the rest of our journey–Ruby’s and mine–lasts for a long, long time. With every passing day, I am more and more convinced: Ruby is an old, old soul come back to see me through to the other side.