I wondered, would I die of dehydration or hypothermia? Then the thought occurred to me: I was buried in an avalanche, high up in the Alps. So, it wouldn’t be dehydration. I had only to stick out my tongue to access an endless amount of snowy hydration. It would be the cold that would take me. Not a pleasant way to go, I thought. But just then, I heard it. The unmistakable sound of giant paws digging frantically through the snow. I was saved! My trusty Saint Bernard, Wenny, was rescuing me.
After some more frantic digging, the blankets I was crouched under came off. I sat on the cold kitchen floor playing her favorite game: Alpine Rescue. For centuries, monks in the St. Bernard Pass, a treacherous route through the Italian and Swiss Alps, 8,000 feet above sea level, relied on Saint Bernards to save thousands of hapless travelers. And now, just a few feet above kitchen floor level, my wonderful Saint saved me during our daily game. Once the “snow” blankets were removed, she hurled herself — all one hundred forty pounds — on my lap and began licking my face. It’s then I thought she must be made of 130 pounds of muscle and determination and ten pounds of tongue. How I adored her!
This was a bit after our family’s dog adventures began. One year earlier, when my daughter was about six years old, I wanted to get her first dog. I was thinking of a Beagle, as that was my childhood dog, and what a wonderful dog she was! (Even though she betrayed me by refusing to eat my mother’s hard-as-nails twice-boiled Brussels Sprout when I surreptitiously slipped them to her under the kitchen table at supper. Still, she was otherwise a loyal companion for a lonely quirky child.) And so, I began thinking of getting a Beagle for my only child. But my wife convinced me that a bigger dog would be best, one that our daughter could be more physically active with. I searched around and found a candidate at a local shelter.
His name was Andy. He was half golden Labrador, half Greyhound. He was a street stray when he was found and brought to the shelter two weeks earlier. The shelter staff gave him the name Andy, which seemed an odd dog name to me, at first, and yet, as soon as my wife, daughter, and I met him at the shelter, we thought that somehow Andy was the only name possible. His age was indeterminate, but the shelter’s vet thought he was likely six to eight years old. He was tan, with a long nose, a lean face shaped like a Greyhound, and with the sweet floppy ears of a Labrador. He was both handsome and goofy looking at the same time. His brown eyes were large and soulful. And, while he didn’t have a lot of teeth left, he seemed somehow as lighthearted, kind, and wise as Sheriff Andy Taylor in “The Andy Griffith Show.” So, we brought him home one Saturday morning. Considering that we lived in an old farmhouse in a quiet suburb, now with wise old Andy, I practically expected Opie, Barney, and Aunt Bee to come strolling up to the front door with an apple pie any minute as we hung around the house that weekend.
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My daughter’s bedroom was so small that she had a day bed with a pull-out trundle on wheels underneath. That weekend, each night, I’d pull out the trundle, which had its own guest mattress, and my daughter would sleep on the day bed while Andy slept beside her on the trundle bed. So sweet. It was a peaceful weekend with our little now extended family. We all thought Andy was the best. And then, first thing Monday morning, the little bastard ran away.
I was preparing to drive my daughter to school and to take Andy to work with me. My hands were full with his bowls, blankets, and toys, and as I cracked open the door, he slipped out in a flash. That’s when the Greyhound kicked in. He shot down the street like an arrow, as straight and as fast. I told my daughter to wait at the door then dashed off after Andy. I still had his bowls and blankets in my hands. After a few minutes, with him getting further from me by the moment, he began to run into the backyards of neighbors, as I began to realize I’d never catch him. Panic streaked through my mind. What would I tell my daughter? How could I tell her I’d just lost her first dog?
At this point, Andy was running in and out of view many houses away. In exasperation and exhaustion, I dropped to my knees and began calling for him as I furiously waved his blanket overhead. He saw the blanket and immediately ran straight toward me. Apparently, the waiving blanket was his signal that the game was now to catch me. I dropped his things and picked him up. All sixty-five lanky long-legged pounds. I carried him home, both relieved and ripping mad.
Over the next year, Andy settled in nicely. There were many morning walks to school with the three of us: Andy, my daughter, and me. But as the year dragged on, his eyes seemed a little more soulful, he somehow lost more teeth, and I wondered if he needed both dentures and canine companionship during the long school/workdays. Since dentures weren’t an option, I went to work on the companionship. Turns out that my daughter’s school crossing guard often brought her son’s Saint Bernard with her in the morning. She told me about the farm where her Saint was from, and in time I planned to get a Saint Bernard puppy.
Wenny was just twelve weeks old and twelve pounds when she came home. She liked me to carry her on my shoulder around the house. Six months later, she still wanted to be carried at eighty-five pounds. Every time we played Alpine Rescue after she dug me out of the “snow,” she’d walk past me, stop, then start to back up towards me to deposit her rather oversized bottom on one of my shoulders. I obliged her as long as I could until her girth and weight became just too much. I think it helped my chiropractor to send his kids to college. But by the time Wenny reached one hundred pounds (soon to be one hundred forty), shoulder rides were out of the question. My wife and daughter and I were sure Wenny still saw herself as that little dainty pup she was when we first brought her home.
Her favorite treat was blueberries. But they’d have to be small, and she’d eat just one at a time. But when she was about nine or tenth months old, her lips seemingly drooped overnight. She got jowls. Lots of them. I’d take a little blueberry, place it in the folds of her mouth, and she’d proceed to roll and roll and roll it around. About five minutes later, plop! The berry popped out of her mouth onto the floor. I’d stick it in again, and she’d start all over. Eventually, she’d swallow the berry. You could leave a pint of fresh blueberries on the kitchen counter and not worry that she’d eat them all because it would have taken her about a decade.
Andy and Wenny got on just dandy. But in a few years, poor old Andy died. Not long after, Maggie, the Basset Hound puppy, came into our lives. She was all ears. They were so long that when she was a pup, her ears would drag along the floor as she tore through the house. She often tripped on them. She and Wenny adored each other. She was crazy and sweet and as soft as a velveteen rabbit. She lived with us for several years after Wenny passed.
This isn’t that type of dog story, though. You know the kind: about my old dog, Blue, who when he died, I didn’t know what to do, etc., etc. No, this is a love letter to dogs. But of course, eventually, all our furry friends do pass. When Wenny died, a year after getting bone cancer, my wife said it was the first time she’d seen me cry in our decade together. She was right. I’d learned long ago how to compartmentalize. And yet, the hatch to the compartment where my tears had been bottled and stored did open that day of Wenny’s death.
A few years later, Maggie, the Bassett died, a year after her first stroke. I found myself sitting next to her on the vet exam room floor. Just me and my old hound dog. After the deed was done, sitting by her still, warm body, I cried. A lot.
The door to that compartment was now flung open wide. I cried for her year of struggle, and because I knew how much I would miss her tomorrow and for many tomorrows. I cried because I couldn’t save her, as I couldn’t save Wenny. I think I cried because I couldn’t save anyone. Not my dad, who’d died of cancer a year before my daughter was born. Not my broken marriage. Not my nana, who’d died when I was just a scrawny little boy with a pocket full of poems and a head full of fantasies.
Nana died in front of me, in the very doctor’s office in which, just a few years earlier, I’d run to the bathroom to get her a feminine napkin to save her from the terrible embarrassment of having her chocolate ice cream cone drip onto her lovely blue and white polka dot dress. I had no idea what a feminine napkin was. I thought it was just a really, really well-constructed napkin, and I would be her savior in bringing one to her. But it was the wrong napkin, and I didn’t save her from her dripping ice cream. And now, as she lay dying, flat upon the cold waiting room floor, no one could save her from something much more terrible than a messy dress. The doctor and nurse dragged her into his office and shut the door. I never saw her again. It was my first exposure to the shock of the suddenness of death. I ran to find the nearest payphone to call my parents. But she was already gone. I didn’t cry, I suppose from the shock. I learned to compartmentalize.
Now, though, a lifetime later, next to Maggie the Bassett, I finally cried for nana. There was quite an avalanche of tears with no Saint Bernard to dig me out. I hadn’t saved Maggie, Wenny, my dad, so many dead aunts, uncles, friends, pets, marriages, and dreams. And so, I cried now for them all and for myself. But then, after a while, I just stopped crying. I closed the hatch and sealed it again. I smiled a little, like Paul Newman at the end of “Cool Hand Luke,” when he’s surrounded by guards after his prison break, and he realizes there’s no exit. Looking up to the heavens, he says, alright, God, if you’re up there, guess that’s the way you’re gonna play it, huh? I felt that way. So, I told Maggie it was time for me to go.
When I get a dog, I know there’ll be an end time, a time of heartache. A while after a good friend’s Labrador died, I asked if he’d get another. “Never again!” he declared. Never again would he open himself up to such heartache, he explained. I know that ache, I said. But the way I see it, we’re not born into this lonely world to play it safe. We’re here to strive, to yearn, to achieve, and most of all, to love. Life is a journey, not a destination, as the saying goes. Sometimes, we’re broken along the way.
A little while after Maggie died, I adopted a Coonhound, a two-year-old girl named Riley. She’s the new canine love of my life. It was during the height of the pandemic. I was living alone. She was a rescue from Tennessee. Riley to the rescue. I thought at first I rescued her. But in truth, she rescued me. What a rush!