The Big Benbow

Memories of a great dog
By Kimberly B. Lawler, May 2011

At the farmer’s market, a dog—the same sort of big black dog with a massive head and handsome gray goatee as you—sat proudly on the front seat of a new truck. We locked eyes. Just for a second my heart jumped because, well, I had a quick fantasy: I was seeing you again. For a moment, I allowed myself to feel how much I miss you every single day. Memories hold me hostage, too often mixed with sadness and pain and so many other things. I look forward to the days where every thought of you will bring a smile but they are not here yet. For now, I am still teary-eyed and heartsick. 

Years ago, your shelter card mentioned you chewed up a couch. Well, yeah, you were an oversized young dog stuck in the house for 10-12 hours every single day. In the same circumstance, I’d eat a couch. Then again, with Labrador Retriever and hunting Hound blood surging through your veins, attempting to eat inanimate objects or questionable cuisine was to be a lifelong sporting event with you: Find it; eat it; do not get caught!  

The boy, at first, was nose to nose with you. As his chubby finger touched your long pink tongue, your thick tail thwacked the wall. The two of you bonded on the spot. “He’s my little brother,” was our son’s decision, “And, he’s Benbow.” Love at first slobber from both sides was how it looked to us, how it remained, and how we wanted it to stay forever. 

When I read My Dog Skip and Dog Years, the grief of parting was so very far away from us, right? You had so much time to play with your boy, hike with us in the mountains, swim in alpine lakes, take walks, sleep by the woodstove, to grow, to enjoy one another. 

Even though you became an XXL dog and a powerful swimmer, we aren’t sorry we made you wear the neon-colored canine life vest every single time we were out in the kayak and canoe.  It was too bad when you bellowed at other dogs, chasing the interlopers up over the lake’s small island, only to be greeted with roars of friendly laughter on the other shore. 

A fun-loving, gregarious, always up for the next adventure dog-dude, you never went on a road trip or met a person you didn’t like. Even when old age settled in your gut after years of sampling foul loot, a glance in your direction or a slow walk around the block to see your neighbor-friends was met with a sparkle in your eyes and a Lab-Hound smile on your face.

Then, much too fast, it happened: Our time together was up. Things were moving along just fine and then they were not. We rushed you to the veterinarian’s office. Sitting on the shiny floor of Exam Room 2, we held your big head and your tail in our laps. Busy office noises faded away. Thirteen years and now here we were hoping, waiting, knowing. The veterinarian sat on the floor with us. Quietly, he talked about his father’s late dog and his father’s death. For a brief moment, you opened your eyes to watch him, listening. Then, in one breath, you were gone from us.

Later, one of the neighbors asked for an update on how you were doing and I told her you were gone. With tears in her eyes, she asked if we, and our son who left for college 2 years before, were okay. In my mind’s eye, I saw the trip we took three short months earlier to see our 6’ 4” son in college, taking you with us. When you saw your boy walking toward you, your ageless tail thumped against the seat of the car; you tilted your head back and a hoarse hound bark greeting filled the air. “Well,” I tried to tell her, “You know, losing Benbow is a huge change for our family. And, his death officially closes the book on our son’s childhood.”

When someone asked my husband about Benbow, he told them, “All dogs are good dogs and some dogs are great. Benbow was a great dog.” He’s right, of course. Our son’s Benbow River Otter Molly Lincoln Tyriffian Humboldt Bear Shelter Dog is and always will be a great one.

Kimberly B. Lawler lives with her family near the University of South Dakota in Spirit Mound Township.

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