A Youthful Folly Leads To A Career Saving Animal Lives

Mother, Mutts and Mercies
By Michael Caron McGuill DVM, MPH, March 2016

Patches joined our family as a puppy when I was two, so she was 13 when I accidentally killed her. She was a mutt and looked like the RCA dog, all white with a brown patch over one eye, but 10 pounds bigger. She had 13 puppies in her first litter, which I took to mean she was Catholic, like our family of nine kids.

Patches licked everyone who came to the house: the Fuller Brush man, the Bourbeau brothers who lived across the street, even my crazy Aunt Madge. Patches smiled like a person, and when she was excited, she pranced, her nails clicking on the kitchen’s linoleum floor like castanets. Otherwise, she was the sole calm presence in the cyclone of our loud, melodramatic family.

However, one thing did upset this otherwise placid dog: explosions, like fireworks and thunder. During thunderstorms, I sometimes crawled with her into her doghouse and held her. Her doghouse smelled like popcorn, like her feet. But holding her never quieted her trembling. After one particularly bad storm, I vowed to find a way to help her overcome this.

I had few friends then, not even in my family. I wanted most to be included by my older brother, Jay, and my cousin, Roy, both jocks, both popular. I was pudgy, smart and solitary. I didn’t know why, but I always irritated Jay, and he and Roy banned me from their fort in the woods. Once, I offered to line the trails to the fort with white birch branches. I thought it would look cool. They agreed, and after I did this, I thought I was in; I tried to join them in the fort, and they pinned me to the ground and stuffed pine needles and dog crap in my mouth.

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So Patches was not only my best friend, she was my only friend.

The Scantic, a small river brimming with brown trout and foot-long white suckers, coursed from one end of our western Massachusetts farm town to the other. Every summer for years, Patches and I hiked behind our house in the woods along the Scantic, just the two of us. Sometimes I fished. Other times, we just walked for hours.

Patches never seemed happier than during these outings. Me too. I picked bouquets of wildflowers: daisies, yellow flag irises, flame-red Indian paintbrushes, blue cornflowers and my favorite, Queen Anne’s lace—hundreds of white florets with a few red petals in the center, “a drop of Christ’s blood,” my aunt taught me. Sometimes I’d pick gloriously scented snow-white water lilies, which meant walking into the stinking mud of the swamps. We came home filthy.

I always handed the flowers to my mother, who was loving to all of us, but unsentimental by nature. “Put them in a vase,” she said when I presented my bouquets, and never anything else. I was the sort of boy who picked flowers for his mother, and in our traditional family, boys didn’t do that. Her response made me feel embarrassed, made me aware of my difference, but I still gave her flowers every week.

At that time in my life, given that I was a social misfit, I gorged on books. I’d often turn on a light at four in the morning to read, and this drove Jay, with whom I shared a bedroom, into red-faced rages because I woke him, and because he hated me for being such an egghead.

One night when I was 13 and alone in my bedroom, my mom walked in. From the top of my dresser, she picked up a book I was reading, Howl, by the Beat poet Alan Ginsberg, which had, among many other indecencies, explicit descriptions of sexual acts with his lover, Peter Orlofsky. This was my first introduction to homosexual love as something to be celebrated.

She held the book in the air and looked me in the eye.

“I just want you to know that I know that you’re reading this,” she said, calmly. After her announcement, she set the book down lightly on my dresser and slipped out of the room. At first, I felt dread, then relief and confusion. Why didn’t she forbid me to read the book? I was aware of my attraction to boys, but didn’t think of myself as gay. I knew adult men in our town whom my brothers and I suspected were gay, all of them recluses and outcasts. I would never be one of them— would I?

I now know that she understood I was gay long before I did. In that moment, with a mother’s love, she chose to disregard a sin that her church taught her would deny a person entry into the Kingdom of Heaven.

The morning I accidentally killed Patches, the two of us found ourselves home alone. This rarely happened. The day evolved perfectly for the plan I’d concocted. A thunderstorm rumbled in the valley to the south, and I had stolen a pack of firecrackers—12 on a single fuse—from my dad’s underwear drawer. These, and my best intentions, created the perfect opportunity to cure her of her fear. Or so I thought.

From inside the house, I listened as the storm approached and the first booms of thunder echoed in our valley. Seconds later, Patches, who had been lying on the grass in the back yard, stood and bolted up the back stairs. If I hadn’t opened the door, she would have dived for cover into her doghouse; instead, she sprinted to the basement and squeezed behind the washing machine, shaking.

I ran downstairs after her and crawled behind the washer to be with her. In this cramped space, where moving an inch meant scratching myself on the rough concrete wall, I held her close to me. She trembled, she didn’t struggle, and she didn’t lick my face as she always did when I held her. Then, as I had rehearsed in my mind a dozen times, I lit a match, then the fuse, and tossed the firecrackers over the washing machine, 10 feet away.

I squeezed Patches against my chest as the firecrackers exploded in a rapid chain: POW-POW-POW-POW. The small room’s concrete floor and walls amplified sound, and the blasts echoed far louder than they would have done outdoors. My eardrums hummed, muting all sound. I looked down at Patches. She still hung in my arms. And she still shuddered.

What went wrong? She knew I loved her. This knowledge and a hug, I was convinced, would prove to her that the firecracker bangs weren’t to be feared. But I had failed her. If anything, her shaking seemed worse.

I stayed with her, huddled behind the washer. Eventually, she stopped trembling. I settled her onto a blanket, and she slept. I tiptoed upstairs to my bedroom, my ears still throbbing.

That afternoon, after my hearing began to return, I heard some of my siblings come home. Within a minute, Matt, my 12-year-old brother, came running up from the basement.

“Patches is walking in circles!” he hollered.

“What?” I yelled. I ran downstairs to the basement. Patches’ head tilted to the left and she zigzagged as she walked. I stood 10 feet in front of her and called her name.

“Here, Patches!” She lurched toward me and then veered to the left, then lurched toward me and veered again to the left. I felt my heart lurch too. Something was terribly wrong.

I held her. Within minutes, my parents came home. They picked her up and put her in the back of our family car, an early ’70s white woody station wagon, and drove her to the vet. I slunk back to my room and waited for them to return. Finally, four hours later, my parents drove into the driveway. All of us ran to the car and stood waiting. When they got out, Patches didn’t jump out after them, and when they shut the car doors, Cory, my six-year-old sister, started bawling. Silently, we flanked them into the kitchen, where they explained that the vet had told them that Patches had had a stroke, and she likely wouldn’t recover, given her age. With the vet, they decided that the best thing to do was to put her to sleep.

Today, now that I’m a vet, I know that it isn’t possible to pin with certainty the cause of a stroke on a particular outside event. But it’s also possible, even likely, that the extreme stress of the basement explosions kicked loose a blood clot to jam a small artery or even speed her heartbeat enough to burst a fragile vessel in her old brain.

Everyone was too stunned to speak. Some walked outside; others, like me, tiptoed to our rooms.

For more than 20 years, up to my graduation from veterinary school, I spoke to no one about that day. After Patches’ death, I built a shrine near a giant oak tree, the only tree that stood in the middle of a mile-long cornfield with a path running through it that we had walked together a hundred times. Under the tree there, I built a cross out of sticks. I left her threadbare leash, a cellophane-wrapped photo of the two of us and flowers.

In the ways that we communicate with our beloved dead pets, I spoke to Patches in the following years. I asked her forgiveness. And, at some inexplicable, fundamental level, I know she said yes. She gave me her forgiveness.

In later years, I felt it most during solitude, strolling the pebbled shores of Lake Champlain near my college in Burlington, Vt., or later along the lotus-covered ponds in Ueno Park, Tokyo, where I lived for three years as a teacher.

Gradually, her forgiveness spread through my world and made new beginnings possible; it was as if a mile-high blanket of oxygen covered the planet, letting me breathe with ease even at the steepest heights.

In Tokyo, I made the decision to apply to veterinary school. I also accepted I was gay. Before I could come to that, I first needed to forgive others for their unkindnesses, my brother’s and cousin’s especially, and myself for believing them. Because at last, I understood that no one needed to be forgiven for being gay.

Coming out as gay was not an act of defiance against church and family. More than anything, it was a celebration of the mercies that had made my adult life possible: those of a knowing mother and a smiling white dog.

Michael Caron McGuill, DVM, MPH, lives and works in Boston. An expert in diseases shared by people and animals, he teaches at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University; he also practices acupuncture on dogs, cats and horses. Michael lives with his Jack Russell and, when she allows, spends time with his husband and 12-year-old son.