A dog’s life

[I wrote this in May, 2009. I began it just prior to the passing of our dog, Bernie. It was finished a few days after he died.–jb]

Growing up, I never had a dog. My mother, preternaturally neat, thought dogs were dirty and uncouth. I did manage to get her to bend her restrictions enough to have a cat, one we thought was a male, who actually turned out to be female and give birth on my mother’s couch. But that’s another story.

The job I had for the local power company involved reading meters. More often than not, the homes and properties that I ventured onto in order to obtain my monthly readings had a dog, or several dogs. While occasionally these dogs were oppositional to meter readers like me (and UPS, or FedEx men, also), more often than not, they were friendly. If they happened to be yellow labs, their preference was that you stay awhile, tossing them a tennis ball. More often than not, I obliged.

Around the time that a boy turns ten, or 11 is an excellent time to acquire a dog. Our eleven-year-old at the time was dog-less, just like I had been. I was determined to reverse that curse, and find a dog that was good for him, and good for our family.

My wife, who grew up with several dogs—some very good, and some spectacularly terrible—was partial to shelties. Her family had acquired an eight-year-old sheltie after its owners had decided to move to Florida. Given that Florida’s hot weather and a Sheltie’s thick coat were not a good match, poor Lollie was going to be left behind. Mary’s family adopted Lollie, and she had become a fan of the breed.

Both Mary and I diligently did our research. This was before we would connect to the internet, when research actually required some effort, not a simple Google search. Mary came home with dog books from the library, about breeds, and whether they were a good match for children. Nothing in our research pushed us away from shelties.

Technically, their official name is “Shetland Sheepdog,” but most often they are referred to simply as “shelties.”

According to our research, we found out that shelties are intelligent, family oriented dogs that can be as happy in an apartment in a city as in a house in the country. They have a thick double coat that can come in many different colors and patterns. They are vocal dogs, with few health problems. They are very good house and family dogs. They are very protective and good with children if properly exposed to them as a puppy.

Most people think of a sheltie as a “little Lassie,” whose breed is that of a rough collie. In actuality, the sheltie is not a true miniature collie, but in fact, the sheltie’s parent breed is the border collie.

Mary had located a breeder in Damariscotta that raised shelties. Since we had decided on getting a dog that was pure bred, not a mongrel, and that our breed of choice was going to be a Sheltie, we’d have to wait for a weekend to visit this woman, who happened to have a litter of puppies at the time.

****

It had been a long week for me at work. While the money was good for me at Central Maine Power Company, I hated the boring nature of my work. I was always eager for Friday night to arrive, to be done for the week. Weekends were a sanctuary from work for me.

Leaving work a bit early this particular Friday, I arrived home and announced, “get in the car, we’re going to pick up a dog.” Mark, our son, was thrilled.

Mary called the breeder inquiring  if it would be ok for us to drive down and have a look at her litter of puppies. She said “yes,” and we were on our way. I remember arriving and having her unleash a roomful of puppies from the room where she kept them. They spilled forward and rushed towards us, all bouncing, and yelping their puppy barks.

We took several aside separately, in order to get a read on their personalities. Bernie was the one that stood out. His winsome traits were apparent even at three months. That was 15 years ago. Mark was 11 at the time, the perfect age for him to fall in love with a dog.

All the literature on the breed says that shelties are intelligent, loyal, and affectionate. Bernie has been all of these things, and more. Mary was diligent in her training, and Bernie, like most shelties, eager to please, learned quickly.

No dog is ever perfect. Bernie has always been notorious about begging for food. It wouldn’t matter if you had the president over for dinner, Bernie would camp at the edge of the table, and give those seated at the table the most pathetic look, as if he’d not eaten for weeks, even if he’d just been fed prior. We disposed of our waste food in an outdoor composting bin, about 150 feet from the house. This became a favorite destination for Bernie when he’d go out to do his business, or happened to be outside with us, on the lawn. He always was checking for new items—moldy bread, semi-rotten vegetables, pasta gone bad—all in hopes that he might snag what we deemed inedible, but to him was a delicacy. Occasionally, he’d get something really rotten, and he’d puke it back up, more than once on our bedroom carpet, or one of our downstairs throw rugs.

He never really learned to like other dogs, and any time that Bernie would be in the company of someone else’s dog, he’d inevitably snarl, growl, or skulk away from them. He could also go the other way—acting like a total wimp in the company of other dogs. Apparently, he didn’t have enough socialization with other dogs when he was young. Or, it might be as Mary said, that “Bernie thinks he’s a human,” so in his mind, other dogs were “beneath him.”

Around humans, you couldn’t find a kinder, friendlier, gentler dog. Several times when Bernie was small, young children were around him, during a visit, or at one of Mark’s Little League games that we took him to, and they’d be pulling on his whiskers, or sometimes, patting him roughly, almost hitting him, and Bernie just wagged his tail, and tolerated this short-term pain. That’s how he was. The only time he would ever snap at anyone was if he felt his food security might be compromised. Food was his life, basically. That and chasing balls, Frisbees, or any other item designed to be tossed.

Bernie grew up in a home where baseball was king. Mark inherited my love for the game, so it was a rare summer night when, if home, and not at a baseball game of mine, or Mark’s, we’d be out on the lawn, playing catch, or some other variation on the kind of baseball activities you can play within the confines of a yard, a house, and windows.

Chasing a ball is what Bernie lived for. Mark and I would set up on the front lawn with a bat, and baseball-like ball that was much softer than a normal hard ball. These balls allowed us to replicate baseball activities, while lessening the risk that we’d put out a window, or dent an automobile.

Bernie on front lawn

Mark would stand, near our front steps and hit away from our house, towards the wooded area at the front of our property. Bernie stationed himself behind me, like an outfielder, ready to snag a grounder, but better prepared to pursue the ball into the woods, and retrieve it, bringing it back, soaked with his saliva. This gave him what he needed to uncannily find any ball, even those Mark and I thought were lost forever. His scent never failed him in tracking balls.

As Mark grew stronger, he could slug these balls a considerable distance, high and deep into the large trees far beyond the lawn area. Some nights, as it grew dark, it would become difficult for us to know exactly where these balls landed. Bernie never let us down. He’d be off into the woods, or leaping over the stone wall bordering our property, tongue hanging out, and before we could get to the spot where we assumed the ball had landed, out would come Bernie, ball in his mouth, tail-a-wagging, proud of the prey he’d been able to score. This was repeated ad infinitum during Mark’s adolescent years, then high school, and even after he was at college—a trip home never failed to include one session of me pitching and mark walloping balls, with Bernie shagging. Most visits, Mark would jump out of the car and before doing anything else, he’d greet Bernie, bound up the steps to the mudroom, grab his bat and ball, and Bernie, seeing this, would already be racing towards the edge of the lawn, where it joined the grove of trees, awaiting Mark’s missile blast.

After college, Mark moved to Boston, where he was working, and developing his writing craft. Mark and Gabi (his girlfriend) came to visit, and Gabi, a photographer, was planning to do a photo shoot with me in Lisbon Falls, for my upcoming book, Moxietown. This would be one of Mark’s last visits home, before he and Gabi moved to Los Angeles that summer.

Bernie was beginning to show his age. He had just turned 13 and it was becoming apparent that he was no longer the same energetic dog he’d been. He still liked to walk, and occasionally, he’d race around the yard, chasing some imaginary prey, like he did when he was younger, but he had lost his desire to chase balls, and more times than not, when I’d hit him a ball, he’d watch it, and turn to me, as if to say, “I’m not going to chase it for you.” For Mark, however, it was a different story.

Once more, Mark bounded out of Gabi’s Jeep, greeted his mom and I with hugs, and up the steps he went to get his bat, and the old, saliva-infused ball of Bernie’s and began launching drives into the woods. Bernie bounded to life, retrieving the ball more times than not. His sense of smell wasn’t as keen, and occasionally, he needed Mark and me to help orient him towards the general direction of the ball. Still, he chased the balls for a good 15 minutes until I had to insist that Mark stop, as Bernie was obviously tired, tongue hanging out, but satisfied to have played out his own special ritual with Mark, or “the boy,” the anthropomorphically assigned name that we imagined Bernie used to differentiate between the three of us. I was “the man,” and of course, Mary was, “the woman.”

****

Morning walks were our thing. Once Bernie reached a certain age and had learned to take a leash, walking became a treasured routine of mine, and of Bernie’s.

Initially, teaching him the parameters of walking took some effort. Walking a dog so that it’s an enjoyable activity for owner and pet requires training, like most all other things that became second nature with a dog.

Once Bernie became acclimated to his leash, then it became the mechanics of walking a straight line, following some basic commands, and prompts with the leash, ensuring safety, efficiency, and most of all, the serenity of the time we spent out on the roadway near our home.

We live on a rural road, but it happens to be a main thoroughfare between communities. Cars pass by on Route 9 on their way to Pownal, Freeport, North Yarmouth, and points north and south, hunks of metal hurtling by us at speeds of 50, 60, and even 70 miles per hour. Knowing the proper mechanics of walking, and establishing the correct rapport with Bernie was of the essence if this was to work for both of us.

Initially, Bernie had a tendency to want to venture into the roadway, rather than stay on the shoulder of the busy roadway. Or if he stayed on the shoulder, he’d lurch towards some item of interest, and even sharply spin around towards me, which more times than not caused him to stumble, and even fall. I helped offset these early walking transgressions by keeping the run of the leash short enough so that Bernie was close by on my left, on the shoulder, with me straddling the edge of the pavement. This forced him to match my stride and move forward in a straight line. When he would wander back towards the roadway, I would nudge him with my left shin. If he dawdled over a discarded McDonald’s wrapper, cigarette butt, or soda can, I could give him a gentle tug and prompt him forward. It wasn’t long before Bernie had the routine down. Shelties love to please and Bernie was a natural for walking.

As we developed the semi-regular habit of walking together, the leash became more of a prop, and less something that was essential for smooth ambulation. Bernie learned to stay left, as our strategy always involved moving against traffic for survival.

Sometimes he would prefer walking along the edge of the pavement, and not on the shoulder. This was fine as long as there was no traffic to contend with. Initially, on our first walks, getting Bernie situated to contend with oncoming traffic required me to nudge him leftward. Over time, all it took was a verbal command of “left,” and on cue, he moved leftward. A slight tug of the leash off his left shoulder also worked well for this task. As the months passed, Bernie became so attuned to traffic and the moves that were part of our morning dance together that it seemed like I didn’t even need the leash. Verbal commands and Bernie’s own intelligence had him moving properly when cars approached.

Never was this more apparent than when one day, after we’d been walking together for several years, I had to drop off my car at a local mechanic located down the road a couple of miles, for minor repairs. I had brought Bernie along with the intention of walking back before getting started on my writing for the day. Bernie loved to ride in the car, and I knew he’d welcome the chance to walk back home from the garage. After explaining the problem to my mechanic, I fetched Bernie from the backseat only to realize I had forgotten to bring his leash. Not a problem. Bernie and I headed out for home, sans leash without an incident. As we moved along, I would occasionally bark out a command of “Bernie, sit.” Immediately, he would cease walking and sit perfectly straight until I said, “go ahead.” Walking alongside him, Bernie stayed to my left as cars approached, and sped by. He kept up his steady gait, and we arrived home without incident. This was just another example of his intelligence and how Bernie had become well-trained, well-behaved, and a joy to be around. This was always apparent when others commented on his winsome behavior, and how Bernie was welcomed by family and friends, allowed to visit their homes during various events.

Now that Bernie is gone, I no longer have a desire to battle speeding motorists, along with their boorish behavior.

For 14 years, I walked Bernie up and down our stretch of road, thinking about life, writing ideas, presentations I had to give, or whatever I chose to ruminate on during those many walks. Without him, I no longer have a companion who offered an uncritical ear, and occasional glance backward to check on me, and his energetic bounce of a gait to draw me onward. Our walking time was special, and it was due in large part to Bernie.

****

Bernie began losing his hearing during his 11th year of life. At first, we were unaware of the gradual loss of the acuity of this important sense that dogs regularly rely on. We began to figure out that something was amiss when Bernie would wander to the edge of our property and not return like he always did when we’d call him. Commands for him to “come,” which had always brought him running back towards the house, now had us out trotting around, calling, and then, angrily motioning for him to head house ward, after he spied us. Even when he was nearby, and we’d call out his favorite command, “Bernie, come eat,” it didn’t have the usual affect. We then began to realize that his hearing was failing.

Before long, it was almost entirely gone. Like most other things in his dog’s life, Bernie never missed a beat. From verbal commands, Bernie made the transition to hand signals. He now had to see us in order to respond and know what we wanted him to do, but this wasn’t as difficult as I expected. Even better, he never lost his sweet spirit and eagerness towards us that he always had when he could hear.

Being a herding dog, and one that always had to know where his family was at all times, he now was hyper-vigilant about keeping track where everyone was, even if this meant that he had to make frequent trips around the house, and up and down the stairs to keep count of the home’s inhabitants, now just my wife and I.

One of the most interesting habits (or annoying depending on your perspective) he developed after he went deaf was pushing in the bathroom door in the morning, or any other time, often when you hunkered down on the toilet. If he saw the light under the door, he’d attempt to push the door in. Since we usually left it ajar, you’d be sitting there, greeting Bernie, with pajamas, or other sleepware down around your ankles.

Gabi, our son’s girlfriend had come to visit with Mark. Gabi thoroughly enjoyed Bernie, and knew how special he was to our son. Since Mark’s room was directly across the hall from ours, I heard someone get up and go into the bathroom. Bernie sensed some motion in the hall and once he saw the light spilling out beneath the door, he was on his way to check out who might be up early. Nosing open the door, I heard Gabi elicit a startled, “Oh!” and then, “Hi, Bernie,” once she recognized it wasn’t Mary or I walking in on her. We all got quite a chuckle out of that one.

For Bernie, it wasn’t being rude; it was just Bernie being Bernie, greeting whomever, first thing in the morning.

****

We lost Bernie on May 17, 2009. He was just over 14-years-old. This essay was begun a week before he passed away, and I’m putting the finishing touches on it a week after he died. Even now, a week later, my eyes well up with tears as I think back to what Bernie meant to me, my wife, and our son, Mark.

Loving a dog is fraught with danger. When they arrive as a puppy, and begin making a home inside your heart, you rarely consider that in most cases, you’ll outlive them and that when they’re gone, it feels like your heart has been ripped out, turned inside out, and put back. Losing them is so hard, it literally hurts.

The good thing is that Bernie lived a full life and didn’t suffer at the end. While he had suffered a stroke back in January, he was about 85 to 90 percent back to what he’d been before, albeit increasingly tired, probably somewhat arthritic (he’d groan when lying down), and just not quite as energetic as he’d always been.

After his stroke, Mary and I were much more aware that Bernie was on borrowed time. But like everything connected with Bernie, he always put on his best face, and continued to provide joy for us on a daily basis. Unlike me, Bernie never had a bad day, or almost never. Saturday, and then Sunday, the day he died, he was obviously not himself. His usual morning perkiness was absent, and he didn’t even bother to lift his head in our bedroom, when I got up early Saturday morning to write. Normally, he’d have followed me into my office across the hall, and slumped down behind my chair, where he could keep an eye on me.

My wife and I were crushed Sunday night when he expired in our dining room as we patted him and tried to assure him that everything was going to be ok. He died with dignity, and apparently, minimal distress.

Anyone who has ever lost a close canine friend knows how hard it is to bid them “adieu.” Bernie was unique, and we miss him terribly.

The day after Bernie left us, we received an email from Mark, who lives in Los Angeles, and is struggling with losing his own special friend. He put Bernie’s passing and life into his own personal context. His note brought a bit of joy to a day that was pretty joyless, and a challenge to get through. Here are some of his thoughts on man’s best friend.

This morning has been tough. I read mom’s email on the bus and was crying. The people around me must have thought I was going to blow up the bus or something.

 

I always knew it was going to be tough when Bernie passed, but I wasn’t sure why. The past day or so I’ve been thinking it over. I think it comes down to dogs being anything you want them to be. They have needs, but these needs are minimal, and for most part they keep their agendas to themselves. Bernie was something different for everyone. Whoever came up with ‘man’s best friend’ hit it right on the head. Bernie was everyone’s best friend despite everyone having a different idea of what a best friend would look like. For mom he was her style, fashion, and cooking assistant. For Dad he was his best editor and walking partner. For me he was something of a silent baseball coach or brother who didn’t know anything about baseball, but would put in hour after hour, despite not knowing what he was putting in work for. He never asked, “Why do you keep hitting the ball after I get it for you? Your advancement of the ball is a net worth of zero.” Basically, the reason why he was so great was because he couldn’t say ‘No.’ He’s the friend that always wanted to hang out and do whatever you wanted to do. Sure, there were times when he’d try and sneak off and eat out of the compost or lie under the tree and rest and not chase the ball anymore, but if I hit the ball he’d go get it. Dogs in general are amazing in this sense because mostly they portray a blank slate with little opinion and it’s almost up to whoever they’re with to create the personality and voice for them in their own mind. And I think what’s so special about this is that despite Bernie passing, we each carry that personality of who he was to each of us in our own minds and he can live on.

That note says it all for me. Mary, Mark, and I will carry Bernie’s memory and personality with us, and he’ll live on in our hearts and minds, and always occupy a special place reserved uniquely for him.

The mayor surveying his manor, from the front steps.

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