Growing up, I always had dogs.
When I was a little boy – probably nine or ten years old – my parents brought home a dog. She was a small thing, and a “purebred West Virginia black dog,” as my father said. She was a spayed female, a mutt, and the runt of the litter. My parents had made a vow that all future dogs would share these traits, as they are less aggressive beasts and would be less likely to kill one of my siblings.
(Or previous dog, Dougal, was a breeding male cairn terrier, and vicious as all get out. He “went to the farm” after biting my sister over the eye. Hence the policy regarding mutts.)
I think it took a week before we figured out the dog’s name. First it was “Black”, then “Magic” (for “black magic”), and finally we settled on “Pepper.” Pepper was a good dog: she was loyal, enthusiastic, playful, and mindful.
Back in West Virginia, we used to just open the door and let the dogs go free. They had the run of the neighborhood, and they (the dogs in the area) would play all day long. So it was with Pepper for many years.
Except, when I was 18, some kid kicked her in the stomach. Hard.
Hard enough to shove her intestines up into her chest cavity, which prevented her from breathing easily. Eventually, her bowel perforated and she died in agonizing pain.
This screwed up my sister something severe at the time. I was just in college, living in a little basement “apartment”, trying to be an adult. I don’t remember grieving over Pepper’s death, but I’m pretty sure that I did.
About two weeks after the event, though, my mother woke me up on a Saturday morning. I had worked at the club the night before, getting home around four a.m., and wasn’t really paying much attention to what she said: “Your brother and sister and I are going down to the dog pound to look at dogs.” I remember that I mumbled something like, “you’re just trying to replace Pepper; don’t get a dog,” and falling right back asleep.
Two hours later, they woke me up again by dumping a small, black, liquid puppy onto my bed. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen the likes of the energy that this little tyke was putting out: her tail was wagging so fast that her rump couldn’t keep up.
This was how I was introduced to Gilly.
Gilly further met our policy: female, runt of the little, and a mutt. She had an interesting mutation in the way the bones of her chest were formed that allowed her front legs to situate themselves in such a way that she could balance – and walk, for great distance – on her hind legs. This was an awesome party trick.
There were times that I swore the dog could understand English.
A couple of years later, I moved to San Francisco and away from Gilly. But every time I would come home – even if it was a secret visit, to surprise my mother – she knew. She could sense me from up the street. My parents would get her groomed and they would put these pink ribbons in her fur and she would act all proud of them – or, at least, that’s how it appeared.
But time passed, and Gilly grew old. She first lost her vision, dull, milky cataracts clouding previously liquid black eyes. Then her hearing went, turning the world into muffled whispers. A blind and deaf dog is an interesting thing. She relied entirely on scent and was somehow able to navigate rooms and tell activity by the smells produced.
This evening, about seventeen years after that squirrelly jelly-bean was dropped onto my bed, my mother informed me that they will be putting down my dog. She is slowly starving to death, unable to keep down any food, and apparently weighs less than ten pounds.
I’m not really sad – not in the “tragic” grieving sense. Gilly has lived an extraordinarily long time for a dog. 17 years translates to 119 in dog years: all of which were spent around people who loved and cared for her.
I’m sad for my parents. I know they love that animal more than anything in the world, and now the house will truly be empty: the last remnant of our life growing up will have died or moved on.
I wish I had played “catch” more often with her.