The first dog I ever found dead was Prissy. I think it was on a Saturday morning. As a seven-year-old here on planet earth there were two dogs that occupied my time and emotions - Ginger and Prissy. No clue what breed they were. They both always seemed in need of a haircut (these days you call them "grooms" or "doggy day care sessions") And the one day I was allowed to sleep late (Saturday, of course, because you had to get up at an early hour to make it in time for Sunday School with some Vitalis in your hair on the seventh day) I usually started my day running down to the dog pen to make my buddies run and jump and act stupid. I can still remember the way that dog pen smelled, like dirt and leaves and, well, dogs. I usually came back from my romps in the dog pen smelling the same way. But on this Saturday Prissy was lying there motionless and not responding to anything I said. Ginger stood to one side and stared at me, probably having the same concerns as to why Prissy wasn't moving. I ran faster than I'd ever run back to the house to tell someone that Prissy wasn't moving. I wasn't smelling like dirt or leaves or dogs...but I was covered in tears. Daddy walked down there, pronounced her dead and instructed one of my sisters to distract me somehow (probably involved a trip to the old Burger Chef in Gresham Park) while he tended to a dead dog.
The surviving dog Ginger lived another few months....or years. I'm not sure (at that age, time doesn't get marked as precisely as it does later in life.) But I do know her demise not long afterwards was another defining moment in my life, but on a deeper level. It was the first and only time I ever saw my father cry. He was crying because the vet said Ginger was suffering. So Daddy brought her home and took out his .32 caliber pistol (which hides somewhere in my house right now) and put her out of her misery. He did it while, again, telling one of my big sisters to distract me, this time probably involving South Dekalb Mall and a pizza burger at the Orange Bowl. ( Damn, ain't no wonder I love food. It served as a distraction to some very traumatic events very early in life!) When we got home Daddy was sitting in his chair in the living room, chewing tobacco and crying. I didn't ask questions. I knew it meant Ginger was gone (one way or the other.) I went and sat on my bed the rest of the afternoon (the spot from where out of my bedroom window I could see an empty dog pen) crying and thinking no dog could ever replace Ginger and Prissy.
But there's been dogs that have done the job admirably You see, after Ginger and Prissy were gone I moved on into life as a teenager while being tailed by a Beagle named Siren and her buddy, a Beagle/Terrier mix named Jake. They came into my possession like most everything else in my life, courtesy of older sisters I think Siren belonged to one sister and Jake belonged to a professor at Georgia State University who was teaching another sister. They were good dogs and I learned early that noise is the one thing a Beagle does well. You can hear them a mile off and I reckon that's what makes them such good hunters. Siren was allergic to everything except oxygen and my parents spent many dollars keeping her from being miserable. I can hear them both now, trying to outdo each other with that distinctive howl, usually responding to a firetruck or to each other at opposite ends of the yard. When bred for the thrill of the hunt, one must make their own thrills when forced to live in suburban Atlanta.
When I transitioned from being a confirmed bachelor to a married man, a 130 pound black Labrador Retriever made the same transition. A newly built house lost some of its newly laid carpet one morning when my new bride accidentally left the bedroom door closed when she left for work. Unfortunately the bedroom was Buzz' safe place in the new house and he did his best to dig under that closed door while we were at work. Despite how close he came to making us single guys again, Buzz won my bride's heart and together we spoiled him rotten as he became an old man. Together we held him when the vet at the emergency clinic ended his suffering, sometime in the middle of his 12th year. . He was extremely intelligent, extremely loyal - mostly to my mother in her later years. After being banged up in a bad fall, we moved her into the little crash pad apartment Buzz and I shared in our single days. We moved her there because everything she'd need was on one floor. I let her sleep in my bed and I slept on my couch. The first day we moved her into the little world that Buzz and I shared he walked slowly backwards with a strange look on his face, knowing something was very wrong with her. From then on, he didn't leave her side, even sleeping in the floor by the bed. I was awakened often during that time by scratching on my face because she'd told him to "Go get Tim....go buddy...wake up Tim!" whenever she needed the bathroom, a glass of water or anything else she couldn't get during the night. So you see, by the time that vet, my wife and I ended Buzz' suffering in the middle of the night at some emergency animal clinic he'd become a hero to many and his work here was done. The many pictures of him that populate our house will always bring a smile and a tear.
Now we've another Labrador Retriever (a yellow one this time) entering old age herself. But don't tell her. She chases remote control trucks on the patio, she has a toy box full of things that will inevitably get pulled out just when the humans in the house have hit couch and recliner, exhausted from their workday ("oh, y'all were planning on crashing? I've been napping all day and really need someone to throw this stuffed duck for me!!!") We'd had her several months before we ever heard her bark. We honestly thought something was wrong with her, rendering her unable to bark. Alas, we now know that her lack of barking is only because she loves every single thing about being alive and being part of a family. She had huge shoes to fill when Buzz died. She did it with flying colors. And now she's laid the groundwork for another huge hole that's going to need filling someday. I'm excited to see the canine soul that may not even be amongst us yet, but the Good Lord knows we'll need when the time comes. See, I always figure God made everything else -including us stupid humans -and then thought "Wait ....I can do much better than that!" He then created dogs.
I heard one time on the Andy Griffith show that "your first flame never quite burns out." That probably holds true when dealing with silly human crushes. But I really think it's different with dogs. The flame for that first dog never burns out, true. But it seems there's always the next one to carry that torch because that's their mission - to make our lives complete. Each subsequent one accepts the relay from the previous with pride, carrying its own flame, unique but part of the same mission the creator of the universe gave them when he put them in our midst to take care of us. I got a tear in my eye when a Beagle won the dog show the other night. It's face looked just like that Beagle of my childhood, Siren.. I felt her somewhere, rolling in green grass, relaxed and happy (and no allergies!) because she knew there was a long line behind her watching my every step. I hope they're all there on that side of whatever happens to us when our own bodies give up the fight. If "eternity" means a "heaven" that is a life spent with dogs romping in an eternal springtime, their barks and howls asking "what took you so long?" then I need to start acting like somebody and going to church.