Wilson came to live with us about ten years ago, an invited guest who seriously overstayed his welcome. I was friends - at the time - with a woman who rescued dogs; she picked up stray and abandoned dogs the way some women collect shoes. Sometimes her compulsion dictated the forced removal of an abused canine from his or her current environment. (She didn't think much of local authority, so those occasions often required a covert-op delivered with military precision and a little lunacy.) Wilson wasn't one of those P.O.W. dogs. But he was found wandering, emaciated and exhausted, on Wilson Hill Road, so she coaxed him into her little Nissan and brought him home. She salved the shredded pads on his feet, bathed and fed him, and welcomed him into the fold.
Let me take a moment to honor the breadth of this woman's heroism by telling you that her house had, quite literally, gone to the dogs. In a home filled with octuplets, you'd expect to find baby toys, chairs, tricycles, blankets and all sort of child-related paraphernalia; now mentally remove the human toys and replace the picture with doggie stuff. You couldn't walk through a room without tripping over a bone, a ball, a leash, a toy...Her great room was filled with dog furniture so that everyone could have a bed. No room was off limits to the dogs, actually; not even her bedroom. Anyone who has ever shared a home with a canine knows that if you don't keep the bed off-limits, you will have a sleeping partner. In her case, it was seven sleeping partners, often forcing her to sleep - you guessed it - on the dog furniture. Even the bathroom was doggie-friendly, with shelves full of dog shampoos and soothing herbal bath lotions, and the toilet seat was always up. Every window in the house sported a thick film of dog slobber, and every low surface was constantly covered in dog hair. And more dog slobber.
She never complained, not about having the dogs, or having taken on the physical and financial responsibility. She complained about the neighbors a lot, but I always suspected there were two sides to those stories, and the neighbors probably had much to say about the crazy lady who smelled like dog and was driving their property values down. She had the two earmarks of a true lunatic - she had nothing but disdain for government or authority of any kind, and she was a walking encyclopedia. This is how she knew that most dog foods available for purchase at your local supermarkets were full of ground up horse bones and toxic additives, and the fact that the government allowed such a thing to be available to the public was simply proof of their inherent evil. So she bought fresh chickens and vegetables for the dogs, and gave them home-cooked meals every day, along with an herbal vitamin regimen which differed from dog to dog. There was always soothing music on, but she never listened. That was for them too. All seven of them.
Which brings me back to Wilson. Once she had nursed him to health, she needed to find him a home. But in the interim, there simply wasn't enough room to keep a nearly two-year old Labrador Retriever. Her house, and her budget, were stretched far enough already. So she called me to ask if I might play the role of "foster parent" while she searched for his new home. I didn't see this for the underhanded, manipulative chess move that it actually was, and so I said yes. My second clue, of course, should have been the way she sped off after bringing him over, and stopped taking my phone calls. And that is the unceremonious manner in which Wilson became part of our family. (It also marked the end of my relationship with the crazy dog lady.)
The first couple weeks were admittedly fun; it was nice to have a dog in the house again. My daughter, years earlier, had witnessed our family puppy's horrific death by auto. I swore then that there wouldn't be another. My son wasn't even born at that time, and had never experienced having a dog around, and I'll tell you right now that there is nothing more heartwarming than watching a three-year-old boy fall in love with his first dog. Wilson was easy to love, a beautiful black Lab with expressive eyes and a wounded spirit. I'm a sucker for living creatures who desperately need love, so for me it was a match made in heaven. Sure, I fought it. He was only supposed to be visiting, anyway...which is what I kept telling the kids. "DON'T GET ATTACHED - WE ARE NOT KEEPING HIM!" is perhaps the most useless phrase in the parental thesaurus. It took about two months before I finally faced the truth - we were in love, all of us, and Wilson was there to stay.
He was a funny fellow, and getting to know his quirks was often a hilarious thing. The most notable was his fear of water. And when I say water, I mean the water in his own water bowl. He would thirstily approach the bowl, fully understanding what it was there for. But when he took his first lap of the tongue, it caused the water to ripple and this scared the hell out of him, causing him to back away from the dish. He'd look at it fearfully, then at me, then back at the dish. Once the water was still, he'd approach it timidly and then repeat the same hysterical process. There was no such thing as a quick drink with this dog. I always found it amusing that my Labrador Retriever - a breed known for its familiarity with water - was broken. But turn liquid water into snow, and man, did that dog come ALIVE!! Even in his older years, he enjoyed a good snowfall with the enthusiasm of a child, driving his snout into a snow pile and tossing it up into the air. He would roll in it until he looked like a white pig with a black head. You couldn't help but feel good watching him; witnessing pure joy like that is an intimate miracle.
Another peculiarity would occur every time we went for a walk; he loved being on a leash, never strained against it. When the walk was nearly over, and he was a few feet from the door, he would stop, turn his head and open his mouth. I don't recall how long it took me to figure it out, but he was asking for the handle of the leash. I would offer it to him, and he, with his own leash in his mouth, would walk himself right into the house. Every time. Never fully understood it, but I sensed that it was his way of maintaining dignity, of saying, "Yes, I understand that when we walk, I must be restrained, but never forget I am a free spirit, and fully capable of walking myself into my own home, thank you." Once inside, he would dutifully sit for the leash to be removed, and there always seemed to be a look of gratitude in those knowing eyes, for allowing him this small measure.
As the years went on, we plunged ahead with our busy lives, and Wilson became more of a household fixture than a beloved family member. He was always there, always ecstatic to see us, but I shamefully admit that we did not reciprocate well. Initial arguments over who got the honor of taking care of Wilson became arguments over who got the chore of taking care of Wilson. I hated him sleeping on my bed, and was irritated by years of his stealing my covers. I secretly wished he would get too old to jump up on the bed. As a single mother of two, with a very tight budget, Wilson went without quite a few things that a well-to-do dog would expect to have, such as better dog food, stimulating toys, excellent health care, people who had time for long, lingering walks and the desire to just lay on the floor and scratch his piggy belly. I eagerly anticipated a future that didn't include expensive dog food, constant vacuuming, or dog farts. He slept at my feet when I watched tv, guarded my door when I slept (if he wasn't smushed up next to me on the bed already), padded through the house if I was cleaning, content to rest only after he'd determined which room I was settling into; I would curse him for being underfoot. That dog loved me like I have never been loved before or since, but I admit that in his last few years I barely took the time to notice him. Had it been a human relationship, that dog would have packed his bags long before the end.
When the end came, it was the result of a decision that had to be made. He had no real quality to his life, he followed me with those eyes, pleading for my help, and I finally took him to the vet when it became clear he could no longer eat or drink. The vet was so understanding, offering assurances that I was doing the right thing. The funny thing was, I didn't feel sad. For so long I had been picturing the freedom of a dog-free house, and I felt relieved and a bit glad that I could go home that very day and start getting rid of the dog smell. This is what was on my mind as he took his final breaths, with me scratching the single tuft of white fur on his throat.
As the vet listened with a stethoscope to be certain Wilson had truly passed, he gave me a speech I'm sure he's delivered many times, designed to help ease the pain of a loved one. Now, I wasn't about to admit to this stranger that I had actually been looking forward to this day for some time. So I listened with an appropriate amount of head-nodding and somber expression. And when the moment came for us to leave the room, the vet made a gesture letting me know it was perfectly okay to say goodbye just one more time. Not wanting to seem indifferent, I made a show of leaning over Wilson's face, kissing him gently on his forehead, and I whispered that I would miss him. And when I turned back to the vet, that's when it happened. That's when the dam broke.
That poor man never saw it coming. He might have guessed that I was indifferent, or he might simply have thought I was being stoic. Either way, I don't believe he was prepared for me to collapse into his arms, clutching the lapels of his jacket and sobbing like Sally Field in "Steel Magnolias". Neither was I. Through my wall of tears even my disbelief was obvious; I kept saying, "But you don't understand - I HATED that damned dog!" Never did get around to sending him a card to thank him for his thoughtful words, for putting his arms around me while I lost my mind, and for not tranquilizing me on the spot. I cried buckets of grief as I filled out the check to pay for his services, and I cried all the way home. I learned a powerful lesson that day about my own capacity for - and fear of - love. And the person who taught it to me wasn't even a person. It was that damned dog.
It has been over a year since I let Wilson go, but his imprint on our lives is still here. When I hear a noise outside the house, I wish he were here to let me know if I should be afraid. I wish he were here when I watch tv, so I could once again pry my cold toes under him for warmth. I miss being followed around and adored. I'll never forget the way he could talk to me, that special way that dogs have that is half expression and half telepathy. And I know that with each snowfall, I'll see him in my mind's eye, tossing that white stuff in the air with childlike abandon. Even after a year, I can't explain this any better than that. If you've never shared your life with a dog, I couldn't make you understand anyhow. If you have, well then...you know.