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Trigger Warning: This is a “Dead Dog” post.
No doubt you’re wondering how I can possibly title a post about a recently deceased, and much loved, family pet, “Happy Endings.”
It’s simple. There are only three ways out for the dozens of creatures who’ve found their way to Chez She over the better part of four decades:
- Those who are really lost are returned, after exhaustive efforts, to their rightful owners,
- Those whose owners cannot be found remain with us until it’s time for the sad trip to the veterinarian, or
- Those who remain with us live out their good lives and die naturally on the farm.
The first option represents a consummation devoutly to be wished, and
sometimes rarely, we’ve actually been able to make it work. The second option is illustrated by “Duke,” a beautiful Pointer mix who showed up on our back porch one fall day in 2001, full of buckshot, and who lived with us for just over three years, until he developed a galloping case of leukemia, and was helped into the next world by our friends with the means to do so. Understanding that that is sometimes the kindest thing to do doesn’t make it any easier, and it doesn’t make us mourn the loss of a beautiful young dog any less. It’s hard.
Option three, living to a good age and dying naturally on the farm, is what we wish for all our pets. And Penny had just that sort of happy ending.
Less than a week after we had Duke put to sleep, on 21 December, 2004, I received a frantic phone call from a co-worker. Kate is, like me, a lost dog magnet, and she’d found one at the intersection of Route 40 and I-70 in Washington, PA. “I’m on my way to my brother’s in Baltimore for Christmas,” she said. “Can you keep the dog, just until I get back?”
“Of course!” I said. “Just for a few days, right?”
I met Kate, and picked up the dog. She was filthy, starving, stinking, and almost dead. I didn’t know what to do with her (it was a work day), so I dropped her off at my friend the veterinarian for a check-up, and asked if they could hang onto her till I was done with work. Later that day, I arrived to find that she’d got various internal and external parasites, a terrible case of seborrheic dermatitis, bloody feet, was malnourished and dehydrated, was missing a few teeth, but otherwise, was negative for the worst sorts of diseases, and seemed relatively in one piece. They thought she was about four years old. I took her home, with an expensive bag of medicines, and got to work.
Of course, Kate never saw her again (a fact of which she was quite glad, having her own work cut out for her, over at Casa Kate).
Mr. She named her “Penny,” because he believed that, under all that dandruff, rash and oozing, was a gorgeous coat the color of a copper penny. And indeed, there was. She grew into a beautiful dog with a glorious shiny coat, and a magnificent tail with “feathers” that rippled in the wind when she ran.
She was a happy, patient, and kind dog. I don’t ever remember her growling at anybody, or anything. She had a good, deep, bark, which she used to get attention, never to intimidate or warn. She loved small children, and would let them do almost anything to her. She acted as an unpaid nanny to the occasional orphan lamb in my living room, never minding when they pestered her, and nosed around her hindquarters, sure that if they could just find the right spot, magic would happen, and milk would appear. She cleaned them up when they got themselves in a mess, and licked them to a shiny state of spit and polishedness (there are limits, even for me, in that regard, and they greatly preferred Penny’s ministrations to being thrust, bum-first, under a stream of warm water from the utility sink faucet).
She had a wonderful life.
And over time, she aged.
She developed a thyroid condition. And arthritis. And she went completely deaf. And her beautiful coat went largely grey, and then white. But her sweet disposition never failed her. (Well, except when she, the deaf dog, would have a bit of a tiff with Houdini, the blind dog, usually as the result of a collision because one didn’t see, or hear, the other one coming. That sometimes resulted in a short scuffle, with no harm done to either combatant).
Eventually, her mind started to go, and she was diagnosed with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, or, as we refer to it around here, Doggie Dementia. This manifested itself by her walking round and round in circles, not sure of where she was, and by getting stuck under the dining room table, after she had unerringly and unthinkingly walked between a couple of the chairs that surround it. Discovering herself in what she thought was a cage, her brain would take over, and instead of leading her out through the gap she came in by, she would just as unerringly walk in between the legs of a chair, and get it stuck on her back. She’d then barge noisily and clumsily around the room like an undersize elephant wearing an oversize howdah, until someone rescued her.
At two or three in the morning, this could be quite annoying, especially when it was repeated several times in the space of the same night.
Through it all, she maintained her sweet disposition, her love of a pat on the head, and a rub on the back, and her affection for all small things. And her food. She always loved her food.
But she particularly loved our granddaughter. I’ll never forget going to investigate a little sound I heard as I was making coffee one morning a few years ago. I couldn’t quite place it, and since I thought I was the only one up, I went to investigate. I discovered our granddaughter, who was not quite three at the time, lying in Penny’s bed with her, her head buried in Penny’s lovely blanket of long fur, sobbing her eyes out. Penny was lying perfectly still, her eyes fixed on our granddaughter, and her head snuggled against her.
I got down on the floor and asked what was wrong. “I don’t know where my mom is!” she sobbed. Turns out that her mother had woken up, thought her daughter was fast asleep in bed next to her, and had escaped to the bathroom for the rare luxury of a shower all to herself. The frightened little girl had sought solace in the warm embrace of the dog. And Penny, as always, did her part.
Several weeks ago, I began to contemplate the inevitable, and think that, perhaps, it was “time.” Even though she was still pretty game, and appeared happy, and pain-free, Penny was clearly starting to fail in other ways, and was becoming quite blind. But I kept putting off the evil hour–I’d tell myself she was fine, our granddaughter was coming for the weekend, let’s wait till after that, then–well, the temperature’s been below freezing for a week, the ground will be frozen, it will be hard to dig a hole (stop kidding yourself, it’s so cold you can wrap her up securely and put her in the shed for a few days till it warms up a bit–no, really, she’s OK, no need to overreact, and on and on.
And then one day, Penny took matters into her own hands. She had what Dr. She diagnosed as a little stroke. It was a Sunday afternoon (of course). The closest 24 hour emergency veterinarian is over an hour away, and I really didn’t want to put her in a car. She always had a terrible fear of cars (perhaps it had something to do with the circumstances in which she was found), and I didn’t want to add to her stress with a long trip to a strange place, especially since she was quiet. I called my local veterinarian, left a message saying I’d be there at 8AM on Monday, wrapped Penny up the way you wrap an infant in a ‘baby burrito,’ and put her head on a pillow. She slept. She woke up once at 3AM. I sorted her out, wrapped her up again, and she went back to sleep.
By 6AM, she was gone. At the age of 16+. Comfortably, it looked like. Happily. In her own home. With her boots on. I suspect her heart just stopped.
She’d had the forethought and consideration to die on a warm Spring-ish day. I dug a hole and buried her with a bunch of crocuses from the farm.
I’m sure many would have thought her to be a useless dog. No good as a watch dog. No good as a guard dog. No good as a hunting dog. She approached all the creatures she ever met as if they were her friends, and they responded in kind. She was the sweetest and most comforting dog I ever knew. If Milton was right, and it is as true for dogs as it is for humans that “they also serve who only stand and wait,” Penny earned her service badge right at the start. And we’re sorry that she’s gone.
But somewhere, my strong but occasionally rather haphazard faith tells me, my clear eyed, sharp-eared, copper-haired Penny is running with the many denizens of Chez She that have gone before, her beautiful tail feathers rippling in the wind.
Happy Trails, sweet dog. We miss you.