Old Friend’s Passing Leaves Unfamiliar Void

[From 2001-2003 I was a weekly columnist for the Kingsport-Times News in Tennessee. This is a piece I wrote after losing my beloved friend, a dog named Heidi.]

It was not the gift I wanted, that someone would stand stroking the shaggy face as the drug did its work and the brown eyes closed for the last time. But it was my niece Jenny’s gift, nonetheless, to spare me the grief of watching my dog Heidi “go to sleep.”

Normally I eschew euphemisms as dishonest but this one I gladly swallowed. There is simply no way to comprehend death, not in men nor beasts. That my dog was old and crippled and panted with pain, that it was an act of kindness to put her down does not touch on the fact that she is entirely gone from the world, a small, unextraordinary but beloved presence. She will never park herself near my chair again or poke her nose in the neighbor’s shrub or bark with delicious hatred at the two yip-yappers on the corner. She will not fill up a room with an old dog smell (my daughter used to call her a mildewed rug) or foil my cleverness by meticulously eating all the food surrounding her arthritis pill.

She was a Benji sort of dog, a lovable fuzz-face with a black gumdrop nose and big soft eyes. My sister Leslie had found her as a pup abandoned by her mother, and she gave her to our family several months later after seeing our disappointment with Gretchen. Gretchen had been the first official family dog, an adorable boxer-terrier mix obtained from the pound at Christmas nearly 15 years ago. The children couldn’t wait to put a baby bonnet on her head and tuck her into bed with them by turns.
Gretchen grew. Big. Gretchen chased and nipped and stopped being cute. She frightened Emily, then a toddler, by her aggression. There was darkness in her. My friend Rod came over one day. He looked at her and asked what kind of dog she was. A boxer/terrier, I said. You know what kind of terrier that is, don’t you? he asked. A Staffordshire terrier, that’s what. A pit bull.

It wasn’t long before Gretchen had eaten a hole through the floor of the back porch and demolished several shoes. Al, my husband, chained her up in the back yard, and, as we observed her tossing bricks around for sport, we knew she would go back to whence she came. I composed a song about the saga with Gretchen, as follows:

I thought I got a boxer for Christmas,
By Easter it was clear to me
That the roly-poly pound pup
We took into our home
Was a pit bull in disguise,
Woe is me.

Heidi was the family dog that was meant to be–-playful, affectionate, gentle–-maybe not the smartest dog in the universe, but she could “sit” and “speak” and size up strangers pretty well.

She was lady-like and fancied herself to be a cut above other dogs–above hamsters, too, for she disdained the several generations of midget rats my kids insisted on possessing and placing atop her back.

Years afterward, she bore the indignity of yet another dog being admitted into the family–-a Jack Russell named Gracie whose boundless energy was allegro to Heidi’s adagio–-and later, a litter of Gracie’s pups on top of that–-eight chariots of fur charging round and round the kitchen table. Though the door was kept closed, sometimes the puppies would escape into the living room to catch Heidi, their glorious playmate, trying inconspicuously to give them the slip.

Traveling in the car was her greatest pleasure, with her nose tipped like a weathervane through the half-opened window. In the house she followed shifting pools of sun to bask in, would lie on her back with belly shamelessly exposed for stroking, and looked forward to daily walks in the neighborhood where her nose devoured a smorgasbord of smells. I always marveled at this alphabet by which she read the world–-mostly disgusting things that made her quiver with joy.

Her leaving was in stages. Several months ago, I moved to a townhouse where no pets were allowed. My sister in Asheville took her in, a familiar smell. Her condition worsened. The cortisone shots, the pills gave only temporary relief. Her spine was crumbling and she fell repeatedly. On Dec.16, Leslie and her daughter Jenny took her to the vet, faintly hoping for another remedy, but there was none.

A sleeping dog is a great mystery. We always chuckled to see Heidi sprawled out on the hearth trembling and making whimpery woofing sounds. We wondered what she was chasing or running from. Once I wrote a poem about “the dreaming dog” who “observes her own blood leaping after cats and owly leaves/with her dirt nose dancing in ivy.” I wonder now about her sleep and the hole left by her absence, Old Sport, my Heidi.

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