C. Neuroticus Absolutus
“Let me get this straight. You say you’re the alpha dog in this relationship. Well, HA! I’ve got news for you. You’re not even a dog, so it’s impossible for you to be the alpha dog. I win by default.”
“Yeah, I remember all that sass you used to dish out. It started when you were about six-months old when we lived in Tennessee. You were born in Cookeville, Tennessee, you know.”
“I don’t think you ever told me that. Is that where my biological mom and dad live?”
“Well, that’s where they lived back then. It’s been over fourteen years. I doubt they’re still alive. Do you remember your mom?”
“Kinda. Mostly her soft warm belly and her smell. Oh, I don’t mean a bad smell. All dogs carry memories of their mother’s scent. That’s how I’d recognize her and my litter mates even if we met today, fourteen years later. All of us from the same litter have the same litter scent.”
“Yeah well, you humans have lost your sense of smell. Unless an odor is incredibly strong, like the litter box our cat Cleo had in the laundry room, you humans don’t know it exists. Jeez, I could barely stand it. I tried to talk to her about it and she got all hissy and her hair stood on end. She wouldn’t talk to me for weeks. Smell is a whole different world, Dad.”
“I’ve suspected as much. I’ve always envied dogs their super sense of smell—especially Bloodhounds.”
“Yeah. Everything except that butt-smelling thing you do with other dogs. What is that all about anyway?”
“First, a guy needs to find out if it’s a girl or not. Sometimes, with these fancy haircuts people foist on us, it’s hard to tell. Hate to waste time trying to hump another male. Besides, it can be dangerous. Plus, we can tell right away if the other dog is one that’s been pooping and peeing in our territory. Some dogs just have no respect, especially this younger generation.”
“I never thought of it like that.”
“And about Bloodhounds. You can give them all the credit you want for their sense of smell. They deserve it. But what else do they have going for them? I mean, have you ever really looked at them with their floppy lips in full drool?
“Say, can you give me a break, man? I’m 98-years old by the human calendar and it’s nap time again. A good belly rub would be helpful right about now.”
Sundance gets glassy-eyed as I rub and he gives me a toothy yawn before he drifts off.
He’s always quiet as he sleeps by my side, I occasionally glance up from my writing to see if he’s still alive. Sometimes his breathing is so shallow I have to look really hard to tell. He’s in fair shape for a dog his age. Just like me, though, he’s got arthritis. It’s hard for him to get around and I worry about him.
Unlike all the recent cutsie hybrid mixes, Sundance is a purebred Golden Retriever. The way he presents himself is proof enough: head erect, back straight, long-haired tail held high and proud, one hind leg just ahead of the other in a show-stopping retriever stance. Yeah, he knows he’s special. The sun dancing off his dark golden fur was the inspiration for his name: Sundance. His name also alludes to two characteristic of the breed: playful and friendly. Loyal and intelligent, they’re also hardworking if trained in sports, as their retriever name implies.
Oh, he knows all this. We’ve discussed it often over the years and he’s proud of his heritage. “Got papers to prove it,” became one of his favorite sayings after I told him about the American Kennel Society. But, he strongly objects to the word kennel. “We’ve got a society that looks out after our different breeds, and that’s cool. But the word kennel spoils the perception of their work by using the old discriminatory reference to caging us like we’re a bunch of monkeys instead of man’s best friend.” I admire how he stands up for himself and his brethren.
“We guard your houses and families, romp with and help raise your kids, sleep beside you on your beds—I really like your beds, you know—and have the free run of your houses and you still think we need to be caged. In fact, you caged me throughout my puppyhood.”
“Only until you learned how to behave inside. I’m sure it was hard and I didn’t want to do it, but you were one tough puppy, believe me.” He always grins when I say “one tough puppy.”
“When we used to get together with your brother Sparky, you both were overpowering, bouncing on and off the furniture like it was your personal playhouse.”
“Yeah, good old Sparky. I miss him a lot. He's what I call ‘good people.’”
“I miss him, too. Watching the two of you playing together was always one of the joys in my life. You both were so funny.
“Say, by the way, which one of you was it that tore the wallpaper off the bathroom wall when we lived in the house on Sugarloaf Mountain?”
“That was Sparky,” was his story. “Neither of us liked to be closed up in small rooms like that. We were both housebroken by that time, but the anxiety of not knowing when you were coming back was unbearable. Besides, I think Sparky had a small bladder and he’d get so apprehensive about not being able to hold it he’d start barking, then howling. That time, I remember he told me we needed to teach you a lesson about not leaving us alone for so long. That’s when the wallpaper came off. I told him we were gonna get it when you got home, but he didn’t care. Said it wasn’t fair that we never got to go anywhere with you.”
Sundance never changed a single word of his story. Even the serious look on his whiskered face when he retold it stayed the same. But over the years, he added a few chuckles each time he ratted out Sparky.
“Lemme ask you something. What is this thing with humans that they have to play fetch all the time? Do you need the exercise that bad? You’ve got that treadmill thing that you keep folded up against the wall. Why don’t you use that?”
“You’re kidding, right? We play fetch to help you stay healthy.”
“Yeah, but I do all the running. You need exercise, too, so how about the next time we play, I take the ball and drop it a good distance away and you run get it?”
I couldn’t answer that, so I gave him a Milk-Bone treat to distract him.
“Tell me more about Tennessee. What was it like?”
“Do you remember our fenced yard? You used to run all over without a leash. Sometimes Rambo would come over to visit and you played together.”
“Rambo? Who’s Rambo?”
“The horse that lived in the pasture right behind our house.”
“Oh, Rambo! Yeah, he was a cool dude. Boy could he run! I remember licking him on his muzzle and he’d nibble on my ear with those big lips. Then he’d take off and run real fast around the field. When he came back, he’d let out a big breath of air and his lips flapped and made a funny sound. He was so big!”
“I used to coax him over to the fence with baby carrots or a sugar cube. He loved those.”
“Do you think he’s still there?”
“If you dream about him, he can be anywhere you want.”
“Been thinking, Dad. What does dying mean? I know it means going away and never coming back, but where do you go?”
“Dying means giving up living. You don’t breathe anymore. You can’t smell, taste, feel, hear or see anything anymore.”
“Well, that’s just sad. Why would anyone give up living, then? Why did Sparky give up?”
“Sparky had cancer all through his insides. Cancer’s bad stuff, makes you hurt something awful. Sometimes nothing can be done about it. He had so much pain he couldn’t eat anything anymore. That’s why he gave up living.”
You can’t tell your best friend that his brother was put to sleep. At least I couldn’t. That’s why I lied.
“As for where you go when you stop living, there’s been a lot of talk about that for a long time. I don’t think anyone really knows.”
“Do people and dogs go to the same place?”
“I believe we do. Even though one of us—you or me— will go first, I have to believe we’ll see each other again and from then on, we’ll be together for always.”
He put his long nose under my arm and lifted my hand from my PC keyboard.
“Scratch my ears, Dad.”
Recently, he was beside me while I was writing. I could tell he had something on his mind by the way he was watching me.
“Need to go outside?” When the answer was yes, he’d be out the door of my room faster than a hummingbird’s heartbeat.
“Fresh water in your pan?” A blank stare.
“A treat?” That always got him up and moving.
“You got a minute to talk, Dad?”
“Sure. All the time you want.”
“What happened to our cat Cleo? Did she die?”
“Yes, she did. She was very old.”
He moved so we could look each other in the eye. “I’m going to die, aren’t I?”
“Everyone dies. All living things eventually die. The grass, the trees, birds, animals, people. Some live longer than others, but we all die.”
“Will I get cancer like Sparky did?”
“Not everyone gets cancer. And many who do, survive for a while longer. Just because Sparky got it doesn’t mean that you will.”
He cocked his head and his ears perked up. “So I don’t have to hurt like Sparky?”
“Nope.” His eyes grew a bit brighter and I knew that pleased him.
“Dad . . .” he licked my hand, “I don’t want to go anywhere without you, okay?”
I patted his head.
“I know. Me neither.”