March 17, 2000 - June 7 2011
In the country you may not know every dog who lives along your road, but you always recognize a stranger. Sometimes a neighbor has gotten a new dog, but often what you see is that great rural tragedy, the dropped off dog. In honor of the dignity of my wonderful Priss, I won't go into what I think of the low-life scum that abandons a dog on my road but will confine myself to explaining that half way along the 3 mile stretch of tar, at the end of which, I live, there is a creek that is a tacit boundary of responsibility for dealing with downed trees, dead animals and dropped off dogs. If there is an issue on our side of the creek, we, and our closest neighbors, take care of it, calling out men with trucks and shovels and chain saws. On the other side of the creek, the responsibility falls on the folks who live closer to the big highway. It's just a shared duty divvied up by geography.
In the spring of 2000 ... March, to be exact ... I was driving home one day and just before I reached the dividing creek I looked out the window and on a gentle slope lay a little dog, head high, perky face, surrounded by 4 puppies. As I turned my head, she turned hers and our eyes met. Between us passed the arc of love that sometimes sparks across a distance, piercing deep into the heart. Her little soul whispered to mine “I'm yours. You are mine”.
With gritted teeth and clenching fingers I turned my head and drove on, muttering “I already have 2 dogs. You are not my responsibility. You are on the wrong side of the creek”. Have you ever thrust away love? Is there a moment in time you can remember when you turned your back on it? Rejected it? It is something you never forget. You'll think about it and obsess about it and wonder about it. I can't remember what I thought about that little dog later – if I contemplated going back to find her. I just don't know. What I do know is that 3 days later a man drove up to the house and said “did you know there is a mother dog and her 4 puppies at your mailbox?”
I knew then. I knew who the little dog was. I knew that she had come to me because we were meant to be. Mind now – my mailbox is half a mile from my house – and 2 miles from where I saw that little dog. The man was from Canada, come down to buy a sailboat from BD, with all the complications of an international sale, with currency exchanges and such. The boat wasn't even at our house, but at a marina in another county and they had to drive off to see it. It was a work day for me but they drove out first. At the time we had the most vivid black lab, Ike: a dog with more personality than you could fit in an entire circus of dogs. He always escorted BD off the farm but I followed shortly behind. At the mailbox there was Ike, beside himself with joy and fascination as he capered and pranced about the little dog. She responded in kind, actually flirting with him and letting him sniff her puppies.
What a beautiful little dog she was, too. Thirty-five pounds of thick silky fur, still puffed out with her winter down. Her face was pointed, her ears stood up in expectation, and her eyes were the most orange shade of brown I have ever seen. There was some shepherd in her dna; you could tell by the way the down fur was so white even though the top coat was brown – so she had that greenish cast you sometimes see in a German shepherd. And by now, by hook or by crook, I knew she was going to stay with me. How BD was going to be convinced, I wasn't sure, but by golly, this was one dog who was here to stay.
About that time, my farmer neighbor drove by and made a joking comment. I don't remember what he said, but I remember recognizing that he was thinking “thank goodness it's not my problem.” I understood – I'd said the same 3 days earlier. Besides, love was already gushing over me as I stroked and petted this little creature. Who cares what other people think? What I also did was scoop the puppies up and take them deeper into our own property, down by Jacob's Gut where they could get water to drink and be safe from cars. And be a little closer to my house without being too obvious to a certain someone who was already preoccupied with Other Things.
It was late when I got home, dark and pouring rain. The headlights picked out little furry puppies as I turned at my mailbox, but there was no little green dog with orange eyes. I piled the puppies into the car and brought them up to the house. No way was I going to leave them out in that storm – we have a dog house in the front yard. They could spend the night there. The surprise when I actually got to my house was that capering around in the rain was Ike and his inamorata. Already they wouldn't be parted. I was a little surprised that she'd abandon her puppies to go off with Ike – but I was also glad.
Mr. SoftHeart, Mr. TenderHearted, muttered a feeble complaint about stray dogs, but he really was tied up with negotiations with the Canadian fellow and, in fact, stayed so the rest of the weekend. Some other words about 'talking about it on Sunday' were probably spoken. What I remember was thinking that if I just lay low, things would work out.
And they did. I was working in the garden all that weekend, March 17, 18 and 19, according to BD's diary. I had a young boy helping me and I tried hard to pawn off one of the puppies onto his family, but the father absolutely refused. They were cute little fluff balls, but they were also, obviously, no-breed curs with only pet value. Most folk around here are looking for dogs who can do double duty, either hunting or herding or guarding. All weekend long, Ike and my dainty prissy little new love capered about, frisky, happy, flirty. On Sunday, a neighbor came up with his friendly black lab to give him a long country walk and the little mother nearly bit his nose off for even looking like he'd smell her puppies. Obviously she was a fierce protective mother – except when it came to Ike, where she knew her true destiny lay. In fact, time came when we began to call her Ike's Wife.
And so. There was a long walk with my wonderful husband, oh man of enormous heart, where we hashed out the future. He had all the good arguments for not keeping such a dog – a stray, an adult, probably with heart worms, with her personality already formed, bad habits already in place, who knew what her history was, a cur, a traveler, a burdensome family of puppies. The same arguments that had flashed through my own mind in the brief moment of first seeing her. In the end, of course, love prevailed. “What are you going to call her?” he asked me and I replied “Priss, because she is so dainty and almost prissy”.
And that is who she became. Our little green dog with orange eyes. Miss Priss. Ike's Wife. Sleek, stubborn, independent, she became dog #3 in our household. She was unpredictable. She would bolt the moment she was let out of a car and refuse to come when called, so that eventually we wouldn't take her anywhere except on long walks about the property. Even then, walks with Priss involved her dashing off into the woods, or across the fields, only to circle back to us when we were on the way home. When we went swimming, she'd disappear into the field behind the swimming beach and often didn't catch up with us till we were in the middle of the creek paddling home. She had a way of begging that involved pawing you and the curvature of her claws always made her gesture dangerous – lethal if you were in the river swimming with her. We treated her with more gentleness than we've ever given any of our dogs – no rough play with her – because it was obvious that she'd had some pretty serious trauma in her early years. There was a bit of buckshot just below the skin over her hip. She quailed at gunshot or even the sight of a gun or the sound of it being loaded. Thunder sent her, not just indoors, but under my bed. We got so we knew if a summer storm was on the way because we'd hear the screen door slam shut and she'd come dashing into the house, up to us, seeking comfort.
Her devotion to Ike remained strong and she mimicked some of his gestures. He would always plunge his whole face into water whenever he drank and she did too. Only last Sunday BD and I remarked on how she was still drinking like Ike – and we said simultaneously “Ike's Wife”. Ike had a fanatic's passion for chasing balls and when the apples ripened and fell from the tree, Priss would get an apple, run up to Ike and toss her head, letting the ball fly, so he could chase it.
That was our Priss. BD found homes for all 4 of her puppies. We had 3 dogs. A year later we found baby puppy Socks on Our Side of the Creek and we had 4 dogs. Then Ike died. Then Topsy. Jack came to live with us in 2005. Each time a dog would leave us our broken hearts grieved. Each time a new dog would come to us our swelling hearts would rejoice. We are dog people and we give dogs a special, country life full of smells and tastes and space, with warm fires in the winter and cool cement floors in the summer.
A few years ago Priss developed a limp that made her squeal when she put weight on her front paw. Concerned that it might be a dislocated shoulder I dropped her off at the vets on my way to work. Later that day the vet called me, angrier than I thought it possible for such a gentle spoken man to be. The fury in his voice was palpable, it oozed down the phone line to drip into my ear and pool on my desk. “Do you know your dog's been shot?” the venomous voice demanded.
Shocked, I tried to figure out how I could have transported Priss all the way from my house to town without noticing any blood anywhere. “Impossible. I know I would have noticed if she had been bleeding” I remonstrated.
“Not now. This is an old wound.” came back the gritted answer, and how well I remember the sensation of muscles relaxing. I hadn't noticed how tense I'd become with his first question. “Oh yes. I know. There's a little buckshot just below the skin of her hip” I explained.
“No. She's been shot. With a hollow nosed bullet. Her neck and shoulder are full of shrapnel. She's peppered with it. There's nothing I can do.”
I reeled then. I'd have sat down if I hadn't already been sitting. Evidently, the early years of Priss' life had been harder than I'd realized. I called BD, who drove into town, looked at the X-rays, talked things over with the doctor and then took her home. We treated her with a little buffered aspirin, but when she began chasing and wrestling with Jack again, we stopped.
It was autumn when this happened and shortly thereafter Priss got a cocklebur wrapped up in the thick fur around her neck, forming a lump about an inch long and half an inch thick. In the evening I sat with her between my legs, gently working the burr out when suddenly the top of that lump just lifted up like the lid on a trashcan and out of it rose a piece of metal! A fragment of that bullet had formed a cyst and worked its way out of her body! I kept that tiny thing for years, along with a natural pearl I'd found in an oyster one Christmas – but it was lost last winter in a fit of cleaning up after the holidays.
In the past 18 months Priss seemed to have aged a lot. She couldn't jump up into the big bed. She grew a little deaf. She stayed curled up beneath her favorite bush by the front door. Her face grew grey. She still ran fast and hard across the fields and through the woods. She still walked 3 miles for every mile I walked. And on Sunday we took her for a nice long walk down the New Path. I had a library function that afternoon and came home around dinnertime. BD usually feeds the dogs and it was a hot afternoon, so I never noticed, and thus, never asked, about Priss. I figured she was in the cool beneath her bush out front.
But Monday morning she wasn't there waiting to come in for her biscuit. This was not like her and I was a little concerned, though not unduly – because, after all, we live in the country. All sorts of interesting things, smells, sounds, can tempt a dog away from the front door. When I got home, though, I asked Himself if he'd seen her and, at first he said yes, but after a moment's thought he said he hadn't seen her all day. We looked around the yard, and in the hideyholes that our dogs retreat to if they're upset about something – but no Priss. Tuesday morning she still wasn't in her spot by the front door and while I was at work BD went searching for her.
And he found her. Lying in Jacob's Gut – on the north side, where she likes to stop for a drink when we take long walks, out to the mile point or even beyond to Robert's Landing. Her back half was paralyzed and she had obviously been there some time. My darling man picked her up and gently placed her on the road while he went back to get the truck. When he got her home he fed her and she ate and drank but she was still immobile. He took her down to the clinic and dear Dr.L gave him the bad news. I hurried over to be in on the conference. Was it cancer? A slipped disc? Was there anything that could be done? An MRI? Surgery? Almost 3 days in paralysis already? Minimal to no chance of recovery? A wheeled cart strapped to her waist? Diapers?
Each word was a bullet into my own heart. My Priss – so wild. So independent. So generous to have loved us and trusted us after such a rocky start? Poked and prodded and cut and strapped by strangers? She had had a life of good doggness. I wasn't about to rob her of the dignity of a gentle ending. And neither was the softer, kinder, more tender half of this marriage. Instead, we loved our Priss all the way to the end – without a tear or a sad sound in our voices, until she had fallen into her final deep sleep. And then we could sob and we are sobbing still. But we aren't regretting a thing. Only savoring the grief that must come with love. Even my sadness feels - almost good – because it is so very right.
Oh Priss. I love you. I loved you the moment I saw you. I loved you for 11 wonderful years. I will love you as long as I live. Wait for me up ahead and we'll take a walk down heaven's country lane once again.