By: Audra Coleman
My dog died yesterday. Last morning I found her standing at the back door with a heaviness I had never seen before. She looked so, so tired… her head hanging low. We both knew. That very same night I had dreamt she was attacked by a pride of lions, and while I was desperately trying to save her life by stitching her back together, a dear friend of mine appeared in the dream. She gently scolded me. “She chose to go in this way. Respect her choice.” I don’t know what the lions symbolized; maybe I don’t need to know. I understood the message. So I opened the door.
But that is where our journey together ended. It was thirteen years ago when she became my dog and I her human. My dad had rescued her off of death row in a pound in rural Missouri on a simple hunch that she and I would be a “fit.” Evidently, as a young puppy her previous owner had been an older woman who managed a pretty seedy trailer park on the rougher side of town. She had given the dog to her live-in, young granddaughter who had named her Magentler, some kind of variant originating from “my gentle” dog. The story goes the woman had cited and fined several of the residents for letting their dogs run wild around the park. Well, as it turns out, the young Magentler was pretty adept at jumping fences and the formerly persecuted residents were sure as hell not going to stand for that kind of hypocrisy. She was forced to give up the dog.
When my dad gave her to me, she wasn’t quite one year old. She was a mix of Chow, Shar Pei, and a little “stranger in the night.” Even though she was black, I named her Sugar. For the first several weeks, I kept asking her impatiently to tell me what name she desired for herself. While waiting to hear back from her, I had defaulted to calling her Sugar, as kind of an interim nickname. When I asked her for the last time, and she looked at me like I might be slightly obtuse, I finally realized that was the name she wanted all along… and so it was.
Oh my, when she was young all it would take was one playful sideways glance and a slight feint forward from me, and she would rip roar around the corners of the house, fly over the back of the couch and throw her big old booty up in the air before flopping herself down on the floor with a thud and a good roll on her back, all four paws flying every which way. Years ago, my own mom admonished me that I needed to have a baby, a real human baby, when I told her I had missed her call because Sugar and I were playing hide and seek. That dog traveled all over the United States in the back of a Jeep and later a VW. She chased squirrels with the spirit of Artemis, finally catching one and bringing it back to me. She suffered a pretty nasty gash on her nose as the squirrel did not “go gently into the good night.” She was both bleeding and panting heavily, but God was she proud. She was also pretty pleased with herself that every day for thirteen years she had kept those persistent intruders we humans call United Postal workers from approaching any further than our mailbox. She had done her job.
Children stepped on her, babies pinched her, maintenance men came and went, but I never saw her show her teeth except twice. In her early years we lived in a first-floor apartment in Indianapolis. I was sound asleep in bed when in the early hours I heard a menacing bark from her that was distinctly different from any bark I had ever heard her emit. When I came to investigate, a clearly intoxicated man was attempting to crawl in the window and there was brave Sugar, keeping him at bay until the man fled as I called the police. The only other time was when I was walking her downtown in Asheville. While waiting to cross the street, a man reached down to pet her. I didn’t know the stranger, but her judgment was impeccable and good enough for me. I figure both times she may have literally saved my life or at least prevented some traumatic event from occurring.
I could fill a notebook with the memories we made together. But it was more than just memories. She was smart, intuitive and compassionate, but most impressive was her spirit. She had HEART, the heart of a lion. She never left my side, both literally and figuratively. She was always a step behind me, room to room, inside-outside. She slept with me or beside me every night and a shut door was not going to deter her. I had quite the argument with a passionate French man I once dated over whether or not a dog belonged in the bed. A year ago I moved my bed downstairs to the living room, as it was obvious her arthritis was making the climb up the stairs to the bedroom an arduous one. But she made it clear, she was going to sleep beside me, even if she had to climb and descend those stairs every day. She was so tuned into me that I could wake up in the morning and open my eyes without making a sound and she would eerily sit up at the exact moment and look at me as if to say, “Good Morning, Friend.” I could be in another room and start to silently cry and within minutes she would be pushing the door open staring at me with those benevolent eyes wanting to sit beside me until I pulled it together. She was never too busy, too tired, too anything to be distracted from her love and devotion to me.
But perhaps her most charitable act came in her last year of life. Last year I became pregnant at age thirty-eight, and, as it turned out somewhat unexpectedly, I would go through the pregnancy on my own. I felt alone, humbled and at times afraid. She was thirteen, and for a big dog, that is pretty damn old, but I am certain she stayed around to see me through. On March 27th I delivered a healthy baby girl. She greeted the baby with the same tenderness she had always shown me, but it seemed that in those three days I had spent in the hospital, she had aged another five years. Even still, she wasn’t going to leave me until I had found my groove with the baby, until she was sure I was okay. In these last weeks, I would stroke her head after the baby was asleep and thank her, telling her she had done her job and that she had done it well. She had, in fact, seen me through. She could go on if she was ready.
All these years I had imagined myself as her mother, but truth be told, she was mothering me all along. She offered me unconditional love. She loved me when my heart was broken and I was too depressed to get out of bed. She loved me when I was too busy or too preoccupied with life to take her on the walk I know she craved. She forgave me instantly a thousand times. This whole time, she was teaching me how to be a good mother.
After I opened the door, I phoned a friend who rushed over to watch the baby so I could sit beside my other girl. I found her nestled on the edge of the garden lying next to a sprawling pink rose bush in full bloom. It was drizzling lightly. She liked the rain. Although labored, she was still breathing. I sat beside her, petting her lightly. I thanked her again and told her it was okay. I was okay. I believe she was waiting for me to say goodbye because she knew the pain I would suffer if I knew she had died alone. That is how generous she was in life, and even in death, right up until the very end. And in her last breath, we let go of each other. She died a good death.
It has only been a day. Her bowls are still in the kitchen, her milk bones in the jar and her new bed is still lying on the floor beside the Diaper Genie. I still think she is right behind me. I still think I can call her name and she will find me. I can still feel her put her head in my lap. I don’t know when all that will stop. I don’t know if I even want it to stop. I know some people won’t understand. They will think she was just a dog; I don’t know what they mean. In all my thirty-nine years, she is the best friend I’ve ever had, animal or human. She was family. She was my family.
Audra Coleman lives in West Asheville and is currently devoting her energy to enjoying and learning the art of mothering. firstname.lastname@example.org