I’m reading Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind. She says beginning writers are literal, logical in their writing. In her words, “They need to loosen up.” She hit the nail on the head. This is the crux of many challenges for me. I’ve always been literal in my thinking, my problem-solving, my speaking, my writing.
I take what someone says, or what they’ve written, exactly as it’s imparted. This can get complicated when someone speaks generally, makes a joke, or throws in some irony, just to spice things up. I can be very gullible, as much as I keep my radar switched on. This limit exists in my writing. So…Natalie suggests writing from a different perspective. Perhaps your dog’s.
So this one is for the dogs.
This one is for Cracker.
I was born last. You said when you first laid eyes on me, we were all nursing, lined up like Easter Peeps, one marshmallow pressed against another. We passed out sporadically, our bellies full, before waking up to nurse again. This is how it went.
I was the smallest by far, even smaller than my two sisters. It was easy to tell who was who, even though we were the same black with the hint of a tan mask, tan toes. My brother was twice the size of us all. The strong one. The two sisters were petite, like twins. Then there was me.
My life was perfect. My mom loved us, and her mom who took care of us, loved us too. As we grew, we spent our time eating, then sleeping, playing, eating some more, playing some more, and sleeping yet again.
One day, she carried us outdoors, two in each hand. She knelt down and set us in the cool grass. The world was much bigger than I had ever imagined. My legs buckled at the vastness. Sitting there, the sun warmed my face for the first time. Eventually I slid apart until my belly rested against the smooth blades. I flipped over, scratching my back. A tiny growl erupted as I jerked back and forth, my belly poking one way, my legs kicking the other.
There are some things a dog is just born knowing how to do.
One day, the mom picked me up and carried me to her car. I curled up on her lap and went to sleep. I didn’t know what we were doing. When the car stopped, she unbuckled her seat belt and picked me up, opening the door. She had tears running down her face. I was scared. Why was she crying?
She held me up and handed me over, wiping away her tears. You put both of your hands out, scooping me up, holding me high on your chest. Burying your face in the scruff of my neck, you soaked up my scent, that earthy, sweet smell all puppies have.
You spoke your first words to me. You said, “You were the last puppy. Everyone was spoken for, but you. I don’t know why it happened like this. It’s as if God saved you just for me, like it was written in the stars.”
Of course, you didn’t say those things out loud. I heard it in your heart, beating close to your skin, as you held me to your chest.
That was the day I became your dog.
It was the beginning of our journey together. You climbed back in the car, placing me on your lap, and wiped the corner of your eyes before the tears broke loose. I didn’t understand humans at all. They cried when they were sad, and they cried when they were happy. Confused and exhausted from the day’s events, I closed my eyes and went to sleep.
When we got home, I met the other dog who lived there. Another terrier, you called him “The Bad Terrier.” He wasn’t very nice, but I quickly learned you would protect me. That’s how I got the pass to sleep in bed at night, because “The Bad Terrier” couldn’t be trusted, even then. Every night you picked me up and placed me on the bed. I dove under the covers and crawled all the way to the bottom. I slept there all night, stretched out against your leg, or tucked behind the crook of your knee.
We drove to the farm every day. Luckily, “The Bad Terrier” didn’t go with us. There were a lot of horses there. You spent all of your time talking to them. They weren’t very smart. Stupid horses. I never understood, but you looked at them the same way you looked at me, your eyes glazed over in happiness, your heart brimming with love. This, when they were about as loyal as the leaves on a tree!
I realized then, this was a dog’s job in life, my job in life, to go where you went, on your journey, by your side, without understanding the why of it all. Humans hardly know why they do the things they do, so it’s impossible for us to know. It’s our job to shepherd you, to love and protect you, no matter what stupid things you do. Such as spending time with horses.
Only this is a dog’s job.
So you messed with those horses all day long, and I waited. A couple of cats lived at the barn. They were a lot better to spend time with than “The Bad Terrier,” not as contrarian. Both yellow and striped, they helped pass the time.
One day, you came around the corner and I was clutched around the older one. It was new for me to be in charge of something, even if they were twice the size of me, instead of “The Bad Terrier,” who bossed me around endlessly. Finally, I was the one in charge! Plus, I was horny all of the time. I couldn’t stop. You called it my “teenage years.”
One day, we got in the car, at this point I could jump in myself, and we drove not to the barn, but to another place. You picked me up and took me inside and left me there. Pretty soon I fell asleep. When I woke up, something was stinging me. I looked around, but I was by myself in a small cage, and I didn’t know where I was. I was so scared I started screaming, and crying, and howling. It was terrible. Eventually, someone showed up.
Shaking her head, she said, “How can such a little dog make so much noise.”
The audacity of it all!
She picked me up, I was still stinging, and handed me to a girl sitting at a desk. I wondered where you were and I decided I was going to ignore you when you showed up. I curled up on her lap and went to sleep. When you got there, they woke me. I was so happy to see you, I forgot I was mad. I decided to put it behind us. It was my job, as a good dog, to forgive you. Despite your good heart, I’ve got to tell you, you were a real lesson in patience sometimes.
I forgave you a lot.
Now standing behind the desk, the girl laughed, telling you the story of how I had demanded their attention. Such a big voice for a little dog! Secretly, she loved me, even if she was complaining about me. Humans are complicated like that, just like the crying. I didn’t tell her, the feeling was not mutual.
Who puts a dog in a cage?!
You chuckled, then said, “No dog belongs in a cage, especially not a puppy, especially not Cracker, and if you hadn’t picked him up, and I had shown up and he was screaming in the back, you’d have wished you had never met me!”
Of course, you didn’t actually say those words out loud, but I heard them in your heart, as you held me against your chest.
This is a dog’s greatest superpower.
I was a sore for a couple of days, but I was young and bounced back. It didn’t take long before you found me with the cats again. You were disappointed. That little operation hadn’t changed a thing. It takes more to change a terrier’s mind, and mine was set on those cats. My teenage years never quite ended. They just slowed down and lost traction as the years went by. I began to mellow.
We moved around a lot. The cats went with us, and the horses, but luckily, that was the end of “The Bad Terrier.” He stayed parked in the rear view mirror where he belonged. There were new farms, new horses, other dogs, other people, but it was the same everywhere we went. We followed those damn horses where they took us. I never could understand it. They ran through fences, ran down the middle of the road, routinely dumped you, broke each other’s legs in the field, and got upset tummys as sure as the sun would set.
What did you see in them?
How are they not extinct?
Horses are a losing proposition. The only time they were useful was when we went to a show. I jumped out of the truck and off I went. All the new dogs I met, new people patting me on the head. I checked everything out for a while taking my time. Eventually I narrowed down where the kitchen was. There was always one somewhere.
The smell of hot bubbly grease and steaming meat, hamburgers and hot dogs to be exact, was the best smell in the world. I usually made out with leftovers of some kind. I never worried about where you were while I was scouting. You were busy messing with those horses. You said you weren’t worried about me either because you’d hear “Oh my God, who’s that? Is that Cracker?! Oh my God, you are the cutest thing ever! Cracker!!” and then you’d know exactly where I was.
Sometimes, when the kitchen was far away from where the horses were set-up, I’d get nabbed by a trickster. They’d bend over petting me, tell me how cute I was, and then they’d whisk me off to jail. I was easily seduced and never saw it coming. I didn’t mind it though. I was always with someone, and they were happy to have me around. You sent the girls to collect me, convinced they wouldn’t ask a poor working student to post bail. Sometimes it worked. Most of the time they had to pull the checkbook out of their back pocket, the check already marked with your signature.
It got a little expensive there for a while.
I loved the group walk we always did on these weekends. All of us going along for hours, up and down the hills. You silly people would stop now and then, scratching your heads, talking low, looking serious. Sometimes you’d take off your shoes and socks, rolling up your jeans, to walk through the pond. Being a dog is so much easier. We just run through the water. It was as simple as that.
Occasionally a couple of the groups would collide. I’d use the opportunity for a detour and head off with the others. You were always offended, accusing me of “shopping around for a better deal,” but it wasn’t that. Usually I knew someone, or someone’s dog, and it was purely a social opportunity.
It couldn’t be all about the horses, all of the time, sheesh.
I networked my way across hill n’ dale at the horse shows. It didn’t hurt any to keep you on your toes, make sure you didn’t take me for granted, which I knew, sometimes you did.
(To be honest, I knew everyone at these things. I’m just trying to not rub it in. Detours were happy accidents for the both of us, you just didn’t know it.)
We always packed up at the end of a weekend and went back home, horses in tow, though sometimes home changed as well. We’d land at a new barn, with new dogs, new people, and maybe a different cat, except for that one long dry spell when there were no cats. You held out hope I would forget the dirty dance I did with them, and truth be told, I almost did.
But then you got Kitten, who wasn’t yellow, but black and white this time, and it all came right back. All those years and the cats never fussed, proof of a terrier’s superiority. In case you don’t know, the hierarchy went like this:
#4) The Dogs.
#5) The Cats.
#6) The Horses.
#7) “The Bad Terrier.”
One time, I heard someone say, “Terriers are shaped like a football for a reason.” I think this was in reference to me. They didn’t understand there are two types of terriers: good terriers and bad terriers, just like there are two types of people: smart ones and dumb ones.
Guess which group that person belonged to?
I wanted to do him a favor and pinch him on the ankle to get the blood flowing back to his brain, but I decided, there are some people you just can’t help. Besides, trying to save you from yourself every single day was taxing enough.
As I got older, I slowed down. Spending time outdoors in the winter became harder. I slept late and lingered longer under the covers. Some days you dove in and chased me, grabbing for a spare leg, before carrying me to the car. At least you had the decency to leave it running with the heat on after we arrived. You’d peek through the window every couple of hours to check on me, but I’d curl up tighter and close my eyes pretending I didn’t see you. People just shook their heads.
They asked, “How much is all that gas costing you?”
You just smiled and never said a word.
By noon, the chill would have parted for the sunbeams, and I’d stand up and stretch, standing on the door handle, my wet nose pressed against the glass. You’d open the door, sometimes leaning over from the back of a horse, already thick in your day. Jumping down, my day was just getting started.
One day you brought an electric blanket to the tack room, which helped on the coldest days. That was the same winter the barn and house were next to each other, so it made more sense to trot back home after morning constitutions around the farm. I stood on the front steps, staring at the door. I’d growl and back up a couple of steps, before throwing my head back in full yip, one after the other, my front toes popping off the ground every time. You accused me of being old and confused, thinking you were magically in the house, and not at the barn where I left you.
Silly girl, I knew you were at the barn, but it got you to the house, didn’t it?
Soon after, there were no more horses. We didn’t go to the barn anymore, which was fine by me. I liked being in the house where the temperature was always just right. The hardest part during that time, besides you being a nervous wreck, was not having Darby.
She was my best friend.
I remember when she came to live with us.
You said, “Cracker, I got you a girlfriend. She’s really tall, so there will be no competition for my lap. Only you get to sleep there.”
I did not think this was a good idea. At all. But she showed up nonetheless, and I taught her the ropes. Imagine, a sighthound loose on hundreds of acres! But she came when you called her, because I always came no matter whose name you were bellowing, and she followed me everywhere.
Every now and then she’d get a little full of her britches and take off running back to the barn from the arena. The barn sat up high on the hill and the driveway was long to get there. That bitch was fast. I hate to say, it’s the only time I envied her, that silly looking dog covered in stripes with her needle nose, legs like a praying mantis, her body long and thin.
One time we were standing by the barn when Darby took off down the hill towards the arena, so naturally, I took off after her. Before I knew it, the sighthound was out of sight. You said later we both disappeared over the hill before you saw Darby come back up the other side. You spotted the deer she was after.
The deer leaped through the air easy-breezy before they realized that sighthound was on them. (I was still nowhere to be seen). Then those deer got stupid because they got scared. She ran on their heels pretty good before their senseless zigzagging ended with them darting over the fence line. Darby doubled back when she reached the end of the property, loping along, tongue wagging off the side. That’s when you saw me, yip yippin’, running up the hill as fast as I could, which was pretty fast I have to say, just not Darby fast.
She was spectacular across the countryside.
Then there was the time you piled all this stuff on the couch and pushed the coffee table against its edge to keep Darby off while you were gone for a few hours. You came home to cushions strewn across the floor, and claw marks every which way, like a bad abstract pencil sketch, across the top of the coffee table. You were pissed, but honestly, you should have seen it. She had all four feet on the table before she discovered it was slick. All of those long legs scrambling, like a cartoon character, slip sliding everywhere.
Another time you left to do something in the barn and came home to find the entire lasagna eaten out of the pan sitting on the counter. Nothing else was out of place. The pan was in the exact spot you left it, licked clean. You looked at both of us like, “Which one of you did this???,” hands on your hips, but really, was there ever any question?
Darby made me look good.
(That was hard to do, I was already really good, especially for a terrier.)
Remember the time she thought it was a good idea to jump on the roof of the barn from the deck? Once again, she scribbled an abstract sketch with her claws, this time using chalk, as the roof was covered in a thin layer of frost.
You hit the bottle after that one. Who could blame you? I thought she was a goner too, but she wasn’t. She was just fine.
Yep, Darby made me look even better than I was already.
She could run really fast, and she could reach the lasagna, but she couldn’t fit on your lap, or in the front seat, or under the covers. As it turns out, you were right. I was grateful for the spaces where only I could fit, and I was grateful for Darby’s friendship, too.
With no horses around anymore, I became an indoor dog. I had long given up the cats, and other dogs too. If they weren’t my size and my age…well…I just looked the other way. I socialized with dogs who moved the same speed and that’s it. I had been rolled pretty hard a couple years before by a stranger. I stood up quivering and scared, confused. The young pup hit me like a cyclone. I didn’t know what happened.
As a Jack Russell, I got rolled plenty in my time by other dogs, including Darby when she ran over the top of me. They found it good sport. Until I got back on my feet, anyway. No one could fathom a twelve pound Cujo, but that’s what happened.
The youngster didn’t mean any harm, but it was a turning point in our relationship, you and me. When you scooped me up, you were shaking too. You held me firmly against your chest, to steady the both of us, I think. You didn’t cry, but I heard your heart break into a million little pieces. You whispered in my ear, “That will never, ever, happen again, my little friend. I am so sorry. I will never let any dog hurt you ever again.”
And you didn’t. We had switched places then. Now it was you who shepherded me. You became my eyes, my ears. When I slowed down, you slowed down too, matching my step. People were always in a hurry on the sidewalks and you shielded me when I stopped, which I did a lot.
You made them go around.
I started to sleep more during the week, while you were at work, which was fine by me. On the weekends, you carried me around, either in your arms or in a backpack. This was an improvement to the bags I was zipped in countless times, going in and out of hotels at the horse shows.
One day, you found a lump. It was on my neck, not a little one, but a big one. It made my collar tight. The vet called it a “Mast Cell Tumor.” He said it wasn’t exactly cancer, but kind of. You went home, of course, and consulted Dr. Google. You learned Mast Cells are the Delta Force of Operation Cancer. These highly-skilled soldiers swarm their target, ruthless and undetected. No one knows they’re there, until they start shooting.
In two weeks, it went from bad to worse. Not only were The Mast Cells winning the battle, but they were winning the war too. You cried a lot those two weeks.
We ended up right where we began.
You lifted me carefully into your arms, only the tears streamed down your face this time, twisted in anguish. You wailed. The pain sapped the marrow from deep inside your bones, washing over the blood in your veins. I was in pain, too, and you knew it.
I want you to know:
The heart sings this song of pain and suffering as a reminder.
It was real.
The path we walked.
Ram Dass said, “We’re just walking each other home.”
Humans are complicated. They need many teachers along the way. This is why our lives are so short and yours are so long. We do our best, and then we must leave, making room.
You’ll have another dog, someday, when you’re ready. In fact, you’ll probably have a few at once, because let’s face it, I was like three dogs bundled together.
That’s going to be hard to replace.
I’m home now.
But I want you to know something else.
When I walked alongside you…
Home was wherever you were.