True Grit

My first encounter with the little chow-mix dog did not exactly go as planned. Aloof to the point of chilly, unresponsive to all invitations, skinny and filthy beyond belief, Paris, as she was then known, seemed at first blush to be pretty much a dud.

And this was a problem. The girlfriend had talked her up as the perfect choice for my mom, heartbroken after the recent, unexpected loss of her own dog of many years. So on the strength of this personal recommendation we made the four-hour trek to her mother’s place in East Texas, where Paris had been deposited by some well-meaning acquaintance. At the time Carolyn and I had not known each other very long, and her apparently serious lapse of judgement had put us all in a very awkward position. What in the world have you gotten me into? was all I could think.

The backstory on the grubby little cur was mostly unknown. For at least a few months she had lived as a wild animal, surviving on whatever she could kill or scavenge. A series of good-hearted strangers had taken stabs at domesticating her, but the stubborn beast would have none of it. A consummate escape artist, she could exploit the tiniest opening, and always managed to get away. And after two or three escapes her would-be rescuers would, quite sensibly, lose interest and let her go. But if the yard where Paris now found herself had any weak spots, she had not yet uncovered them. So for the moment she was trapped. And most definitely not in a cooperative frame of mind.

Not wanting to give up without a fight, I persisted with the sullen little she-dog. Eventually, I made the right gestures or said the right words in the right tone of voice, and something in her clicked. With very obvious deliberation, Paris made the decision that I was worth a shot, and let herself be approached. After a few minutes of introduction, she submitted without complaint to a thorough washing, no minor thing given that her thick and heavy fur was so thoroughly caked with layers of grime that there was probably more dirt than dog. After an hour or so of sustained effort, in the process exhausting the contents of a jumbo-sized bottle of shampoo, a completely different animal emerged. Something about the act of washing Paris had rekindled her dormant sociability, and in an instant all of my reservations about her simply vanished.

With minimal urging she hopped into the back seat, and immediately made herself right at home. After a few minutes absorbing the novelty of this new situation she settled down and went to sleep. And for the the entire ride home she scarcely moved. I half-seriously wondered once or twice if she had quietly expired.

Mom had stubbornly insisted that she wanted no further part of any dog after the agony of losing the last one. But I know her well enough to accurately assess when an emphatic “No” actually means “Yes please,” a judgement that was unambiguously vindicated when, upon meeting Paris for the first time, Mom lit up in a way I hadn’t seen in years. No dummy, the curious little canine figured out double quick who was who and what was what. And that was that. “I’m home,” Paris must have thought, in whatever way dogs conceptualize such things.

In a way they were meant for each other, Mom and Paris. Both were survivors, both would have struck you as rather distant, even cold, until eventually you understood that their aloofness was actually a form of emotional armor. Both were highly intelligent, sensitive creatures who had been rather roughly treated by life, and when this happens you tend to erect defenses.

As a symbolic break with the old discarded life, Mom ruled that the name “Paris” had to go. For a day or two she struggled to find just the right handle, finally defaulting to “Princess,” mostly because of its audible similarity to the old name. This seemed trite to me, if not downright cringeworthy, and I said so. But trite or not the name stuck, and Paris became Princess with the same ease with which her old, feral life had fallen away.

It didn’t take very long at all to figure out how she had managed to survive on her own. Silent, stealthy, and lethally quick, Princess was a ferocious little hunter who could dispatch and consume a squirrel in about the length of time it takes to read this sentence. And thanks to years of lackadaisical wildlife management by the yard’s previous occupant, a thoroughly domesticated, prissy little layabout named Ginger, there were lots of them roaming about, fat and unwary, very much accustomed to treating Mom’s yard as their own private domain. They probably never even knew what hit them.

After a period of settling in, Princess began escaping again. For months, night and day, with obsessive regularity she would embark on some fresh exploit. She was sneaky and cunning about it, so you usually didn’t see it coming. It would suddenly occur to you that you hadn’t seen her for a while, think oh shit, and sure enough, she’d be gone. For a time, whenever I saw a call incoming from “Mom,”  I knew there was a pretty good chance that the subject would be “Princess got out again.” And of course I would drop whatever I was doing to tend to this important filial responsibility.

The first step would always be to walk the fenceline to locate her escape route, so that I would know roughly which way she was headed. Often this required a pretty keen eye, and more than once I had to retrace my steps a couple of times before finally spotting it, some barely visible, impossibly tiny opening. And each time I would think No way, and shake my head with a mixture of disbelief and grudging admiration.

Mom’s yard was surrounded by other fenced yards so Princess typically didn’t get very far. She could easily have kept on going, but never did, being perfectly content to tarry wherever she found herself until somebody, almost always me, came and got her. She never resisted recapture, and received each exasperated scolding mildly, her face invariably bearing an expression that seemed to say I win ha ha. My patience had worn pretty thin when, after a restless year or so, she apparently decided that the point had been made and abruptly quit trying.

The defining physical trait of the odd little chow dog was, perhaps, her absurdly prodigious furriness. It seemed overkill, not to mention a pointless waste of metabolic energy, considering that she lived in a place not exactly known for arctic cold. Being excessively supplied with insulation, overheating was a very real possibility. So to keep Princess within proper thermal bounds we treated her to regular trimmings, usually about once a quarter. It was like shearing sheep. You could have knitted a sweater, maybe two, from the product of an average harvest.

But her defining behavioral trait was stubbornness. Hang-tough, not-gonna-you-can’t-make-me stubbornness. If you approached her the wrong way, that is. If you engaged her as a lord does a serf, you got nothing but attitude. But if you met her a respectful halfway, she could be all yours.

This stubbornness was more blessing than curse in her later years. Because like a lot of overbred dogs, Princess did not age very well. As the years went by she piled up more than her share of aches, pains, and infirmities. But the little chow never complained, and always powered through the pain like it wasn’t even there.

Like a lot of chow types, Princess effected a more or less permanent squint. So it was probably a couple of years or more after their initial onset that I actually noticed the cataracts. I suspected something might be up when she started ignoring, seemingly, the wildlife on her turf, something that at one time would have been unthinkable. By the time she began bumping into things it was clear there was a problem. These were not the garden-variety cataracts, either, the kind that every mammal gets if it lives long enough. These were Hollywood-grade beauties. It looked as though she was wearing opaque contact lenses. I was reminded of the nameless Master in Kung Fu, the cheesy 1970s television series.

True to form, Princess ignored this new normal. With alarming regularity she would charge head-first into walls and furniture, each time yelping with pain and surprise, only to do it again moments later, as though she expected these permanent fixtures of her world to yield, somehow, to stubborn persistence.

Somewhere along the way she developed a limp in one of her hind legs. The limp spread to her other hind leg and worsened, and in a very short time Princess lost the ability to stand or walk unaided. Mystified, her vet offered up a series of remedies, all unsuccessful.

Bloodied but unbowed, the little dog struggled valiantly against this unaccustomed inability, day after day, week after week, the textbook definition of “grit.” Like a fuzzy Terminator, she would not give up. It was inspiring and heartbreaking all at once. As a last-ditch effort, I hired a pet physical therapist, who despite intense effort made only minor headway. It had to hurt like bloody hell, yet the little chow never complained.

Eventually and with the utmost reluctance, I admitted defeat, and surrendered to the apparent reality that the tough little dog had reached the end of the road. All that remained was the final, terrible trek to that place of no return, where the somber man with the needle would be waiting.

And then something quite unexpected happened. One day, after months of immobility, after a thousand failed attempts, at the very threshold of her execution, the little dog simply willed herself to walk again. I was there when it happened. And if I live to be a thousand I will never forget it.

Somehow, after months of trying and failing, she had a breakthrough. With a herculean effort, she crested that insurmountable hump, found her feet, and stood on her own, wobbly as a newborn calf yet triumphant. Slowly, carefully, systematically, the dauntless little chow mastered all over again the mechanics of quadruped locomotion: right front, left rear, left front, right rear; repeat. There were some kinks at first, and for a time she seemed to have trouble plotting a proper course. But within a few days she had it all figured out, and was able to move about on her own once again. It was marvelous to behold, and every one of us who watched it happen felt as though we had witnessed some kind of miracle.

But these stories always end the same way. Sooner or later our beloved companions depart from us. They share our space and our lives  for a time and then are gone, leaving an aching void. It always comes too soon. And if I ever get the chance to meet God, I’m going to ask Him: Why? Why a hundred and fifty years for a tortoise, a charmless lump, but only fifteen or so–if we’re lucky–for our dogs, these nearly perfect beings, so joyful, so intensely aware, and so very, very alive?

After a mercifully brief final decline, with her favorite persons lingering nearby, Princess quietly left this life and went to wherever it is that sentient beings in this Universe go at the end of their physical run. I returned her to the earth at a favorite backyard spot, a place shady in summer, sunny in winter, with  a good breeze most days. As dreadful tasks go, it went tolerably well. Recent soaking rains had softened the usually brick-hard soil so that it yielded easily to my labors.

I have become unreasonably good at burying dogs. This is a skill I would very much rather not have. I blame my handyman Steve and his brother Ernest, who years ago taught me the proper technique: Loosen first with the pick, come in after with the shovel, swing high and follow through on the roots. I finished the grim deed in record time, and they would have been proud of me. Would have been because both are gone now themselves, Steve succumbing to a dumb-luck freak accident, Ernest following a few months later. Broken heart, near as anyone could tell. I wonder sometimes if, perhaps, from some infinitely distant yet close-by vantage point they, and a certain tough and resilient little chow dog, watched it all and approved.

 

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