My family has always loved animals. When I married my husband, he had a cat named Henry, a white miniature poodle named Sandy, a hamster, Daisy Mae, and three horses, Diablo, Freckles and Eben. I didn’t have a pet at the time, though I’d been owned by several dogs and a couple of cats while growing up. Henry stayed at John’s parents’ house, Sandy moved in with us, Daisy Mae died and was replaced by another hamster, Flip, and we sold the three horses because as newlyweds, we couldn’t really afford to keep them, nor did John have the time needed to care for them properly. That was a tough call for him.
Our first daughter, Courtney, was born three years into our marriage, and she and Sandy became great friends. During the next ten years, we would add another daughter, Kerry, a black lab named Max, an aging cockatiel, Baretta, who had to be given up by his elderly owner, and a son, David. Kids and animals mingled happily through our home.
Sandy lived to be 17 1/2. She died of a heart attack in John’s arms while Courtney (then in the fourth or fifth grade) stood nearby. It was traumatic for both of them, and sad for the whole family because Sandy had been so much a part of our lives for so long. Only a few months later, we lost Max to a tick-borne disease. He was 9. Baretta followed them not long afterward, and for the first time in our family history, we were pet-less. Heartbroken at losing all the pets so close together, my husband and I agreed that we didn’t want any more for a while. With three children now all in school and leading busy lives, and our own careers taking so much time, it just didn’t seem worth the investment of time, money and affection.
A couple of years later, a stray dog appeared in our yard again. Maybe a year old, he had mange (demadectic mange, our vet would later tell us — the expensive kind), was dirty and tick-ridden, and looked to have been hit by a car at some point, because one leg was a little crooked. Courtney — in middle school then — took one look at the smallish, beagle-mix mutt and fell in love. She named him Charlie. She told us that she had been praying for another dog. Well, that pretty much did it. I said to John that if someone we knew had offered us a dog, we could have said no, but since God sent this one, I guess he was now ours.
Several very expensive mange treatments later, Charlie was completely healthy. A sweet-natured, very loving dog, he would have been the perfect pet, except for one flaw. He chased cars. He was one of those dogs who got right at the wheel of the vehicle (he had a special hatred for UPS trucks) and was undoubtedly going to be run over again if he continued. Our property is not fenced, and he was never going to be an in-house dog, so we bought a large pen. He lived in that for a couple of years, being taken out for walks and to play with the kids in the afternoon, but it wasn’t an ideal situation. We tried everything to train him, even the obedience school where our brilliant black lab, Max, had passed with flying colors, but the school owner advised us not to waste our money. Charlie was never going to stop chasing cars.
My father-in-law passed away in October of 1994, and my mother-in-law stayed in their home alone. The obvious solution came to us a few months later; she has a huge, fenced back yard, and an outside laundry room and green room that already had a doggie door installed for a previous pet of hers. Charlie moved to “Mimi’s” house. He loved it there. Lots of yard to run, with trees for shade and squirrels for chasing. A warm, dry room to sleep in (once he mastered the doggie door). Neighbors who slipped him treats through the fence. A doggie friend, Pooter, who lived in the yard behind my mother-in-law’s, and with whom Charlie spent hours running happily up and down the fenceline. He provided company for my mother-in-law, and a little extra security to her home security system, since he barked whenever strangers approached. His new home was perfect for him.
Because he was still “our dog” and we didn’t want all the responsibility to fall on my mother-in-law, someone from our family went by almost every day to visit Charlie, feed and water him, give him his daily seizure meds (he also had epilepsy when he joined us) and monthly heartworm pills. With our daughters grown and pursuing careers, and our son in college, that now-daily chore fell almost exclusively to my husband, though David helped many weekends and during the summer. (After several bad, bone-breaking falls, John’s mother now uses a walker and is somewhat housebound, so he goes by her place every day, anyway, to take care of a few household chores for her). For more than ten years, Charlie has been a fixture at “Mimi’s” house, happy, fat, indulged — and barking safely at cars and UPS trucks from inside a sturdy fence.
Just as the years are catching up with all of us, they began to make their mark on Charlie. His vision and hearing declined, and arthritis slowed his movements. He spent less time running the fence and barking, and more time lying contentedly in the sun. He still enjoyed the vanilla wafers the neighbor gave him in the afternoons, and the sliced weiners in which his pills were smuggled. And he still loved to be petted.
On Monday, April 20, after a year of mostly good days and some bad days, we had to make the very difficult decision to let Charlie go when he was no longer able to stand and walk on his own. John and I took him to our very kind veterinarian. She agreed that the time had come, and John and I told him goodbye with tears in our eyes. We estimated that Charlie was over 17 years old. He’d had a long, adventurous, and happy life.
The hardest part about having pets is that they just don’t live as long as humans. Yes, they’re also expensive and time-consuming and messy — but those drawbacks pale in comparison to the pain of losing them. We still have Izzie, the stray cat I’ve posted about before who adopted us more than ten years ago, and who keeps me company every day while I write. I don’t even want to think about the time when she’ll inevitably leave us.
It’s always tempting to say never again — but then I look at how much pleasure Charlie brought our family during his lifetime, and how lucky Charlie was to have found an extended family to love him and take care of him. One of my writer idols, Dean Koontz, has written about this very topic of animal companions; by protecting ourselves from pain or loss, we can miss out on many pleasures along the way (he’s an animal lover, himself, and lost a beloved golden retriever during recent years). I’m certainly grateful to have Izzie purring at my feet right now as I type this. I’ll try to remember to enjoy every day I spend with her, and I hope there are many more to come.
So, here’s to Charlie, now waiting at the Rainbow Bridge with Sandy and Max and Henry and Baretta and Spooky and Daisy Mae and Flip and Boomer and Kanski and the many other animals that have enriched my and my family’s lives through the years. Thanks for being such good friends to us all.