I wrote this series of essays two years ago, and I publish them here at the request of a friend who just lost her big dog. My sympathies, Anna. He was such a good, sweet boy.
Dogs grieve. I had heard it and understood it, but I’d never seen it before. We stood in the kitchen talking about Reggie, and hearing the name, Pete’s ears perked. I looked him in the eyes and said, “Reggie’s gone”, and had the uncanny sensation that his face had changed. What did he understand? He had been moping; not eating. He ran outside briefly when necessary and ran right back in. No dawdling in the sun, no sniffling where squirrels had been. He didn’t bark when we came home, there was just silence when we opened the door. Pete wasn’t in the mood for cheerful greetings, preferring to hide upstairs.
We realized very quickly that none of us could bear the empty silence of the house with Pete hiding and refusing to eat, and us feeling our own mortality too much. You get tired of crying, and you can’t dwell on death. Another dog was inevitable. We knew, at least, that much.
Since I was a little girl, I have wanted a German Shepherd. I admire them for their bravery and intelligence, their dignity and loyalty. And I think they are beautiful. But the time had never been right to have a dog who would demand so much training and so much attention. With the passing of Reggie I realized that this was my last chance. In the span of another dog’s life I would probably be too old to have such a powerful dog. And maybe as much as anything, I couldn’t bear having another Golden.
I knew from long correspondence the right person to call who specialized in gentle German Shepherds, but the wait would be long. Probably 6-12 months. We sent an e-mail to add our names to the list.
So life-changing things hang upon the large things and the small. And sometimes on the misfortune of others. We all live within some margin of error. At home we joke about how houses and cars always seem to sense that there’s a little extra in the bank, timing their infirmities or demise with the moment when you have something special planned, just as you’re about to get ahead. And when you’ve been saving to buy the German Shepherd puppy you’ve been waiting for since last year, that’s probably about the right time for your furnace to die. And sure enough. Within half an hour of applying we got an e-mail back. “I’ve just had a cancellation. Would you like to pick him up this weekend?” Somewhere in the universe someone named Nick has a shiny new boiler for his furnace. But he will wait for another year to get a puppy.
On the other hand, there is Fate. What made us write then, that night? It was too soon; we weren’t ready yet. There aren’t many weekends in which we have no obligations, but we had nothing planned. And then there was poor Nick and his furnace.
We got up at 5 that Saturday morning and drove the twelve hour round trip to an Iowa farm on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, leaving Pete at home with a friend. It was so remote the GPS didn’t recognize the place. We arrived around noon. Even knowing what I knew about the disposition of these dogs I was a little nervous about getting out of the car while an extremely large German Shepherd with an enormous head barked at us. But when we met, he gently nudged my hand and then leaned against each of us separately like a big cat. We knew who he was. We had seen his picture on the breeder’s website standing shoulder to shoulder with a pony. This was our puppy’s uncle. We met the family: Dad, Mom, Grandma, another uncle, a full brother from another litter, and, of course, the puppies.
His official name is Moses, Prince of Egypt. We call him Moses Mooch. He is mostly black, with red legs and paws, and the beginnings of red markings around his face and inside of his ears. He wasn’t the biggest puppy in the litter, but he had the longest legs. When we brought him home he had two floppy ears, like all German Shepherd puppies. This morning he woke up with one standing straight up, the other still flopping at the tip. He looks like a small puppy rabbit.
Moses bounces in with joy. His mother, his father, and his uncles are gentle giants, so calm and sweet that they make a Golden look like Cujo. He is too young to know about big losses, and he seems delighted to have a new house with a soft blanket and no littermates to eat his dinner. He is curious about sounds. He’s not too keen on sleeping alone, but he is getting the hang of it when he has to. He likes singing: both his own and others’. He chews hair and the tassels on blankets. He chases ice cubes around the kitchen floor, and has learned to sit when he comes in the house. He’s trying really hard not to bite fingers when he plays, although I dreamt the other night that we had a pet crocodile. He has an endearing way of climbing into your lap to snuggle. He has a special affection for the big yellow blanket that probably still smells like Reggie, and from the first moment in the car he curled up in it and went to sleep.
He’s a smart puppy. Today he showed admirable, almost supernatural restraint in resisting the temptation to bite Pete’s tail as it hit him repeatedly in the face. You could see his eyes sparkling at the prospect. Pete snarls, though he is just barely tolerant, like a teenager rolling his eyes. But little by little, Moses creeps up on him. Sometimes with a paw on Pete’s paw, sometimes copying what Pete is doing, sometimes waiting until Pete is asleep to snuggle up against his back, and sometimes with an insistent puppy bark and a play bow. This morning as we walked, Moses was leaping alongside, trying to bite Pete’s floppy ears. We tell Pete that now is the time to make friends, before Moses changes his mind.
The house feels different. There is a puppy bed in the kitchen and toys on the floor, and half a dozen kinds of large breed puppy food samples in the pantry. We hurry home after work. Charlie has notions of the correct number of toys for dogs, but I just buy new ones when I see something he could handle. Moses can’t carry most of the ones you see around; they’re too big and heavy for puppy teeth.
The juxtaposition of life and death is everywhere always, but it slips in and out of our awareness, sometimes in the background, and sometimes in the front. Moses was comforted on his first nights sleeping on the yellow blanket where Reggie closed his eyes for the last time. The puppy trips along behind me to the bird feeder, and I see Reggie’s paw prints in the mud. On our visit to the vet for Moses’s shots the tech gently placed a small package on the counter, and while the staff passed around the puppy, I took Reggie out to the car for his last ride home.
Tonight we all sat on the couch together, and we had to counsel Pete to take note of the dangers of co-sleeping; Moses just barely escaped Pete’s indifferent sprawl by climbing onto my lap. Pete seems less than grateful for his new brother, occasionally snarling, and sometimes snapping at the puppy. But even so, I think Moses will win out with Pete in the end, even before he gets too big. He’s kind of difficult to resist in a force of nature kind of way.
The puppy is sleeping on the rug by my feet. He sleeps hard, indifferent to the sounds of the squirrels chuckling, the geese on the water and the cranes squawking. He has had a run and eaten as much as he can hold, dancing in excitement while he waited for his bowl. He looks so innocent lying there, probably growing as I watch. I think he’s bigger since yesterday, but that’s a good thing. He has big boots to fill. And judging from the size of his paws, they might actually fit.