About 9 years ago, Marcy and I adopted a dog which had been found wandering the streets of Rainelle, WV. We were set on adopting a lab, and we preferred a younger dog to an older one.
Two dogs grabbed our attention, and so we took each one for a walk and spent some time in a room playing with them. Russ may remember: I was actually inclined toward the 8 month old female lab, which earned a sweet name that I have now forgotten. She was more affectionate, more pleased to see us.
The 4 month old male dog was a bit aloof, if you ask me. He seemed to be about his own business, and it was incidental that anyone else was in the room with him. On our walk, he held his head up in an almost regal pose, perhaps wondering how he would ever return to his kingdom in Rainelle.
But Marcy preferred the male dog, and when we returned for a second visit (and to make a decision), the female dog revealed herself to be irritable, bordering on lashing out. We planned on having kids (HA!) so this was simply unacceptable. That’s how it happened that we adopted Daniel Thomas, better known as Danny.
From hours of reading and research, I learned that puppies – and adopted dogs – can suffer emotional anxiety in a new home. It was recommended that the new dog sleep at the owners’ bedside, and so I leashed Danny to the foot of our bed and held my hand down to comfort him through the night.
In fact, Danny went with us everywhere. I was already in construction then, so I did what many contractors do, and brought him along to the work site. My day job was amenable to having him in the office – a converted home, anyway – and so he came along there, too. This made pretty quick work of housetraining him, though he was a smart dog anyway. He also caught on to sitting, laying, and heeling, which in total was about all we needed from him.
Not that he always listened. It was, to the very end of his life, impossible to get him to sit still when guests arrived. Each person was an enemy at the gate, until the gate opened – then they were long lost members of the pack, finally come home.
There’s also a reason the stereotype exists of a contractor bringing his dog everywhere – they make excellent company. A dog is always on the lookout for food and danger, and a man can’t help appreciating that. When neither is afoot, a dog is always ready to play, and men are especially suited for playing with dogs.
Truly, Danny was a dog who belonged in West Virginia. I can remember his boundless energy, his frustration at being leashed. Because when you let him loose – the very ground lit up beneath him. You could almost see the tips of the grass singed by his blazing speed. I remember taking him into some tall grass one day, and he, by the enormity of his exuberance, bent the reeds and stalks in wide orbits, just cut through it like a howling wind.
We took him on all of our trips and on long walks and everyone came to appreciate the black lab mutt who could run like a deer.
One story especially worth mentioning comes from a day visiting Luke and Keveney and their black lab, Sally. Danny and Sally were great friends, and one day we were all on the the porch when Sally and Danny started barking at the end of the clearing into the woods. They were deep barks, meant to scare off whatever they saw in the forest. So Luke got up to check it out, and as he approached the woods, it became obvious that he couldn’t see any danger.
So he began to creep to the edge of the clearing with exaggerated, high steps, which convinced both dogs to proceed with caution. Suddenly Luke turned and cried out in a panic, and both dogs bolted like the devil himself was in those woods. Probably the best laugh I ever had in West Virginia.
I can’t remember for sure, but I think it occurred to me to let Danny stay in WV when we decided to move back to Illinois. I’ve always thought it was something of a tragedy that he should be crammed into suburban life when he had only known the wild and wonderful lands of Appalachia. In fact, in the last months of his life, I seriously contemplated bringing him back and letting him loose. Near certain death, I’m sure, but glorious until the final moments. And he died anyway.
Nevertheless, he came with us, and there was much to love. First, like Amelia in WV, he was the first to welcome each of our kids home after their births. We always made a point to bring home a blanket the child had slept in, and let Danny smell it and get accustomed to it. The next day, he would recognize the scent when a new baby came home, and it was he welcoming the child, rather than an imposition on him to accept a stranger.
Though no dog could be as patient as Jack, he was nevertheless patient with all kinds of petting, eye gouging, rough handling, and attempted pony rides. He could often be found kissing the children, especially as babies, and occasionally snuggling with them. There’s not much cuter than a dog resting his head on a child’s chest.
We went on countless walks and hikes, and the older girls even had turns at the leash…though he did drag Amelia at least a couple of times in pursuit of a squirrel.
But that’s something. I will forever recommend to any would-be parents that they adopt a dog first. For better or for worse – for the dog – you can scarcely hope to learn more about yourself, and yourself as a caretaker, than by caring for a puppy. They are excellent instructors in patience, attitude, and empathy.
In the later years, Danny suffered occasional seizures, which would give him a sense of vertigo and send him tumbling to the ground. In spite of this, he would scramble to his feet over and over until he found us, when at length we could restrain his panic until he was calm and oriented again. They were nasty things, those seizures, and he bore them heroically.
Again, it does something to you as a caretaker to enter into that situation. I want to live smoothly, happily, efficiently; a seizure is somewhere on the opposite end of that spectrum. It compels empathy, it forces one to come to grips with the imbalances of life. Even in the suburbs, there is chaos – it’s just framed differently.
Because his knee was going bad, and we didn’t share as many walks, those seizures became the predominant form of bonding. I would never have wished them upon him, but given that they occurred, I took the opportunity to express compassion for him.
Marcy says she knew the end was near on the last day. There was something about his demeanor – at one point he seemed to nip at Charlie (probably because he was provoked, but maybe not). He also carried himself with a certain melancholy, which prompted Marcy to check on him more frequently than usual. She says he first laid by each of the kids’ rooms, then by her side of the bed, and finally by my side, where he died.
I was at work at the time, but I wish I had been there to reach out my hand to comfort him, like the day we brought him home.
Children would write letters to CS Lewis, mainly because of the Narnia series, and in one of those a child asked about pets going to Heaven. Lewis pointed out that there was no word on this from Scripture, but that – and I paraphrase – if you’ve ever looked deeply into the eyes of a beloved animal who is taken in as a pet, you feel certain there is something behind those eyes which will live forever.
Stella is still an infant, and the twins don’t really know what happened, but Amelia and Ruth do. Amelia was deeply moved by Danny’s death, and Ruth was inspired to music-making with her mother as they memorialized Danny. She did not promise that Danny was in Heaven, but did say that God will do whatever is best for Danny, and that cannot fail to be true.