(I wrote this piece about one of my favorite canine companions in late November of 1999, almost exactly twenty years before my beloved wife Ellen passed away.)
One hot afternoon in the late summer of 1999 before I became self-employed, I stepped outside the building where I worked at the time to get some fresh but humid air in my lungs after a long stretch of being hunched over a computer keyboard.
Curled up in a nasty, dirty ball of old white fur at one side of the double doors of the back end of the building was one of the sorriest-looking dogs I’d seen in my 51 years on this planet.
I have lousy vision, but I didn’t even have to squint through my coke-bottle lenses to see more fleas hopping on that old dog than kids at Disney World. I suspect the fleas were having a better time, too, because they didn’t have to stand in line for a ride or for something to eat.
I have to confess something before getting further into this story.
Although our house is always full of pets, I’m not the world’s greatest animal lover.
Yes, I tend to get attached to them when they end up living with us, but I usually go out of my way to not add to our always over-crowded shelter for homeless critters.
On the other hand, my wife Ellen is an animal magnet who attracts stray cats and dogs the way succulent buds attract bees. For her, we could always find room and food for one more guest.
Before we had kids, at one point in our marriage, Ellen fed, counseled, and cared for eleven different stray cats, three of whom eventually made the cut and remained as in-house pets, one of which we still have. Her name is Daisy, and she’s neurotic, and that’s another story.
So, anyway, there I am, squatting in front of this smelly old pile of white fur, trying to decide if I should poke through the fleas to see if anything was still living amidst the bones.
I’m thinking at the time, “Chet, if it’s alive you’re going to have to take it home to Ellen. And if you do that, you’re going to have two stray dogs at Casa Day as well as two live-in stray cats as well as the neighborhood felines and canines that park outside the house all day and half the night. Do you really want to complicate your life even more?”
I sighed, gave into the inevitable, and poked the pile of fur.
Lo and behold, from somewhere inside the mess a body and face uncurled, with dark black eyes clouded with cataracts. Old white terrier ears perked up, and an old dog cocked her head and melted my heart.
Thus did I meet Maggie, and I immediately named her Old Dog.
Inquiring around the building I learned Old Dog had been hanging around for days and that a couple of people had been feeding her and giving her water. Everyone believed her to be between owners. “You better give her a home,” someone advised, “before she disappears. Stray dogs have a way of disappearing around this neighborhood.”
I understand that’s a problem in parts of China, too, where dog is considered a delicacy. Tastes like chicken, I’m told, though I don’t know this to be a fact. But that’s another story too.
Anyway, realizing I was letting myself in for yet another animal adventure that I could probably just as well do without, I bundled Old Dog in my arms and carried her to my car.
Hauling that mutt, I looked like Pig Pen with dirt and fleas falling off me all over the place.
I mean, seriously, if we’d had access to her permanent record, we would have discovered that Old Dog had been given her last bath in 1993.
So I brought Old Dog home and after setting fire to the car to clean out the fleas and germs, I carried her to the back yard and plopped her down by the hose.
She kind of grinned, though it wasn’t a pretty sight, what with all the missing teeth and yellow stumps and bad breath.
I gave Old Dog three shampooings and rinses in a row.
I had to scoop a mound of dead fleas out of the way to work on her paws, but I finally got her cleaned up and more-or-less presentable.
She’d been on such a bad diet for so long her fur felt like brillo pads.
Even cleaned up, Old Dog didn’t have much going for her.
She could barely walk, she was just about blind from cataracts, and she was deaf as a dumpster. If you weren’t standing right in front of her, you just couldn’t get her attention unless you clapped your hands as hard as you could. Then she’d eventually turn around, though sometimes it took seven or eight minutes.
My wife took to Old Dog like hot pepper sauce takes to red beans and rice, and she promptly informed me her name would be Maggie.
As those married for more than 25 years are apt to do, we argued about names for four days before I finally capitulated.
And that’s how Old Dog became Maggie.
We really didn’t think Maggie would survive more than a couple of days. She was starving, she was half blind, she was totally deaf, and her back legs gave way under her more often than not, and she’d fall over and then pick herself back up.
But we put her on a healthy diet with plenty of love, super green drinks, probiotics, and digestive enzymes, and, happily, over the next couple of weeks she came back to life. The vet figured she was anywhere from 16 to 109 years of age.
Well, Maggie turned out to be some kind of dog. Even though she slept 22 or 23 out of every 24 hours, when she was awake, she was a joy to behold.
I remember taking her outside to do her business during cold winter mornings. She’d perk up those old terrier ears of hers and then she’d suddenly flash on a memory of her youth, and those back legs would start pumping, both kicking backward at the same time, and she’d race the length of the driveway before stopping to rest.
It sounds nuts, but Maggie was so graceful during those bursts of speed she reminded me of Secretariat, the most beautiful racing horse in my memory palace.
I remember how she’d drive the cats crazy, how she loved to sneak into the kitchen to eat neurotic Daisy’s food all the time. It drove Daisy so batty she took to peeing on the bookcases for awhile, but that’s another story too.
I remember how Maggie always wanted to sleep on one part of the couch if any of us were down in the den watching the idiot box. On rare occasions she’d get up and stretch and walk over and crawl into my lap. Petting Maggie was like stroking a porcupine. Even adding a good oil with plenty of essential fatty acids to her diet, we never did soften down her dried up fur.
I remember how Maggie would clatter with old terrier feet on the kitchen floor when she felt good, and how she’d kind of drag herself up the stairs, suffering in silence, when she was having a bad spell.
Maggie could sneeze like a champion, and my sons nicknamed her Sonic Sneeze, and we called her that sometimes when my wife wasn’t listening.
I remember how she’d do everything but leap over the car to get in with us if we were going somewhere.
Gosh, I can remember almost everything about Maggie’s year with us, and that amazes me since now that I’m hunkered down in middle age half the time I can’t even recall my zip code.
But today, most vividly, I remember two Fridays ago when I came home to learn Maggie had been hit by a car when she was sniffing in the street in front of our house.
Two Fridays ago I found Maggie where my wife had put her in the backyard.
There she was, as still as cold stone, and still one of the sorriest-looking dogs I had ever seen.
She was dead, and I broke down and bawled like a baby.
I couldn’t touch her at that point.
I had to walk around the house a couple of times, choking off tears and letting tears flow.
I eventually made it to the garage and pulled out the shovels and went to the woods behind our house and dug her a good grave, with hard, square edges, just as symmetrical as could be.
I wrapped my old dog in a couple of towels and put her in a cardboard box, and lowered her in the hole, and covered the hole with earth and leaves.
I stood over her grave and cried some more and finally managed to speak my heart to her when I said, “Gosh, you were a good old dog, and I’m going to miss you a lot.”
Then I closed off my tears before going into the house to try to do the things we all must do when death comes to visit.
It’s been a couple of weeks now, and I still miss Maggie a lot, and I know I always will.
Oh sure, talking about her helps layer over some of the grief, and meditating and accepting her death helps some, and praying helps some, and writing about her helps some. But, you know, so far the only consolation that really helps is that I expect to meet Maggie again when I pass on.
On that happy day she’ll gallop toward me, her back feet kicking at the same time like Secretariat in his prime, and Maggie, an old dog no more, will leap into my arms, almost knocking me over with the joy of our reunion.
What a grand old time we’ll have on that day.