Our Old Dog: An Essay
What we learned from a yellow Lab mix named Fred
IT'S NOT FAIR to write about a dying dog. Just those last two words are enough. Automatic tears. I understand if you stop here. But I need to say a few words about our old dog, Fred. It’s not all sad. Not even mostly. I’ve been meaning to write this for months, with the idea that you should celebrate the things you love while they’re still around. Not that it matters to Fred—I’m pretty sure he can’t read this, although he has fooled us on many things over the years. Just in case he can: Good boy. Such a good boy.
Let’s do the sad part first. Fred has a big tumor on his liver. It’s most likely one of two cancers, both malignant. He might have a few weeks, might not have tomorrow. They could do surgery, but they can’t promise they’ll get the whole tumor, much less whatever else might be in there. He has other problems. The arthritis in his hips is so bad that our neighbor calls him the Little Soldier because he sort of goose-steps down the street. Sometimes he pants through the night. He has random seizures no treatment has been able to fix. He’s pretty much deaf. Most of all, he’s 14—ancient for a yellow Lab mix. Surgery would be hard on him. And even if it works, the specialist said, he’s not likely to make it to 15.
So we are going to let things be.
End of the sad part.
He just showed up one morning. It was early November 2001, a couple of months after 9/11. We were all walking around with holes in our lives. At the time, we lived in a house in Derita with a long driveway. I went out to get the paper and there was a white ball wriggling at the end of the drive. The closer I got, the faster he wagged. I looked at him. No collar. I looked around. No people. He followed me back to the house.
I picked him up and took him in the bedroom, where my wife, Alix Felsing, was sleeping. Alix! I whispered. Look! Alix put her glasses on and noticed a couple of things I didn’t—the puppy was bloated from worms and crawling with fleas. That’s nice, honey, she said. Let’s take him outside.
Our yard didn’t have a fence, so we took him across the street to our neighbors, Bill and Susie. We put him in their yard while we figured out what to do. We walked back to our house, and about halfway up the drive, I looked back. The puppy was right on our heels. He had squeezed through the gate to follow us.
We had a dog.
I wanted to call him Herschel, after my favorite football player, the great Herschel Walker, who won the Heisman for the University of Georgia when I was a freshman there a million years ago. Alix, for some reason, was not fond of this. Eventually we settled on Fred. Fred’s a solid guy. Fred’s your buddy.
We took him to puppy training a couple of times, but the main thing he learned was that people have treats in their pockets. When we first started to walk him on a leash, he’d turn around every 20 feet and beg for a snack. When he wasn’t begging, he was sniffing. He’s got some hunting dog in him—besides the Lab part, we think he’s part German shorthaired pointer, because of his thin back end and the tan speckles on his cream coat. (He has one big spot in the middle of his forehead, like an Indian bindi dot.) Whatever’s in there, he’s a scent hound to the core, plowing his snout into bushes and down holes, checking out the crotches of every creature he meets. This was not so charming when we had company.
We kept him in the garage while we made arrangements to build a fence. Fred basically ate our garage. He chewed the drywall. He chewed the attachments to our Shop-Vac. We kept a plumber’s snake in a five-gallon bucket. One day we came home and found the top half of the bucket chewed off, the snake sprawled on the floor, Fred dancing in the garage with glee. He ate about as much plastic as he did dog food in those days. His favorite snack was poop from the Canada geese who hung out at our little pond. He snapped up the turds like Tootsie Rolls. We’d steer him away from the droppings, but he’d always find one we missed. Never once got sick.
Years later, when we were renovating our bathroom, we took our shampoo and toothpaste and stuff and put it in a box. Fred got into the box and ate a bar of soap. We Googled “dog ate bar of soap,” and the Internet told us everything from “he’ll be fine” to “OH GOD HE’S GONNA DIE.” We were getting ready for church. Instead we ran him to the closest vet we could find that was open on a Sunday morning. We waited an hour and a half. It turned out he was fine. The vet said that sometimes, dogs that eat soap end up farting bubbles. We had our cameras ready for hours. Nothing. After all that trouble, we thought we deserved at least a fart bubble.
Those geese at the old house used to torment us. They’d poop all over the walkway between our back door and the carport. One morning Alix saw them gathered outside the garage and decided a dose of Fred might scare them off. She hit the garage door opener and Fred took off outside. When the door lifted enough for Alix to see, she saw two things: One, Fred had in fact scared the geese silly—they were taking off toward the pond. Two, the geese had brought their babies. Fred had a gosling in his mouth.
Alix chased him around the yard, hollering at him to drop it. Fred thought this was a fantastic game. After a minute or two, Alix ran back in the garage and grabbed a dog treat. She showed it to Fred, and he instantly dropped the gosling. It took off running to find its family. Fred had cradled it in his mouth the whole time, never biting down. We knew then we had a gentle dog.
Sometimes I’d roughhouse with him and he’d grab my arm with his teeth, a million years of wild dog battling a thousand generations of breeding. He never clamped down. Far as I know, he never hurt another living thing.
Here’s what I remember most. At the old house, I used to let him out every morning to roam the backyard. It was almost as deep as a football field, and he’d go way back there and sniff around the edges of the brush. I’d stand at the corner of the garden fence and watch. After a while I’d whistle and he’d look up. I’d dig a treat out of my pocket and hold it high where he could see.
In three strides he’d be going full speed. It was an expression of natural joy, his ears blown back, his eyes wide, every muscle in perfect sync. He barely touched the ground. He never stopped on time and so he would go flying past and slam on the brakes, scrabbling in the dirt like a cartoon. Finally he would make it back to get his treat. His tail would spin like a helicopter blade.
Years later, on his good days, sometimes his tail still spins like that when he sees us. It lifts our hearts off the ground.
FRED HAD FEARS we never understood. He cowered at the sight and sound of trucks and, for some reason, white vans. He ran away from children. He was about two months old when he showed up at our house, and we always wondered what happened to him in those two months. Nobody ever put up signs in our neighborhood looking for him. We think he got dumped in the street, or escaped a bad place. He sure seemed grateful to be with us.
In that big backyard at the first house, we had a garden and a couple of pecan trees. We spent some of our finest days back there, picking up pecans or weeding the flower beds as our dog and our tabby cat played in the grass. The cat, Rocket, would let Fred chase him and then head up a tree when he got too close. When Fred wandered off, Rocket would come back down and stroll into Fred’s line of sight. Chase. Up the tree. Back down again. At night Fred would sleep in a crate in the garage, and Rocket slept in the seat of our John Deere riding mower. After Rocket died a year or so later, Fred would chase a cat now and then, but he never tried hard to catch one.
He had some Lewis and Clark in him. Every so often he’d get loose and take off, exploring the neighbors’ backyards. I’d chase after him. He’d look over his shoulder at me and trot just out of reach, like Rocket used to do to him. Finally Alix and I figured out a trick: We’d get the car and drive to where he’d wandered. As soon as he saw the car, he’d jump in. Back then, there was nothing he liked better than a car ride. He’d stick his head out the back window, jowls blown back in the breeze, nostrils pumping with all the smells he was taking in. After a while he’d prop his front paws on the console between our seats and lay his chin on my shoulder. A dog can love you in a way that caves in your heart. It can also leave a lot of drool on your shirt.
When he was three we moved to Plaza Midwood. Our old place had big yards and houses set back from the road. Our new house had a little yard and a front porch and lots of people walking around. It took him some time to get used to this. Fred’s an introvert. Of course he’d sniff another dog’s butt. That’s dog law. But some dogs are alpha dogs, and Fred is an omega. A 55-pound weenie. Once we took him to a dog park, and three or four other dogs jumped him right when we got inside. One of them bit him. He was OK, but the rest of the time he was there, he went off by himself to the far corners of the park. I stood there in the park and cried, partly because I knew how he felt. Alix and I are introverts, too, and we’ve always wondered if we raised Fred to be a loner.
It probably didn’t help, at least in that regard, that we neutered him. For years he licked his crotch constantly. I always figured he was watering the spot, hoping they would grow back.
He’s got some other quirks. He won’t go near the AC vents in the floor—I’m pretty sure he thinks the air coming out of there is monster breath. He used to lick the pad of his back left paw constantly, like a baby sucking its thumb. We had our vet check more than once for a splinter or an infection. It’s still a mystery. He spins around six or eight or 10 times before he lies down. I read somewhere that it’s a hard-wired memory from the days when wild dogs tamped down the grass before they slept. Now in his last days, arthritis has made it harder for him to get down, so he backs into a corner and sort of slides down on the bed. But he makes sure to get his spins in first.
I think he was born for the North. Every year he wilts a little more in the summer, and every year he perks up in the fall. Snow days are his favorite days. We had a big storm at the old house one day, and he dove in and out of the snow like a dolphin. We spent a year in Boston and it snowed 60 inches that winter. He’d bound through the park across from our apartment and come home with a snootful of frost.
That Boston year, in the fall, we drove up to Maine one weekend and took him to the beach. He’s never been much of a water dog, but he loved chasing gulls and wading in the ocean and trotting in the sand. He was seven years old by then—a middle-aged dog—but he high-stepped down the beach, his ears thrown back like he was a puppy. If you’re good to a dog, pretty much every day for the dog is a great day. But that one might have been the best. We rubbed off as much sand as we could and piled him in the back seat, and he slept all the way home.
It was one of our best days, too.
ALIX AND I have been married 17 years. Fred has been with us for 14 of them. We didn’t think we had time to look after a dog. But when it’s something you care about, time bends and stretches. Somehow we’ve had the time to take him for walks and keep him fed and clean up his messes and just hang out together. He never was well-trained but he’s a skilled communicator. His go-to move is the heavy sigh. Sometimes Alix and I will be in bed, talking through something important, and all of a sudden from the corner of the room comes this long and deliberate exhale of profound boredom. No matter how serious our conversation is, it makes us laugh. Wrap it up, he’s saying. It’s sleepin’ time.
He also won over our families. Alix’s folks are not especially dog people, and my mama has been scared of dogs since she got bitten as a child. But they welcomed Fred into their homes. My mama even started tossing him little bits of bacon in the kitchen. When she found out he was sick, her advice was to give him some bacon. To be honest, that’s her advice in a lot of situations. It’s pretty good advice.
It’s been weird to see Fred get older. For the first few years of his life, he pulled us down the street. Then he walked by our sides. Now we’re the ones up ahead of him.
When he started getting really old, it didn’t register with me right away. I’d yell at him for not eating his supper, or not wanting to go on his morning walk, or eating some random thing off the ground. (These days he has a taste for dirt.) I’m not proud to say this, but even now I get mad at him sometimes. I’ll take him outside on a beautiful night and he’ll just stand in the yard and look around. It got me really frustrated until I realized the problem: I was mad at him for dying on us.
That’s the thing with pets. They’re probably going to die before you. They make you deal with death and loss before you’re ready. Alix and I are having a hard time imagining a life without Fred, but we’re going to have to live it. We hope to remember what he has taught us:
Always make room for treats.
Sometimes you should wander off and see the world.
Explore things with enthusiasm, even if you’re shy.
Any day might be the best day of your life.
THREE WEEKS after I wrote the words above, Fred passed peacefully as the sun went down on an autumn Thursday. Alix and I were by his side, along with the amazing Dr. Mary Fluke, who had cared for him since he was a puppy. We told stories and laughed and cried like children.
He had a good last few days. We discovered right near the end that he liked tuna fish, and he must’ve eaten half a tuna’s worth. (Yes, Mama, we also fed him bacon.) The food perked him up. In his last weeks, he didn’t have enough strength to take his normal walk to the end of the block and back. But the day before he died, he pulled us down there and then another whole block. On his last day we took him on one more car ride. He watched out the back window as we drove him through the streets he knew so well.
Nearly every night for 14 years, one of us let him out before we all went to bed. We’ve spent so many nights standing in the cool air on this street we love, staring at the stars, listening to the neighborhood owls, or just watching Fred prance around the yard and catalog the smells. He brought us those moments and a million more.
I didn’t know what to do on that first night without him, so I walked out in the yard and stared at the stars and thanked him again for coming into our lives.
I don’t know your thoughts on the afterlife. One thing I hope is that we’ll be able to sit down and have a conversation with Fred. Have him tell us why goose poop tastes so good, where he really liked to be rubbed, whether we did right by him at the end. Make sure he knows how lucky we are that he showed up in our life one day.
My other hope is that up there, we’re all young and strong again. I’d love to watch him run.
Tommy Tomlinson is a Charlotte writer and a former columnist for The Charlotte Observer. He’s now a contributing writer for ESPN the Magazine and ESPN.com. This story is adapted from two pieces written for his blog, tommytomlinson.wordpress.com.
This article appears in the February 2016 issue of Charlotte Magazine
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