I buried a dog yesterday, and not just any dog. My dog.
Labrador retrievers come in several body make-ups and dispositions. Mine was one of those long-legged, athletic, yellow Corvettes with a long snout, yellow eyes of her Chesapeake Bay retriever sire and an Alpha female personality the size of the national debt.
Good dogs, like good people, are where you find them, and they have a way of coming into your life in the most unexpected way. This one was a surprise from Son Two, who at the time was studying engineering at Texas A&M. She checked out yesterday the same way she came to me – totally without notice.
The Matriarch names the household pets here at McDonald Manor. Daisy … Sugar … Tex … may not be original but serviceable. So it was with “Chamois,” named for the color of her buckskin coat. It has been decades since I used a chamois cloth to shine my car, but you can’t very well name a dog “Butterscotch Pudding.”
At first, I rather resented this whimpering, rolling ball of needle-teeth. The first night or two, the midnight yelping forced me out to sleep the open-air pickup bed in the driveway while Son Two took the pup in a hammock strung out back. And young Labs are land sharks, and Chamois was no exception. She chewed everything in sight.
Often, I felt a tugging sensation and looked down to find the pup with its teeth tangled in my crew socks. One fine day, the Matriarch was rocking Chamois on a new porch swing and looked up from her knitting to discover the dog happily gnawing on the wooden arm rest.
I once asked a Lab-loving duck hunter-friend where he was living these days.
“Whaddya mean you don’t know,” I asked. “You don’t know where your home is?”
“Nope,” he said, “my Lab pup ate it.”
Chamois, she of the keen eye and insatiable appetite for all things valuable, proved to be an equal opportunity chewer — shoes, knife handles, golf gloves, slippers.
Once, The Matriarch left her knitting to walk into the kitchen for tea. When she got back to her chair, Chamois had shredded a fresh skein of cashmere yarn into strands. Ever tried to knit a scarf with purple dental floss?
Thunder or fireworks would send a frightened Chamois into a frenzy. This, combined with the climbing ability of a mountain rescuer, a trait inherited from her sire, Chamois became quite the hand-full. A 5-foot fence was no match.
If Chamois could leap and reach her forepaws to the top of a barrier, she could use her back paws to scratch her way to the summit. Teetering on all fours, she could bound to the other side. Then, built for speed, not comfort, this dog could move faster than a three-day weekend.
In frustration, I began to plot Chamois’ sudden “disappearance.” Just days before mind-reading authorities would have sent me to jail for animal abuse, Chamois grew out of the chewing phase, and suddenly morphed into a 60-pound adult, with communication skills and uncommon curiosity.
At 9 o’clock – set your watch – she would stand in the front room and with a yowl-bark, she would announce that she was ready for her kennel and, by golly, it was time for everybody else to bed down, too. When I walked in the front door, Chamois would sniff out my laptop bag or grocery bag like a border inspector looking for fruit.
Chamois was good around other dogs and loved attention, especially from kids. So long as her sidekick, Layla, a chocolate Lab from the pound in San Marcos – courtesy of a nephew going to school at Texas State — was resigned to the junior varsity, the two got on famously. Both Labs liked for me to recycle at Midland College. To them, that meant new scenery and a wind sprints chasing a green rubber ball I would throw for them until I called the bullpen for a relief pitcher.
Some three years ago, Chamois not only turned into a splendid companion, she stopped climbing. This was as a huge relief as we all see truth in the words of noted golfer Lee Trevino:
“Two things won’t last long,” said the savvy hustler from East Dallas and El Paso, “pro golfers who putt for pars and dogs who chase cars.”
Chamois never chased cars, but her penchant for gymnastics made me nervous until we settled into a groove that we all enjoyed. Until yesterday. That’s when the house phone rang.
“I’ve got Chamois.”
A young woman jogging the neighborhood had a cell phone in one hand, and Chamois’ collar in the other. In seconds, I was off the couch and outside. There I was greeted by a frightful commotion of people shouting and a dog yelping in pain.
It took a minute to process: A jogger and a shook-up gentleman motorist were trying to explain what had just happened, and Chamois was hurt.
I rushed to the alley to find her wobbling away from me. Chamois did not respond to my call, and I knew something was wrong, very wrong. When I caught up to her, I could see Chamois walking with her head down, bleeding from the mouth.
I gently but firmly redirected her to the back gate and placed her on a tarp. I lifted her in the back seat of my car. Her eyes dilated, her breathing shallow, I could tell Chamois was in real trouble.
I called the emergency animal clinic near the Midland-Odessa airport and, as luck would have it, caught every light on Andrews Highway. Still, I got to the clinic in record time. But too late.
There in the vet’s parking lot, Chamois — the most remarkably athletic and frustrating dog I have ever met, the dog who owned my heart — died with her head in my hands.
Through tears of shame and frustration, sickened with nausea and grief, I drove back to town in a mental fog. So many questions.
How could I have let this happen? She had food, water, space and shade, so why climb the fence? Did Chamois die in pain? What could I have done to prevent this?
Memories of our good times together came rushing back … Chamois bounding to the front door to greet me … always accepting me, despite my considerable flaws … barking at my feet, insisting that I throw that green ball one more time .
Where do you bury a wonderful dog like Chamois?
Just then, a 1925 poem written by Ben Hur Lampman came to me. There is, but one best place to bury a good dog, Lampman wrote:
“It is in the heart of his master.”
Out back, in the shade of two pecan trees where she loved to lie in the cool soil, I started digging. I dug for a while, then I cried for a while. Then I dug some more.
When there was room for her, I wrapped Chamois in one of my shirts and removed her collar to hang on the lap shade of my office desk. I lowered the dog to her final resting place, said a prayer, thanked Chamois for the memories. Then I apologized.
I asked her to forgive me for not taking her swimming more. I apologized for not visiting the dog park at Hogan more often. Finally, with hands on knees, I folded in near exhaustion and scolded her for climbing fences.
“Damn it, Chamois, if you won’t stay home, I cannot keep you safe.”
Then, I apologized once more.
One shovel after another, I covered her body until the only hole left was the one in my chest. Today, in the light of a West Texas summer morning, I feel grateful for the good times, yet profoundly sad and just a touch lonely. Damn, I miss that dog.
I try to tell myself the dog whose very spirit once fed my soul is now feeding the pecan tree. Some day, with a little boost from Chamois, the nuts from that tree feed me again. The cycle is complete.