For Love of a Dog
I think it's probably safe to say that many of us have seen some hard times. May still be seeing them. If there's one thing you can take for granted, it is that if life decides to kneel on you, there ain't a thing you can do to stop it.
We were going through one of those hard spells about ten years ago. There were five of us then, as there are now, but at that time, half the family was under four feet tall. Plus we had a dog that had been with us for a few years. Sam was grown when he was given to us, and he made several moves with us, before we finally bought a house in Sarasota. It was after that, that Sam's health began to deteriorate.
At first it was the ear mites. I suspected that he had them, and when I found him one morning with a hematoma on his ear I knew that I was right. Not only that, he was covered with fleas. It's like the house we moved into had millions of fleas in the dirt just waiting for some unsuspecting family to move in and provide a dog so that they could feast in earnest.
Sam was the best dog ever. A great, heavy, blonde lab, he was intimidating to those who didn't know him and was fiercely protective of the house and the kids. I never met a smarter dog. He would follow me when I hung clothes on the line, and in between sitting down to scratch at those infernal fleas, he would retrieve the clothespins I dropped, placing them carefully in the laundry basket. He knew how to play hide and seek, and would get between the kids if a squabble ensued that deteriorated into physical combat. Sam wasn't having any of that. Not on his watch.
I remember once I took him walking. I let his leash drop to the ground so that he could roam a bit. We were close to home, he was safe. He immediately went to the back of a neighbor's car that sat parked in the driveway and squatted.
"Uh uh, Sam ... not there." I said in a level voice. He stopped instantly and moved to a bush nearby leaving his offering in a neat pile out of harm's way.
"Want me to get that...?" I asked the neighbor who had come out to check his mail.
"Nah." He said. "No harm done." Sam sat and scratched. Oblivious.
I checked into the once a month treatment for fleas. Sixty dollars for three months. That would almost pay the light bill. I'm not ashamed to say that we were pretty poor. We sure as heck didn't choose to be. Three small mouths to feed, doctor bills, diapers. Anyway, I did the best I could by bathing him, which did little more than dry out his lovely coat.
When the hematoma popped up I became desperate. The dog was in real discomfort. Now he had this thing on his ear. We never once thought when we took the dog in, that one day we would not be able to afford to care for him. I had no money to have him treated. I called the vet. Sixty-five dollar examination fee, plus meds. I envisioned this two hundred dollar vet bill that I had no hope of paying.
"Do you guys ever ... you know, take payments?"
"Sure," replied the voice on the phone, "we will finance fifty percent of the balance due."
"But how do I know how much that will be?"
"Well ... you don't."
Of course it wasn't the vet's fault, he had to make a living too.
I sat looking at Sam all day out the window. He wasn't allowed in the house. He had never been in the house, so he was not trained. By that afternoon I reached a decision. I would either take Sam to the pound where he could get the treatment he needed, and hope that he would find a good home, or I would find him a home myself.
I didn't know anybody to give him to. I didn't know what to do. That evening after dinner I loaded Sam in the van, drove him to the local supermarket and tied him to a post in the parking lot. Then I parked several rows away and watched him. I knew someone would take him, so I sat there and sobbed myself silly, even before a man walked up and squatted down next to him. I could see the man's mouth moving as he talked to Sam. Then I saw his eyebrows go up when he noticed the scrap of paper tucked into Sam's collar. He unfolded it and read......
'My name is Sam. I need flea medication and I have ear mites, but my owners cannot afford to take me to the vet, so if you decide to untie this leash, you better be prepared to assume the expense for my treatment. I am a damn fine dog. I can fetch and retrieve and play hide and seek. I can understand English almost as well as you, so you need to talk to me on occasion. I love kids and I will love you too, as long as you love me.'
The man paused and studied Sam for a moment and then he slowly slipped the piece of paper back in Sam's collar. Then he went into the store. I didn't know whether to be relieved or mad. I had seen the man get out of an expensive SUV, he was well dressed, clearly not poor. Why didn't he take Sam. Why? Was his resume not good enough? Had I left some important detail out?
I sat there with my heart in my mouth and had just about decided to go get Sam, and take him home and try something else, when the man returned. He had a woman with him. Together they knelt down and the man handed the woman the note. She read it and then stood and glanced around the parking lot. Women. We know each other. She knew I was there. I sank down as low in the driver's seat as I could go and still be able to see. I watched, bawling my eyes out as Sam was loaded into the SUV. He seemed a little concerned, but went willingly enough. I watched them drive away and then I drove home, crying every single inch of the way.
I don't know where Sam is now, but I do know that I did the best I could to find him a good home, and in my mind, he's stretched out on a nice brick patio somewhere, in the shade, with healthy ears, and no fleas, and I hope that someday he thinks of us and remembers the good times we had together, and doesn't hold it against me that I couldn't do better by him.
I get through this memory by reminding myself that Sam was a dog. Not a child, or a brother or a sister. He was a dog. A friend. Friends leave, go on to other places, sometimes better places. Many times we lose contact with those friends, but you can love them and still let them go if you know in your heart that it is what's right for them.
I don't know what practical purpose chinaberries serve, unless it's just to make more chinaberry trees. For all I know they could be edible. Or maybe they are a delicacy for birds. Who knows. But when I was growing up, they served one purpose and one purpose only. To make someone squeal in pain.
We had a massive chinaberry tree in the back yard. Had the somewhat dubious honor of owning the only one on the block. It was a beautiful tree with slender leafy branches that provided a wonderful shade. It was taking advantage of that shade that led to the idea to gather up the fallen chinaberries, filling pockets, t shirt tails, empty bottles, whatever was available, and chunking them at each other with all the gleeful, evil, abandon that only kids can muster.
I'm sure we didn't invent the idea. Kids for hundreds of years have probably been chunking these lemon drop sized seeds at each other on countless summer days gone by. But that didn't stop us from getting creative to the point of being dangerous with them.
When a chinaberry hit you full force anywhere above the neck, it would make you cry, (at least me anyway) and then it would make you mad, causing you to spend valuable ducking time searching out and aiming for the guilty party. A chinaberry hitting you anywhere below the neck was bad, but tolerable. It always left a mark, a little red welt and usually a little green stain as well.
You could always spot a rookie. He would throw handfuls at a time. Sure he hit more targets, but this practice also left him woefully un-armed when the paybacks came, and they always came. We all started out as rookies of course, so we all learned that lesson the hard way. There was no more frightening and vulnerable feeling, than crossing the yard at break neck speed, squatting under the tree with no protection, and gathering up chinaberries to replenish your supply, all while being pelted mercilessly by the competition.
How did one win? Well, being the only one left standing and not crying or mad was usually a pretty good indicator. Any one who stormed into the house with the ominous...'I'm telling'... thrown over their shoulder, was automatically disqualified from any hope of winning. Also breaking away from chinaberries and resorting to other types of ammunition, like rocks, for example, was seriously frowned on and would get you thrown out of the game.
There were some fairly respectable ground rules, learned through trial and error. However, we had not counted on Johnny Small. Johnny was a new kid. His name suited him to a tee as, while he was the same age thereabouts as every one else, he was a full head shorter than the rest of us, and as a result had learned to compensate in many areas for his lack of height.
He was as welcome as a fresh spring rain when he wandered past the house wanting to get in the game. New meat. No idea of the rules or strategy. He looked like a full fisted thrower if anybody ever did. Yeehaw!
Just as anticipated, and even though we gave him a full five-minute lead to fill his pockets and find good cover, he went through his reserves in less than ten minutes. Which gave him no option but to run the gauntlet to re-load, and we peppered him. Brutally. Most kids learned from that experience and didn't let it happen again. Johnny not only learned, he set us up for the most devastating revenge ever heard of on Florence Street.
I got my first clue when a chinaberry hit the tree I was using for cover and smashed like a well cooked pea against the bark. Oh hell, I thought, this kid's got an arm like a rocket launcher! The next clue was hearing Danny Golden scream out in pain like a little girl. He was crying for God's sake. This was unprecedented chinaberry war behavior. I had seen Danny Golden get ripped up by Ronnie Barr's dog and not cry.
I finally gathered the courage to raise my head and see what was causing this wailing and spotted Johnny Small, standing alone and looking ten feet tall, chinaberries causing the pockets of his jeans to bulge, a chinaberry ready in one hand, and a sling shot in the other. Crap!
Johnny had gotten even in the only way he knew how. Cheat. He must have had the slingshot in his back pocket the whole time. The best we could do was cower behind our respective shields and scream for my mother, who I might add, took her sweet old time getting out there, all while Johnny was ricocheting chinaberries off tree trunks, slamming them into bushes and firing them wherever else he thought that there was the slightest chance that he might make contact. Mom appraised the situation in a glance, and disarmed Johnny with one withering look.
Danny Golden waited until the screen door slammed behind mom before he sailed across the yard, arms flailing like a windmill in a tornado and pounded Johnny until he screamed for mercy, while one of the other boys quickly dispatched the tree branch and inner tube sling shot into splinters with a rock.
Danny had a nasty bruise and a cut where the chinaberry had actually broken the skin, and while the rest of us found it in our hearts to forget and accept Johnny Small into our group, Danny never did quite make that leap of forgiveness.
Just saw the first......
... gator slide of the season, I guess. Poor thing. It's so dry here in central Florida right now, it was little more than a thin line in the dirt surrounded by some dusty footprints. I reckon he is wandering around looking for some water. I've gotten used to seeing them around by now, their heads barely poking above the water, eyes scanning the surface, waiting for some unsuspecting impromptu meal to wander by.
I visited Florida from Texas when I was a kid, long before I ever knew I would be moving here. We barely scraped up the money for gas and food and tickets to Disney World so my uncle invited us to stay with him in Merritt Island so that we wouldn't have to fork out for a hotel. I think we were the only family that smuggled bologna sandwiches into Disney World in a shoulder bag. Or maybe not...but the free lodging was too good to pass up.
It seems to me that kids back then were always treated like second class citizens, so it came as no real surprise when we were informed after supper that we would be bunking in the moldy old travel trailer out behind the house, while mom and dad took the air conditioned guest room in the house.
My uncle's house was an old cracker style thing with a tin roof, a wrap around porch, and sat up on stilts right on the edge of a marsh surrounded by cypress trees. It was a really neat place, but coming from a ranch style wood frame home that sat right on the ground, and not being exposed to anything other than that up to that point, it looked like something right off of the weekly t v program 'Gentle Ben'.
"It'll be fun," my mom said, "like camping out."
Well, okay, whatever you say.
"Better take a leak now if ya have to, as there ain't no facilities in the trailer and you don't want to be crossin' the yard in the dark." Said uncle Mark, clearly unfamiliar with the sporadic operation of the juvenile plumbing system.
"Why's that?" asked my brother, the oldest, the authority on just about everything and pretty much the spokesman for the height challenged members of the family.
Not gator 'might' get you, or gator 'could' get you, but gator 'will' get you.
"Can't keep chickens out here." uncle Mark went on, "in fact just last week I lost a good dog. Gator got him."
He walked us to the trailer carrying a large flashlight, checking the bushes and even shined the light under the trailer reminding us once again not to leave the safety of the trailer in the night. For anything. I think the point was pretty well made as he had to practically give birth to all four of us before he could get loose and go back to the house.
We got settled in, a fan mounted in one of the windows almost drowning out the buzzing of the mosquitoes and the croaking of the frogs and almost stirring up enough air to make the heat bearable.
Sometime in the middle of the night I woke up, you guessed it, needing to relieve myself in the most awful way. I woke my brother.
"Larry, I havta pee."
"You heard uncle Mark, we're not supposed to leave because of the alligators.'
"Oh bull pucky, he just said that to keep us from buggin' them going back and forth to the house all night. Just go!"
"Go with me."
"NO I'm not goin' with you. Just take the light and run real fast."
Uncle Mark had left the flashlight with us before he went back to the house, and I had watched this grown man, probably in his forties back then, literally sprint the twenty or so yards back to the house. If he was fooling us, then he was one of the best leg pullers I had ever seen.
I took the light and stood at the little door debating. Even went as far as to open the door to do some more debating, letting in God knows how many mosquitoes in the process. I flipped on the light and shined it around the yard. If you've never seen a cypress tree in the dark, I can tell you that it is not a pretty sight. Draped in Spanish moss and crawling with vines they look like they're alive and moving in the shadows.
I'm standing there with my legs crossed, I was about eight I guess, with a bladder the size of a peanut, and had just about made up my mind to risk it, when the light fell on two shining objects at the edge of the marsh. I squinted as hard as I could trying to figure out what I was seeing, but all I could make out was those two glowing discs.
Suddenly, although I had never seen the shine of a gators eyes in lamplight, I knew instinctively that that was precisely what I was seeing. A moment later, with a lunge and a slap of his tail he did a complete flip and dove into the water. He was probably about six feet long.
It's a good thing that it was so early in the morning. The steps leading up to the trailer had plenty of time to dry before morning so nobody was any the wiser.
The sun set on my boy's second baseball game of the season, our team in the lead. I stopped watching the ball, and I started watching the faces. I paid close attention to the boys' expressions. Their looks of open optimism and anticipation as they stepped up to bat. The grim determination as they threw, caught, ran with all their might from base to base. Having lived in the city, I have to tell you, there is a world of difference between a city game and a rural game. I don't know why, there just is.
I watched the audience. 'Left wing or right wing' last night, boiled down to which team you were rooting for. I watched the small children by the bleachers, their hopeful faces upturned, waiting for the foul ball that they would scramble for and then take to the concession stand to trade for a sucker.
A boy from the home team tried to steal third. The pitcher was not to be so easily had, he slammed the ball to the third baseman who caught it deftly and then, noting the runners close proximity to second, let the ball fly to second base. The second baseman allowed the ball to slip past him. So the runner, anticipating a home run, did an abrupt about face and lit a shuck for third base again.
The outfielder snatched the ball out of the air and fired it back to third, leaving our runner once again penned between second and third base. The runner swung around and headed at a dead run back to second. The third baseman, still on his toes, blasted the ball back to second, the second baseman, this time, caught the ball and our runner was once and for all....OUT.
The audience roared with laughter and applause at this unexpected Abbott and Costello type play and the players, both teams, laughed and slapped each other on the back for having provided such quality entertainment.
For just a while our 'battle' was contained to a little league field in rural Florida and my husband, being the eloquent man I know and love summed it up for me.
"This is neat"
I grinned at him.
"Yeah ... it is."
After the game was over the audience began to stir around, gathering up kids and belongings, the scent of the honeysuckle lining the stadium fence thick in the air and laughter and good natured joking cutting through the gathering darkness.
I paused at the fence waiting for our team to finish its post-game prayer.
...'for seeing us through this game with no injuries, and Lord, please take care of our soldiers who are fighting in Iraq and bring them home safely....'
It wasn't expected, the tear that worked it's way from the corner of my eye and slipped down my cheek. I found to my shame that I had to find a private place as more tears were clearly imminent. Not too awful many, just a few. One for our soldiers, one for their soldiers, a couple for the children of Iraq who know no such joy as a baseball game, one for the mothers over there who are not able experience the gleeful jubilation of watching her son try to steal third base. One just out of sheer gratitude that the war was happening there and not here. The last one for me, because no matter how hard I try not to be, I'm just too dang sentimental.
I don't know why, but despite the fact that it is mother's day, I got to thinking about my dad. We never got along really, he never even knew who I was, even though I was 29 the day he died. We just never could seem to get past that father/child relationship and progress on to person/person.
I was three months pregnant with my son when I received the call that he had passed away. Even though he had a bad heart and we all knew that he was due for a 'tune up' (valve replacement) it still came as a shock. He went sitting in his favorite chair, his jaw resting on his fist, elbow on the arm of the chair, eyes on the television screen. My mom said the only way she knew he was gone was that the light in his eyes winked out. Makes me think it was fairly peaceful and painless. But permanent and devastating nonetheless.
We made the trip to Georgia, not in time to be there for the funeral, but in time to visit with some of the family who had come from different parts of the country to pay respects. It was the first time all four of us kids had been together in several years, so we sat around the kitchen table in my grandmother's house swapping stories about dad and other childhood memories.
"You'll be wanting to go to the cemetery, right?" My sisters both asked.
"Of course." I replied quickly.
"Good, you have to see what Larry did."
It was at that point that my sister handed me the little cloth and wire elf I had given my dad for Christmas twenty-seven years prior. The elf had adorned the rear view mirror of every single vehicle my dad drove from that day forward. It now resides in a little glass box on the desk in my bedroom.
My grandmother wandered through to remind us that a child should not go before his mother, that she was not prepared to lose a son, that it was not fair to have to bury him, he should have buried her, and we cried and hugged her and smiled with her before she made her way back to bed to continue to grieve.
What I did not know at this point in time, is that I had not accepted my father's death. I knew he had died. I knew that. But I had not accepted it. I would not do so until I visited the cemetery.
The next morning dawned cold and rainy. I should have known better the moment I stepped out the door. I held back, not yet ready.
"You have to go, you have to see what Larry did." My sisters kept insisting.
What Larry did. What did Larry do? No one would tell me.
The red earth at the cemetery did nothing to make me feel any better. I knew that when I left Georgia I would see red in the crevices of our shoes for weeks, weeks to be reminded of my trip to Georgia and why we went.
I was led past several tombstones, watching fervently for the one that read James Davis M***** ... not wanting it to sneak up on me, wanting to be prepared.
We turned a sharp corner and my sisters both stopped. I was confused. I saw no headstone, only a massive guitar molded in concrete, standing on its broad base, wet from the rain. It wasn't until I saw the bronze plaque set in the guitar, that I realized it displayed the name I had been seeking.
James Davis M***** ... beloved father, son, and husband ... musician.
I don't know when I hit my knees exactly, and don't really know when I started sobbing but sob I did, until I thought I would burst from the agony. All I could think about was the cold rain pouring down, and he was lying there in the cold damp ground, no one to touch him, or warm him. I wanted to dig into the red earth, to pat his cheek one last time but I knew it was foolish to think that way. My sisters both sighed in satisfaction as though this reaction from me was what they had been waiting for.
I finally discovered what my brother Larry had done. Creatively challenged and clumsy to the point of embarrassment, he had fashioned this headstone himself, with his own two hands. It was as smooth as glass, a perfect replica of dad's six-string Fender. He had the plaque made on his own and set it into the concrete, delivered the tombstone and set it in place alone.
I was left to my own tears, my siblings giving me time to let it all sink in. I don't know how long I was there, I do know that when I finally got to my feet I was chilled to the bone and wet through and through. I studied the grave site a few minutes more, said my goodbyes and made my way back to the car, memorizing every detail of the cemetery, committing the name to memory, for I know that one day, when time and money permits, I will return to visit my dad, where he lies in Georgia, in the red earth, under the concrete guitar.
© 2003 Copyright held by the author.