LONDON, ONTARIO – In addition to the beauty of their forms and the rich variety of their characters, no small part of the magnificence of dogs is the lessons they so effortlessly impart to us about the nature of reality itself. I’ve recently been thinking about two dogs from my youth and was suddenly struck by the book-ended lessons they inadvertently taught me about life and death and the way our world wags on.
Let me start with Boots, a mostly Boston Terrier (significantly longer of leg and snout than a purebred) whom we acquired when I was five years old. Children get to know dogs in myriad ways that are inaccessible to older people who are rarely so willing to commune with their dog on more or less equal terms. While a child’s attention span may be shorter than an adult’s, he shares a dog’s appetite for simple games of endless reiteration that involve the fetching of sticks or balls – all the better if a field of mud or a body of water is involved. On those days when siblings and peers made themselves scarce, I wasn’t deprived of stimulating company if I headed out with Boots for five or six hours of mooching around woodlots and creeks or houses that were under construction.
While adults will often share table scraps with their dog, only kids ever dip into the pooch’s bowl just to see what that stuff tastes like. The pink goop in cans was like one of those dreadful tinned luncheon meats and I only sampled it once. But the crunchier Milkbone-style treats were only slightly less flavorful than a stale oatcake and would build up your teeth as well as mollify your hunger on days when the cookie tin was empty. Most often when I remember Boots I recall her companionable warmth, lying in sleepy sentry on my bed as she escorted me into the land of nod or the routine we got into on days when I’d scored a new comic and I would stretch out in a patch of sunlight on the floor to read and employed her as my pillow; occasionally getting distracted from whatever drama was unfolding on the page by the squeegly sound of tubular traffic that was circulating in her tummy.
Boots bought the farm in the early morning of January 7, 1964. Thanks to the wealth of information now available on the interwebs, I can authoritatively state that this was a Tuesday and can also speculate that perhaps her soul migrated into the person of Nicolas Cage who drew his very first breath on that same dark day. (I wonder if this master thespian ever turns aside when walking past a mirror to bark at himself as some sort of intruder; that would clinch it.) She’d accompanied my brother Ted on the first half of his early morning paper route and then turned back home as she’d done countless times before. No one noticed that she hadn’t returned until we were all sitting down to breakfast. We’d moved into a new house in November and hoped that maybe she’d become confused and gone back to our old place about six blocks away; just across the street from Mountsfield Public School where I was in grade six.
Dad packed my three older brothers and me into the car and set out on what would ideally be a two-fold mission; to find our wandering dog and deliver us to our schools. We had just emerged through the gates of Lockwood Park and turned west onto Commissioners Road when my dad spoke three words of what could have been very good news – “There she is” – in the saddest voice imaginable. Whoever had run her over at least had the decency to scoop her up and set her on top of the high snowbank that lined the south side of the street.
When we got back home, I ran crying into the house while Dad and my brothers carried Boots through to the garage and set her in the wheelbarrow until we figured out how we’d bury her in our frozen, snow-covered yard. In the misery I was in, I had instinctively run toward the comfort that my mother could uniquely provide but when she urgently met me at the door with a look of horrible expectation on her face, I wished I was in the garage with the menfolk. Not only would she not be able to help me one bit with this grief; I was the one who would definitively push her into it too and I couldn’t stand to do that. “What happened?” she asked though she knew perfectly well – in the main if not the details – and I turned away from her and continued crying alone.
Nobody went to school or work that day. We sat around talking and intermittently crying (particularly me and Mom) through most of the morning. I was eleven years old when Boots died and though approaching the age of reason, was not yet immune to the lure of magical thinking. I remember going out to the garage in the mid-afternoon just to see Boots again and come to terms with what had happened. And on my way out I had a silent dialogue with God or the world and made a sort of compact. “Look, I know it’s really unlikely but if I get out there and she should somehow turn out to be alive after all, I will not only accept this with great happiness, I won’t even question how it could be. And for the rest of my life going forward I promise that I will never demand that things should turn out to be the way that I actually know they are.”
Well, not too surprisingly even for me, God or the world did not take me up on my reality-bending dare. “Sorry, no deal,” they said and stamped it with a white fleck at the base of the nail on my right baby finger. About a week before she died, we’d been playing some stupid game and Boots had inadvertently nipped me there and over the next three or six months or maybe even a year, I communed with that memento until it grew out to the tip and flew away in a paring.
And then there was Myrtle, classified as a “Terrier X” by the vet when she got her first shots. Myrtle was the dog of my young manhood, acquired within weeks of moving out of my parents’ house and was at my side over the next sixteen and a half years. She posed with me in the photo for the ‘About the Author’ page of my first novel, moved over in my bed when I got married, and also learned to share her home with all three of our children whose memories of her aren’t quite so warm as mine. Indeed, they think of her – when they think of her at all – as that “cranky bitch" who was never as much fun as dogs are supposed to be. They bonded far more with the dogs we got later. Well, too bad for them. Bad timing, I’d call it. Myrtle was tops as far as I’m concerned and as the first being who ever relied on me for their well-being, she taught me a lot about parenting.
And the main reason that I want to talk about Myrtle here is what happened when she was about eight years old. Kirtley was pregnant with our first child and we’d gone over to an old friend’s house for dinner and taken her along. There was a bunch of stuff to unload from the car and we’d made a couple of trips across this not-very busy street to do that and then there came a point when a car approached from the south, and I was on one side and Myrtle was on the other. I tried to tell her to “Stay” in the most non-inviting voice I could muster but she bolted across at the worst possible moment and disappeared under the grill of the car, tumbling over and over and yelping in pain and then falling quiet. Well, I'd been through this before and knew she was dead and that no cosmic deals made with any entity in the universe could change that.
The car that had run her over pulled off to the curb and a man got out and came over to tell me how sorry he was, how he just didn't see her until it was too late. I started to tell him that I knew it wasn't his fault when together we watched this little black corpse in the middle of Price Street pull herself up onto her feet and then dart over to an adjacent lawn where I was able to calm her down and gingerly check her out. I couldn't believe it but I gratefully did. She was rattled and ditzy but nothing was broken. There might have been a scrape or two - I honestly don’t remember - but otherwise she was fine and good to go. We wouldn’t even have to take her to the vet and so all of us headed into Brian’s house for supper. I mean, go figure. Myrtle had somehow broken all the laws of reality and I didn’t even have to make a Faustian bargain with the Lord of the Universe to acquire such an impossible stroke of divine intervention. What a good dog.
Photo of Boots at the mirror: David Goodden
Myrtle's authorial photo: Douglas Cassan
THE AQUINAS LECTURE
G.K. CHESTERTON AND THE GIFT OF GRATITUDE
Monday, January 28
St. Peter's Seminary
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