Column: A Puppy Rescued Me

For the Valley News
Tuesday, February 28, 2017


It was a little puppy that saved my life about 25 years ago. That sounds quite dramatic, so I’ll temper it by saying that a puppy helped me rejoin the human race.

It was right at the end of 1991. About six years earlier my construction business had gone spectacularly broke, and taken with it our house and all the assets of the business. The recovery was accomplished with the help of many friends; by 1991, Mother and I were living in our still unfinished new house and enjoying plenty of work. But the mortification of the de facto bankruptcy lingered on with me, and, working alone now, I found it too easy to sink into depression and gloom. I was beginning to remind myself of heavy-booted, grumpy old Yankees I’d known now and then for years.

Then, just before Thanksgiving, the dean of our younger daughter’s college called to tell us that our always creative child was harboring a dog in her room, and it would have to go. We got her on the phone. Yes, she said, in her role as a student athletic trainer to the football team, she’d gone to their dorm to distribute some pills and watched them cheerfully abusing a puppy they’d gotten from the pound. They’d named it Tucker, after their coach, whom they disliked. They were giving it beer till it staggered, pushing it downstairs, all in good fun. She’d scooped it up and told them to bid it farewell; it was leaving with her.

She and Mother worked out over the phone that she’d bring it home with her at the Thanksgiving break, and we’d keep it until at least commencement in June. They didn’t consult me. If they had, I’d have nixed the idea.

“Nothing doing,” I declared when I heard. “I’ve got enough problems without a puppy in the house. You can get it if you want, but one of us — it or I — is leaving.”

They arrived while I was at work. I came home at 5 in the midwinter darkness, icy boots clomping, canvas overalls frozen into stovepipes from the knees down, lunch pail in my hand, and glowering disapproval all over my face. There on the tiled kitchen floor sat a little creature, rather like a miniature collie, looking fearfully up at me. I frowned at it; it cowered. Then, just like one of those warnings you see on the doors of diners — “Warning: Microwave May Be in Operation” — I saw across her forehead the legend, “Cerebral Cortex in Operation.” The light of science was shining in those eyes.

I bent down to pick her up. She shrank away, peed on the floor, and expressed without a sound her fear of punishment. Somebody my size had been mistreating her. I scooped her up, held her against my chest, and said, “That’s all right, sweetheart. That’s all right.” Even tonight, all these years later, I choke up and get a little teary at the memory. We were buddies from that moment until the awful day in 2008 the vet came to the house and ended her suffering. She’s the best reason I can think of for hoping in an afterlife.

This past week the crew and I traveled to Bartlett, N.H., to shoot some video with a writer who has lived with dogs as boon companions for some years. Tom Ryan is single, a soft touch for animals in need, and considers himself their companion, rather than a member of a separate species. In 2011 he published the story of his most remarkable friend, a miniature schnauzer named Atticus Finch. Following Atticus became a New York Times bestseller. Their lives together featured climbing the 48 highest White Mountain peaks several times, in winter and summer. We had the chance to hike a mountain with them a few years ago, film the experience, and listen to Tom’s insights about life with a dog.

Atticus is gone now, and Tom isn’t all that well himself. But he has a new dog, Samwise, whom, typically, Tom rescued from what he calls “Death Row” in a distant pound.

Our own house hasn’t had a dog in it since we buried Tucker at the foot of the yard. It also hasn’t had Mother in it for about a year now; she’s been in the hospital and nursing home, and though she’s progressing, it’s going to be a while yet. We haven’t tried to replace Tucker because we couldn’t imagine any dog replacing her incredible sensitivity to our every need and eagerness to satisfy it. How many dogs are willing and able to take your bank deposits in to the teller or, walking in the afternoon, to plow into the roadside bushes to retrieve discarded bottles and cans?

Still, I find myself in idle moments browsing the websites of animal shelters or rescue organizations. I’ve tended to look for breeds resembling Tucker, but Tom said something during our walk around Thorne Pond near Attitash. “You’ll never be able to replace a dog,” he said. “They become even more a part of you than a human family member, and any other dog just can’t be like the one you’ve lost. You have to let them be themselves, but you still hold the memory of the lost one close. They were such a part of you and your life for a long time.”

So the idea’s become intriguing — I’d love to have again a lively little companion who looks suggestively at the door each afternoon and whines just a little — but we have to consider age and advancing infirmity. Then there’s the expense, both anticipated and otherwise. But Mother and I still have love to give, and have a history of doing things that, in spite of dire predictions, have, like Robert Frost’s choice, made all the difference. And it’s pretty lonely around here just now.

Willem Lange’s column appears here on Wednesday. He can be reached at willem.lange@comcast.net.