About 15 years ago, I bought a house with a yard and made friends with my neighbors, and it took just under a week to realize they all had dogs and bonded on Friday nights in our cul-de-sac having drinks and watching their dogs run and play together while I sat on my front porch also having drinks but watching…well…their dogs.
Erric from next door: “You should get a dog. It’ll change your life!”
I wanted a dog. But I was afraid of the responsibility.
Growing up, we always had a dog. When I was born, my folks already had Putty, a basset hound of sorts that lived until Winter 1983, when we moved into the house where I spent most of my childhood. Then we got Pokey, a beagle/basset hound mix that lived with us through my high school graduation, making it until I was nearly finished with undergrad, and my mother called me at the Beta house one weeknight to tell me Pokey had died.
At the same time as we had Pokey, my dad got several Labrador Retrievers he’d train to fetch ducks he and his friends shot over Old Hickory Lake in the winters, but those were always his dogs.
Despite my growing up around dogs, none of the Atlanta shelters were willing to give me a chance to adopt my own dog. On more than one occasion, I’d go online to look at pups up for adoption, go to a shelter, fill out an application, interview with the volunteers, and hear I wasn’t “quite ready” to be a doggy daddy yet and maybe I should “try the pound instead.”
I didn’t give up. I read a couple of books on training dogs. I learned about crate training (and learned dogs aren’t supposed to be kept outside any more). I learned about oral flea and tick medications (dogs aren’t supposed to get “dipped” any more). I learned about leash training ( dogs aren’t supposed to just run free in the yard any more).
I also brought a girl with me, so I’d seem more stable or something. And her 9-year-old child.
After my training and altered tactics, I succeeded! Atlanta Pet Rescue in midtown allowed me to leave with a 20lb black and white Jack Russell / Dachshund mix named “Priscilla,” but I thought that name sucked, so I renamed her “Winnie” after Winnie Cooper on “The Wonder Years.”
Winnie with her big sister
I got her a crate, fenced in the area under my deck, enlisted my neighbors’ help with cutting a doggy door into the basement door leading to the newly created penned area under the deck, and got dog food plus a kong for chewing. I enrolled Winnie in classes at PetSmart, and we learned basic commands together. She made my house a household.
I took Winnie to drill weekend in Nashville, always requesting a bottom floor room at the Courtyard Hotel that had doors that slid just wide enough for Winnie to walk out (while on her leash) to pee in the mulch just outside, and I’d hide her in the Operations Director’s office during the day in her travel crate.
We went to parties together, family reunions, road trips, and any weekend neighborhood gathering we could. She slept in my bed every night. She’d go for runs with me every morning.
Winnie with her great-aunt Linda
I’d come home from work most days and see her at lunch. Many days when I couldn’t, the girl who’d come with me when I adopted Winnie visited her at lunch to let her out or play with her. Several months later, in fact, that girl moved into Winnie’s and my house and became my bride. She wasn’t really a “dog person,” but she grew to love Winnie, too (after she got over her jealousy for my strong and unconditional love for the dog).
In January 2006, the Air National Guard sent me to Andrews AFB for 6 months, so Winnie stayed with her grandparents in Guntersville, Alabama and she grew to love having a lake house to enjoy any time we traveled by air for the next decade while being spoiled by her grandparents, who didn’t have such draconian rules as “no dogs on the sofa” like her stepmom had.
As children entered our home, Winnie had to compete a bit for attention, but she was a wonderful big sister. When the babies would pull her ears–or even her tongue–Winnie would sit patiently, smile, and accept her new siblings with resolve.
Over time, they became her best friends and favorite activity partners. She’d play dress up with them, sleep with them, run with them in the backyard, and watch over them. She’d ride in the back of the minivan with them on road trips.
Winnie turned 14 in October of this year. As teenagers go, she was great–every bit as cooperative as she was as a toddler. She developed a bit of incontinence, so we set her crate up in the garage instead of our bedroom, but we kept the door cracked for her, which meant every morning for the past year, she was the last member of the family to whom I’d bid farewell when I’d leave for work, and she was the first member I’d greet when I got home at night, no matter the hour or level of darkness.
It’s hard to tell for sure when a dog smiles, but it’s easy to read a happy dog’s body language and see its affection. Winnie loved me. Winnie loved all of us.
One Saturday evening last month, my phone rang during the most dreaded part of my monthly Air Force Reserves weekend–the Executive Management Committee meeting (which would be fine if it weren’t 3 hours of sitting and discussing things that can be conveyed via email). It was my bride. I sent it to voicemail. Then it rang again; I sent it to voicemail again. I knew something was wrong, so I slipped out to see what was wrong.
Her: “Something has happened, and I need you to call me back” and then another saying, “It’s the dog–she’s really hurt–I don’t know what to do…”
I called her back. Winnie had run under the car as she was pulling into her garage. She’d been injured and was bleeding. I told her to get a towel or sheet and wrap her in it and take her to the emergency animal clinic; she chose one of her handmade quilts.
I went back to my mandatory meeting and wondered what would happen if I got up and left. The commanding officer I’d served under the past several years left a couple months before, and the new, interim one is not someone I know (or get along with) very well, so I was afraid to leave. I’d never heard her talk about having a family or a dog; I assumed she had neither. I figured her life was the military and if I said I had an emergency involving a dog, I’d be publicly castigated, so I stayed in the room with 10 or so officers and NCOs and wondered if my dog would be okay.
My phone vibrated 20 minutes later. Winnie couldn’t be saved. They wanted to know if they should put her down. I walked out again, found a supply closet to sit inside, shut the door and tearfully told my bride that if Winnie was suffering and incapable of being saved, I guess we had no choice but to have her euthanized. I held my breath and tried to get my composure so I could walk back into the conference room. I seethed. I wanted to be there for my wife and my dog but felt I had no choice in the matter and had to sit in this meeting I loathed for another hour.
As soon as EMC ended, I drove home to an empty house and garage. For the first time since April 2004, there was no Winnie greeting me.
The animal hospital said we could take a few days to decide what to do with Winnie’s body. My wife was picking up the 2 youngest children from activities; the 12-year-old was at church camp for the weekend. When they got home, she told them the news, and the four of us sobbed at the loss of the furriest member of our family, the only dog they’ve ever known. We’d have to do it again the next day when the eldest got home.
I decided I wanted to bury Winnie in our yard. After the children went to bed, I drove to the vet to pick her up, was told to wait outside, and stood outside alone for half an hour, wondering what it would be like to have a stranger carry my lifeless companion across a parking lot and place her in the back of my car. Finally (after my wife called them to ask why they’d kept me outside for 40 minutes waiting for the worst moment of my life to begin), I saw a figure with a box come from the far side of the building, see me, and start walking toward me.
I held my breath. As he got closer, I saw a small coffin in his hands. It was made of cardboard and had 2 white strips of tape wrapped around it about 6” from either edge like barrel hoops.
“I’m sorry for your loss” he said as he set the box inside the rear of my open X5 and touched the button to close the hatch.
My heart pounded. “Thanks,” I muttered as I speed walked to the driver’s seat, sat down, closed the door, and bawled like I had never cried before.
I’ve driven home from Goodwill or Ikea before with breakable items in the back of my car, and I guess that’s how I would liken the way I drove home with my deceased dog in the back, conscious that my cargo wasn’t breakable, but that it was precious.
I pulled in the garage, opened the hatch, and pulled the little coffin to the edge of the tailgate and stared at it, wondering if I should open it or not. I knew seeing my lifeless dog would absolutely wreck me, but I also knew I’d regret not using this opportunity to see her one last time. I grabbed the Leatherman I got as a groomsman gift 20 years ago and cut the 2 white tape pieces, slowly opening the box with my bride standing behind me.
Winnie was curled up in the box like I’d seen her curled up on her grey puffy bed a thousand times, but she wasn’t sleeping.
I patted her side. She was colder to the touch than she usually was but her coat was still its familiar softness to my touch. I wept some more while slowly opening the lid a bit more, so I could see her head. Her eyes were closed. I patted her head and scratched behind her ears for the last time, then closed the lid and re-affixed the tape.
We buried Winnie by the fence, visible from my garage, in some mulch– a spot away from the part of the yard where heavy rains can cause a bit of flooding.
My youngest suggested we write messages to Winnie on magnolia leaves, so 4/5 of us did.
A week or so later, her marker arrived, and we placed it on her spot in the mulch where the leaves were.
And just as she did for the past 14 years, Winnie continues to be the last member of the family I see when I leave for the day and the first I see every evening when I come home. That sounds touching, but it also means that for the weeks that have followed, I weep when I go to my car to leave and then again when I come back. Every time I drive by the open gate in our driveway and don’t hit the button to close it behind me, I remember.
It was weeks before I told my parents or other family members who loved Winnie; I still haven’t talked about it with friends or written a Facebook post about it like everyone else does these days when a pet dies, but I wanted to honor her memory somewhere, and hopefully, I’ll be able to remember her fondly instead of with sorrow; I’m hoping this post will allow for just that.
I’ve never missed anyone or anything like I miss Winnie.
The last part of what I wrote on Winnie’s leaf was “You helped me learn to love,” and it’s true. My neighbor’s 2004 declaration was right: I got a dog. It changed my life.