Monday, January 17, 2011


I really don’t need this today...not today! I think to myself as I trudge out into the snow. “Bacon!” I yell, shaking a box of Keeper’s favorite treats. I am sure by now the neighbors think his name is Bacon. He has made it a mission as of late to escape in a number of clever ways to follow his male Terrier desires to mark what he considers his territory. I knew he would make a beeline for George’s yard; an elderly poodle who had moved in recently next door. “Keep! Bacon” I yell, knowing there must be people who wonder why anyone would wander about yelling ‘keep bacon’. I listen for any sound of him crunching along in the snow. He hates the snow. He hates being cold. He hates for his feet to touch anything but soft, dry grass.

Six years ago, we were on a quest to adopt a dog for Trevor who, in classic middle child style, felt that every other family member had a designated pet except for him. We had at that time lost a cat who was confused about his species, acting more like a dog; he was the playmate for our older dog Abby. Adoption was the only way our family had acquired pets and seemed to be the solution for both Abby and Trevor. I had researched local and not so local shelters and even brought home a couple of dogs on trial that turned out to be a poor fit. Trevor was ten years old at the time and came to me with a photo he had printed from his computer research on dog breeds. It was a Rat Terrier. I had to explain that one could not really select a specific breed when adopting from a shelter and the dogs that ended up there were seldom a specific breed and more likely a mix of many. “But if you see him, this is the one I want.” Trevor told me, somehow confident that I would.

While the kids were in school, I made my way to a shelter about 45 minutes away to see an English Spaniel with a soft coat and sweet face. “I’m sorry,” the gentleman explained, “She’s already been adopted” and I kicked myself for not calling first. He walked me through the kennel to where she sat and proceeded to show me the remaining homeless, bringing me straight to Keeper’s cage. “I’ve got this little guy.” To my dismay, it was the face on the printout that Trevor gave me.
We were allowed to take him home as a foster dog since his adoption could not be processed for two weeks to allow sufficient advertising for possible owners. After the waiting period was up, we needed to decide if he was a keeper and he obviously was.

Keeper was about two years old and proved to be rather quirky and funny and sometimes aggressive about his food. He had poor manners and was a monster when greeting people at the door. He loved to steal dirty laundry and hide it and would eat anything. He evolved, as my boys became teenagers into a teenager himself; sneaking up late at night to join them in the kitchen for late snacks, taking road trips to Vermont to visit college (where dogs were NOT permitted) and hanging with the guys when he should have been in bed. He licked everything: people, rugs, furniture and we had to learn exactly how far to keep our faces from his swift and lengthy tongue.

He was extremely verbal and played a game of charades when he wanted something…barking incessantly until his demands were acknowledged and he needed to be near me at all times, following me within a step all day long. He must have belonged in a tropical climate as he would follow the sun throughout the house, sprawling in the sunny spots, even in the summer. His funniest habit was at bedtime. He would not retire until I did, often begging me to go to bed if I stayed up too late. As soon as I announced I was going to bed, he’d scramble up the stairs and position himself on his bed on the floor beside mine, waiting. If I forgot what he was waiting for, he would whimper and moan until I did what was necessary, which was to cover him with a blanket from head to toe; two blankets in the winter as he hated to be cold.

“Did you take Keeper with you?” I ask my son who had just left, calling him from the driveway. He had not. I call my neighbor across the street that also had new male dogs within the past year; a huge Lab and a bigger Rottweiler. Keeper had headed up their long driveway on previous escapes leading me into their back yard fearing for my own safety. I call them to be sure their dogs are not out and toss the bacon onto the front seat of my car, thinking it would make it easier to bring him home instead of having to carry his squirming, snowy body. “I’ve got Bacon!!” I yell into the woods behind their house, pausing to listen for any response. Silence. Unsuccessful, I turn my car to head back to my driveway, pausing to look left and right in order to cross the street.

At first my eyes do not register the image. I stare at what my mind processes as a deer or something lying still on the snow bank. I cannot make the connection to Keeper who is never still and so full of life and as I step out of the car and walk along the snow bank, my heart slides low into my belly and an ache squeezes my throat. His eyes are open and he lies still as I approach slowly, expecting him to look at me. “Keep?” I call softly, bending down to touch him. He is warm and I hold my hand over his chest and stay very still so that I can feel him breathe, but I do not. I continue to hold my hands on him looking for his heart to beat and I realize that the sound behind me is a school bus. I stay hovered over him so that the kids on the bus might not see, until I hear the release of the brakes and the rumble as the bus pulls away. An image fills my peripheral as I continue to stand there stunned and I look left to see Trevor, his sixteen-year-old face tight with fear. “You are F----ing kidding me, right?” I stand motionless as he lunges across the street toward our house and then back again, this time, his face red with anger and stained with tears. “Are you f----ing kidding me?” He yells, sinking to a squat and heaving great sobs. He storms back across the street, kicking and punching the garage.

I drift behind him like a ghost, floating without sound or words but he flees into the house. I find a box and go back to collect Keeper, tucking him gently into a curl, the way he would lay if sleeping, adjusting his head to be comfortable and notice the blood inside his ears; the only sign of what had just taken place. I cover him with a towel and carry him to the patio. No squirming, snowy feet; just a box. It is only 28 degrees. He hates the cold. Robotically, I report the news to Tyler who is picking up his girlfriend and his response is, “You’re kidding, right?” Brad pulls in the driveway, fresh on the edges of losing his dad a week prior and the memorial service only 4 days ago. “Keeper’s dead.” Is all I can manage to say.

Tyler’s car pulls into the driveway fast. “Where is he?” he asks and goes to sit beside the box, sobbing. His shoulders ride up and down for what seems like forever and when he is finished, he trudges through the snowy yard to the shed, returning with two shovels. He hands one to Trevor and they walk in silence to the back of the yard; brothers, at odds much of the time, united in grief. Cadence’s bus arrives and I brace myself to tell her. “Wait…what?” She asks and then walks silently to her room, moments later breaking the silence with wailing.

I stand in the slider door watching my sons digging the frozen earth with pick axe and shovels, taking turns with blistered hands. Darkness is approaching. Tyler takes a regular axe and hacks away at a 2 x 4 to build a cross. Cadence will not let me in her room. Brad puts boots on to help the boys and just before dark, the hole is ready. Trevor’s hands are bleeding from his knuckles where he punched the wall and from the shovel tearing at his skin. He leaves, unable to watch his little buddy go into the ground. Darkness takes over as Tyler sits in the kitchen, filling a box with mementoes and bacon and a letter to keeper. Cadence adds some items to the box; a Mexican Worry Doll that sleeps beneath her pillow, said to take away ones worries during sleep and an arrow head from camp that she got in the woods since she knew Keeper loved to be outdoors. I add his newest toy that was a Christmas gift, a creature with its face chewed off and squeaker removed, just the way he liked it. Brad is ready to put his cardboard casket into the ground.

“Wait,” I say before we lower the box, “Cadence, run back and get his blankie?” I ask. “He hates to be cold” I say, sounding ridiculously childish. When she returns, I tuck him in for the last time under his blanket, head to toe, just the way he likes it. Tearful prayers are followed by the empty sound of shovels of dirt covering his box. It is completely dark now and while they finish, I return to the house. Sometime later, Tyler comes in to find a candle and takes a deep, jar candle out to the site. A large cross at the top and a huge stone marks the spot and upon it, Tyler places the candle. It is quite some distance from the house, but the little light shines in the black of night honoring our little friend.

Early the next morning, I look out the window to see the light of the candle still glowing just the way memories do in our hearts.


Deb Shucka said...

Oh, Nancy, I am so so sorry. I write this through tears. We've all lost beloved pets and you've expressed the depth of that loss perfectly here. I can only imagine how much your own pain was intensified watching your children work their way through the grief.

It's clear that no dog was ever loved more, or had a bigger impact on a family. Keeper did his job to the max, and had the best life possible. May we all be able to say that at the end of our days.

I'm sorry you had to come back on such a sad note, but that said, am so grateful you did. Your writing is a shining light in the world, and we need more of it. Love to you. said...

Oh, I am so sorry. Keeper looks so much like Seth's puppy in that photo. I lost a dog when I was growing up, but can't even imagine the heartbreak of watching your child lose their dog. Love to you and your family.

Sweet little Keeper.

Nancy said...

Thank you Deb...loss is difficult in families, human or not and yes Michele, I have always noticed the resemblence between Keeper and Seth's puppy. Thank you for your kind thoughts.