Caring for a dog teaches us important lessons of life
I am not surprised that I liked Marley & Me, a heart-warming, bittersweet film about a rambunctious Golden Retriever. The main character’s owner is happily married with two boys and a girl, writes a regular column for his local newspaper, and finds humor and meaning in his canine relationship.
What surprises me, though, are the many movies of memories that once again play on my internal silver screen.
I am lying in the front yard of our Rockford (Ill.) house on Westbrook Drive. My 12-year-old self is bundled in a big hooded coat and fake leather gloves that get wet after only two snowballs. Sheltered in this winter cocoon, I gaze up at the darkening sky, admiring the shining stars and relaxing in the peaceful quiet.
Suddenly the sound of thundering paws pound my ears as Corky bounds over me like an Olympic high hurdler. He circles around quickly and sticks his cold, wet nose through the opening of my hood. “You scared me to death,” I say with a smile, reaching up to warm him in the chilly night.
He’s a beautiful dog, a mix of Irish Setter and Labrador. Though his long fur is black, when the sun hits him just right, you can see hints of burgundy red.
During early morning paper routes, he runs alongside my bike, pausing once in a while to leave his mark around the neighborhood. He is my pillow when we watch TV. He is my boyhood companion who helps me learn about responsibility, life, love and death.
I am lying in the back yard of our Rockford house on Andover Drive. The stars are out again, but I am in no mood to admire the heavens. Our other dog Curry will not come inside when we call.
The evening dew on the summer grass soaks my t-shirt, yet I lie flat on my back, stretching out my arms to the left and right. Each hand holds a thick slice of garlic bologna. Call me a dog trap, ready to spring close when my prey sniffs the bait.
I am a college student walking back to Dillon Hall from the Library. As I pass the Old Fieldhouse, I see Father Robert Griffin, C.S.C. and his Cocker Spaniel Darby O’Gill heading to Darby’s Place, a late night “sanctuary for insomniac, troubled, lonely, or simply curious students.” For Fr. Griff, it’s a locus for ministry.
“Darby imagines himself a shepherd’s dog, rounding up sheep who can’t find their own way home,” Fr. Griff writes in The Continuing Conversation. “From his snores, he might have been dreaming of his future successes as the hound of heaven. I’ve told everyone, from the beginning, that he is Our Lady’s dog.”
I am in Berlin on a concert tour with Fr. Griff and the Notre Dame Glee Club when I receive a telegram. “Corky died peacefully today.” writes Mom and Dad. The miles disappear in an instant.
I am in my first Nashville apartment watching the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Jimmy Stewart reads a poem about how his dog Beau would climb up between them in bed and he would pat Beau on the head. When he reads the final line “I’ll always love a dog named Beau,” the crowd applauds. Mr. Carson wipes the tears from his eyes.
I am home in Kristin’s bedroom, taking her photo with our new Scottie Terrier puppy Molly. Our young daughter hugs tightly under the two front legs as Molly’s soft pink belly and legs dangle below. Both girls wear bows in their hair.
I am in the basement saying goodbye, for Molly will soon take a one-way trip to the animal hospital. Kristin is stretched out on the cold cement floor, keeping Molly warm. Kristin leaves for college in a couple of months. The house won’t be the same without our girls.
I am in my parents’ house in Jasper (Ind.) after Dad’s funeral, petting his dog Cookie. She looks up at me and recognizes the similarities between me and her Master, but her eyes tell me someone is missing. I couldn’t agree more.
We develop real, two-way relationships with our dogs. We give them everything they need to live and in return they give us affection and companionship. They help us learn how to love.
John Grogan writes in Marley & Me: “A dog has no use for fancy cars, or big homes or designer clothes. A waterlogged stick will do just fine. A dog doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor, clever or dull, smart or dumb. Give ‘em your heart and he’ll give you his. How many people can you say that about?”
So here’s to Marley, Corky, Darby, Beau, Molly, Cookie, Shelby, Kuf, Honey, Gus, Elliot, Mr. Brady, Cody, Bootsie, Curry, Calais, Stupid, L.S., Hershey, Rocky, Road Dog, YooHoo, Mo, Lily, Ivy, Midnight, White Socks, Sandy, Presley, Scrappy, Harvey, Sasha, Daria, Newntsie, Charlie, Bella, Casey and all the loving dogs of our lives. We will never forget them, for they brought out the best in each of us.
I am back in our dog-less home in Nashville, wondering if it’s time we hear the pitter pat of four paws scamper down the hall again.
P.S. My mother reports that Curry, the dog who would not come inside without the enticement of fresh bologna, was not stupid or obstinate. The dog was later tested and found to be deaf. This author regrets the error and is happy to set the record straight.
First published in the July 10, 2009 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2009 Christopher Fenoglio