Monday, November 16, 2015

MEMOIR OF A FRIEND

MEMOIR OF A FRIEND
             
People and dogs historically have had a special relationship.  I’ve had cats, who can be loveable creatures, guinea pigs, cute but stupid, tropical fish…beautiful in many ways, but neither cute or loving.  But dogs, especially the one I’m going to tell you about, tug at the heartstrings like no other species.

And that’s not to say they are the most intelligent non humans on Earth.  Many of the apes, marine mammals, and, I’ve been told, Pigs rate higher on the intellectual scale than dogs.

Growing up in apartments, I was never able to keep a dog.  But was drawn to just about every canine belonging to my friends, and even strays willing to spend a few minutes allowing me to scratch their ears or rub their bellies.

So, when I finally was living in a suburban home of my own, one of the first things I wanted to do was enter the world of dog ownership.  And I didn’t particularly care what breed or combination of breeds it would be.  I just wanted a puppy.

It’s a good thing I wasn’t too specific.  He was a mix of several differing generations of mixes.  I never liked the term “mutt,” so when asked about his breed, I would answer; “Plain Dog.”

Since he had come from an environment of questionable sanitation, the first thing we did was take him to a vet to make sure he was healthy.  The veterinarian’s assistant asked what his name was.  We hadn’t named him.  The woman said he “looked like an Elmer.”  That’s what he was, and remained.

Our house in New Jersey had a screened in porch which faced the street.  Every day as I drove up the driveway, there was Elmer peering out.  He would disappear immediately on seeing my car, but was at the front door when I came in.  And I soon learned to brace myself for his affectionate leaping attacks on my person.

While I always liked to think I was his favorite, the fact is that Elmer simply loved people…it took a while, but we soon learned that not all of our friends enjoyed having their faces licked upon entering our home.

Elmer had some peculiarities.  Most dogs love to chase a tossed ball and bring it back to their human playmate.  Elmer vigorously would chase the ball, pick it up in his mouth, and turn back towards me.  But he would not return the ball.  He would simply drop it at his feet and wait until I came to pick it up.  It became evident who was training who.

Elmer watched first son Steve and then daughter Jody come into the home.  He posed no threat to them…both his human newcomers were welcomed as younger siblings.  To this day I believe he taught my son how to walk…on all fours.

Was Elmer smart?  Of course I believe he was the brightest dog that ever lived.  If he was hungry he would push his empty bowl at your feet until it was filled.  He had four rubber toys; a football, a lamb chop, a chicken, and a piece of bread.  Even when in a different room, I commanded; “Elmer, go get your chicken,” (or any of the other toys) he would race to where they were and return with the correct toy…always….well, most of the time.

While he doted on the companionship of humans, when it came to other animals, not so much.  We once had out of town guests who brought their tiny chihuahua to stay with us for a couple of days.  Although about three times the size of the visiting canine, Elmer spent those two days hiding under the bed.  His fear of animals was not limited to other dogs.  Cat’s, squirrels and even large insects terrified him.

By the time we were moving to California, Elmer was already thirteen years old, and showing signs of slowing down.  But he still was as affectionate and loving as ever.  So we bought a pet carrier, and upon the Vet’s recommendation, tossed a pair of my unwashed socks into the cage before it was loaded onto the plane.  When, upon arrival at SFO we picked up the container  there was blood on the rungs of the cage where our poor dog had tried in vain to gnaw his way out.  He survived the trip in the cargo hold, but was never the same.

Two years after arriving in California, my wife and I had separated and were living apart.  The children and Elmer stayed with their mother for the most part.  I had a job where I traveled frequently, and often without prior notice.  Steve and Jody did spend alternate weekends at my place, and I always got a wet dog kiss from Elmer when I picked them up.

The dog was nearly seventeen, with multiple ailments from crippling arthritis to incontinence to cancer.  My ex-wife in consultation with the local Veterinarian came to the logical conclusion that Elmer had to be put down.  Sadly, I could only agree. The night before his final day, I went to say goodbye to my buddy.  He was in a room by himself.  When he saw me he slowly walked over, and with a painful shriek, the result of his arthritic hips, he jumped up to give me one more slobbery dog kiss.  Saying goodbye to that dog was one of the most tearful experiences of my life.  My bond to him, and, I’d like to think, his to me, was as deep as any between humans.  “Goodbye, Old Friend.”

Elmer has been gone for over thirty years.  Almost twice his time alive.  I still feel him.  I love dogs, cats, just about every animal I can think of.  But if I could have the most exotic pet in the world, I would have that ragged nondescript chunky piece of unconditional love beside me exactly as he was.