On a farm, a dog is usually a peer rather than a pet, with a specific purpose and job just like any of the farm’s workers. On our farm, our dogs helped chase the cows in from pasture, herded pullets into their coops at night, chased off raccoons and foxes, caught rats, and patrolled for strangers and dangers. They lived in the barn or in the well-insulated doghouse my father built. They were always ready to play or hunt with us, but content to be left alone to roam the fields or sleep in the sun when off-duty. And when they died, we buried them without fanfare in the woods and briefly mourned before moving on to select a successor from the next batch of a neighbor’s puppies.
So I was hardly prepared for Buddy.
After our old collie-lab died peacefully in his sleep while lying in the sun, we decided to forego dogs for a while. The kids were grown, the farm had dwindled to a pasture and my father was likewise fading away. After losing a leg at 89, he was confined to a wheelchair, and though he made the best of it for years, time was taking its toll. I lived next door, but I worked in town all day. Although he managed to scuttle about the property on the lawn tractor, he was unable to drive a car and bad weather forced him inside. Alone. Most of his friends had passed on so he was lonely, in need of a companion.
That need was answered unexpectedly in June when my friend returned from her stepfather’s funeral with an eight-year-old cocker spaniel.
“Do you think your dad would like Buddy?” she asked. I doubted it would work, remembering my father’s feeling that a dog belonged outside, but he surprised me.
“Okay,” he said after one look at the fat, docile dog. In response, Buddy crawled under Dad’s wheelchair and claimed the space for his home, moving when Dad moved.
My friend explained that Buddy had only been allowed outside on a short chain to do his business and this lack of exercise was evident in the dog’s excess twenty pounds. We’d let him outside and he would survey the vast yard, content to just sit on the porch. Then one day, he took off running, nose to the ground, fat little body wriggling with joy. Our veterinarian figured that since my friend’s parents had been smokers, the dog probably “smoked” four packs a day, leading to a degraded sense of smell. A month in the country opened his nose, along with a whole new world of wonderful scents. I tried to imagine a blind person suddenly being able to see, and I wept for the dog’s obvious joy.
That Thanksgiving weekend would be my father’s last. When the paramedics arrived, Buddy shocked us all by leaping on the bed and straddling my father, daring anyone to touch his master. He was finally lured away, and my father made his last trip to the hospital.
After that, it was a given that Buddy would stay with me—that moment of selfless devotion had earned him a place in our family. My husband was working in another state, the kids were gone, and so Buddy became my companion—the first dog I’d ever had in my house.
He was to be mine for five more years. He provided friendship when I lost my father, sympathy when I was laid off from my job; familiarity when I moved from my lifelong home to be nearer my kids; and comfort when my husband unexpectedly died. Yes, my children are my strength, but they have their own lives, which is as it should be.
Buddy was completely mine, a constant presence. When I came home, he would greet me at the door, wriggling with joy and making me smile; he made me get out to the dog park every day, forced me to face the world when I wanted to curl up and hide. He loved me unconditionally, the way children love you before they grow into the larger world for which you prepared them—and to which you lose them.
He was old, his heart and lungs were giving out and just breathing took effort. Yet every hard-earned breath was a joy for him. Even in his last hours, as he crawled into the yard and stretched into the morning breeze, he had a smile: a look of acceptance and contentment.
Buddy’s life was a lesson for us all. I can’t imagine how difficult his first eight years were, cramped and confined. Yet he was still willing and able to trust and to love. When he died, I didn’t bury him in an unmarked grave. I had him cremated, then waited for the perfect fall day to sprinkle his ashes gently along the wooded path he so loved to romp. When I was done, though there was no breeze, a soft ash cloud rose and wafted away, as though waving goodbye.
by Joyce Lee