The worst telephone call of my life hit me while I was trapped behind a hateful
bar downtown, surrounded by mostly unsympathetic souls. Magnas was a girl dog, half a Husky
and half a Black Labrador, who had recently undergone a serious surgery for cancer in her uterus. She was on the young side, barely seven years old, so the veterinarian was confident over her recovery. About a month after her surgery, just as we were growing accustomed to her renewed good health, Maggie died in Mary's arms of massive heart failure.
I hadn't suffered through many human deaths at that point in my life, certainly not many so dear to me as Maggie. She was kind of my girlfriend substitute at a time when women were driving me nuts, low maintenance, loyal to the extreme.
Maggie and I were entirely simpatico and I tested our bond daily with eye contact and subtle hand gestures, rather than with any traditional obedience training. In spite of the fact that she was supposed to be a girlfriend substitute, she was a babe magnet at the park and I'm certain that the woman who would ultimately be my wife fell in love with me because of my bond with that dog. Maggie went everywhere that I did; she even learned to ride with me on a motorcycle with her front paws on the gauges.
I would no sooner bark a command at my pup than holler at my shadow on the wall. By the time she was two or three years old we were one. Maggie was the dearest friend that I ever had.
When Mary called to tell me that Maggie died, I wanted to cry like a whipped bitch but as I looked around through the blurry onslaught of tears, I didn't see a single pair of eyeballs that I could trust with proper empathy
. Not even the man that I worked for would understand if I told him why I needed to leave the bar immediately, why I was no longer okay.
Well, I couldn't leave the bar. It's just a dog, after all. I called a friend to take her body from Mary's lap down to the University that would accept her remains. I stayed until closing time while the clock turned backwards and people babbled on about things that didn't matter at all. It felt as though someone had dug out my insides with a rusty spoon.
The only person who understood my grief was at home, alone with her own.
The house that Mary was sobbing in was actually Maggie's house; I bought it for her. I hated when solicitors would knock on the door of my apartment so I answered all inquiries with my hand on Maggie's collar, my signal to her that trouble was afoot. She responded to the restraint with an impressive ferocity, teeth bared, standing nearly my height on her hind legs. A growl that even I found impressive.
Magnas was evicted from the apartment building after an ugly incident involving a hapless Jehovah's Witness who tumbled backwards down a long flight of steep stairs. A lesser man would have ditched the hellhound and kept the swell bachelor pad, but I decided to buy my dog a house.
All these years later, Mary and I still live in Maggie's house.
I couldn't bear the hollowness in Mary's eyes the next morning so I dug out the phone book and looked up the closest Humane Society
. Almost thirteen years later and I can still remember the address of the joint, 1313 County Road 13. We walked in the door and the woman came out from behind the counter and greeted us as though she had been waiting all morning for our arrival.
She looked at Mary's hollow eyes and said, "You must be here for the puppy."
I still don't know if the woman was operating on some ethereal plane, or if by coincidence somebody had called that morning inquiring about a puppy and she simply mistook us for the caller. Either way she led us to the only dog currently in custody, half a Black Lab, half an Australian Shepherd, about six weeks old, too precious for words.
Mary and I often talk about the surreal experience of picking up Emmy that day, how the woman seemed to be waiting for us. How strange that the Humane Society, usually rife with ragged, unloved death row inmates, only had one puppy that day, the perfect puppy. We paid the thirty-five bucks and she gave us a packet of literature for her care and feeding. The pamphlet on top even bore the title, "The Perfect Puppy." Thirteen years later that very pamphlet is still sitting on Mary's desk.
We called the pup Emilie, after my Grandmother, Emmy for short. Time and familiarity eventually shortened it further to simply, Em, which sounded a lot like "M" and always put me in the mind of my Magnas.
A couple of months ago, after keeping us company for a dozen years, Emmy went off to dog Heaven to pal around with Maggie. I'll probably never take her picture off of my homenode. We miss her like we'd miss a limb, or perhaps as a parent might miss a child.
Her last selfless act was the sudden withdrawal that will provide a home for our next perfect puppy.
I suffered an uncomfortable exchange with my sister Lizzy
at Christmastime one year, while her young children frolicked around the decaying evergreen tree in her dog-less abode. She confronted my affection for dogs and critters in general with what she considered a stunning moral interrogatory.
"If you had to save a puppy or a human child from being hit by a car, which would you save?"
Believe it or not it's a complicated question for a childless, dog-loving philosopher. I'd obviously like to save them both but a strong case could be made in either direction. I suppose in the final analysis it would depend on whose child and which puppy. A particularly irksome toddler balanced against an inadequately potty trained Poodle might make me hesitate long enough to lose them both.
Lizzy might have been momentarily horrified, but she knows me well enough to know that I'm a big picture guy. In the big picture, dogs are a unique species that we as human beings are uniquely responsible for. We created them for our own comfort and amusement. They did not exist in nature without our hand. They are now ill equipped to survive in nature without our care.
We even branded them with our indelible mark, in a Latin name that indicates our irreversible responsibility: Canis Familiaris or, "The dog belonging to a household." It is among our greatest failings as a species that any of these creatures should go without a household and shameful beyond contemplation that they are routinely put to death for want of a home.
It's easy to spot the perfect puppy when you go to the animal shelter. She's the one that needs you the most.