Nip was a good dog, except when he wasn’t. He was one of those critters that we humans feel blessed to have in our lives, even when they’re not being exactly obedient. His face could convey his emotions better than some people I know, and I swear that dog could smile. He used that smile to his advantage, whether it was when he wanted me to be goofy and playful with him or when he’d been bad and knew I couldn’t scold him because I was laughing. His favorite ploy was to flop down right in front of me on his back, wriggle like an excited child and present his belly to be scratched. It always worked – I was powerless to resist. “Ooooh, gimme me some of that Nipper belly!” was always my response, accompanied by vigorous skritches and pats.
Certain other maneuvers were not nearly so entertaining for me. Nip, his brother Tuck and sometimes Jack (my one-eyed, bobtailed bird dog), would blow through the fence and take off over the hill, usually after spotting deer or some other critter on the far side. I always worried myself nearly sick when they’d do that, because there are some sadistic wingnuts down here who get some sort of twisted thrill from killing dogs. But I digress.
When they finally returned home, the escapees were invariably muddy, hungry, covered in ticks, sometimes reeking of skunk and trying really, really hard to look contrite. While they didn’t think twice about stampeding through the electric fence in hot pursuit, when they reappeared they’d sit outside the perimeter and whine for me to come let them back through it into the yard. While I covered the distance from porch to gate, they all got an earful about the dangers of coyotes, cars and rednecks with weapons. The culprits would slink apologetically through the gate with heads down and tails between their legs – well, except for Jack, who could somehow tuck in his entire rear end to compensate for his abbreviated tail.
Once safely in the yard, it was usually Nip who took it upon himself to get me back in a good mood. All he had to do was give me that smile, accompanied by a nudge with a wet nose and a quick slurp on my hand as if to say “Aww, c’mon Mom, lighten up!” My anger dissolved to relief that they were all back safely. Reprimands trailed off, replaced by loving admonishments not to scare me like that again. All was well, at least until the next time they made a break for it.
As you may have guessed, I’m one of “those” people who talk to and treat their critters as if they were human children. Despite the eye rolls and derision from the woefully unenlightened, I am sublimely unrepentant for such behavior. Those who treasure their pets as family members will understand, and those who don’t understand don’t know what they’re missing. People exhibit both good and bad human nature, but I think it takes animals to teach us how to be a good-natured human.
Until the last couple of weeks of his life, Nip was one of God’s creatures who was just plain happy to be alive. His exuberance lifted my sagging spirit more times than I can count. I’d often look outside to see him flat on his back, legs akimbo, modesty gleefully abandoned simply because the breeze felt good on his body. What a blessing it would be to take such effortless joy in scratching an itchy spot on your back against the warm grass, with complete and total disregard for the opinion of anyone who might be watching. Whether motivated by sirens, coyotes yipping on a distant hill or just to hear their heads rattle, my dogs will sometimes burst into baying “song”. What they lack in talent is more than compensated by their volume, and Nip put heart and soul into each and every chorus.
While I haven’t yet reached that state of careless bliss, I’m a little closer to it because of Nip. He showed me the pleasure of simplicity, that it’s often the most uncomplicated acts that bring the purest form of happiness.
I don’t know exactly why Nip died. He was a little under nine years old, still relatively young and healthy. He got a bad ear infection but seemed to improve a little after a course of antibiotics and eardrops. He really hated those eardrops but bore the twice-daily regimen without too much complaint.
Then, one sunny Friday afternoon I found him collapsed in the front yard, seizing and unable to rise. There was nothing further that could be done except to make that final escape as comfortable as possible for him. We spent those last hours together, lying on his favorite blanket in the sun-dappled shade of our back yard. Some of the other animals (his “brothers and sisters”) seemed to know what was happening and would often join us, keeping vigil, saying goodbye. Nip died in my arms early Saturday morning during those black, lonesome pre-dawn hours when time seems to stop and grief waits in the shadows.
There is a beautiful quote by Irving Townsend – “We who choose to surround ourselves with lives even more temporary than our own live within a fragile circle, easily and often breached. Unable to accept its awful gaps, we still would live no other way. We cherish memory as the only certain immortality, never fully understanding the necessary plan.” So I don’t want to remember Nip’s death. Instead I will try to remember the lessons he taught me about living, remember his part in my necessary plan. My inner child and I will continue to believe that there is a Heaven for dogs where the kibble is made from prime rib, and the water is cool and sweet. Belly rubs are plentiful and there are lots of hills to roam, free of danger and filled with exciting scents. There are no fleas, ticks or scary bumblebees and the ravages of disease hold no sway.
If you are one of “those” people who believe that too, please put your arms around your critters and say a little prayer with them that my Nipper is there, among all the other beloved pets that have found their final home. That he is waiting for me; liquid golden-brown eyes sparkling with mischief, tongue lolling, big old hound dog ears flapping gently in the breeze, smiling that smile I miss so very much.
Even after all these years, I still strain to hear his comic contralto when the dogs sing; still half expect, half hope to see him loping across the grass to greet me. His grave is under a young maple tree at the edge of the yard, overlooking the hills that he loved to ramble. It is the exact spot that he and his brothers would slip through the fence in their quests for adventure. It is a fanciful notion, perhaps, born of a broken heart, but I buried him on the other side of that fence. In life, such a mundane assembly of wood and nails and wire could not contain Nip, as he had proved so many times over the years. Accordingly, it seemed only fitting and proper that his spirit be unimpeded as he began his final journey.
So if you happen to be in my neck of the woods and see a round, middle-aged woman flat on her back in the warm grass, singing loudly and off-key, don’t be alarmed. It’s only me, practicing the lessons learned from an unforgettable friend.
8/99 – 4/08